podcast review

DC Podcast Episode 18: How to Hide An Empire

Hey there, Decipher fans and friends. We interrupt our most recent round of interviews and reporting on food, harvest and community to bring you a review of one of our favorite history books from this year, Daniel Immerwahr’s How to Hide An Empire: A History of the Greater United States.

Immerwahr is an American historian whose text examines the United States from the perspective of it’s territorial holdings, roughly from the 19th century to the present. It shares an approach with (and also references) Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz’s An Indigenous People’s History of the United States. To a certain extent, Immerwahr’s book can be said to pick up where Dunbar-Ortiz left off. Whereas Dunbar Ortiz examines settler-colonialism in the continental United States in early colonial America (when the west was in the east), Immerwahr examines what happens when the settler-colonial mentality that underpins America’s confident adventurism drives the U.S. to acquire (but not always acknowledge) major holdings in the Pacific and the Caribbean, thousands of miles away from it’s shores, it’s laws, and the enforcement of its civil liberties. The author shows how American territorialism, from fertilizer-mining on the Guano Islands to medical experiments in Puerto Rico to the creation of Guantanamo Bay, created long standing tensions between the mainland and ‘the Greater United States.’

While the U.S. ultimately turned away from the proud embrace of imperialism, as did most western nations after the second world war, Immerwar points out that this was not a foregone conclusion. The 19th century saw great debates between the leading intellectual and legal minds of the age over whether or not our territories should become full states, keep their special subsidiary status, or be released from U.S. bondage. Those in the latter camp, the anti-imperialists, represented a group of strange bedfellows, including W.E.B Du Bois, Mark Twain and the painter Thomas Cole. It also included white supremacists and segregationists like Woodrow Wilson. Ultimately, Immerwahr argues, the root of the debate was the tension between Imperialism, Republicanism, and White Supremacy as driving forces in the American strategy and collective identity. An America with unequal territories full of brown people who can’t vote would be imperialist and white supremacist, but not republican. An American with territories full of brown people on track for statehood, with civil liberties, rights, access to the court system, and in political positions of power, would be imperialist and republican–but to allow for this, white supremacy would have to come to an end. This idea terrified segregationists like Wilson, who strongly supported ejecting those holdings in which a significant brown or indigenous population would seek equal status within the larger union. The devil’s bargain, the ultimate consensus, was to eject those territories (like the Philippines) with one too many non-white people, but to put on track for statehood those places, like Hawaii, where the white presence was well established and increasingly dominant.

Immerwahr suggests that while ideology (and specifically racism) played a role, ultimately the timing of the turn away from imperialism was driven by material reality. He points out that states do not seek empire for glory, but rather for resources, and illustrates how advances in technology, as they change the type and scale of physical resources needed to run the home country, can sometimes remove the need for occupation. One example of what the author calls “empire-killing technology” is synthetic rubber. Prior to its invention, a host of colonial exploits, from the French in southeast Asia to the Belgians in the Congo, were driven by an exhaustive hunger for this commodity, a major element in the construction of modern life and cities. After the creation of synthetic rubber, tires could be created by locally produced materials in the home country; colonial exploits in natural rubber-producing regions cooled correspondingly.

There are other, more complicated ways in which technology changes empire–not just what it is physically, but how we understand it intellectually. Part of what makes Immerwahr’s book so enticing is his deep curiosity for the ways in which the history of science and technology inform the decision making pathways of leaders and officials, who over the course of the 20th century learn to make sense of ‘territory’ and ‘country’ from a conceptually different place, their gaze extended by by chemistry, air and space travel, and by information technology. Immerwahr suggests that the impetus of empire–the right for the center to control the periphery and to extract from it the things it needs–has never truly disappeared, but only changed its shape and territorial distribution. He argues that the invention of airplanes allowed imperialist countries to create ‘pointillist’ empires (a clever reference, we thought, to a modern painting style from the same general period). In the pointillist empire, the dominate power no longer needs to control large swaths of territory to maintain long supply lines; they can hop from base to base, outfitting each highly militarized and protected waypost to the teeth, and are no longer reliant (or not as reliant) on local populations for support. This empire of points needs little ground game and even less buy in; we see the transition from polygons to points in the post world war II period, with the proliferation of American bases in allied or conquered lands.

Immerwahr’s book is, quite frankly, a delightful, detailed, and well-researched look at the long and tangled relationship between America’s citizens and America’s subjects, at the two-tiered system of justice and belonging that persists in our cultural ecology to the present day. We highly recommend checking it out.

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