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America’s Battle Over South Asia

Imagining the Region in the Second World War
By Ishan Ashutosh |
FEBRUARY 23, 2017

Though overlooked in South Asian American history, the 1940s were a crucial period in South Asia’s relationship to the United States. The political scientist Harold Isaacs noted in 1958 that even the most educated Americans knew little about Asia beyond fuzzy Orientalist stereotypes1. But the Second World War also saw significant government efforts to reshape American understandings of South Asia, and the region became fixed in importance for the U.S. during the Cold War. The Second World War led to the creation of new South Asian military bases, political treaties, academic programs, and cartographies that defined South Asia through its cultural and geographical distance from America, as well as its unexpected political “proximity,” given the region’s strategic importance in the post-war international order.

Learning About South Asia for War
The United States’ declaration of war on Japan in 1941, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, initiated the creation of a number of institutions and programs dedicated to producing and disseminating knowledge about the many far-flung sites of the war. The Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner to the Central Intelligence Agency, established three bases in South Asia in Calcutta, New Delhi, and Nazira. These bases were charged with gathering information beneficial to the Allied war strategy.

As noted by scholars and policymakers at the time, the lack of expertise in Africa, South and Southeast Asia undermined the American war effort, and the need for regional knowledge also proved paramount. To address this weakness, the military implemented the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) at over two hundred universities across America. The ASTP trained troops with the languages and basic geographic, economic, and cultural knowledge of the areas to which they would be deployed. The recruitment of experts to lead troop trainings proved challenging for the ASTP from the onset. As geographer Neil Smith has reported, the army’s desperation grew so grave that officials began inspecting the passenger manifests of ships docked at American ports in hopes of procuring faculty for the program. Finally, the ASTP faculty turned to international students studying in the United States, such as the Indian demographer, Sripati Chandrasekhar. Chandrasekhar taught at the University of Pennsylvania, which functioned as the ASTP’s center for South Asia, and included language training in Bengali and Hindi/Urdu (“Hindustani”). Later in the war, he went on to work for the Office of Strategic Services, providing analysis of India’s changing demographic patterns, an interest that he would continue in the post-war period as director of demographic research for UNESCO.

By the end of the war, University of Pennsylvania would transform its status as an ASTP center into the first South Asia area studies program in the United States, led by the Sanskrit scholar William Norman Brown. In this manner, the ASTP acted as the origin of the contemporary area studies programs and centers housed in American colleges. This field of study integrated the social sciences and humanities to generate knowledge of foreign areas deemed instrumental to America’s Cold War strategy. With the passage of the National Defense and Education Act in 1958, federal funding enabled the expansion of area studies programs, bringing South Asian studies to a number of universities across the country. Indeed, several founders of South Asian area studies programs participated in the ASTP, including political scientist Richard L. Park, who would become the director of the South Asia program at Berkeley in 1954.

Envisioning South Asia as a War-Time Region
Beyond the accounts of South Asia disseminated among policy-makers and within the walls of the academy during the war, the public began to encounter new representations of South Asia that were generated through wartime operations to create an intimate and instrumental portrait of the subcontinent.

Maps increasingly filled the pages of not only policy reports and academic studies, but popular media as well. As maps became a focus of public interest, South Asia became increasingly etched in the American popular imagination as a region vital to wartime strategies. For example, Richard Edes Harrison’s representations of global conflict were prominently featured in Fortune magazine. Franklin Roosevelt famously asked Americans to follow his updates on the war during his fireside chats by referencing their own world maps, a relatively new item in American homes that exposed the inextricable connections and vulnerabilities that marked the world at war. These maps visualized a world brought closer together through conflict, with each region analyzed and classified along a spectrum of alliances and antagonisms, threats and opportunities.

The Smithsonian Institution’s twenty-one volume study of Asia and the Pacific Islands, known as the War Background Study, compiled an exhaustive list of each area’s features, from vegetation, climate, resources, to social and cultural patterns. Another study on South Asia entitled The Peoples of India, written by anthropologist William Gilbert in 1944, sought to highlight India’s internal complexity and geopolitical significance for contemporary world affairs. To provide an understanding of South Asia that Americans could relate to, a map superimposed the region over the familiar terrain of the United States.

In the Second World War, South Asia functioned as a key strategic site in the China-Burma-India theater and over 5,000 American soldiers were stationed in Karachi, Calcutta, Bihar, and Assam, working as part of the Allied Southeast Asian Command in Kandy, Ceylon. These American soldiers returned with stories of their experiences in India that had previously been confined to scholars, missionaries, religious seekers, and traders. National Geographic chronicled many of these encounters by detailing soldier’s descriptions of South Asia, which often focused on those aspects of Indian exoticism already well-entrenched in American minds, like burning ghats, sacred cows, and endemic poverty. Other articles juxtaposed aerial photographs with street scenes to contrast the grandiosity of the colonial state’s monuments alongside intimate glimpses into everyday life and religious rituals in South Asia.

Tellingly, this new proximity shaped a number of post-war travel advertisements, which touted the leisure activity of sightseeing that augmented American global political power. New air routes created by Trans World Airways and Pan Am linked the US with Indian and Pakistani cities in 1947 and 1948, and advertised a post-WWII world of increased connection. “High Speed High Way to Bombay,” one ad declares, as a plane hovers above “spiked minarets.” The speed and comfort of its jets so dramatically close the distance between South Asia and the U.S., the ad insists, that passengers will feel they may just “as well be landing in Indiana as in India.”

As a result of World War Two, South Asia was no longer solely the domain of British control and influence, but also became a space upon which the United States was concerned, and later could project its desires of post-war international relations upon. South Asia’s social diversity began to be evaluated as insuperable divides and long-standing antagonisms that the British state, now in decisive retreat, had held together. South Asia also reflected the global instabilities that the United States claimed responsibility over.

The representations of South Asia hatched during the 1940s reveal an important backstory to the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act that ushered in new large-scale migrations from South Asia. The broader transformation of the United States’ role in world affairs during the Cold War relied on the construction of new world regions and blocs created during the Second World War. These American views of South Asia greeted post-1965 South Asian immigrants, their very entry to the United States predicated on fulfilling Cold War labor demands2. This time period envisioned South Asia in several ways that remain with us to this day: as a potential market, a military partner, and as a land forever unknown and foreign, in spite of long-standing connections that always seem to remain buried by the weight of this very history.

1. See Harold Isaacs’ (1958) book Scratches on Our Minds: American Views of China and India.

2. As this essay has illustrated, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act had lineages in the changing understandings of South Asia and the United States growing influence around the world that date to the Second World War.
Ishan Ashutosh is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography at Indiana University - Bloomington. His work encompasses the study of migration, the politics of race and ethnicity from an international and comparative perspective, and urban studies.