Daniel Immerwahr. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $35 (528p) ISBN 978-0-374-17214-5
Reviewed by Doug Heath
In How to Hide an Empire, Daniel Immerwahr, Associate Professor of History at Northwestern University, reframes the standard account of US history to incorporate events in all of the lands outside the conterminous 48 states that were brought under formal US rule, thereby giving us A History of the Greater United States. Today the most familiar of these lands are Alaska and Hawaii, which became states more than a century after the Gadsden Purchase inserted the last segment of the familiar outline that in 1854 exactly enclosed the land of the future 48 states. These lands also include territories that never became US states: the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Guam, Wake Island, American Samoa, the US Virgin Islands, and nearly 100 miniscule Pacific and Caribbean islands with substantial deposits of guano. Furthermore, by employing slightly modified criteria, Cuba, the Panama Canal Zone, and the UN Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands could easily have been included in the Greater United States, and so it is appropriate that the author also addresses their experience with regard to US expansionism. Although major events would occasionally raise the salience of some of these places, most notably Pearl Harbor, they generally remained obscure, if not invisible, to Americans on the mainland.
By highlighting the importance of these territorial possessions and the experience of their inhabitants living under the sovereign power of Washington, Immerwahr generates a narrative that alters our perspective by presenting familiar things in a new or expanded way. So while we expect to read that race has played a central role in our national history, race relations in the Greater United States transcend the familiar cases of black-white and red-white because we encounter in these additional territories the specific sufferings of various other non-white peoples at the hand of white authorities. Examples include the massacres of civilians and torture of captives in the long Philippine war for independence; the callous manipulation of Pacific islanders with regard to the testing of atomic weapons on Bikini and Eniwetok; and the extensive medical experimentation on Puerto Ricans under the direction of Cornelius P. Rhoads, who called them “the dirtiest, laziest, most degenerate and thievish race of men ever inhabiting this sphere.”
In 1980, the American Association for Cancer Research established the prestigious Cornelius P. Rhoads Memorial Award with no awareness of his Caribbean crimes, and they granted it annually for twenty-three years to outstanding young cancer researchers before anyone objected. Immerwahr tells us that such an extraordinary oversight was possible only because of the “complete segregation of information between Puerto Rico and the mainland,” pointedly concluding that “that’s how you hide an empire.”
Another way to hide an empire is to radically reconfigure it. Today the US has what Immerwahr calls a “pointillist empire” of some 800 military bases scattered around the globe, all on foreign soil over which the US nevertheless exercises full legal control. No colonies visible on the map? Abracadabra! No empire.
According to Andrew Bacevich, a retired US Army Colonel and Boston University Professor Emeritus, How to Hide an Empire is “brilliantly conceived, utterly original, and immensely entertaining – simultaneously vivid, sardonic, and deadly serious.” This high praise is well earned and fully deserved.
Doug Heath retired as Professor Emeritus of Geography, Geology, and Environmental Studies at Northampton Community College. Since then he has taught a course in World Geography and Global Issues as an adjunct professor at Moravian College.