In the 1994 action thriller Speed, maniacal ex-lawman Howard Payne (Dennis Hopper) informs gallant LAPD cop Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) that “poor people are crazy”; rich people like Payne, who’s holding a bus full of people hostage for cash, are “eccentric.” The Naval Diplomat is the guy who visits Hawai’i for the art, not the beaches or the fabled landscape. Eccentric or crazy? You be the judge.
In any event, the one thing I always make a point of doing in Honolulu is tarrying at the Honolulu Art Museum, née Honolulu Academy of Arts. The museum never disappoints. For instance, it houses thousands of Japanese ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world) woodcuts donated by author James Michener. A rotating selection is always on display. Those are worth the walk over from Waikiki all by themselves. At present, however, the gallery is offering an exhibit on “Art Deco Hawai’i.” It was an unexpected treat.
Art Deco is the school that flourished mainly during the interwar years of the 1920s through the 1940s. That’s the age following the annexation of the archipelago as a U.S. territory, and it’s the age immortalized in such military-themed films as In Harm’s Way and From Here to Eternity, novels like Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, and any number of luaus, aloha shirts, and slack-key guitar performances. The islands, then, are the object of a kind of invented nostalgia for a supposedly simpler, carefree life. And indeed, who doesn’t want to retreat from the hurly-burly of modern life into an island paradise from time to time?
And nostalgia is all to the good. Art should summon up ideals and beauty. There’s no problem celebrating, say, surfing, or fishermen casting their nets, or what have you. But a few paintings in “Art Deco Hawai’i” gloss over some rather important aspects of Hawai’ian history. Among a series depicting scenes from Hawai’ian history, for instance, painter Eugene Savage presents wall-sized canvases of Captain James Cook meeting with Kamehameha I upon his arrival in the islands, and of the ceremony that formalized the archipelago’s annexation to the United States. Everyone is beaming in both paintings. Nowhere — as the museum curators remind visitors — is there any hint that butchery awaits Captain Cook on his third voyage to Hawai’i, or that some among the indigenous folk may not have been quite so jubilant about their annexation as were continental Americans.
This goes a trifle beyond nostalgia or idealism. Seems it’s possible to lie with art, or to leave things unsaid — just as it’s possible to mislead with statistics, with vague or deceptive language, or with any other mode of communication. Those two discordant notes reminded me of my first visit to the Alabama State House in Montgomery, where a series of murals commemorates various scenes from Alabama history. Fine. Except, of course, that there’s no trace of anything from 1861-1865. Judging from the artwork on display, that must have been a rather tranquil, uneventful interlude in Southern history. Hmm. Caveat emptor is your best guide.
So much for art exhibits. Tucked incongruously among the largely Disneyfied setting of Waikiki is a token of Oahu’s martial past. Formerly part of Honolulu’s shore-based defenses against seaborne assault, the U.S. Army’s Fort DeRussy Military Reservation is home to a museum, a hotel that serves armed-forces vacationers, and the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, a government-run research institute. Touring the museum and grounds conjures up several thoughts. One, in the early 20th century as now, land power was part of sea power. In the days before naval aviation became the long-range weapon it is today, the big guns of Fort DeRussy could strike out to sea — holding enemy task forces armed only with shipboard guns at a distance. A ship’s a fool to fight a fort.
But two, protecting important seaports — Honolulu, Manila Bay, Guam — takes resources. The United States assumed vast commitments in the Pacific following the Spanish-American War, annexing Hawai’i and most of Spain’s island empire. New possessions had to be defended against the likes of imperial Germany and Japan. Yet Congress dawdled, continually shortchanging not just the U.S. Navy but the U.S. Army in the Pacific. Army officers clamored continually not just for more guns and equipment of their own, but for navy fleets positioned nearby. Land warriors tend to view navies as seaward extensions of shore defenses. The U.S. Army was no exception. The interplay between the seagoing and terrestrial components of American maritime power makes for fascinating reading a century hence.
And sobering reading. Writing during World War II, foreign-policy sage Walter Lippmann faulted successive post-1898 presidential administrations (as well as lawmakers) for “monstrous imprudence” in their handling of Pacific policy and strategy. Lippmann exempted only Theodore Roosevelt from his critique. Even TR, though, failed to field a navy strong enough to defend Hawai’i, the Philippines, and the lesser islands in between that formed naval stepping stones. Still less was the army amply supplied with troops and warmaking materiel. One hopes today’s America won’t repeat the monstrous imprudence of decades past.
Big events echo, though faintly, among the tourist mania that is Waikiki.