Named one of the ten best books of the year by the Chicago Tribune
A Publishers Weekly best book of 2019 | A 2019 NPR Staff Pick
A pathbreaking history of the United States’ overseas possessions and the true meaning of its empire
We are familiar with maps that outline all fifty states. And we are also familiar with the idea that the United States is an “empire,” exercising power around the world. But what about the actual territories—the islands, atolls, and archipelagos—this country has governed and inhabited?
In How to Hide an Empire, Daniel Immerwahr tells the fascinating story of the United States outside the United States. In crackling, fast-paced prose, he reveals forgotten episodes that cast American history in a new light. We travel to the Guano Islands, where prospectors collected one of the nineteenth century’s most valuable commodities, and the Philippines, site of the most destructive event on U.S. soil. In Puerto Rico, Immerwahr shows how U.S. doctors conducted grisly experiments they would never have conducted on the mainland and charts the emergence of independence fighters who would shoot up the U.S. Congress.
In the years after World War II, Immerwahr notes, the United States moved away from colonialism. Instead, it put innovations in electronics, transportation, and culture to use, devising a new sort of influence that did not require the control of colonies. Rich with absorbing vignettes, full of surprises, and driven by an original conception of what empire and globalization mean today, How to Hide an Empire is a major and compulsively readable work of history.
Historian Immerwahr argues in this substantial work that the U.S. is more than the 50 states its name references, and that, despite its identification with anti-imperialism, for more than two centuries the U.S. has been "a partitioned country, divided into two sections, with different laws applying in each" in short, a kind of empire. The second section is made up of territories, many of which were once called colonies, and which are now barely acknowledged in popular conceptions of the country: first, native lands near the "frontier" of the nascent country; then for a time Hawaii, Alaska, and the Philippines; and to this day places including Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands. (And, Immerwahr goes on, the U.S. engages in other kinds of empire-building, through, for example, its massive network of overseas military bases and economic globalization.) Present-day residents of territories "have no representation in Congress... cannot vote for president... rights and citizenship remain a gift from Washington," and their status as U.S. citizens is unknown by almost half of the states' population. This insightful, excellent book, with its new perspective on an element of American history that is almost totally excluded from mainstream education and knowledge, should be required reading for those on the mainland.