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Book Review


Christine Skwiot, The Purposes of Paradise: U.S. Tourism and Empire in Cuba and Hawai‘i. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010, Pp. 283.  $39.95 (cloth).


     Speaking to a convention of American advertising executives in Hawai‘i in 1957, Henry J. Kaiser noted that Americans then held a unique opportunity to help all of humanity enjoy a life of freedom and abundance. He noted that Hawai‘i presented a "…remarkable test area…" for modernization in a rapidly decolonizing post-WWII world. As Chrisitne Skwiot makes clear in The Purposes of Paradise, Hawaiians had already endured six decades of U.S. social and political engineering of their islands, and given the opportunity with statehood in 1959, they moved rapidly towards self-determination and local control.

     The tortured history of the United States' development of an overseas empire is the main focus of The Purposes of Paradise. Skwiot offers Hawai‘i and Cuba as contrasting examples of empire building in the 20th century, providing both a short narrative of U.S. efforts to control, stabilize and then profit from its commercial and political conquests, as well as contrasting the various stratagems employed to achieve those ends. This ambitious book provides the reader with a detailed narrative of evolving U.S. policy through the 1950s, with alternating chapters discussing American relations with both island communities.

     Initially, American political and economic interests sought annexation and possible statehood, with the idea that Americans would flock to these paradises, gradually whitening both areas until, one supposes, they came to resemble tropical Iowas, complete with an industrious Anglo-Saxon entrepreneurial class that could provide Americans with sugar, tobacco and pineapples into eternity. This imperial dream never matured as Asian immigrants poured into Hawai‘i to satisfy the labor needs of the Big Five sugar producers, and Cuba stubbornly remained multi-racial and grew more determined to control its destiny, even through revolutions and corrupt political actors, such Fulgencio Batista. In fact, it became Batista's great accomplishment, as Skwiot deftly points out, to get the Yankees to accept the notion of a largely self-governing Cuba, albeit with close U.S. supervision. That this supervision might eventually also include Meyer Lansky and his cohorts adds another level of irony to the story.

     What emerged in the pre-World War II years in both cases, Skwiot argues, was not possible political equality, but Hawai‘i and Cuba as elite playgrounds, glamorous vacation destinations for wealthy Americans, extensions of U.S. global reach, and cash cows for steamship lines, hotel chains, and later, U.S. airlines. Skwiot does a good job of examining the allure of both places, of their abundant tourist attractions, and eventual collapse with the outbreak of the Second World War. Then, a different type of tourist appeared, ones that changed Hawai‘i into a military staging area for the Pacific War. It is a compelling story, especially when the author discusses the astonishing martial law scenario that quickly enveloped Hawai‘i. A bit more analysis of this topic would have strengthened the subsequent story of local determination to throw off military control and possession of island lands, an issue that resonates to this day.

     Cuba fades a bit from the story at this point, although Skwiot does briefly address the Cuban Revolution and emergence of Fidel Castro. However, a few more pages on Cuba's role within the structure of U.S. strategy for Latin America during the height of the Cold War would add another dimension to this discussion.

     The author utilizes a great deal of recent scholarly work on both islands, as her full and detailed notes and bibliography attest. The focus on racial and social attitudes of Americans towards Hawaiians and Cubans, especially in the 1900-1930 era, is evocative and sharply detailed. The one topic that seems too briefly covered is that of the military value of these areas. True, Skwiot discusses the Massie trial and martial law in Hawai‘i, and the impact of the Cuban Revolution, but what goals did the U.S. military, especially the Navy, have in mind for both places in the 1920s, or on the eve of the attack on Pearl Harbor? Minor quibbles, certainly, in the larger and finely executed enterprise. This book would make an excellent choice for graduate courses and senior seminars in several areas, such as U.S. foreign policy.

Craig Hendricks is a Professor of History at Long Beach City College, where he teaches courses in Californian, Mexican, American, and world history. He co-edited the textbook World History a Concise Thematic Analysis (Harlan Davidson, 2007) and twice served as co-director of the Teaching American History program in the Long Beach Unified School District. He can be reached at


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