I heard about this book on Twitter, I think, and read an excerpt (basically the introduction of the book) in The Guardian, and I was immediately sold. These days I read history books because I’ve discovered since leaving school that history is actually really, really difficult to learn. There’s just so much of it, and it’s just so subject to interpretation depending on the evidence available, the lens you use for that evidence, and your own biases. Even when you’ve done your best to be diligent and check your biases, at the end of the day, there is just so much history!
How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States is all about the overseas territories and possessions of the United States of America. Did you know that the US owned the Philippines from 1898 to 1946? I didn’t! To be fair, I at least have the excuse that I’m Canadian, not American. But I’m not going to spend my entire review dissing the American education system. Daniel Immerwahr makes it pretty clear that any ignorance of the status of these islands, or the history of Hawai’i and Alaska, isn’t just a failure of the education system. It’s inherent in the United States’ abject ambivalence regarding its role as an imperial superpower. Indeed, this book isn’t just a chronicle of how the US came to exert control over far-flung islands in the Pacific. It’s an examination of the ways in which the USA has been an empire, is still an empire, and also, at times, has rejected the notion of empire and colonialism.
My first praise: this book is utterly fascinating and captivating. I mentioned learning that the Philippines was once a US territory—I learned this on page 2! I learned that “sixteen million Filipinos—US nationals who saluted the Stars and Stripes and looked to FDR as their commander-in-chief—fell under a foreign power.” Pearl Harbor is remembered on the mainland as a bombing of a naval base, yet it was actually part of a larger coordinated attack that included the utter invasion of the Philippines. Yet this is a subject that rarely comes up. And that’s just the first two pages of the book. Nearly every page is a non-stop revelation of ideas. Huge kudos to Immerwahr and his editor for being able to stay on track.
Not being American, I don’t read a lot of American history. When I do, I try to find books like this, books that don’t subscribe to the manifest destiny myopia that, thankfully, seems to be a lot less common these days in general. I don’t need history books that lionize certain people and talk about how the west was won. I want history books that examine how present-day patterns and systems are built atop the legacies of what came before. That’s exactly what Immerwahr does here.
Beyond discussing how the US acquired various territories, Immerwahr anchors these acquisitions in the zeitgeist of various periods, from the turn of the 20th century to the interwar period to post-war and Cold War geopolitics. One of his more striking observations for me is how the US came to realize that colonialism as practised and perfected by powers like Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands was obsolete after World War II. Instead, the ability to synthesize many resources once only found in remote locations provided an alternative to expensive colonization efforts. In this way, Immerwahr illustrates how colonialism has always existed as an economic expediency, a symptom of capitalism created by inefficiencies of technology and scale. That doesn’t mean colonialism has gone away, mind you—it has just shifted forms, as Immerwahr discusses in an entire chapter devoted to international standards. (He talks about screw thread angles. Yes, that sounds terribly boring. Yet it’s not—it’s downright fascinating!) He mentions “Coca-colonization” briefly but doesn’t quite engage with it that much, although to be fair, cultural imperialism is more of a digression within this book than the main point.
It’s difficult for me to decide what other facts to share, because I learned so many. It’s difficult to know how else to praise this book, because it’s really quite interesting. So let me zoom out for a moment and explain the appeal of Immerwahr’s subject and his approach to it.
On its surface, How to Hide an Empire contains a lot of stories about individuals and their role in events. In no way is this book a “Great Man” book of history though. Even when discussing General Douglas MacArthur, who looms largest perhaps because of his role in multiple colonial situations, Immerwahr is careful to observe how numerous other people and entities amplified or attenuated MacArthur’s influence. Indeed, How to Hide an Empire is actually a systems theory approach to history on a global level in a way that is broad enough to be useful yet granular enough to remain valid. Each chapter explores how the US embraced or stepped away from empire depending on its particular social needs at the time. The chapter on technology and transport, “This is What God Hath Wrought,” is a particularly keen example of this; Immerwahr details the logistical needs of managing a fighting force that spans the entire globe.
I love this, because it’s really hard for we humans to think on an abstract, systemic level like this. Take climate change. There’s so much emphasis put on individual reduction of emissions and carbon footprint. Yet 100 companies are responsible for 71% of the world’s carbon emissions, and the US military is one of the largest single consumers of oil in the whole world. When viewed from a larger systems angle, then, we see that the problem of climate change is not something we can solve from a grassroots, individualist approach. That isn’t to absolve everyone of responsibility—I’m still going to do my part—but every individual doing their part still won’t matter if we don’t actually alter the systems that allow these corporate emissions to continue.
Similarly, I was recently reading a piece that was very passionately trying to convince me we should switch to all-natural fibres in our clothing. Now, I’m a big fan of natural fibres when it comes to my knitting. As I previously mentioned, Immerwahr discusses how the US switched to synthetic materials to reduce its dependency on acquiring them from other countries. Some natural materials are difficult to grow/sustainably source from within North America—so insisting we switch to them could usher in another era of exploitation and colonialism if we aren’t careful about how we do it. These types of issues are so complex and fascinating, and it’s important for us to think on a global scale (then act on a local one).
So my final and highest praise for this book is that reading How to Hide an Empire is a valuable and edifying exercise in thinking systemically. It encourages the reader to view our global human civilization as a dynamic network of interdependent economies and societies. What one society does affects every other society in some way, with certain actors, like the US, having an outsize amount of influence. Immerwahr reminds or informs people of the various territories that the US once or currently holds, including the beleaguered people of Puerto Rico, who are American citizens yet have no representation in Congress or the White House. (Speaking now as a Canadian, I do have to say I think it’s silly for any American to claim theirs is the greatest country/democracy on Earth when some of your citizens can’t even vote in your elections. Get your act together.) On this basis alone, the book is worth reading. On a wider level, the book is a great way to get you thinking about our world through a different lens. And that’s the best thing a history book can do. Check out the excerpt I linked to at the beginning of my review if you need any more convincing.