How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States

by Daniel Immerwahr

Hardcover, 2019


"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."--Provided by publisher.… (more)



Call number



Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2019), Edition: First Edition, 528 pages

User reviews

LibraryThing member rivkat
Fascinating popular retelling of U.S. history as the history of a nation that was never just “united states” and was always—since the end of the Revolution—a nation with territories, which meant a nation with subjects as well as citizens. I enjoyed the writing: Phrases like “the cursed
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accordion of Poland, expanding and contracting,” show his wit (and sometimes got a bit precious, but I mostly enjoyed them).

Yes, we know that the U.S. was territorially expansionist, but (most) contiguous territories were treated very differently than noncontiguous territories, further revealing the centrality of race to U.S. history—until Hawai’i and Alaska were admitted, whites had successfully blocked statehood for any territory that might put nonwhites in power in the near term. (I would’ve appreciated a bit about the mainland territory in which I was born, whose majority-nonwhite residents still lack voting rights in Congress despite living around it.) Immerwahr’s argument has two main chunks, as I read it. The first is just educating mainlanders about how very much territory, and how very many people, the U.S. controlled and in many cases still controls without any intention of admitting to the polity, including in the Phillippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico. The “logo map” of the mainland (with Alaska and Hawai’i squished in along the side) that dominates mainstream thinking leads the public to misunderstand what “the United States” and its history really are. (As my husband points out, a significant number of Americans apparently don’t know that New Mexico is a state, any more than they care that DC can’t control its own destiny—being on the mainland isn’t enough to protect everyone from a racialized failure to know, though New Mexico at least has two senators.)

The second part of the book, which seems more scattershot but comes together in the end, is to explain why American imperialism didn’t usually come in the form of running colonies—what he refers to as globalization rather than colonization. Immerwahr adds considerations of technical changes as well as ideology (though he is also clear that the desire not to admit nonwhites to citizenship and the embarrassment of keeping them subjects and subjected played big roles). Specifically, technological innovations meant that owning tropical colonies became less important as a guarantor of important resources lacking on the U.S. mainland, such as rubber; standardization meant that the U.S. didn’t need to legally mandate production to its needs because the market would take care of that; likewise with the dominance of English and the U.S. entertainment industry. Technological change also united with resistance to imperialism to lead the U.S. to take a “pointillist” approach to territory: as long as it has hundreds of bases around the world, which it does, and as long as it can fly or sail to them, which it can, it doesn’t need more from the country around those bases. Indeed the U.S. often finds it convenient to put its bases in out-of-the-way places that are harder to notice and protest, though people (including Osama bin Laden) do anyway.
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LibraryThing member john.cooper
This is an amazing book, every chapter of which holds more than enough facts and insights to satisfy those whose political perspective doesn't conflict so strongly that they're driven away. I'm on Immerwahr's side—progressive, inclusive, skeptical of nationalism and empire-building—but I hate
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that strain on the left that considers an attitude of righteous bitterness the only acceptable one, and I was wearied by the eagerness to see the worst motive in every historical action and military decision. Nevertheless, I learned enough to make me recommend "How to Hide an Empire" to anyone with any interest in the history of the United States' actions on the global stage. Immerwahr's command of detail in support of his arguments, together with a superbly broad expertise that includes sociology, economics, military history and epidemiology, make for a breathtakingly interesting book that made me wonder how I could not have heard about this stuff. In particular, the chapters on the Phillipines make me want to buttonhole my friends and share what I've learned. (The information about how Puerto Rico—and Puerto Ricans—got where they are today is great, too.) Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member etxgardener
This is a very readable history on the United States' adventures in Empire building. Usually we mostly hear government denials on this subject, but Daniel Immerwahr lays out a clear case that we have had one for a very long time.

He begins by talking about the "manifest destiny" of the westward
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expansion that began as a concentrated campaign against the Native Americans almost as soon as the Constitution was ratified and culminated with William Seward's purchase of Alaska from Russia

He then describes the acquisition of a string of far flung islands in order to provide farmers with guano fertilizer - some of the most grisly scenes in the book. This is followed by the acquisition of the Philippines and Puerto Rico from teh Spanish as a result of the Spanish-American War. While this Wwar did not result in the United State acquiring Cuba, it did lead to the US getting Guantanamo naval base and this country controlling several critical industries on the island.

During this time, our colonial possessions were used as a laboratory for civic, social and medical experiments - mostly without regard to teh native populations. Racism was the order of the day and it is instructive to note that Puerto Rico was regarded as "a mess" almost from the point it was acquired.
World War II saw the US backing away from i's colonial possessions as synthetics like synthetic rubber and plastics lessened the need for the natural resources the colonies once provided. Instead, the US learned how to leverage its power in other ways through standards and superior methods of communications. After the war the influence of the US was felt by its bases that were established in over 100 countries and the spread of English as the standard language n aviation, remnants of colonialism and the Internet. Sometimes the subjects learned the lessons to well as the author points out with Japanese manufacturers and Osama bin Laden.

This book is an interesting take on America's power in the world today.
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LibraryThing member breic
Very mixed. The early part, on guano islands, was old hat to me. Then there was some interesting, newish material on the Philippines and Puerto Rico. Then it finished with tons of filler, which had hardly anything to do with the "hidden empire" subject.

"It wasn’t until 1927 that traffic lights
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were standardized. Before that, drivers in Manhattan stopped on green, started on yellow, and understood red to mean 'caution.'"

This is an interesting piece of trivia, I suppose, but the thesis that standardization makes an empire unnecessary is questionable, and hardly merits the many pages about technology history and other random touches Immerwahr felt he needed to pad the length.
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LibraryThing member grandpahobo
Excellent. The writer has created an interesting and compelling narrative of U.S. history through the lens of colonies and empire, in all its forms. Its both enlightening and easy to read and digest.
LibraryThing member Schmerguls
5710. How to Hide an Empire A History of the Greater United States, by Daniel Immerwahr (read 10 Oct 2020) This is a book published in 2019 and tells of territory outside of the 48 American states how such was acquired, held and is some cases ceased to be United States territory. The book show it
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was selectively researched--in other words the author researched to support his thesis. It is filled with interesting material and much of what is set out is true--and highly interesting. There are numerous supporting notes but they do not show extensive research but only show sources which support his point of view and his text. One gets the idea the author did not seek to show he fully researched .the issues but only sought to cite what supports his view. But the book is fun to read and much of what he says is accurate and eye-opening.
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LibraryThing member stevesmits
Interesting view of an aspect of American history that hasn't received a lot of attention -- the territorial acquisitions of the country and their relationship to diplomacy, the military and economics. The country was a considerable colonial power at the turn of the 20th century with the status of
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the Philippines, Hawaii, Alaska and virtual colonization of Cuba. The chapter on the guano islands tells a little known story of annexing islands mainly in the Caribbean and Pacific for mining this valuable fertilizer. The impact of military bases around the world on the countries and economies adjacent to them is the product of a form of empire. The initiatives since WWII to standardize all manner of measures has had a major economic result. The author points out that another form of standardization is the growing acceptance of English as the language of common discourse across the world.

In the 20th century , "territory" has been supplanted by "points" as the impact of digital systems like GPS has changed the ways we engage militarily and economically with the world.
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LibraryThing member spounds
Immerwahr says at the beginning that most Americans don't know the history of the territories, and as much history as I've read, I thought he wasn't talking about me. But he was talking about me. Learned so much that I never knew--and really interesting ending. Territories as points. Highly
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LibraryThing member Shrike58
There is nothing else quite like this work in that the author starts with the continental "settler" empire of the 19th century, takes you through the "insular" empire that was created by the Spanish-American War, and brings you through the "empire of bases" that under-girded "globalism," and which
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now be past its zenith; just in time to be reinvented in another format. I've been using the "e" word for awhile vis-a-vis the American experience, but what Immerwahr does particularly well is to illustrate the strains that empire created, when going hand in hand with the sheer hard work of holding together the "Lower 48" as a coherent polity, with out the added strains of going global and undeniably multi-ethnic. Perhaps the single most salient point in this book comes with the admission of Alaska and Hawaii to the Union, which marks the official ending of the concept of the "white-male Jacksonian republic" being a viable option, as that sort of racism was always a brake on official expansion. Besides that Immerwahr writes with humor and self-awareness, even when there is serious ugliness to confront, and about the only reason that I mark this book down a little bit is that he goes on a bit too long about how technology, international standards, and cultural "soft power" undermined the need for the sort of formal empire that required the subjugation and administration of large populations. Immerwahr also might have dealt with the notion of the creation of America's insular empire as a project of "reunion;" nothing like a "splendid little war" to bring a divided people together, at least in theory.
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LibraryThing member Kavinay
"Pointillist empire."

There's a point in the middle of the book where Immerwahr transitions from Puerto Rico and the Phillipines to capitalism abroad. It seems to wander until you realize how badly foreign bases and the soft power of commercial and cultural dominance has resulted in so many
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own-goals in American foreign policy. Where colonial powers held land and conceded to independence movements, the US model held to strategic military and economic hooks that ultimately kindled insurrection via insurgency. The resulting terrorism hence is a direct and inevitable outcome of America's particular method of exerting imperial control across the globe.
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0374172145 / 9780374172145
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