America the Cargo Cult

‘E look like you. ‘E got white face. ‘E tall man. ‘E live ‘long South America.
— a description of John Frum

During the Second World War, the United States established military bases and outposts throughout the Pacific. Some of these bases were placed on remote islands such as Tanna (Vanuatu) whose native populations had limited previous exposure to 20th century technology such as airplanes, jeeps, and modern weapons. Those native populations not killed or displaced by the war benefitted greatly from the presence of Allied troops and their marvelous machines.

When the war was over many of those bases were closed, and the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and their equipment were removed, never to return. The natives who had benefitted so much from the wartime economy were left in the lurch. They possessed neither the skills nor the technology to replicate the machines they had seen the visitors use. This situation led to the formation of several quasi-religious belief systems known as “cargo cults”.

The marvelous machines the natives had witnessed were (from their point of view) so advanced and wondrous that they must have come from the gods. They believed that the gods must have shown the visitors how to make and use those machines, and they also started to believe that if they imitated the activities of the visitors, the gods would bestow such marvels upon them as well.

So, doing the best they could with native materials, they built wooden forts, wooden guns, and wooden airplanes. They marched in formation and conducted drills like the visitors had done, hoping that the gods would see them and that “John Frum” or “Tom Navy” (a surrogate figure for the Allied soldiers and sailors) would return to their island(s) with his riches and his wonderful machines. Alas, he never did, but the natives in some instances continued such practices for decades in the hope that he would.

The United States is in a similar situation today. The Cold War is over, and the economic war waged by the capitalist barons against working class people of North America has been won. The neoliberal behemoth now has moved on to Asia and the Indian subcontinent in search of more souls to steal, taking his giant slave-and-robot-staffed factories and marvelous machines with him. The American people, like the Pacific natives of over sixty years ago, have been left in the lurch.

And what are we doing in response to the situation? Just like those natives, we lack the skills and the technology to replicate the machines we once saw, so many of us are imitating the activities of our ancestors, hoping that God will find favor in us once again, and that John Galt (Ayn Rand’s version of John Frum) will bring back and share his riches and his wonderful machines. There’s no better example of this than the Tea Party, a group of so-called patriots strutting around in cocked hats and other Revolutionary War-era garb, marching with make-believe weapons, chanting the slogans and waving the flags of yesteryear; all in the vain hope that this will please the God of “Manifest Destiny” who they think favored us so long ago.

But just like the Pacific natives and their cargo cults, who didn’t understand how airplanes worked, we don’t understand the true underpinnings of “our” lost wealth. We don’t realize that God didn’t want us to murder the natives and steal their wealth. We don’t realize that the American dream was built on the shattered dreams of those whose lands we plundered, whose women we raped, and whose buffalo we slaughtered. We don’t realize that much of our wealth was generated by the backbreaking labor of armies of forgotten slaves. We have no idea how many governments have been overthrown and how many petty dictators installed in our name, just so our economy could flourish. All we can remember is the slogans (e.g., “taxation without representation”), the inspirational statues and monuments on the National Mall, and the former grandeur of worn-down institutions such as the Congress and Supreme Court. No matter how often and loudly we invoke them and dance our patriotic jig, God has not seen fit to restore us to our former status. Not because (like John Frum) He no longer exists, but because He never approved of our thefts, our murders, or our lies in the first place.

Another similarity between some of the cargo cults and the United States is that they are “millennial” cults; that is, a system of beliefs that world history will culminate in a new age (or new world order) in which God will restore the earth to a “Garden of Eden”-like paradise if only His people would perform certain actions demonstrating they are worthy of His favor. In addition to the Vailala Madness and the Tuka Movement, similar beliefs have been held by followers of the Shawnee prophet Tenskwatawa (the brother of Tecumseh), by followers of the Northern Paiute religious leader Wovoka (the Ghost Dancers slaughtered at Wounded Knee), by Christian Zionists who believe in the prophecies in the Book of Revelation of the Bible, and by many members of the Tea Party.

The supreme irony in this millennial aspect of the cults is that they almost universally identify the villain in their mythology (i.e., the wicked people God will destroy for the benefit of the worthy) to be white European colonizers (e.g., Christian missionaries and their military accomplices). An honest assessment of what Christian missionaries and crusaders have done over the centuries confirms that this is the role they actually played in all such situations; i.e., the role of the wicked, the fat takers, and those who have destroyed the earth.

Thus, at the heart of their religion and secular beliefs, Christian Zionists, other Christian evangelicals, and members of the Tea Party are actually praying that God will cast them into Hell when Jesus returns at the end of the age to restore the earth and rule it with a rod of iron.

Who’da thunk?

Howard Uhal is a Vietnam era veteran of the US Army and a former nuclear submarine officer. He has held various positions in the nuclear and environmental industries and has degrees in Geology and Environmental Systems Engineering. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Howard, or visit Howard's website.