Invisible colonies

How to Hide an Empire: A Short History of the Greater United States
Daniel Immerwahr
2019, Bodley Head
516 pages, plates, hardback

DEBATES about the imperial nature of the United States will probably go on until long after the new kid on the block, China, or some emergent power displaces it as the global bully whom we love to hate.

One reason why these debates have been so inconclusive has been because of the diverse ways in which empire is understood – and the fact that they have largely been confined to the Left.

While that intellectual ghetto has provided fertile soil for the development of theories of imperialism – and there are many – it has arguably also been advantageous to US narratives of power that have supported the interventionist reflex.

In the 19th century, for example, the Monroe Doctrine, American exceptionalism, rapid economic development, and racist social theories combined to countenance a new form of US imperialism that was indistinguishable from the “old” empires of Europe – yet whose most characteristic feature was a steadfast denial that it existed.

This is acknowledged by the few rightwing historians – such as Niall Ferguson – who understand or depict the US as an empire, albeit with less pejorative intent.

In 2003 at the height of the latest experiment in US imperialism in Afghanistan, Ferguson argued that Washington was a danger to the world – mainly by virue of that denial.

“We don’t do empire,” US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously told Al Jazeera.

With that in mind, Ferguson observed: “The United States is the empire that dare not speak its name” – a lack of self-knowledge that is potentially fatal for the unfortunate nations that stand in its way.

This denial of empire has itself been the topic of considerable debate – particularly since 2001 – and is also the origin of the qualifications that are attached, sometimes by apologists, to their descriptions of the American empire – “reluctant” empire, “Empire lite”, “liberal empire” etc. Ferguson himself – described by the writer Johann Hari as the court historian for the imperial US hard right – has portayed empire as a potentially benign force.

As ever, the great sage Noam Chomsky signals a way forward – by zooming in on the real subject of interest, not the content or quality of empire, but that very denial itself.

Chomsky argued that US denials of imperialism are systematic, and form a component in the machinery of propaganda that “manufactures” consent for its interventionist policies. Denial is, in short, a tool … of empire.

While not scrutinising in detail the theoretical paraphernalia of this kind by which empire has been understood, in How to Hide an Empire Daniel Immerwahr nonetheless provides an important contribution to these debates by adopting a reasonable, measured approach that explores the American empire in a good old-fashioned way: as a territorial empire.

Such an approach cuts to the heart of denials of empire because it is so universally taken at face value that – unlike the British empire, for example – the US has never retained direct control over vast swathes of territory.

Not so, insists Immerwahr, with a plausible explanation for this empire blindness. He writes:

“Yet in all the talk of empire, one thing that often slips from view is actual territory. Yes, many would agree that the United States is or has been an empire … But how much can most people say about the colonies themselves? Not, I would wager, very much.” [p. 14]

The reason for this can be found in historiography.

While textbooks and overviews of US history invariably feature a chapter on the 1898 war with Spain that began the process of territorial acquisition, “… after that, coverage trails off. Territorial empire is treated as an episode rather than a feature. The colonies, having been acquired, vanish … Ultimately, the problem isn’t a lack of knowledge. The libraries contain literally thousands of books about US overseas territory. The problem is that those books have been sidelined – filed, so to speak, on the wrong shelves. They’re there, but so long as we’ve got the logo map [the contiguous union of mainland states] in our heads, they’ll seem irrelevant. They’ll seem like books about foreign countries.” [pp. 14–15]

Why does this matter?

Because it has come at a very high cost for the people of territories within the “Greater United States” – such as Alaska, Guam, American Samoa, the Philippines, Hawai‘i, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands etc. Immerwahr writes:

“This self-image of the United States as a republic is consoling, but it’s also costly. Most of the cost has been paid by those living in the colonies, in the occupation zones, and around the military bases. 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.” [p. 19]

Therefore, Immerwahr travels in historical terms to these far-flung colonies to explore their imperial experience. In his examination of Puerto Rico – a particularly good example of this invisibility and of the advantages to the US of imperial denial – he analyses the status issue that has turned the territory into a laboratory that has yet to resolve its identity crisis and escape its poverty.

Indeed, Puerto Rico’s colonial status continues to penalise its people.

In 2017, Immerwahr notes, Hurricane Maria slammed into the island – coinciding with the hurricanes Harvey and Irma that hit the mainland – causing devastation that Donald Trump’s administration responded to with lamentable indifference. Immerwahr writes:

“The difference in response was palpable. Though Puerto Ricans were far more likely to die from storm damage, they saw fewer federal personnel, markedly less media coverage, and only a fraction of the charitable giving.” [p. 399]

Yet the citizens of Puerto Rico and the other US territories today continue to be “subject to the whims of Congress and the president, but they can’t vote for either. More than 50 years after the Voting Rights Act, they remain disenfranchised. As Guamanians and Puerto Ricans have recently seen, this disenfranchisement carries potentially lethal consequences.” [pp. 399–400]