Review: Imperialism in Disguise

by Ronn Pineo

Review of How to Hide an Empire:  A History of the Greater United States by Daniel Immerwahr

How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United StatesHave you been thinking that you should read a serious history book this summer, but the books that you purchased with the best of intentions now lie abandoned, joined by the others gathering dust on the nightstand, a page in each dog-eared not far the start?

Well, here’s one that you might even take on vacation. How to Hide an Empire is one of the most original and important books on U.S.history to appear  in many years. And, it’s well written.

Daniel Immerwahr, an associate professor of history at Northwestern University, provides a sweeping reassessment of U.S. history, placing at the center of the narrative the role of U.S. territories. The story travels from the Philippines, Guam, and Hawaii in the Pacific; Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean; and far, far beyond, drawing in the hundreds of outposts the United States has operated around the globe. Immerwahr explores the fascinating story of the impact that the continental United States had on these places and the influences they had on everywhere else. 

Immerwahr looks beyond the “logo map” area—the continental United States–to include the  “Greater United States,” which includes all of the U.S. territories, variously defined associated regions, occupied guano islands, and distant military bases. By telling their histories he shows how  these regions played a significant role in shaping the destiny of this country.

Americans, Immerwahr rightly notes, don’t usually think much about the territories, don’t seem to know that much about the history of these places, and don’t regard the United States as an imperialist nation. The national narrative is of a country born of a rebellion against British imperialism, Americans prefer to think of their nation as the longtime enemy of  empire-builders. But, Immerwahr shows, the history of the United States is very much the story of Greater America, of U.S. imperialism.

The expansionist impulse began with the push across the continent and the wars on indigenous people and Mexicans. Racism informed the colonization of adjacent lands, favoring areas that were not already populated with people regarded as inferior. Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and the rest of Mexico would likely be part of the United States today but for the Cubans, Dominicans, and Mexicans who lived there, people the conquerors did not want to add to the nation.

Immerwahr deftly weaves in the many connections between changes in technology and the arc of U.S. imperialism. In the nineteenth century the got-to-have new item, one that became indispensable for agricultural success, was guano, bird feces used for fertilizer.  By mid-century the guano scramble was on, and the United States grabbed up islands scattered all over the world’s oceans. In the end the United States claimed 94 tiny islands, only some of which turned out to hold deposits of guano. Bit by bit, with Baker, Howard, Swan Islands (try Google Maps), America built its “pointillist” empire.

Especially strong is Immerwahr’s examination of U.S. control of the Philippine islands.  Immerwahr spares none of the gasp-inducing brutality, including–trigger alert–gruesome photos of U.S. atrocities. More than 750,000 Filipinos died as a result of the wars of occupation from 1899 to 1903 alone. 

Never U.S. citizens, the people of the Philippines were often promised freedom (by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 and the U.S. Congress in 1934), but they only won release from U.S. control in 1946. Understandably, most Filipinos sided, at least initially, with the invading Japanese in the Second World War. But the Philippine connections to the United States were lasting and often subtle, from city grid patterns in Manila, to nurse-training protocols. Even today, most foreign-born nurses in the United States come from the Philippines.

After victory in the Second World War, the United States claimed no German or Japanese territory as war booty. Indeed, the United States let go of much of its overseas holdings. Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and American Samoa remain in the United States. This country did not need territory and did not want to pay the costs of managing it. What it wanted was bases, places to land jets, dock warships, and launch nuclear missiles. These it still has. As Immerwahr says, the United States had mastered “the art of projecting power without claiming colonies.”

Immerwahr spotlights the role the that U.S.-held overseas territories played in medical and scientific testing, experiments that would likely have been halted  by scandal on the mainland. He chronicles inhumane medical trials, the worst being in Puerto Rico, nearly always carried out on subjects who had never been offered the opportunity to give informed consent.

After the Second World War, the United States turned the Pacific islands entrusted to its care by the United Nations into sites for dozens of open-air nuclear test blasts, exploding weapons of a vastly greater magnitude than those that the United States dropped on Japan. The people who lived on the bomb-site Pacific islands were uprooted and dropped off elsewhere. Not far enough, though. The rain of nuclear fallout dusted them with sometimes fatal, doses of radiation.  Immerwahr quotes Henry Kissinger as saying that “there are only 90,000 people out there … who gives a damn?”

Reading How to Hide an Empire is likely to change the way you think about U.S. history. If you read one history book this summer, make it this one.

Ronn Pineo has taught history at Towson University in Baltimore for more than 30 years.