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addabook - How to Hide an Empire
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How to Hide an Empire
A History of the Greater United States
Daniel Immerwahr
read on October 23, 2019

Great book that pokes around a lot of corners of US history that I hadn't known about before. Immerwahr looks at US colonial/empiric history and tries to explain how and why it developed as it did. Unsurprisingly, the general theme is that the US has tended to do whatever is most beneficial to the interests of its white ruling class - and that incidentally those interests over the last 100 years have had less and less to do with the occupation of foreign territory. I thought a lot of the history was really interesting, especially having just returned from a trip to Singapore and gotten a taste there of recent colonial impact. I remain fascinated by the territory to statehood process, and why that succeeded for places like Hawaii and Alaska but not Guam or Phillipeans or Puerto Rico. 

A few random notes:

  • Pearl harbor (Dec 7, 1941) was actually a small part of the coordinated attack that took place that day by the Japanese against UK and US territories. Also attacked Guam, Midway, Phillipeans, Malaya, Singapore. For most, the Japanese subsequently occupied those places as well. Hawaii wasn't even a state at this time, and it was a legit political question whether/how to frame it as an attack against America.
  • Cherokee Nation was an actual nation for some time, with a president! They tried to send senators to US congress but surprise the white dudes weren't having it.
  • American expansionist empire started with a few islands off of Peru in effort to collect bird droppings (guano) to use as fertilizer in mainland. These acquisitions fueled American agriculture for decades.
  • The expansionary trilemma: In order to expand US territory (on and offshore), Americans needed to pick two of three values: empiricism, republicanism, and white supremecay. The fact is, no one wanted to expand outward if it meant taking in non-white people and equal American citizens. But Roosevelt had such a boner for Daniel Boone's mythology that they pressed on with Empiricism regardless, and just never gave the people in territories any rights. I.e., we abandoned republicanism in deference to the other two values. That remains the case today. 4 million people (primarily on Puerto Rico, Guam, USVI) are natural American citizens, but can't vote and have no representation in congress.  
  • The SCOTUS "Insular Cases" at turn of the 20th century ruled that the US constitution only applies to US states - not territories. This is still considered good law, but speaks volumes that this precedent was set by the same SCOTUS that ruled Plessy v Ferguson.
  • After the Phillipean war in the early 1900's (America's longest war until Afganistan), there was less energy for further imperialist expansion. This is primarily because it was replaced with Dollar Imperialism, where instead of taking over an area and assuming the overheard that comes with management of the unwanted (i.e., non-white) people, the USGov could make treaties so as to essentially have economic control of an area without all the baggage.
  • WW2 in Phillipeans was most destructive event to ever occur on us soil.  1.6m Phillipeans (US nationals) killed.
  • No US president said the word "global" until FDR after WW2. It wasn’t common vernacular until then, as the idea of global anything just didn't make sense.
  • Interesting discussion of colonialism in terms of raw materials. E.g., the US was out of rubber in 30's FDR imposes a nationwide 35mph speed limit in order to conserve tires, and desperatly needed to trade for it. This rubber trade had driven a lot of prior European expansion into Africa and APAC. (Hitler invested massively in German petrochemical companies in order to produce synthetics to replace the raw materials that Germany didn't control). In the early 40s the US cracked it and found how to synthesize rubber. Immediately after, 90% of all us rubber was synthetic. Like guano earlier, once this was figured out, no longer needed to trade or colonize for.
    • Plastic blew the doors open in this regard. Funny that very first plastic was to replace ivory billiard balls. WW2 drove plastic R&D into overdrive, as we needed all kinds of substitute synthetics.
  • US today has ~800 offshore military bases. All other countries combined have ~30. US today has ~4M naturalized citizens of this country living in Guam, Samoa, Puerto Rico, etc - who can't vote and have no representation in congress.

Did colonialism and Empire ever end? Immerwahr argues no, and that it only slightly changed. Tech developments during the 1900's rendered old-school colonialism less relevant. The airplane, e.g., made it no longer necessary to control huge swaths of land, and drove colonialism to become more pointilist. Same with the telegraph, and then radio and satellites. Post WW2 globalism shattered the need - particularly the spread of English globally, and US-led standards across industry.


Author Bio:

Daniel Immerwahr (Ph.D., Berkeley, 2011) is an associate professor, specializing in twentieth-century U.S. history within a global context. His first book, Thinking Small (Harvard, 2015), offers a critical account of grassroots development campaigns launched by the United States at home and abroad. He is currently writing another book, How to Hide an Empire (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, forthcoming), about the United States’ overseas territories. At Northwestern, he teaches courses of U.S. foreign relations, global history, intellectual history, and the history of capitalism. His writings have appeared in Modern Intellectual History, the Journal of the History of Ideas, Dissent, n+1, and Jacobin, among other places.