Reading Daniel Immerwahr’s latest book, How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States, feels like an exercise in pulling back a carefully maintained curtain. Immerwahr, a Chicago-based historian and Northwestern University professor, spares no crucial details in his survey of the history of the United States outside the 50 states. Through a sweeping examination of American colonialism past and present, including now-states Alaska and Hawaii, former holdings such as the Philippines, and enduring territories like Puerto Rico, Immerwahr paints a picture of imperialism as an intractable force in American history from the very beginning. “The history of the United States,” he concludes, “is the history of empire.”
How to Hide an Empire reads like a secret history, and in some sense, it is. Vignettes of imperial foibles contain both unspeakable violence (more than a million people killed in the Philippines during World War II, bystanders shot dead in the street during a Puerto Rican police massacre) and absurd episodes (bird shit as a highly valued commodity; an attempt by a former U.S. senator to condense the entire English language into a series of scribble-like symbols). Most fascinating, perhaps, is Immerwahr’s exploration of how language, culture, and technology serve as tools in a softer and subtler but perhaps equally pervasive form of American imperialism. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Why do you think the history and current reality of U.S. imperialism and territorial holdings is such a collective blind spot for mainlanders?
The truth is that, in a lot of ways, mainlanders have been able to not have to think very hard about what happens overseas, and that’s true even when things that happen in the overseas parts of the United States have an enormous effect on the U.S. mainland.
There are right now five inhabited territories of the United States: Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. In the last two years, four of them have faced some kind of existential threat: Hurricanes Maria and Irma to Puerto Rico, North Korea’s threatening to surround Guam “in an enveloping fire,” and something we don’t talk about: Typhoon Yutu, which hit Saipan and Tinian in the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas and was the largest storm to hit the United States since the 1930s. It’s just another reminder that these places remain on the front lines of history. Sometimes they are harbingers of what’s going to be happening on the U.S. mainland. That’s certainly been the case in times of war, [and] it’s probably going to be the case with climate change. These are the parts of the United States that are going to be hit most quickly and worst by the storms, and they’re also the places, like Guam, that are going to be the most exposed as U.S. military alliances fray. So there’s a lot of reasons to pay attention from the perspective of the mainland.
You dedicate a chapter in the book to the ways in which English, as a language that is spoken around the world, reinforces our global power. Might this change in the future, and if so, what might that look like?
That’s one thing that’s so interesting about linguistic standards, is that they’re sticky. It’s not like whoever just became powerful as of yesterday suddenly gets to determine the language that everyone speaks. Often once a linguistic standard is locked in, it just becomes standard. And right now, the United States is not in the position of predominance of power that it used to be. It simply doesn’t have the global power that it had in 1945, but it’s been able to lock in so many of its privileges that are still enduring even in this moment of hegemonic recession.
China is obviously gaining power, and what that’s going to look like is to my mind an open question. To what extent will China be willing to conduct its business using dollars? To what extent will it be willing to conduct its business in English? Because there’s two ways to deal with it: one is that everyone learns Mandarin, and the other is that everyone works in English. We could be approaching a world that’s less monoglot, that is not dependent on a single language in the way that it has been.
To what extent does the way the United States represents itself—with the U.S. map for example—influence the way we think about who is a “part” of the United States?
It’s funny, after the state quarters were issued, representatives from the territories asked that they also get quarters, and they did. And this little thing—I mean, how often do you actually look at the back of a quarter?—has had a galvanizing effect on people I know. They look at quarters and they think, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t realize the Northern Mariana Islands were part of the United States!”
I think how the country represents itself to itself matters a lot, whether it’s through numismatics, cartography, or through statistics—for most of its calculations, the census still doesn’t offer statistics that are based on the full United States. In so many official ways, it’s hard for mainlanders to see their full country.
The issue of Puerto Rican statehood has gained a lot of traction and spurred much debate in recent years. Should the 2020 presidential candidates be talking more about the possibility of making Puerto Rico the 51st state?
I think the issue of Puerto Rican statehood is changing really quickly. Elizabeth Warren visited Puerto Rico on the campaign trail, and I believe it was her third stop when she was officially campaigning for president. There’s a bill right now, I believe, on the floor of the House for Puerto Rican statehood, and my understanding is that senators are preparing a bill of the same kind. It’s a complicated issue, because it’s not just a matter of rights, it’s a matter of identity. Puerto Ricans have a good reason to be, for some of them, quite enthusiastic about the prospect of statehood, and for others, quite disturbed by the prospect.
I think it’s something we absolutely should be talking about. Even if this isn’t resolved through statehood, I think this system where we have people who, because of where they live, cannot meaningfully participate in any of the three branches of government, has got to change. We’re talking about millions of people, and we’ve seen what happens when you have a part of the country that has no effective representation at the federal level. I would love to see candidates talk about it. Historically, all of the decisions about the territories have been made by mainlanders, people like me, and I think that’s got to stop. v