Reading History: “How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States (by Daniel Immerwahr)

It’s become commonplace in certain circles–particularly the academy–to point out that, throughout the 20th and 21st Centuries America has practiced a form of imperialism, exporting its ideas and way of life throughout the globe, often at the point of a sword (or, more accurately, the barrel of a gun). There is, of course, a great deal of truth to the idea that the United States exerts a substantial influence on the world via ideas and military intervention rather than traditional colonialism. However, as Daniel Immerwahr argues in his new book How to Hide and Empire: A History of the Greater United States, far too little attention has been paid to the territorial possessions that this country has accrued throughout its existence, and his book sets out to correct that.

I’ve long been a fan of popular history. Don’t get me wrong, as a scholar and aspiring academic I definitely still see the value of academic history written for and published by university presses. However, there’s a certain vitality about history intended for mainstream audiences that you don’t (often) find in books written by and for academic audiences and researchers. Fortunately for those of us who devour such things, Immerwahr (a trained history and associate professor of history at Northwestern) manages to combine scholarly rigour with an eye for engaging storytelling.

Thus, How to Hide an Empire is compulsively readable, not just because its subject matter is still so tremendously pertinent, but also because Immerwahr has a strong grasp of both narrative pacing and language. He moves at a breakneck speed through the history of American colonization, yet he also manages to drill down into the details of such far-flung territories as Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico (as well as those territories, such as Oklahoma, Alaska, and Hawai’i that ultimately became states). It also details how, in the decades after the Second World War, the U.S. relied more on technology, transportation, and culture to exert its imperial influence on the world.

One of the book’s great strengths is its emphasis on the ways in which the United States, despite its protestations to the contrary, has from its very beginnings been a territorial empire. Indeed, this “greater United States” (as Immerwahr calls it) was often key to the national interest, whether that was militarily (both Alaska and Hawai’i were, after all, very close to Japan), cultural, or social. In doing so, he also points out how long-lasting these territorial acquisitions were, and he reveals some aspects of the colonial story that many Americans have forgotten. I daresay that, if I were to ask a dozen random strangers whether they knew that the Philippines had been a part of the United States for much of the 20th Century, they would say no. Indeed, as Immerwahr points out again and again, those living in the mainland remain startlingly (one might even say frighteningly) ignorant not just of the fact of U.S. empire, but also of the gruesome atrocities that were being committed on American soil.

How to Hide an Empire peels away the self-mythologizing that Americans so consistently engage in to convince themselves that the U.S. is unlike all of those other countries that conquered so much of the globe in the 19th Century. It forces us to confront the ugly realities of American territorial violence, while also paying attention to the ways in which those living in those territories have fought back against their oppression. Though they did not always succeed in their ambitions, they nevertheless reminded the powers that be on the mainland that they were not to be idly used and abused by their colonial overlords.

The book also points out the fundamental injustices that still characterize the mainland’s relationship with its territories. Those living in those places may (in most cases, except for American Samoa) be United States citizens, but they are denied the right to congressional representation or to vote for president. To my mind, the fact that these injustices continue to go on without people on the mainland taking to the streets in protest, tells you all you need to know about how terrible this system remains.

How to Hide an Empire is necessary reading for anyone who wants to learn about the ways in which the United States has always been an empire, even as it has so completely convinced its own citizens that it isn’t.

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