Even in the spring of 2003, when American forces were occupying Iraq and Afghanistan and government officials were writing torture memos, the defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld seemed almost offended when a reporter asked whether the United States was engaged in anything like “empire-building.” “We’re not imperialistic,” Rumsfeld insisted. “We never have been. I can’t imagine why you’d even ask the question.”
The tone of aggrieved incredulity may have been laid on a little thick, but Rumsfeld’s sentiment neatly aligned with how many Americans prefer to see their country — as a republic that was born from revolution and necessarily hostile to imperial rule.
This self-image is “consoling, but it’s also costly,” Daniel Immerwahr writes in “How to Hide an Empire.” “At various times, the inhabitants of the U.S. Empire have been shot, shelled, starved, interned, dispossessed, tortured and experimented on. What they haven’t been, by and large, is seen.” Even today, barely half of mainland Americans know that Puerto Ricans are fellow citizens.
Critics of American foreign policy have long accused the country of imperialism in a general sense — of meddling and bullying, starting wars and inciting coups — but Immerwahr, a historian at Northwestern University, wants to draw attention to actual territory, to those islands and archipelagos too often sidelined in the national imagination. For decades, scholars have researched American colonialism in places like the Philippines and Puerto Rico; Immerwahr builds on their work to encourage a shift in the typical “mainland” perspective of American history, showing that “territorial empire” hasn’t been just an aberration but an inextricable part of the country’s fabric, woven throughout.
To call this standout book a corrective would make it sound earnest and dutiful, when in fact it is wry, readable and often astonishing. Immerwahr knows that the material he presents is serious, laden with exploitation and violence, but he also knows how to tell a story, highlighting the often absurd space that opened up between expansionist ambitions and ingenuous self-regard.
He divides the history into three phases. The first was the 19th-century period of westward expansion, including President Andrew Jackson’s forcible expulsion of Native Americans from their land. By the middle of the century the second phase was also beginning, as the United States started to notice enticing bits of territory outside the continent, including small islands in the Caribbean and the Pacific.
These places were rocky, barren and devoid of people; what they offered was plenty of nitrogen-rich bird droppings, the better to remedy the “soil exhaustion” of a rapidly industrializing United States. The Guano Islands Act of 1856 decreed that whenever an American citizen found guano on an uninhabited, unclaimed island, “such island, rock or key may, at the discretion of the president, be considered as appertaining to the United States.”
“It was an obscure word, ‘appertaining,’” Immerwahr writes, “as if the law’s writers were mumbling their way through the important bit.” It seemed to signal a discomfort, or at least the semblance of it. Soon enough, such official compunction was decidedly on the wane. Theodore Roosevelt, serving as William McKinley’s assistant secretary of the navy, pursued the Spanish-American War of 1898 with the zeal you would expect of someone who toted around a book called “Anglo-Saxon Superiority.”
Immerwahr devotes several chapters to the ensuing five decades, as the United States annexed Puerto Rico and the Philippines, brutally crushing independence movements, torturing Filipino insurgents with “the water cure” and giving mainland doctors veritable carte blanche to treat Puerto Rico as a medical laboratory. Seen through Immerwahr’s lens, even the most familiar historical events can take on a startling cast. Take World War II in the Philippines: Pointing to the murderous combination of American shelling and Japanese slaughter of civilians, he calls the war “by far the most destructive event ever to take place on U.S. soil.”
The role that racism played in the country’s colonial acquisitions was palpable but sometimes counterintuitive. While imperialists often spoke about “civilizing” the “savages,” some of the most ardent anti-imperialists in the 19th century were white supremacists like John C. Calhoun, the senator from South Carolina, who was wary of letting “any but the Caucasian race” into the Union. The 1867 purchase of Alaska from the Russians encountered similar resistance, with The Nation complaining about the prospect of “Exquimaux fellow citizens.” As Immerwahr tartly observes, “The deal went through only because, in the end, there weren’t that many ‘Exquimaux,’ and there was quite a lot of Alaska.”
Immerwahr brings the narrative up to the present day, exploring the American decision to give up territory after World War II, which he calls “virtually unprecedented” — after all, victorious countries tended to do the opposite. But this “twilight of formal empire” wasn’t simply the result of American selflessness. Technological advances eroded the connection between power and land. Securing access to a raw material like rubber mattered less when you could manufacture a synthetic version of it. The big exception, of course, has been oil — “the one raw material that has most reliably tempted politicians back into the old logic of empire.”
What the United States has now is a “pointillist empire”: specks of land scattered around the world that have served as military bases, staging grounds, detention facilities, torture sites. (The United States has 800 overseas bases, whereas Russia has nine; most countries have zero.) If Theodore Roosevelt was the swashbuckling emblem of the country’s formal empire, Herbert Hoover — “an astonishingly capable bureaucrat” before he became a not-very-capable president — represented the turn toward globalization, standardization and logistics.
It’s a testament to Immerwahr’s considerable storytelling skills that I found myself riveted by his sections on Hoover’s quest for standardized screw threads, wondering what might happen next. But beyond its collection of anecdotes and arcana, this humane book offers something bigger and more profound. “How to Hide an Empire” nimbly combines breadth and sweep with fine-grained attention to detail. The result is a provocative and absorbing history of the United States — “not as it appears in its fantasies, but as it actually is.”