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The Overlooked Story of “the Greater United States”: Historian Daniel Immerwahr Shares His Unique Perspective on American Empire

The history of the United States is the history of empire.

Daniel Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire

Although most Americans are familiar with the “logo map” of 48 contiguous states, the story of empire and America’s possessions beyond the North American continent has been largely overlooked. 

In his groundbreaking new book, How to Hide an Empire: The History of the Greater United States (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Professor Daniel Immerwahr offers a corrective that fills in the history of American empire from the perspective of those who live in US territories and other possessions. His lively book is based on extensive archival research, interviews, and other previously overlooked resources.

As Professor Immerwahr writes, the founders were ambivalent about rapid expansion, but within a few decades of the birth of the nation, the inexorable and often brutal movement west had captured a continent from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, a place for 48 contiguous states.  Then the country looked beyond the mainland, and How to Hide and Empire offers a fresh point of view that casts our national past in a new light. 

As Professor Immerwahr vividly recounts, the offshore history begins when the U.S. took possession of dozens of uninhabited islands in the mid-nineteenth century for coveted guano—bird dung—to fill a need for natural fertilizer on the mainland. By the turn of the century, the U.S. expanded farther with the possession of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Hawai‘i, and more. Today, many former American colonies have been replaced by a “pointillist empire” of more than 800 American military bases and facilities around the globe.

From the Guano Islands to America’s widespread empire now, Professor Immerwahr shares neglected stories from the past showing how inhabitants of America’s possessions have been relegated "to the shadows," and, at various times, have been "shot, shelled, starved, interned, dispossessed, tortured, and experimented on."

The example of the Philippines is particularly grim, as Professor Immerwahr reminds us. In the bloody yet mostly forgotten Philippine-American War (1899-1902), US troops interned civilians in prison camps, tortured prisoners, and killed thousands of Filipinos—mostly civilians. After “winning” this rich archipelago, the U.S. governed the Philippines as a colony. Fast forward to the Second World War and, all told, the fighting in the Philippines was the bloodiest event ever on US soil. It’s estimated that 1.6 million died in the war, mostly Filipinos. The Philippines became independent in 1946—as the US began to distance itself from colonialism after the war.

Now, residents of territories have only limited rights, and their status as US citizens has been misunderstood by many mainlanders, including the current president. And, as Professor Immerwahr stresses, the cruel history of racism and white supremacy looms large in this story of empire, as the inhabitants of our possessions have been treated as inferior and unworthy of full protection as citizens based on race and ethnicity.

Professor Immerwahr teaches at Northwestern University, specializing in twentieth-century U.S. history within a global context. His first book, Thinking Small: The United States and the Lure of Community Development, won the Organization of American Historians' Merle Curti Award. His articles have appeared in SlateModern Intellectual History, Dissent, and Jacobin, among others. 

In an email exchange, Professor Immerwahr generously responded to questions on his new book and his work as a historian.

Robin Lindley: Thank you Professor Immerwahr for agreeing to discuss your groundbreaking new book, How to Hide an Empire. Before going to your book, could you describe how you decided to study history?

Professor Daniel Immerwahr: I went to Columbia University thinking I would major in music. Taking classes with Anders Stephanson, Betsy Blackmar, and Eric Foner showed me that there was a far better way to not make very much money. 

Robin Lindley: What inspired your new book on the history of “the Greater United States,” the US and its possessions? Did it grow out of your previous research?

Professor Daniel Immerwahr: For my first book, Thinking Small, I visited archives in Manila. I’d known, of course, that the Philippines had been a U.S. colony. But somehow being there made it click for me. It was like the difference between reading the lyrics and hearing the music. The colonial imprint is hard to miss in Manila, and I came back to California eager to read up on U.S. colonial history.

Robin Lindley: How would you briefly describe the historical problem you tackle in your new book?

Professor Daniel Immerwahr: When most people think of the United States, the country as they mentally map has a familiar shape: the contiguous blob, with oceans on either side, Canada above, and Mexico below. But that shape only accurately captures the borders for three years of U.S. history (1854–57, since you asked). That’s partly because the United States started off smaller—we talk about that a lot. But it’s also because in 1857 it started expanding overseas. So, the challenge is to write U.S. history with the understanding that the contiguous blob is only part of the country. My book tries to offer a history of all the land under U.S. jurisdiction, of what some around 1900 called “the Greater United States.”

Robin Lindley: Your book offers an original perspective on a history that is generally ignored about empire and America’s “possessions.” You cover this wide history from the inception of our nation to the present and often in far-flung places from the point of view of inhabitants who are brought under US control. What was the research process for your ambitious book?

Professor Daniel Immerwahr: I had help. There are some parts of the book that come from my own archival research. But in a lot of parts, I leaned heavily on the work of my colleagues. As I say in the book, my main contribution isn’t archival. It’s perspectival.

Robin Lindley: Why do you think Americans generally know so little about the history of US territories and other possessions?

Professor Daniel Immerwahr: First, many people understand the United States, born of an anti-imperial revolt, as having an allergy to colonial empire. Second, I think the experience of settler colonialism left a mark on the country. Expansion, indigenous dispossession, and frontier wars fit easily into the national mythology. But the conquest of populous overseas territories? Not so much. That seemed to violate people’s sense of what the United States is. And so, many have dealt with that cognitive dissonance by simply not thinking very much about the overseas parts of the country. 

Robin Lindley: Your book offers a fresh perspective for most readers. You state that the history of American empire has been “persistently ignored.” Some historians have bristled at this contention, noting that historians have been studying the history of US empire for years. How do you respond to this reaction to your work?

Professor Daniel Immerwahr: I would agree. When I write that the overseas parts of the country have been “persistently ignored,” I mean by mainlanders, and I document that fact. The good news is that scholars—many writing from the sites of empire—have been telling the story of U.S. Empire for decades. A book like mine would have been impossible without their work, as my notes show. 

What’s exasperating is that, despite all of this high-quality research, it’s still too easy for teachers, students, and even U.S. historians on the mainland to talk as if the United States were merely a collection of states.

Robin Lindley: The history you share also provides yet another aspect of American race relations and racism. Citizens of territories were often seen as inferior and less worthy of justice under law than mainlanders. What should readers know about how race shaped the Greater US history?

Professor Daniel Immerwahr: They should know that racism didn’t only shape people’s lives within the country. It also shaped the country itself, determining the placement of the borders and, within those borders, which places would count as “American” and which as “foreign.” There’s a long history of U.S. leaders seeking to control which people are “in” and which are “out” of the country. Unfortunately, they’ve largely succeeded in writing Puerto Ricans, Filipinos, and Hawaiians out of U.S. history.

Robin Lindley: Your history begins with the ambivalence of some of the founders about “empire” and then the relentless westward expansion on the continent. This story is probably well known in its outlines as the US acquired regions through purchase and violence. What’s your take on this history of continental expansion as you set forth your larger story?

Professor Daniel Immerwahr: Westward expansion is a well-known story, as you say. But looking at it from the perspective of territorial empire, you see new facets. 

I got really interested in “Indian Country,” the federally delineated all-Indian zone established in the 1830s to contain removed Native Americans and Western groups who still held title over their land. At its start, it comprised 46 percent of the country’s area! 

I also found myself being much more attentive to the state/territory division, and to the place of territories within the federal system. We don’t always think about them in this way, but by many measures the Western territories looked more like colonies than embryonic states.

Robin Lindley: Your book is wide-ranging and illuminating, I wanted to ask about a few specific episodes, some of which surprised me. It’s fascinating that the off-mainland expansion began with a need for guano, or bird dung, in the 19th century. How did the US address this problem and why did the efforts eventually lead to an insurrection by workers?

Professor Daniel Immerwahr: It sounds bizarre, but seabird droppings were one of the most effective natural fertilizers around. And that mattered in the nineteenth century, when the transition to industrial agriculture left many eastern farms parched of nutrients. 

It was in search of guano that the United States started annexing islands overseas—ultimately nearly a hundred of them in the Pacific and Caribbean. These were uninhabited, but someone needed to be there to mine the guano. Guano companies came to rely on non-white laborers, essentially marooning them on these rainless, godforsaken islands with instructions to pick, shovel, and blast loose as much guano as possible. Unsurprisingly, guano workers mutinied. One such uprising, on Navassa Island in 1889, led to the killing of five white overseers and, ultimately, a Supreme Court case. It was where the Court first considered whether overseas expansion was consistent with the Constitution. It ruled that it was, thus laying the legal foundation for empire.

Robin Lindley: Many know the story of Seward’s Folly, the US purchase of Alaska from the Russians after the Civil War. However, the story of Hawai‘i is less well known. How did the US come to “possess” Hawai‘i?

Professor Daniel Immerwahr: For years, racists in Congress had resisted major overseas expansion, on the grounds that it would incorporate too many nonwhite people into the country. The war with Spain in 1898 broke that logjam, as imperialists—also racist, but happy to see Washington rule over distant subjects—ginned up enthusiasm for overseas empire. That war netted the United States the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam. On something of an imperial splurge, Congress decided to annex Hawai‘i and American Samoa, too. It’s important to recognize that this was over the protests of Native Hawaiians. The historian Noenoe Silva has established that more than 38,000 of them signed anti-annexation petitions.

Robin Lindley: When I was a student, years ago, we learned little of the Spanish-American War except for the infamous sinking of the battleship USS Maine and the triumphalist stories of Teddy Roosevelt’s San Juan Hill charge in Cuba and Admiral Dewey’s victory at Manila Bay. It seems that the brutal Philippine-American War that followed was ignored—including the atrocities and violence by American troops that killed thousands of Filipinos and displaced many more. The US acquired the Philippines as a colony. What would you like readers to remember about our “winning” of the Philippines and the bloody aftermath?

Professor Daniel Immerwahr: I’d like them to grasp its magnitude. We think it claimed 775,000 lives, mostly from the diseases that it set loose. That makes it bloodier than the Civil War! And it lasted a long time. By the time the war in the north, which is what most people talk about, was fizzling out, the war in the south opened, and gave rise to some of the largest massacres in U.S. history. The south wasn’t put under civilian rule until 1913, the fourteenth year of the war overall. Only the Afghanistan War has lasted longer.

Robin Lindley: You also note that, in his December 8, 1941 address in response to the attack of the Japanese Empire on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt purposely omitted mention of the attack on American bases in the Philippines that occurred a few hours after the Hawai‘i raid. What’s your sense of FDR’s omission in his historic address and the US view of the Philippines in 1941? 

Professor Daniel Immerwahr: Richard Nixon called Pearl Harbor the “only piece of American territory that suffered directly from enemy attack in World War II,” and my guess is that most people would agree with that judgment. But it’s wrong. At the same time as Japan was attacking Pearl Harbor, it was moving on the Philippines, Guam, and Wake Island, all of which it soon conquered. 

The first draft of FDR’s speech made it abundantly clear that the Japanese had attacked Hawai‘i andthe Philippines. But then he edited it, cutting prominent references to the Philippines. We don’t know why, but my strong suspicion is that he worried that the Philippines, which had a smaller white population and was further away, wouldn’t readily serve as a casus belli. Certainly, opinion polls at the time showed that mainlanders cared less about defending the Philippines. 

Robin Lindley: And you mention that the US interned Japanese and Japanese-American nationals in the Philippines before the internment of Japanese Americans in the US. That ended with the fall of the Philippines to the Japanese, but what happened with this early internment effort?

Professor Daniel Immerwahr: It kills me that we never talk about this when telling the story of Japanese internment. Immediately after Japan attacked, Douglas MacArthur ordered police to round up the 30,000 people of Japanese ancestry living in the Philippines. It was brutal. I found accounts of rapes of Japanese women by civilians and soldiers. Accounts of Filipinos who hid Japanese friends in their homes, and who got punished for it. In Davao, guards in the internment camps repeatedly shot random prisoners. It ended not with a law but with Japan’s ground invasion. When Japanese forces took the camps, they freed the prisoners, who then in some instances locked up their former guards. 

Robin Lindley: I was surprised by the use of Puerto Rico as a medical laboratory where the citizens were seen as guinea pigs. What happened there? Were other territorial sites for medical and scientific experiments?

Professor Daniel Immerwahr: There’s a long and painful history of the territories serving as laboratories. In my book, I tell how doctors, lawyers, and architects found that, in the territories, they could try out new ideas with little effective resistance and with a great deal of impunity. 

Although you can find this sort of thing happening in all the territories, doctors have time and again experimented on Puerto Rico. The most notorious is the story of Cornelius Rhoads, a Harvard-trained doctor sent to treat hookworm. He intentionally withheld treatment from some patients, he tried to induce disease in others, and he wrote a letter to a Boston colleague saying that he’d murdered eight of his patients outright. You’d think that this would get him fired and imprisoned. But even though the story came out, he was barely dinged—what happens in San Juan stays in San Juan. He went on to make the cover of Time magazine as a medical hero, one of the inventors of chemotherapy.  

Robin Lindley: How do you think the negligent US response to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017 figures in this history? It seems the current US president did not then understand that he was also the president of Puerto Rico.

Professor Daniel Immerwahr: Trump has a discomfiting way of addressing Puerto Rico in the second person. “I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget out of whack,” he said after the hurricane—note the pronoun use. He’s operating with an unconcealed sense of a here and a there, an us and a them. There have been other examples of members of his administration referring to the overseas parts of the country as if they were foreign territory. I wish I could say this was particular to Trump, but I don’t think it is. Even Woodrow Wilson, a far more thoughtful president, described the territories as lying “outside the charmed circle of our own national life.” 

Robin Lindley: How has the status of territories and other US possessions evolved since the Second World War? 

Professor Daniel Immerwahr: The United States sought to distance itself from colonial empire after the Second World War, in part due to international pressure. It granted the Philippines independence in 1946 and made states of Hawai‘i and Alaska in 1959. Puerto Rico, the remaining member of the big four, became a “commonwealth” in 1952. That didn’t change Congress’s ultimate power over the island, but it was nevertheless enough for the United Nations to strike Puerto Rico from its list of “non-self-governing territories.” All of that was a concession to decolonization, but it’s important to note that the United States never fully shed its empire. It still has five inhabited territories—Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Marianas—and millions of people live in them. 

Robin Lindley: With the change in status of territories in recent decades, the US is described as a “pointillist empire” of military bases and US facilities around the world. What is the US empire today?

Professor Daniel Immerwahr: The United States might not go in for colonial empire as it once did, but it has not given up claiming foreign land. It’s just that now the land Washington cares most about are not populated colonies but small enclaves. The United States has hundreds of foreign bases—David Vine has estimated 800. It’s not a lot of area in all. If you took all the land that the U.S. controls outside of the states and DC, you’d get an acreage less than Connecticut. But those hundreds of points, strewn around the globe, matter a lot. They matter to Washington and they matter to the many countries that host or are threatened by the U.S. basing structure. 

Robin Lindley: What do you see in terms of US empire in the age of Trump? How will politics now affect the future of the territories you studied?

Professor Daniel Immerwahr: Trump, as usual, says the quiet part out loud. In so doing, he’s shone a spotlight on the subordinated position of the territories and on the racism that subordinates them. The issue is far more visible today than it was a decade ago. Will that lead to status changes or reforms in rights and representation? I won’t hazard a guess. 

Robin Lindley: What’s your next project? Will you continue research on the Greater United States?

Professor Daniel Immerwahr: Once you see the underlying geography of the United States as the Greater United States rather than the mainland, it’s hard to unsee it. I’m sure I’ll do more research. But right I’m now working on a book about nineteenth-century environmental catastrophes and a series of studies about the pop culture of U.S. post-1945 global hegemony.  

Robin Lindley: Would you like to add anything about your book or your work for readers?

Professor Daniel Immerwahr: Don’t underestimate the historical importance of bird poop.

Robin Lindley: That’s an excellent point. Congratulations on your original new history Professor Immerwahr, and thank you for sharing your thoughtful remarks.