How To Hide An Empire

Daniel Immerwahr says studying the history of the Greater United States opens our eyes to how “racism has shaped the actual country itself. The legal borders of the country, but also the borders of the heart.”

Bridey Heing | Longreads | March 2019 | 13 minutes (3,528 words)

What do we think of when we think about the United States and the country’s history? This seemingly simple question rests at the heart of Northwestern University Professor Daniel Immerwahr’s new book, How To Hide An Empire. Immerwahr posits that, for the vast majority of people living in the contiguous United States, our understanding of our own country is fundamentally flawed. This is for one central reason: We omit the millions of people and large territorial holdings outside of the mainland that have, since the founding of the country, also had a claim to the flag.

In his book, Immerwahr traces US expansion from the days of Daniel Boone to our modern network of military bases, showing how the United States has always and in a variety of ways been an empire. As early as the 1830s, the United States was taking control of uninhabited islands; by 1898, the United States was having public debates about the merits of imperial power; by the end of World War II, the United States held jurisdiction over more people overseas — 135 million — than on the mainland — 132 million. While the exact overseas holdings and the standing of territories have shifted with time, what has not changed is the troubling way the mainland has ignored, obscured, or dismissed the rights of, atrocities committed against, and the humanity of the people living in these territories. When we see US history through the lens of these territories and peoples, the story looks markedly and often upsettingly different from what many people are told.

I spoke to Immerwahr recently to learn more about the shifts in how the mainland has thought about the greater United States, the widespread and at times deliberate ignorance that continues to obscure the US empire, and how climate change could force a crisis in the United States’ relationship with its overseas holdings.

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How did this book come about?

The initial impetus was a research trip I’d taken to Manila. I’d known the Philippines had been a colony of the United States, but somehow being in the city made it click in a new way for me. It was like the difference between reading the lyrics and hearing the music. I saw streets named after US cities, states, presidents, and colleges, and I would take a transit system called JEEPNEY, which was originally based on US surplus army jeeps. I’d spend time in the archives at Ateneo de Manila University, where I’d see Filipino students walking around, speaking English with what sounded to my ears like barely an accent.

When I got back to California, which is where I was living, I started thinking a little differently about US history. I’m trained as a US historian and I’d been teaching survey classes, and I realized that when I’d been talking about the United States, I hadn’t been including the Philippines as part of the story. So I started poking around and asking what would US history look like, what would the Progressive era, what would the Depression look like, what would World War II look like if when I taught that or told that story, I was talking about the whole United States. What happens if you include the territories of Hawai’i, Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, up to what happens if you include the hundreds of military bases the US has laid claim to? Ultimately I had the idea that I should write a history of the United States, but not just the mainland; I’d mean the entire area where the flag flies.

It’s the kind of thing where, when you start thinking about it that way, it’s hard to unsee. Everything started looking different. The duck becomes the rabbit, so to speak. Things that had seemed familiar to me now had totally new histories, which I hadn’t been able to see because those histories had run through the overseas parts of the United States and I hadn’t been thinking about those parts when I thought about US history. Things I hadn’t really thought much about now seemed tremendously important.

It’s the kind of thing where, when you start thinking about it that way, it’s hard to unsee. Everything started looking different … Things that had seemed familiar to me now had totally new histories.

What was the research process like?

In some ways it’s interesting to do a history of ignorance, a history of things that have been ignored, relegated to the shadows, placed on the periphery. But luckily this was not an act of heroic individual research by any means. The scholars who have been working on these issues for decades and very often working from sites of empire have filled the libraries with books on these topics. I did archival research and went to places US historians don’t usually go, like Fairbanks, Alaska or Manila or Honolulu, but I had the enormous pleasure of being able to help myself to all this extraordinary work that scholars have been producing for generations. So in some ways what’s frustrating to me is that this story isn’t new, and it shouldn’t feel to anyone like it’s new. It’s not like no one knew how devastating World War II was to the Philippines — Filipinos knew and have been saying it very loudly, and if you go to Manila, the city is still marked by it. But folks on the mainland don’t always get to see that. So I see this work not just as doing deep dives into dusty boxes and archives in remote places, but also drawing on knowledge that has been produced around all these sites of empire and trying to bring it into a coherent history of the United States.

I’m curious about the decision to start the book with Westward expansion. Was that something that you knew from early on, that in terms of the narrative of US empire, the tension between the original States and the expansion beyond the British-set borders was where you wanted that story to begin?

If the story of the US colonial empire is the story of places categorized as territories, I wanted to be able to talk about what it means to be a territory. The more you look at the history of westward expansion, the more you see really enticing resemblances between the kind of political strategy used by the United States during those experiments and practices and what happens overseas, such as the creation of a division between parts of the country that are states and others parts that are territories, or in the 1830s an attempt to create a massive all Native American territory called Indian Country that would be run as a colony. It’s not an accident that the same word we used to describe Kansas and Nebraska before they became states is also the appropriate word to talk about the Philippines, to talk about Guam, to talk about American Samoa.

In a lot of ways, early expansion into the guano islands and into populated areas reads as very piecemeal and messy. Like the mainland identified a need and very thoughtlessly found ways to meet those needs. How would you describe that dynamic during the 1800s, and how did it evolve through WWII when we saw a more planned expansion?

The early expansions of the United States past the North American mainland were not done after long deliberations about whether the United States should be a republic confined to the North American continent or if it should be an empire extending overseas. It was done very quickly in response to an economic, agricultural crisis related to the declining fertility of Eastern farms, and the solution was to claim a handful of uninhabited islands with guano [which was used as fertilizer] on them — White Gold as some called it. It’s a rush to claim these islands, which is akin to what happens slightly after that with the Gold Rush.

Then you see a set of questions about what this means for the country. Once they have agreed to [controlling the guano islands], legislators and Supreme Court justices then have to contemplate what this means for the United States, which in an ad hoc way has already expanded overseas. What does it mean for it to be the kind of place that does that, or is it indeed the kind of place that does that? What makes this first step easy is that the guano islands are uninhabited, so when Congress is debating whether or not the US should have a blanket law saying that anyone who sees an uninhabited guano island can annex it for the country, the key issue in that debate is that this can only happen for uninhabited islands. So it’s a way for the US to ease itself into the logic of empire. But legally those guano islands laid the foundation for a much larger empire, and an empire that is populated not just with some people but with tens of millions of people.

What’s frustrating to me is that this story isn’t new, and it shouldn’t feel to anyone like it’s new. It’s not like no one knew how devastating World War II was to the Philippines — Filipinos knew and have been saying it very loudly … But folks on the mainland don’t always get to see that.

One of the things that becomes clear very quickly is that there are parallels between what were some of the most horrific incidents in both US history and international history, and what has been done in the greater US. Female sterilization, war crimes during World War II, internment — things that happened on the mainland or overseas are remembered with immense specificity and often tied to place, but when it comes to these colonies and territories, few people even know they happened. What is behind that sustained dynamic, in your opinion?

Take the issue of internment. We know that the United States interned Japanese people and Japanese-Americans on the West coast during World War II, and that is rightly seen as a major moral failure. However, that story is about about what was done on the mainland, and when you’re on the mainland it is a lot harder to hear the stories about other people who were interned and confined during World War II. That includes the declaration of martial law in Hawai’i and the maintenance of that state of martial law far beyond when it was militarily necessary. It wasn’t individual people being interned — the whole island was turned into a military prison with barbed wire around the perimeter. People were prohibited from moving at night, not showing up at work, changing jobs, using US currency — doing all kinds of things they might have done if they were free. If they violated these things, they were almost always convicted in courts presided over not by judges, but by military officers. There was something like a 99 percent conviction rate in the courts we know about. Another example is the internment in Alaska during World War II. A lot of people don’t remember that Japan didn’t just attack Alaska, but invaded and conquered the western tip of the Aleutian Island chain, and as a result the United States evacuated that entire island chain, including some other islands, and removed the native residents to southern Alaska where they were put in horrific camps where a great number of them died. The death rate was about ten percent, which is absolutely galling. Meanwhile the white residents of the island chain were allowed to stay.


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The most shocking, because I had not heard of it at all, was the discovery that at the same time or before even the US starts interning Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans on the West coast, they were interning Japanese and Japanese-American nationals in the Philippines. It was right after Pearl Harbor, and it was enormous — it encompassed about 30,000 people. it was absolutely brutal. It was accompanied by extrajudicial killings, by rapes, by terroristic racial violence, and then by violent retribution once these internees were released as the Japanese invaded the Philippines. So this is an entire Japanese internment of thousands of people that simply does not come up in conversation when we talk about internment in US history. It is massive and it is brutal, but because it doesn’t happen on the mainland, it takes place outside of the view of most US historians.

It’s not for lack of information. That’s what’s so frustrating about it. It’s a persistent view of the country that has one geography — namely that of the mainland — such that any information about the overseas parts of the United States doesn’t really count because it doesn’t really seem to be about the United States. It seems to be about a far off and foreign place. I’m guilty of that myself. When I got a doctorate in US history, my understanding of the United States was bound to the mainland. I vaguely knew of what had happened in the Philippines and Puerto Rico, but it didn’t seem relevant to me. So despite the fact that all this information was out there, it was so easy for me — as I suspect it’s easy for a lot of mainlanders — to discount that information. I use the metaphor of filing it on the wrong library shelf mentally. As long as you think the United States is just the contiguous mainland, anything you learn or have the potential to learn won’t seem relevant. It’ll just seem like information about a foreign country.

The idea that you can have this guy who on the mainland is such a hero, but in Puerto Rico is known as an unconscionable villain. The idea that you can have that informational segregation persist for decades — that is extraordinary. That is how you hide an empire.

There seems to be a strange intergenerational aspect to this issue, in that in these territories and colonies, there’s a firm sense of history and what has been done and when, but in the US you have one generation obscuring events, the next generation seeing the aftermath, and then they become the ones to obscure. What role does that dynamic play in relation to how we understand our relationship with these places and peoples?

There are moments of frankness about the full geographical extent of the United States, and 1898 is one of them. It’s a moment when the United States is forthrightly an empire, according to a lot of maps and political discourse. That doesn’t last very long, and those who fought in World War II didn’t live through that moment and didn’t think about the United States in that way. Then many of them discovered the territorial extent of the country, especially if they went through the Pacific. They get a quick lesson in the true geography of the United States. But those moments of openness and frankness tend to close pretty quickly. A good example of this is Richard Nixon. He fought in the Pacific. He’d been to all these places. But later in hs life, he gave a speech about Hawai’i and he said that Hawai’i was the only US territory struck in war during WWII. Richard Nixon, who had lived through this very thing, somehow manages to obscure it and have a restricted sense of where the United States is, even when he’s narrating a war he’s seen with his own eyes.

The question that keeps coming up throughout the book in various ways is what American means, in terms of location and in terms of demographics. And unsurprisingly we’ve historically and against actual fact come down in a very white supremacist direction on that question. But in terms of the broader strokes of that debate, how would you characterize how that debate has changed over time in regards to the greater United States?

I think you do see real shifts over time, and one of the marked shifts is the difference between the early 20th century, when leading politicians in the United States can be forthrightly imperialistic and win elections on a platform of empire, and the mid-20th century. Not empire in a vague sense, but empire in the sense of seizing colonies and subduing the people who live in them. That is the position the McKinley administration adopts in the election of 1900 and that’s what he and his vice president, Theodore Roosevelt, win on. Things look very different by the 1950s and 1960s. I’m not saying racism had gone away in the United States — it absolutely hadn’t. Nonetheless, by then the United States had gotten to the point when politicians had a hard time explaining out loud why Hawai’i, for example, had to be held in a state of continued subjugation. Although, Southern racists insisted that Hawai’i could never be a state because of its racial composition. They ultimately lost, and Hawai’i, which is minority white, became a state and Alaska, which after World War II is only 50 percent white, also became a state. And I think that’s a real change in the official commitment and ability to enforce white supremacy on behalf of politicians of the United States. I think you wouldn’t have seen Hawaiian statehood in 1910 the way you did in 1959.

It’s an interesting and unpleasant moment now because, unfortunately, these issues are deeply relevant. Threats have encompassed four of the five inhabited territories of the United States. Hurricanes Irma and Maria struck Puerto Rico; Hurricane Irma struck the Virgin Islands; Guam was threatened by North Korea, which promised to create an enveloping fire around the island; and although it’s not much reported in the mainland, the worst storm in the United States since the 1930s hit the Marianas. It hit Saipan and Tinian, and laid waste to them, knocking out the power grid and ripping roofs off homes. What we see is a mainland and particularly a presidential administration that seems uninterested in engaging with the threats these places face, and in the case of the Trump administration, active hostility to parts of the United States that aren’t on the mainland.

One of the central ideas of the book isn’t just that this is history we should know, but history that fundamentally shifts the way we think about our country. What do those shifts add to the our understanding of our own history?

It transforms a lot of individual episodes, and the most dramatic of those is World War II. Those make you think a lot about core aspects of the country — the name of our country, our flag and what it represents.

But I think beyond those individual episodes and artifacts, what you see is the importance of race in the history of the United States. We have long known and are very aware of the fact that race and racism has shaped the lives people have led in this country. Nevertheless, it’s also important to recognize that race and racism have shaped the actual country itself. The legal borders of the country, but also the borders of the heart. The sense of who counts as an American and who does not. There has always been a gap between the two — the legal borders and borders of the heart. There has always been a peripheral zone and people in it, who are US nationals but have not been able to lay claim to full American status in a way that their co-nationals have.

It’s going to be a time of crisis, and the reason is that climate change is posing serious threats to the US territories.

You end an early chapter on medicine in Puerto Rico and the fact that potentially awful things that were done there were virtually unknown outside of Puerto Rico by saying that that is how you hide an empire.

That chapter is about the career of Doctor Cornelius Rhoads, who had experimented in completely unconscionable ways on Puerto Ricans. He had left diseases untreated in some patients, he tried to induce disease in other patients, he had referred to them to his colleagues as experimental animals. Then, shockingly, he wrote a letter in which he seemed to confess to having murdered eight of his patients. He says he was joking and he hadn’t actually done it. It’s kind of unclear what really happened. But this is the kind of guy who really should be fired. He was not. He just left San Juan and went to the mainland. He became the vice president of the New York Academy of Medicine, he became a pioneer of chemotherapy, he appeared on the cover of Time Magazine. He became a hero in the medical community and there was a major award for cancer researchers named after him. The idea that you can have this guy who on the mainland is such a hero, but in Puerto Rico is known as an unconscionable villain. The idea that you can have that informational segregation persist for decades — that is extraordinary. That is how you hide an empire.

What you do you think the future of this relationship looks like, between the United States and these territories?

I think it’s going to be a time of crisis, and the reason is that climate change is posing serious threats to the US territories, as well as some of the islands where the US stations its military bases. If you think about it geographically, these territories are at the outer periphery of the United States, and that puts them on the front lines of history. The fact that four of the five inhabited territories have endured existential threats in the last two years is a preview of what’s to come, so I think this is going to be a time of reckoning for the United States. Can it still maintain this peripheral zone where there are US nationals and citizens who are deprived of the full rights of US citizens on the mainland? I hope the answer is no, but I’m afraid it might be yes.

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Bridey Heing is a writer focusing on world literature and culture. She is an editorial adviser at The London Magazine and a contributing editor at World Literature Today. She has written for web and print publications in the US and the UK, including The Washington PostPacific StandardThe Daily BeastThe EconomistThe Times Literary Supplement, and Bust.

Editor: Dana Snitzky