Book Review: How to Hide an Empire

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

by Daniel Immerwahr

2019 Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Maybe this quote from Pedro Albizu Campos typifies this book most eloquently: “The Yankees are interested in the cage but not the birds” (p.346).

How to Hide an Empire is a book about a USA that is details a history mostly hidden from the average US citizen, at least the ones who live on the mainland. It points to the quiet hypocrisy of our history: a nation dependent on “new” territory for its existence and at the same time denying the occupants of said territory of the freedom instantiated as the highest values of our society. In escaping the abuses of monarchy, we embraced the methodology of imperialism. Campos’ quote finds its most revealing expression in this statement from Henry Kissinger responding to concerns regarding Micronesia and nuclear testing fallout:

“There are only 90,000 people out there, who gives a damn?”

p. 350

Beginning with our own colonial beginnings and tracing its effects to our most recent presidential politicians, Immerwahr traces this hypocrisy. In a time when our current conversation politically and nationally surrounds the way we have characterized ourselves historically, this book convinces me of our need to talk frankly about our history especially as it relates to our identity narrative. The need for country wide responsibility for our nation’s actions is an act of necessary self-reflection.

How to Hide an Empire points to two eras of empire in our short history.

The first he calls the “Colonial Empire” and begins with Daniel Boone and runs through World War 2. The westward migration through Native American lands, Teddy Roosevelt, the Spanish American War, Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Philippines frame the narrative of this first uncomfortable imperialist era in our history.

The second era he calls the “Pointillist Empire,” that our modern colonial methodology has less to do with grabbing wide stretches of territory and more to do with finding “dots” on the map that strategically place our power and influence to achieve our national goals with the least amount of opposition. “Foreign prisons, walled compounds, hidden bases, island colonies, GPS antenna stations, pinpoint strikes, networks, planes, and drones – these are the locales and instruments of the ongoing war on terror. This is the shape of power today. This is the world the United States has made” (p.390).

Personally, I love books like this. Every chapter revealed information that I was unfamiliar with that reveals how much our understanding is framed by our education and allegiances. Who isn’t proud to be an American and typically sees our presence in the world as enlarging and helpful? Didn’t we save the world in WW2? Immerwahr reveals the precarious nature of these characterizations without sensationalism or partisan argumentation. Our imperialistic behavior is not partisan either – it is how we have consistently functioned in our history. The best indicator of future behavior is past behavior, and we have a definite pattern of behavior.

“Territory still matters today. Colonialism hovers in the background of politics at the highest level. McCain, Palin, Obama, and Trump have all been touched by it. That may seem like an odd and surprising fact. But we should get over our surprise. The history of the United States is the history of empire” (p. 401).

If you want to hear this position in a much compressed form, listen to the “On the Media” podcast entitled “Empire State of Mind.”

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