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

The author begins this decidedly different approach to American history by pointing out that on December 7, 1941, Japanese planes attacked not just Pearl Harbor, but also the U.S. territories of the Philippines, Guam, Midway Island, and Wake Island. Yet Roosevelt chose to characterize the entire incident as an attack on Pearl Harbor. Immerwahr writes:

Roosevelt no doubt noted that the Philippines and Guam, though technically part of the United States, seemed foreign to many. Hawaii, by contrast, was more plausibly ‘American.’ Though it was a territory rather than a state, it was closer to North America and significantly whiter than the others. …. Yet even when it came to Hawaii, Roosevelt felt a need to massage the point. Though the territory had a substantial white population, nearly three-quarters of its inhabitants were Asians or Pacific Islanders. . . . “

Thus, Roosevelt changed his announcement, and added that damage had been done to “American naval and military forces,” and “very many American lives” had been lost.

This history is illustrative of the main theme of this book, which emphasizes the deliberate invisibility of American territories outside of the mainland. Early on, the word “colonies” was determined to be anathema. “Territories” sounded better, if one had to discuss those places at all. Mostly, however, they were not and still are not discussed. Immerwahr observes, “One of the truly distinctive features of the United States’ empire is how persistently ignored it has been.”

In fact, as Immerwahr avers, the “logo map” of the United States most often shows the mainland, and more recently, includes Alaska and Hawaii. But, Immerwahr asks, “When have you ever seen a map of the United States that had Puerto Rico on it? Or American Samoa, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Northern Marianas, or any of the other smaller islands the United States has annexed over the years?”

The logo map, the author argues, is not only misleading geographically:

It suggests that the United States is a politically uniform space: a union, voluntarily entered into, of states standing on equal footing with one another. But that’s not true, and it’s never been true. From the day the treaty securing independence from Britain was ratified, right up to the present, it’s been a collection of states and territories. It’s been a partitioned country, divided into two sections, with different laws applying in each.”

On the eve of World War II, nearly nineteen million people lived in American colonies, the great bulk of them in the Philippines. Although smaller than the British Empire, the United States empire was then the fifth largest in the world. Moreover, the racism that had pervaded the U.S. since slavery affected the territories as well, as the example of FDR’s reaction to the Japanese bombing illustrates so well. Colonial subjects were even called “niggers” to emphasize their “inferior” status, and were treated as badly as black citizens were in the mainland.

A report released during WWII noted that “Most people in this country [i.e., the U.S.], including educated people, know little or nothing about our overseas possessions.”

Of course, as we have found, even today many mainlanders do not realize Puerto Ricans are American citizens. A poll taken after Hurricane Maria found that only a slight majority of mainlanders, and only 37% of those under age 30, knew that fact. Even the U.S. President at the time seemed to be unaware of it. As one online article reported about Trump’s reaction to Hurricane Maria in 2017:

The small Caribbean island is a United States territory (technically an “unincorporated territory”) and has been since 1898, after the U.S. claimed victory in the Spanish-American War. Puerto Ricans have American citizenship and are able to travel throughout the U.S. mainland as they please – and it’s under the jurisdiction of the current occupant of the Oval Office. 

It appears that the president – who hails from New York, the state that contains the largest population of Puerto Ricans in the country – is either not entirely aware that Puerto Rico is not another country, or is refusing to acknowledge that it’s a part of the United States.” 

Immerwahr, an associate professor of history at Northwestern University, sets out to show what U.S. history would look like if it acknowledged the Greater United States rather than just the logo map version. That history has had three stages, in his view. The first was westward expansion: “the creation in the 1830s of a massive all-Indian territory [is] arguably the United States’ first colony.” The second stage moved off the continent, when the U.S. started annexing new territory overseas. The third stage involved a retreat and a ceding back of territory. He explores the reason why at some length.

Current U.S. territories

Although the United States prefers to see itself as a “republic,” the result of this self-deception has been costly for people in the colonies:

The logo map has relegated them to the shadows, which are a dangerous place to live. 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.”

Immerwahr attempts, quite successfully in my view, to remedy that omission. He spends a great deal of time recounting the injustices committed in the colonies, far from the eyes of mainlanders. He noted:

The men sent to run the territories, unlike the trained administrators who oversaw European colonies, simply didn’t know much about the places to which they’d been assigned, and they cycled rapidly through their posts. Between Guam’s annexation in 1899 and World War II, it had nearly forty governors. FDR’s first governor of Puerto Rico, who served for six months, spoke no Spanish and left reporters with the distinct impression that he didn’t know where the island was. There was a period of several months when the territory of Alaska, which is half the physical size of India, didn’t have a single federal official in it.”

In the Philippines, in particular, he tells the story of how Daniel Burnham and others were sent to Manilla to transform it, but for the colonizers, not the natives.:

Such were the joys of empire. The colonies [in the Philippines in this instance] were, for men like [Daniel] Burnham, playgrounds, places to carry out ideas without worrying about the counterforces that encumbered action at home. Mainlanders could confiscate land, redirect taxes, and waste workers’ lives to build paradises in the mountains.”

Other stories of Colonial behavior are even worse, and hard to stomach. In perhaps the most egregious example, the author reports that the U.S. Department of Defense admitted in 2002 to having conducted chemical and biological warfare experiments on unwitting citizens in territories including Puerto Rico and the Marshall Islands. The first tests were carried out by a mainland doctor, Cornelius P. Rhoads, whose cancer research in a Puerto Rican hospital in the 1930s reportedly included injecting unknowing patients with cancer cells. Incredibly, Rhoads went on to serve in 1940 as director of Memorial Hospital for Cancer Research in New York, and then starting in 1945 was the first director of Sloan-Kettering Institute, and the first director of the combined Memorial Sloan–Kettering Cancer Center. Thanks to his unethical contributions to cancer research, Rhoads was featured on the cover of the June 27, 1949 issue of “Time Magazine” under the title “Cancer Fighter.”

The second experiments, using biological and chemical weapons, were performed by the U.S. military in the 1960s and 1970s at various locations, including Puerto Rico, Alaska, Hawaii, Florida, Canada, and the Marshall Islands. The experiments were performed outdoors, meaning civilians might also have been exposed to harmful chemical and biological agents.

All of these behaviors were enabled by three interconnected forces: racism; the imprimatur of laws passed in its service; and the invisibility that still obtains regarding the annexed areas.

The legal basis for the treatment of the colonies was established with the “Insular Cases,” a series of opinions by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1901 about whether or not people in newly acquired U.S. territories were citizens. (The term “insular” signifies that the territories were islands administered by the War Department’s Bureau of Insular Affairs.) In a number of related cases listed here, the Court held that full constitutional protection of rights did not automatically (or ex proprio vigore — i.e., of its own force) extend to all places under American control. This meant that inhabitants of unincorporated territories such as Puerto Rico—”even if they are U.S. citizens”—may lack some constitutional rights (e.g., the right to remain part of the United States in case of de-annexation).

Thus, the Insular Cases “authorized the colonial regime created by Congress, which allowed the United States to continue its administration—and exploitation—of the territories acquired from Spain after the Spanish-American War.” [See, Juan R. Torruella [First Circuit Judge], “Ruling America’s Colonies: The ‘Insular Cases,’” Yale Law & Policy Review, Vol. 32, No. 1 (fall 2013), pp. 57-95, online here.]

Today, the categorizations and implications put forth by the Insular Cases still govern the United States’ territories. The Harvard Law Review Blog writes, “Judge Torruella has become the most prominent critic of the Insular Cases, arguing forcefully that “the Insular Cases represent classic Plessy v. Ferguson legal doctrine and thought that should be totally eradicated from present-day constitutional reasoning.”

Currently, Immerwahr reports, there are about four million people living in U.S. territories, in Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Marianas. He observes, “they’re subject to the whims of Congress and the president, but they can’t vote for either.”

The author concludes the book with a discussion of “birtherism,” discussing how the racism that has always tinged attitudes toward territories and former territories still intrudes into American politics.

Evaluation: This history reflects a great deal of research and as a bonus is written in a very accessible way, interweaving anecdotes about colonial players with facts that are horrifying and little reported. The book, dedicated “To the Uncounted,” should be a part of every U.S. history program.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: