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Imperialism After Empire

A new book reveals the extent of the "Greater United States," but territory is not as important as it used to be. Instead, imperialism endures today in the logic of capitalism.

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How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States
Daniel Immerwahr
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30 (cloth)

I recently stumbled across a statue in Baltimore that celebrates the young men of the city who fought in the “Spanish War.” On a narrow triangle in a residential neighborhood, this lone soldier stands at ease, holding a rifle across his body and staring into the distance, unperturbed by the city buses screeching past or the litter that collects below his feet. The pedestal records the years, from 1898 to 1902, when these brave Americans fought against Spain’s weak imperialist hold on the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. Known as “The Hiker,” fifty or so versions of this statue still quietly dot city streets and parks across the United States. The bulk were erected in the 1920s in northern states, with Baltimore’s in 1943, and the last in 1965 near Arlington Cemetery.

Their anti-imperialist sentiment resonated with a different kind of monument that emerged in the same period—those to the Confederacy. To numerous white Americans, the democratic reconstruction of the former Confederacy was an imperialist exercise, and both types of statue celebrated a fight against empire. But they mobilized a rose-tinted vision of past war-making to reject the contemporary reality of early twentieth-century U.S. statecraft: Washington had built an empire, subjecting millions with dark skin to its rule. The anti-imperialist sentiment implicit in the statues, whatever its source, did not curtail empire. It denied its existence.

These monuments—both to the Confederacy and to far-flung operations and occupations—reveal just how vexing the term “empire” is in the U.S. vocabulary. They reveal, as William Appleman Williams once argued, that empire is a way of life. The Spanish-American War, for instance, may have been anti-imperialist in initiation, but was certainly not anti-imperialist in resolution. Indeed, the peace treaty, effective in April of 1899, did not actually result in peace or freedom for the effected territories. Cuba gained independence in 1902 but faced U.S. invasions soon afterward. The Philippines remained a U.S. colony until 1946. And Puerto Rico, though now afforded “commonwealth” status, is perhaps the contemporary world’s most glaring example of ongoing colonialism.

The ambiguous political status of these overseas possessions caused anxiety, and not just among Confederate memorialists. What if these non-white populations were granted full admission into the U.S. polity? What if these “outsiders” gained power in the United States? The statues served as a powerful reminder—that white supremacy was an integral part of U.S. order. It was true: unlike the Southern states of the confederacy, which were readmitted into the union on equal terms (though vertiginous inequalities within them remained and even grew afterward), the territories annexed in the Spanish War and thereafter never obtained formal equality and instead remained under the yoke of empire.

Daniel Immerwahr’s new book, How to Hide an Empire, will sensitize its readers to these monuments and reinforce that if the history of U.S. empire is hiding, it hides in plain sight. On nearly every page of How to Hide an Empire, Immerwahr reveals a facet of U.S. empire and how it was forgotten or suppressed. Empire offered “zones of experimentation” for larger-than-life figures such as architect Daniel Burnham and General Douglas MacArthur. Empire, according to Immerwahr, helps explain the plot of the James Bond thriller Doctor No (1963), as much as the decidedly un-thrilling international standards for screw threads. And empire’s denial laundered the Japanese atomic horror Gojira into the lovable monster flick Godzilla; it made the best-known Puerto Ricans in U.S. culture a fictional gang called the Sharks in West Side Story, rather than the real-life nationalists fighting for independence. Written in wry and engaging prose, the book reveals the extent of the “Greater United States” and covers the process of its waxing and waning up to the present.

In the first half of the book, Immerwahr explains how the United States expanded westward, grabbed tiny island possessions in the Caribbean and the Pacific, eventually defeated the Spanish, invaded and occupied areas throughout the Western hemisphere, and took control of Alaska and Hawaii. He then explores the territories that remain: American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Marianas, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and over 800 military bases full of bombs, bullets, and Burger Kings. About 4 million people live in U.S. colonial possessions today, with almost no voice in Washington, D.C. While being attentive not to minimize this fact, Immerwahr also explains in the second half of the book how—and why—the United States “decolonized” so much of its territory in the middle of the twentieth century. At the end of World War II, for example, before Alaska and Hawaii became states, before the Philippines gained independence, and while U.S. troops occupied much of Germany, other parts of Europe, Japan, and Korea, there were more people “under U.S. jurisdiction” outside the mainland United States than within it.

Immerwahr’s book is essential reading for anyone looking for a detailed but digestible portrait of U.S. imperial expansion—and of all the deceptions that keep this expansionism from becoming a subject of popular debate. But he also maintains such a compact definition of empire that it may not be as helpful to today’s audience as he thinks. He is concerned with territories, those physical spaces where the United States has maintained some political and military control without affording full access to the rights and privileges the states may enjoy. The United States does still comprise of states and territories—a fact that many Americans either forget or never learn—but Immerwahr concludes his book by stating that “Empire lives on” without revealing the key political question of how. By insisting on holding fast to the master category of territory, Immerwahr’s case is undermined by the fact that the imperial logic of capitalism thrives even as holding territory is no longer essential. This shift suggests a need to reinterpret the meaning of empire, or at least to be open to its ambivalences and mutations.

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Territory is a “distinct political category,” meaning both place and political abstraction. The original U.S. territories sat just beyond the western borders of the original thirteen states, and they were subjugated places—governed but not incorporated. The term conveyed that formal inclusion was possible in the future but would be deferred in the present. The problem, as officials in Washington, D.C., saw it, was the people within these lands—both native and settler. The latter made the former seem ungovernable, and so Washington relied on removal, confinement, and extirpation of native peoples to “civilize” the territories before incorporating them. Lands west of the Appalachian mountains started to become states not long after 1787, and the outline of the United States that we know today took shape by the mid-1800s. That “logo map”—as Immerwahr calls it—with its corners near Seattle, San Diego, Miami, and the Maine woods, is iconic now as the symbol for the United States, but Immerwahr points out that it remained steady for only three years.

In 1856, the United States began annexing rainless, inhospitable islands in the Pacific and the Caribbean. As the logo map coalesced, farmers began to notice the exhaustion of soil nutrients, a troubling development considering that agricultural abundance was supposed to be the United States’s unique manna. Dozens of these unpopulated islands saved U.S. farms: they held mountains of guano, the hardened feces of millions of sea birds, which could be used to reanimate U.S. soil. Farmers’ demand for guano led to annexation, as well as uncomfortable questions that the United States has never adequately answered.

Guano was mined under ghastly conditions: mostly black or native men held in virtual bondage were left stranded on these islands for months at a time—in order to “pay” for their passage back, they had to scrape and collect large quantities of malodorous guano. Once several of them—black men from Baltimore—rose up and killed their white overseers off the coast of Haiti in 1889, the question of whether or not they could be convicted of murder in a U.S. court arose. Were the miners subject to U.S. law while on these godforsaken plots? If they were, then were they not also eligible for the leanest of U.S. worker protections, which would have found their white overseers guilty of exploitation?

Immerwahr deftly explains how the 1856 law that made the guano islands “appertain” to the United States in turn set the outlines for overseas empire. It crafted a jurisdictional possibility for the exercise of U.S. power beyond borders, further confirmed in a series of Supreme Court rulings called the Insular Cases. Notably, President Benjamin Harrison commuted the death sentence of the black Baltimoreans who rebelled off the coast of Haiti, reasoning that their uprising against horrible labor conditions was justified, and took place on what was indeed U.S. land.

Practically, the need for guano was fleeting: other fertilizers as well as chemical wizardry caused its obsolescence. Stripped of their quarry, barren guano islands were now U.S. territories, unloved and ignored until some began serving other purposes: bases at which naval ships could dock and, later, airfields on which airplanes could land. This was the practical step forward for U.S. empire that distant shit stools allowed. The islands’ appurtenance fostered U.S. impertinence. As the attorney general remarked in 1901, “a great world power . . . must not be bound by rules too strict or too confining.” Next thing you know, battalions of U.S. soldiers were crawling through the muck in the Philippines: the “hikers” soon memorialized in bronze. Initially, their task was to liberate Filipinos from the Spanish, but when many Filipinos rightly found this “liberation” to entail new forms of subjugation, they rebelled. Hikers searched for guerrillas; guerrillas attacked and quickly fled; hikers searched some more. They usually found only unarmed civilians, whom they occasionally massacred. This pattern of combat marked U.S. efforts in Southeast Asia in decades to come. Long after economic imperatives of territorial occupation receded, it remained a core attribute of U.S. imperialism.

Why couldn’t the United States let go? As Mark Twain wrote at the time, “I thought we should act as [the Filipinos’] protector—not try to get them under our heel.” By putting empire at the center of U.S. history, Immerwahr challenges us to reckon with what he calls a “trilemma.” The United States developed three commitments: to republicanism, to white supremacy, and to overseas expansion. But as the bait-and-switch in the Philippines showed, it could only ever maintain the latter two. In the Philippines, even when it tried to temper its racial chauvinism with republicanism, political exigencies meant republicanism would be sacrificed. Expansionists wanted territorial control because it provided economic access to Asia, but white supremacists at home would never stand for full inclusion of Filipinos as U.S. citizens. The way republicanism came to deteriorate, then, if it ever existed, was through its occlusion by the twin imperatives of white elite rule and territorial annexation. Today, while the ravages of Hurricane Maria still afflict Puerto Rico, this conclusion is not shocking. The upshot of Immerwahr’s analysis, however, is not simply that empire is hidden, but that empire eroded and debilitated the cardinal civic virtues of republicanism. The book could be called How to Prevent a Republic.

Although Immerwahr is careful to point out how easily transportable the bigotry of the mainland United States to the territories was—the N-word flew out of white soldiers’ mouths as rapidly as slugs flew from their rifle barrels—he misses an opportunity to connect it to a larger critique of racial capitalism. Many may recall that W. E. B. Du Bois argued in 1903 that “the problem of the twentieth century” was “the problem of the color-line,” but fewer may recall that he followed this klaxon of a phrase with a definition that extends beyond Jim Crow: “the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and in the islands of the sea.” He was including the very empire Immerwahr analyzes, not because it was a distinct unit encountering the congenital problem of Americanism, but because mainland racism was also a “local phase of a world problem.” Rather than asserting a distinction between territory and mainland, this response highlights how racism was the glue holding them together. The sensibility of those soldiers ought not feel distant, and nor should the radical response of Du Bois.

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In terms of the (incomplete) dissolution of U.S. territorial empire, Immerwahr explores two central forces: technological advances and social protest. His analysis shines in illustrating how twentieth century technological transformations made the acquisition of territory obsolete. Although natural rubber, silk, hemp, jute, and gutta-percha (a tough kind of latex), for example, used to be secured from distant lands, they were suddenly replaced by chemical synthetics. Similarly, radio waves replaced the need for telegraphs, which relied on undersea cables strung between territorial outposts for transmission. Accompanying these technological transformations was the success of softer forms of power that brought U.S. culture into distant living rooms. Now, rock ‘n’ roll forged connections that gunboats never did or could.

In Immerwahr’s telling, the legitimacy of U.S. territorial claims was also weakened by anti-colonial revolution abroad. He tells a series of fascinating stories, for example, about Puerto Rico, including how nationalist militants attempted to assassinate Harry Truman and, later, a number of congressmen. Resentment abroad was further compounded by civil rights activism at home. President Dwight Eisenhower could get the Senate’s leader Lyndon Johnson to pass only a toothless civil rights bill in 1957, but by signing statehood legislation for Alaska and Hawaii he was able to answer some civil rights demands on the global stage. The new states, in turn, set precedents that were to the advantage of the civil rights movement, including the basic recognition that their non-white inhabitants were eligible for citizenship. Although Johnson, as president, then enacted momentous civil rights legislation, to his chagrin, the new senator from Alaska was one of the only opponents to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which supported “all necessary” U.S. military actions in Southeast Asia. That senator, Ernest Gruening, understood the stakes of empire. (Indeed, even today, an active sovereignty movement raises difficult questions about whether statehood actually “decolonized” Hawaii.)

But the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution also indicates how the goals of U.S. empire were shifting in this moment. Instead of territory, influence mattered, and the Cold War set the terms of the struggle for influence. The international order that the United States constructed after 1945 had two purposes: to contain communism and to benefit capitalism—both of which were mainly achieved by proxy, or through client states. How to Hide an Empire makes no mention of the proxy or the client state. Independent, but barely, client states may not be categories of territory, but they are categories of empire. Indeed, the United States decolonized its territorial empire by extending its nonterritorial empire; it sacrificed much of its territory so that its monetary empire would live on. The second half of the book left me with the sense that Immerwahr obscures the United States’s true imperial dynamics by retaining the outdated analytic salience of territory.

How do you really hide an empire? You seat it in the U.S. Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve.

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Empire is not a thing or a territory. Empire is a social relation. It is mediated by money, and it transcends but also hierarchizes territory. You cannot hide empire because you cannot touch it or see it. If we are to keep using the term, we must grapple with how central U.S. financial power is today. Concrete images of maps and logos fail to capture this more abstract form of power.

The U.S. dollar bill’s contemporary design—with George Washington on its face—originated in the colonized Philippines as a ten peso note and was adopted in the mainland by the Treasury Department in 1929. But the dollar as an instrument of U.S. global power remains absent from Immerwahr’s analysis. In his telling, “the international order that the United States built around itself after 1945 redounded to its benefit, but not permanently.” The countries that have hosted the most U.S. military bases, after all, have also become its greatest economic competitors. Japan, in his example, put U.S. autoworkers out of work as its auto industry grew in the 1980s.

But here Immerwahr remains too territorial, which suggests the need for a different interpretation of nationality and political economy. The dollar is not only what Americans carry in their wallets every day; it is also the deterritorialized medium of exchange for most global trade. This flexibility confers its power, its necessity, and its “exorbitant privilege,” as Valéry Giscard d’Estaing quipped, as the global reserve currency. Neither El Chapo nor Xi Jinping, for example, have to use English, but both have no choice but to trade across borders in dollars. Plenty of people have called this kind of financial dominance “hegemony,” but it might as well be called empire, especially if we are to follow Immerwahr’s recommendation to retain this term. After all, Washington cannot force people to dance the twist in Tehran, but it can flip a switch to block Iran from selling its oil because global oil markets use the dollar.

Moreover, the countries that have hosted the most U.S. bases—Britain, Japan, South Korea—have also been the greatest purchasers of dollars. Even U.S. “competitors” purchase dollars at face value that the United States prints nearly for free. This is called seigniorage, and it is another facet of exorbitant privilege. The question of who benefits from dollar-denominated transactions needs to be itself deterritorialized. Capital today belongs to no nation. “Japanese” auto corporations, like “American” auto corporations, are transnational entities with supply chains and financial linkages functionally integrated across borders. In contrast to Donald Trump’s rhetoric, corporate competition is global, not national.

So, why does the United States continue to police the globe? More than 800 outposts of U.S. force projection still exist in about 80 countries. The U.S. military also provides additional security assistance to countries in order to counter terrorism, narcotics, subversion, and crime. Drawing on anthropologist David Vine’s Base Nation (2015), Immerwahr shows how this global military footprint is largely residual from the broader sweep of past U.S. territorial acquisition. But among critics of these bases, there is still disagreement about their present day purpose. Immerwahr seems unsure about how to view them, in part because he argues that bases have undermined U.S. global power. In places like the Middle East, for example, they stoke anger because they are seen as violations of sovereignty. Al-Qaeda, which also means “the base,” is a clarion example. The book’s final chapter tells us that the bin Laden family amassed its fortune by building U.S. military bases, but its most famous progeny, Osama, justified his attacks by pointing to those bases in the Middle East.

But Immerwahr’s account overlooks their profound economic function. The empire of bases exists to protect the dollar’s exorbitant privilege, including by sheer intimidation. Moreover, global economic dynamics have also shifted enough that U.S. yearly expenditures on the military-industrial complex help keep the global economy afloat. Predicted to reach $1 trillion soon, the U.S. military budget will be equivalent to around one-seventeenth of annual global merchandise exports. (Homeland Security and all types of law enforcement are separate.) Further, the United States sells military implements to clients such as Saudi Arabia, and in the process Saudi Arabia spends dollars.

Uniting Wall Street and Washington is not a uniquely American capitalism. It is just capitalism. Capital, thanks to the dollar’s status, remains “foreign in a domestic sense,” to cite the key phrase from the Insular Cases. Other countries’ ongoing purchases of U.S. treasury securities for non-military, dollar-denominated global trade make the United States central to accumulation on a global scale. Today, neither the United States or China could afford a war with each other because there would be mutually assured destruction, both financial and nuclear. Interbank lending in dollars, with obligations on the order of trillions turning over quarterly, as Adam Tooze has elucidated in his recent book Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World (2018), further keeps U.S. financial infrastructure essential to global economic stability, knitting its pieces together. The United States, as one theorization phrases it, superintends capital. It acts on behalf of capital as a whole, unifying its unruly constituents and disorganizing or destroying its even more unruly opponents.

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Around the same time that the United States was annexing the guano islands, the French philosopher Ernest Renan wrote that “Forgetting . . . is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation, which is why progress in historical studies often constitutes a danger for [the principle of] nationality.” He further argued that nations engage in a “daily plebiscite” that affirms the life of the nation. Through Immerwahr’s efforts to highlight what some U.S. historiography has obscured, How to Hide an Empire might undermine the imperial basis of U.S. nationhood. That would mark progress in historical studies. But the pretenses that empire is simply hidden, that it is independent of global capital, that its benefits redound equally in the United States, or even that its benefits accrue to the United States as such—these are the heart of the daily plebiscite. 

Let’s kick over the statues that report its results. And let’s call it a start for truth and reconciliation.

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