Mid-Atlantic Popular &
American Culture Association

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The Warm Front of the Cold War: Kon-Tiki and the Making of an American Polynesia


When The Endless Summer was released in 1966, many critics were surprised at the enthusiasm with which it was greeted by the general public. Viewers in the heartland queued up for hours to see the story of two young Americans traveling the world in search of the perfect wave—the eponymous endless summer. By the mid 1960s, however, surfing had been thoroughly inculcated into youth culture, becoming a uniquely American place of refuge from the machinations of modern life. Surf culture was itself a logical successor to Tiki culture: a markedly American interpretation of Polynesian society, with its roots in the experiences of soldiers, sailors, and aviators during WWII. This paper examines the foundation of Tiki mythology, as well as its evolution into the consumerist surf culture movement of the 1960s. I argue that American Tiki culture revolves around the portrayal of a figure I identify as “the Helmsman,” and the way he was constructed for both internal and external consumption. The development of the helmsman can be seen in evocative narratives of travel such as The Endless Summer and Thor Heyerdahl’s The Voyage of the Kon-Tiki. Tiki culture was a product of the early Cold War, and American reinterpretations of its place in the world at a time when the anxieties of modernity—especially fears of emasculation and the isolation of suburban living—informed a desire for a more “natural,” or actualized, state of being. Tiki culture became a way for suburban males to fantasize about rejecting modernity, and the life of an “organization man,” through adopting the totems and rituals of the helmsman—a powerful figure who demonstrated his mastery not through technological acumen, but through an almost preternatural ability to steer his way through, and thus tame and control, the world in which he lived.

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