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

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A pathbreaking history of the United States' overseas possessions and the true meaning of its empire

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 space. 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.

425 pages, Kindle Edition

First published February 19, 2019

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About the author

Daniel Immerwahr

8 books243 followers
Daniel Immerwahr is an associate professor of history at Northwestern University and the author of Thinking Small: The United States and the Lure of Community Development, which won the Organization of American Historians’ Merle Curti Award. He has written for Slate, n+1, Dissent, and other publications.

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Profile Image for Mehrsa.
2,234 reviews3,659 followers
March 1, 2019
Excellent. A must read. Seriously, go read it right now.

I grew up in the shadow of the US empire so I've always understood that the US was an empire, but it did occur to me at some point after I immigrated that no one here saw it that way. On the middle east, the story was that Middle Easterners just didn't understand or want democracy. The truth is that the empires (British, Russian and then US) kept taking out our elected leaders because they knew they would lose their oil monopolies. And each time they would say things like "those people aren't capable of self-governance" to justify it. This book is not about the middle east and that's my one criticism of the book. The book is about the ACTUAL territory (Hawaii, Alaska, Phillippines), but Empire can happen in many ways, including in direct or indirect control of installed dictators. Probably that was out of the scope of this book. Anyway, it's so good!
Profile Image for Louise.
1,632 reviews285 followers
January 19, 2020
How many high school teachers in the US know how Guantanamo Bay came to be US territory? How many know that the Philippines was managed as a colony for 47 years? While I expect most know that Puerto Ricans are US citizens (even if they didn’t before Hurricane Maria) do they know that (or more importantly why) the independence movement activists shot at President Truman and later shot into the House of Representatives wounding 5 congressmen in 1954. Daniel Immerwahr brings this all into the light and explains why this “hidden” material is relevant for today.

The book begins with the westward expansion into “territories” and how they were managed like colonies. Immerwahr poses that they became incorporated as states when white settlers came to predominate. While the west was being settled, the US was claiming 94 islands for their guano (fertilizer) deposits.

Regarding the colonies the US received from Spain, Immerwahr put together what was hiding in plain sight: At the last minute, the US entered the long and bloody battles its colonies had been fighting against Spain, claimed victory and took over these outposts of the Spanish empire.

There is a lot of detail on the high handed US occupation of the Philippines. You learn how locals were overtly kept out of social clubs and kept from business and governing through less obvious means and how they were victims of a war between their American and later Japanese occupiers. You see the difference democracy makes through the top down story of Daniel Burnham in Manila/Baguio and the bottom up planning for Chicago. The story of MacArthur in the Philippines is mostly favorable. He appears in several sections of the book and the total portrait adds emotional weight to MacArthur’s famous “I shall return”.

Puerto Ricans were granted US citizenship but not sovereignty in 1917, the meaning of which continues to be demonstrated. In the 1930’s Cornelius P Rhodes, much honored on the US mainland for cancer research, experimented Puerto Ricans in much the same way as Nazi’s experimented on those in their camps. In the 1940’s big landowners were paid and citizens removed from Vieques Island for military purposes. Just recently we see the difference in how victims of hurricanes in states are treated versus those in areas not fully incorporated as part of the nation.

With the background of the first 2/3 of the book Immerwahr concludes with an interpretive overview which he documents with more historical facts. He shows that technology reduced the need for colonies: The development of plastics replaced the need for raw materials; New means of communications decreased the need to locate radio equipment; The need for international standardization from everything from the common screw to specialized building equipment favored the existing standards in the US.

There are chapters on how the spread of English favored the US and how islands have been used and how they are now used. A chapter on the pervasive presence of US bases shows how those who benefited from them have turned on their “benefactor” for instance, the Beatles played in Liverpool clubs that would not exist were it not for the local military base; SONY benefited in many ways from the US occupation of Japan and most stunningly, Osama Bin Laden whose family wealth stemmed from the US presence in Saudi Arabia.

This book makes you aware of the “logo” map (the contiguous 48) of the US and the “pointillist” (all the territories, islands and bases) map. He demonstrates that while Americans are generally skeptical of empires, history of the US, is one of empire.

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in history.
Profile Image for K.J. Charles.
Author 57 books7,890 followers
March 3, 2022
Tremendous look at the United States empire, and how it has somehow managed to convince itself, if nobody else, that it isn't an imperialist colonial power. There was a huge amount here I didn't know especially regarding the grotesque historical treatment and disenfranchisement of the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico, which might be because I'm British but it sounds like a lot of mainland USians don't know either.

Starts with the empire-building in what is now the mainland, moves on to the very relevant history of birdshit and the guano islands, lots about taking over Spanish colonial holdings and the effect especially of WW2, going up to the military bases in Saudi Arabia and how that led in to 9/11. But there's also a lot on other non-tangible empire building, especially standardisation (genuinely fascinating chapter) and language.

A really interesting read, exceedingly well written, with a lot of terrific human stories and some cracking jokes, even. Absolutely how non fiction should be done.

Read for the 'randos rec me 12 books' Twitter challenge, and a definite win.
Profile Image for Trevor.
1,283 reviews21.5k followers
March 1, 2020
Years ago, I read a book by one of the Chaser team called American Hoax. Anyway, in part that book had been written because while Firth was in the US he had been chatting with people about politics and he mentioned in passing the US empire. “Hey, hey, hey, whoa, you need to hold on up there a second buddy – we’re the land of the free, the home of the brave. We ain’t got no empire, uh, uhhh, no way, no siree … by golly, by jingo, by gee, by gosh, by gum.”

This came as something of a surprise to Chris Firth, and to me too as I was reading along. The idea that US citizens didn’t believe they had an empire, well, and that they could quote ee cummings, both seemed rather remarkable at the time. I suspect this little fact might come as something of a surprise most of the 95% of the world that are not citizens of the US. If you do decide to read this book, and you should read it, you should also consider reading the Blow Back Series. It focuses on some of the more recent issues raised here in much more depth.

This book is stunningly good. It is very clear and makes connections to the developments of science, technology and communications that fundamentally changed both the nature of war while also changing the nature of ‘empire’ building throughout the twentieth century. Those changes were particularly seen in how the physical control of populations became increasingly less relevant – and so the need for territorial expansion also diminished.

The book starts from the earliest days of the USA and follows its various imperial ambitions and realisations up to the present day. It is repeatedly said that this expansion was seen as pushing a splinter into the soul of the US. Throughout US history people have seen empire building as something that would ultimately destroy the republic.

I’m fascinated by how we use images to define ourselves. One of the images that is used to define the USA is its flag, of course. I hadn’t realised that there is a law requiring the flag to change if a new state is incorporated into the union. The other image that is immediately associated with the US, something that is also immediately recognisable across the globe, is the ‘logo map’ of the nation. And what is interesting about this logo is that it is not accurate. Not only does the image we have of the US in our minds only really include the mainland ‘from sea to shining sea’ (even if those seas are oceans), we also know that it should probably include Hawaii and Alaska too, as well as Puerto Rico, and American Samoa, and… which is the point of this book, if you see what I mean.

There’s a nice bit in this where the US decided to claim a series of islands in the Pacific, only to learn that they had claimed them as part of their territory a hundred odd years before – ‘oh, that old thing… I’d completely forgotten I ever even owned it’. As the people of Puerto Rico have been learning for a very long time, being a territory of the US can come at quite a price, even if people on the main land sometimes forget you are part of their nation. The histories of Puerto Rico, The Philippines, and other places under the protection of the US government often proved anything but cheerful. A lot of this history is catastrophic and barbaric. But this is all part of the US ‘taking up the white man’s burden’ – which was a poem written by Kipling to encourage the US in the Philippine-American War. The author discusses the water cure in this – something I read about years ago in a much more brutal account than is given here – with US soldiers literally jumping onto the stomachs of their prisoners after they had bloated them with water. But as the author says, even his less extreme version is reminiscent of the more modern ‘cure’ of water boarding. Love and marriage, torture and conquest…time passes, little changes.

The need for colonies more generally arose with confined European nations needing access to commodities that they simply did not have in their own lands. Especially important was rubber – which lead King Leopold of Belgium to provide Joseph Conrad with endless material for his novel, Heart of Darkness, something The Congo has yet to recover from. Because the US is so large, it also had ready-made access to many commodities – minerals, metals, and so on – that meant it was relatively independent for these from other nations. However, this was certainly not true of guano – the miracle fertiliser derived from bird shit. Gaining control of guano islands was therefore an essential part of early US expansion.

Where I found this book particularly interesting was in its discussion of the part played by restrictions upon the US in terms of access to natural products (rubber in particular) and how these restrictions encouraged production of synthetic versions of these that often ended up being better than the originals. But the other thing this did was to make it less necessary for the US to literally dominate countries in the ways the UK had with its empire (upon which, the sun never set). As the case of the Philippines made clear, the US could have a territory while the average US citizen in the street of logo map USA wouldn’t have a clue. But controlling these territories often proved more effort than the US was happy to expend.

I can’t say that Douglas MacArthur comes out of this book smelling of roses – his return to liberate the Philippines (and his being forced out in the first place) read like bizarre stuff ups of the worst kind.

What became clear as planes and technologies improved, was that you could build an empire, and control the world, without engaging in very much territorial expansion at all. Territory was often difficult to conquer and even harder to hold – whereas, modern technology, especially planes, radio communication, and more recently drones, have meant that you can build pointillist empires. An island here, a military base there, an airfield over the other side of that, and your friends and enemies can be kept in place and trade routes maintained and everything can be kept both hunky and dory.

This book similarly brings in the idea of the role the US has played in making English a world language and the nature of globalisation when you can make the rules (and then ignore them when you like). That is, when you are the mono-pole of a global power system.

Whether or not the US empire proves to be overreach, whether blow back ever becomes so intense that even US citizens start to notice the legacy of their empire, or if peak oil eventually makes pointillist empires no longer viable and therefore forces empire builders back towards territorial expansion are things we will have to watch and see. This is a fascinating book, one I highly recommend – but read the Blow Back ones too.
Profile Image for Michael Perkins.
Author 6 books344 followers
June 26, 2022
I was reading about medical colonialism and I thought of this book.


This book is a lucidly written, very absorbing account of imperial U.S. that the usual ignorant America First people don't want to hear. They're unwilling to own up to our mistakes, so are doomed to repeat them. You will not find most of this in American history books.


The collapse of Spain’s beleaguered empire placed the whole Philippine archipelago in President McKinley’s surprised hands. What to do? Return the islands to Spain? Sell them? Leave them be?

“I walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight,” McKinley explained to an audience of churchmen, “and I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night.”

He doubted that Filipinos could govern themselves. He thus saw only one option: take the Philippines, “educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them...."

The siege of Manila— undertaken jointly by the U.S. Army and the Philippine Army of Liberation— ended when Spain surrendered the city to the United States alone. After U.S. troops entered the city, locking out their comrades in arms, McKinley issued his declaration. There would be “no joint occupation with the insurgents,” and the Filipinos “must recognize the military occupation and authority of the United States.”

Prostitutes raced to Manila from Russia, Romania, Austria, Hong Kong, Singapore, India, and Japan. It was the sex-work equivalent of a gold rush.

McKinley’s government signed its treaty with Spain to buy the Philippines for $20 million.

The ensuing guerrilla warfare played to the insurgency's strengths: knowledge of the land and the popularity of the cause. “Insurrectos,” as they were called, could ambush U.S. patrols, hide their weapons, and then melt into the populace. (Sound familiar?)

This conflict inspired Kipling's now infamous poem, "The White Man's Burden: An Address to the United States" that began this way....

Take up the White Man’s burden—
Send forth the best ye breed—
Go, bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait, in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child."

General Arthur MacArthur (father of the WW II general who would become famous) headed up the war against the insurgents. After the 1900 re-election of McKinley, MacArthur issued a fresh set of military directives. Captured insurgents could be killed. Towns supporting them could be destroyed (the preferred method was burning). The soldiers showed no hesitance in carrying out these orders given that they looked down on the "gugu" (a predecessor word to "gook") as less than human. Torture included a form of water boarding. The farms failed. Disease spread. About 775,000 Filipinos died because of the war.

The slaughter continued in southern Philippines where troops, led by Teddy Roosevelt's comrade commander from Cuba, Leonard Wood, wiped out every man, woman and child of the Moros. They had fled to the top of a volcano called Bud Dajo where a thousand innocents were destroyed by machine guns. It became known as the Bud Dajo Massacre of 1906. Donald Trump would reference it approvingly during the 2016 Presidential campaign.

So we must ask: was this McKinley's idea of Christianizing the Philippines?


Re: Woodrow Wilson from the book....

There was a dark side to Wilson’s Southern identity. He was not just a son of the South in general, but the son of a Southern pastor who had defended slavery by writing a pamphlet titled Mutual Relation of Masters and Slaves as Taught in the Bible. It was a worldview that Wilson never entirely shook off. As president of Princeton, he stood against admitting black students.

These were not casual opinions. They formed a large part of the fifth volume of his History of the American People (1902). Reviewers admired Wilson’s history, yet they couldn’t help but notice the author’s fondness for the Klu Klux Klan, an organization whose mission, in Wilson’s words, was “to protect the southern country from some of the ugliest hazards of a time of revolution.”

Wilson scolded Klan members for being hotheaded, yet he defended their motives. They were acting, he wrote, out of “the mere instinct of self-preservation.” That was how Thomas Dixon Jr., Wilson’s close friend and former classmate, saw the Klan, too. Dixon wrote his own work on this theme, a novel entitled The Clansman, which was quickly adapted into a stage play. In 1915 Dixon and the director D. W. Griffith used the novel as the basis for a film, The Birth of a Nation. It was an epic history about the South’s redemption by the Ku Klux Klan. And it quoted Wilson’s historical writings in its title cards.


When it came to the nationalists of the colonized world, there is no evidence that Wilson even read their many petitions. Nguyen (Ho Chi Minh) the Patriot got no response from Wilson. The only nationalist leader from outside Europe who won Wilson’s ear in Paris was Jan Smuts, soon to be the South African prime minister, who sought an international system that would bolster the white control of southern Africa. Smuts got what he wanted. The empire survived, and all the victors’ colonies were left intact. The defeated powers’ colonies, instead of being liberated, were redistributed among the victors.

The Japanese delegation asked to at least insert language about racial equality into the League of Nations covenant. This proposal had a majority of votes behind it— the French delegation deemed the cause “indisputable.” But Wilson blocked it, refusing to let even the principle of racial equality stand.


The author has performed an excellent service in his accounts of the truth about the Philippines and Woodrow Wilson, as summarized above, that are routinely left out of Texas-approved textbooks that are used in numerous states.

But I was surprised by an absence of an account in this book of what happened in Hawaii, which I learned from researching a book of my own.

The Christian missionaries (from the Puritan Congregationalist sect) arrived in 1820 with a plan to convert “the natives.” In the process, they persuaded the King to privatize the land, an act that would prove disastrous for Hawaiians.

The locals did not have the money to buy the land, but foreigners did. They snapped up as much private property as they could. (Within a few decades, foreigners would own up to 90% of the private land).

This land grab opened the way for the establishment of sugar plantations built and run by many of the grandsons of the missionaries. They became the sugar barons.

These plantations needed cheap labor. The barons first hired locals who had been impoverished from privatization. But soon the barons were importing labor that included Chinese, Filipino and Japanese. But a lack of immunity of the locals made them susceptible to the diseases the immigrants brought with them: measles, cholera, venereal disease, smallpox and leprosy.

The local population, estimated to be at 300,000 at the time of the arrival of Captain Cook in the late 18tth century, dropped to about 40,000 by the end of the 19th.

The sugar barons and other whites became the owning class of Hawaii. As with Manila, the U.S. government coveted Honolulu as a naval base and trading port. In a military coup, sponsored by the sugar barons, the local government was overthrown and the king forced out. The U.S. got their port.

After taking complete control, including all land belonging to the crown, Hawaii was fully annexed in 1898 with the approval of President McKinley. A grandson of Congregationalist missionaries, Sanford Dole (also a relative of the pineapple baron-to-be, James Dole) became the first president of the territory.


Native Hawaiians still haven't been compensated....



Toward the end of the book, the author gives some space to a relative of his, Fritz Haber, an eminent scientist. Ultimately, it's a story of science as a two-edged sword.

Profile Image for David Dinaburg.
278 reviews40 followers
June 26, 2019
This has a Sesame Street vibe. Wait, stop, you know I don’t mean that as a pejorative so don’t scrunch up your face quite yet. See, if you come into How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States without a lot of prior knowledge, it’s super engrossing. Like when you are a kid watching Sesame Street, capisce? You’re extremely entertained by Cookie Monster and then it’s over and you sit up and say, “Oh snap, I know how to count now!” Just swap Cookie Monster for Northern Marianas OSHA loopholes and a toddler’s youthful curiosity with my poor historical understanding of U.S. geopolitical imperialism.

This is kids’ stuff, as in we should really teach this stuff to kids. I knew precisely zero percent of it. There is a one-hundred percent chance I went into this book being able to name more Pokémon than past or present U.S. territories. I mean, sure, there are functionally hundreds more Pokémon, but I’m talking percentages here. Even ten percent of Pokemon are like, eighty. Eighty Pokémon rattling around in my head before I realized Puerto Rico—the only territory-status-location I knew beforehand because of the NYC Diaspora—had a friend named Guam.

Speaking of Guam, I still know almost nothing about Guam, the mystery island of the book. I would have liked to hear more about Guam. Tell me more about Guam, book. Add a Guam chapter please. Guamanians are fellow American citizens, which, again, is something I learned way after it was embarrassing. Post-embarrassment. Wrapped back around to where I'm okay writing a paragraph about my ignorance. Can we get Guam and Puerto Rico in as states during my lifetime, please?

One of the blurbs on the back or the flap calls the book “conversational” and I assumed that was lit-press nonsense: how can you can take a dense or academic subject matter and make it conversational when “conversational” in non-fiction almost exclusively applies to those fly-on-the-wall stories loosely cobbled together from emails and interviews and eventually turned into an HBO miniseries? But it was apt. It was apt! I’m really surprised by how approachable the text is, which is honestly....great. I spend most of my reviews deriding simplicity for its inherent tedium, but I’m here to learn, dude. Make it clear.

And this book did! Grandiloquent phrasing would be so much chaff to pull apart. Things are conversational, easy. It even made me actually laugh out loud a few times:
Standards—the protocols by which objects and processes are coordinated—are admittedly one of the most stultifying topics known to humankind. A sample of headlines from the journal Industrial Standardization gives a sense of the exquisite heights to which boredom can be taken:
Industry Approves Recommended List of Paper Sizes
New Law Requires Labels for Wool
Brochure Tells About Building Coordination
Revision of List of Recommended Paper Sizes
A callback gets laughs from me, any time.

And there’s nuance beyond internal allusion—the fancy way to say callback, I believe—in the writing, too. Example: Before you even crack the spine, you can tell you’re getting a work in the vein of Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, because the subtitle is A History of the Greater United States, not The History of the Greater United States, even though it is the only history of the territories of the United States non-scholars are going to scoop up this summer.

So if you’re trying to decide whether to read this book, the answer is definitely yes do it. If you want a direct thesis sentence to help you, here it is:
[G]lobalization, in turn, depended on key technologies devised or perfected by the U.S. military during the Second World War. These were, like synthetics, empire-killing technologies, in that they helped render colonies unnecessary. They did so by making movement easier without direct territorial control.
That’s pretty much it. I can’t summarize how we got here, because that’s the book’s job, dude. Go read it. It's fun (and also horrifying). You'll learn things (horrifying things). What else is there?

Oh, and Empire is one of the only books of recent vintage that my dad and I picked up independently and simultaneously, though he likely came to it a Mr. Hooper to my Ernie. Which is to say that I, the neophyte and he, the seasoned vet, both found it worth reading. With appeal that wide, then even a Grouch like you might like it.
Profile Image for Elyse.
422 reviews42 followers
August 14, 2022
This book made me feel somewhat ignorant. I could write a 5000 word review filling it with things I just learned. For example, I didn't know the Philippines was a U.S. territory from 1898-1946. That's almost 50 years. How could I not know that? Filipinos in this time period were U.S. nationals but never U.S. citizens. In contrast, people in Puerto Rico have been citizens since 1917 (just in time to be drafted into World War I). I knew about Puerto Rico being a territory (still) and Puerto Ricans being citizens but I never knew about the Philippines. I'm almost too embarrassed to write this.

How to Hide an Empire took me months to read. Mainly because there was so much new information for me to absorb. I finally understand Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. The Spanish-American War had more effect on U.S. history than I ever imagined. And not especially in a good way. I feel much better educated now that I've read this book.
Profile Image for Devyn.
614 reviews
November 25, 2018
I received this book from Goodreads.

"In the end, this book's main contribution is not archival, bringing to light some never-before-seen document. It's perspectival, seeing a familiar history differently." page 16

A brilliant book!
How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States is a must read for anyone interested in obscure American history and the revolutionary switch from annexing territory for resources, to divesting large colonies and investing in military bases around the globe.

I consider myself well read in American history, but this book opened my eyes to a surprising amount of unknown material on almost every chapter.

What an absolute pleasure to read something new on a continuously regurgitated subject.

There is simply to much information crammed neatly into this 528 page book to name all of the facts and figures that blew my history-loving freaking mind, so I plan to share only a few on my favorites.

1857 America annexed small islands throughout the Caribbean and the Pacific for "white gold". Guano. Soil amendments for soil exhaustion. Bird poop held more importance than salt.

Use of the term America instead of United States in 1898. The anthems changed, too: no longer "Columbia, the Gem of the ocean," but "America the Beautiful" and God Bless America."

Mustard gas testing on humans. Mostly Puerto Ricans pulled from the colony and considered disposable.
Famous pathologist, oncologist, and hospital administrator Cornelius P. Rhoads history of developing and using chemical weapons, such as mustard gas, on peoples from the colonies and it's cover up in the mainland. "It was totally just shocking to us to receive this barrage of communications from people in Puerto Rico out of the blue," said the CEO of AACR. Even the donner who's funded the award hadn't known of Rhoads Puerto Rican legacy.

June 1942 japan invaded Dutch Harbor Alaska and conquered the Aleutian islands. The Japanese occupied the islands for more than a year and transported the tiny population to japan as prisoners of war. Half of them died there.

The great standardizer Herbert Hoover, who effectively standardized America. Thanks to him, traffic lights have all the same rules and "Now the half-inch nuts screw into all the half-inch bolts."

After WW2 America made the revolutionary switch from annexing territories for resources after successfully inventing synthetic materials that made large, expensive, hard to defend colonies unnecessary.

"The United States, in other words, did not abandon empire after the Second World War. Rather, it reshuffled its imperial portfolio, divesting itself of large colonies and investing in military bases, tiny specks of semi-sovereignty strewn around the globe."

The history of the United States is the history of empire.
Profile Image for Wick Welker.
Author 5 books321 followers
November 23, 2021
The United States is in everyone's backyard.

This is a sweeping and scholarly work which sticks to its guns to prove a very poignant fact about the United States: it was created as an empire and continues to operate as such today. In How to Hide an Empire, Immerwahr provides a jaw-dropping account of how the American empire was formed soon after WWII and how that empire has taken on a modern day transformation where it sells itself as an egalitarian democracy but is actually a pointillistic empire spread across the world.

First we explore the vast American territories that America controlled around WWII. We commemorate the Peal Harbor bombings but all seem to forget that this was a coordinated attack on other American territories that day, namely the Philippines and other territories. We don't commemorate those attacks because we don't consider those territories to be American soil--only they were. America had territory in the Philippines, Guam, American Samoa, Hawaii, Alaska, American Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. After WWII, these territories were literally treated as social, medical and architectural testing grounds with the fraction of the oversight if they occurred on the mainland. The Philippines had a white apartheid where American business ventures went to boom and die with no benefit to the native population. 1.7 M people died in WWII in the Philippines, the majority were Filipino. This is the worst death toll on American soil ever. Ever heard of it? I hadn't. The American empire was interested in the land of these territories but not the people of these territories. Sounds very familiar today.

When it was discovered that hook worm was widespread in Puerto Rico, it was suggested that the high population density of such a "degenerate" people was the cause and that a culling of the population was the only cure. However, anti-parasites were tested on the people with no oversight, including blatant genocide by physicians, and the medication was created of which all benefited. From brith control to female sterilization, these crimes were perpetrated on Puerto Ricans of which we all benefit today. Immerwahr goes on and on with the atrocious accounts of grave crimes against humanity that occurred in all of these territories: martial law in Hawaii where executions occurred regularly, Japanese interment camps in Alaska with zero oversight. Examples abound.

And then something curious happened after WWII: for the first time in the history of the world, a world power gave up its territories. They were "returned" to their native people. Why? The answer is that a modern global empire looks very different today than ancient times. While America gave up land, it strung itself up with military bases absolutely everywhere. This completely changed warfare. American was suddenly in everyone's back door prompting social upheaval and recalcitrance everywhere. America found it too costly to its mainland empire to maintain territories while denying representation to the sovereign population and squashing rebellions was (like in Puerto Rico and elsewhere). Thus America became the pointillist empire.

Vast development in material technology, like plastic and rubber, enabled America to no longer be resource driven and released their grasp on most of these territories while still having bases there to mobilize and continue its global warcraft. Aviation completely changed the law of geo politics. The US maintained its empire by codifying standards for everything--from screws to instruments and to stop signs. The greatest achievement of the American empire is ensuring that English is the dominant language of politics, coding, the internet and academia. America has achieved an astonishing cultural empire that the world has never before seen.

9/11 did not happen in a vacuum. The naive question: "why do they hate us?" has a simple answer: it was retaliation for American pointillistic empire strung across the Middle East. There are 30 extra national Non-US bases in the world. There are 800 American bases around the world. <-Read that again.

This book was phenomenal. Well researched and incredibly accurate. I learned a ton. Highly recommend.

Similar books I'd recommend:
Confessions of an Economic Hitman

The Jakarta Method
Profile Image for Sahitya.
1,022 reviews203 followers
November 11, 2019
Surely a 4.5 but just fell short of a full 5 star rating.

I’m not someone who knows much of American history - we obviously didn’t need to study it in school and whatever I’ve gleaned through in the past few years has been by watching documentaries, tv shows or reading fiction inspired by true historical events. Even in those cases, I have probably read more about WWII because the Holocaust is one of the most horrific events that I’ve come to know perpetrated by design by one evil man. As far as American history is concerned, I know about important events and key figures related to the Civil war and the civil rights movement, but not much more. So, why did I pick up this book? I have no idea. I just read one glowing review on Goodreads and decided to give it a try. And whatever I was expecting it to be, it surpassed all my expectations.

The one common refrain we always hear is that history books are boring. And this book is most definitely written by a history professor. But boring it ain’t. While I hoped that it would be interesting enough that I can read it slowly over the course of a week or two, I didn’t expect it to suck me into it so wholly that I managed to complete in just three sittings. The author writes in such an accessible manner with lots of anecdotes and dry humor that you can’t help but enjoy it. Particularly, the first half to two thirds of the book is very engrossing - the details of the events the author is describing are truly horrific and I was frankly appalled that I didn’t know any of it. However, what is more appalling is that this actual history of the United States is nowhere taught in its schools. Americans might very well proclaim (and even believe in their hearts) that they are a nation built out of anti-imperialist notions, and by virtue of literally erasing all this history from their textbooks ensure that this image stays intact, but the fact is, US has been an empire and colonized millions of people since the late 19th century and continues to do so till this day.

There are many important chapters of history that the author decides to talk about, but the two which get most page time are Philippines and Puerto Rico. While I had some idea that PR is still a colony of the US and has no representation in Congress while being very dependent on federal aid, I knew nothing about how it came to be so. And I literally had no clue that Philippines, a country in Asia was colonized by the US for around 47 years. The years of oppression, the wars and massacres that were raged to quell any rebellions and exploitation of resources reads like any standard imperial fare (I’ve read enough about British in India to see the similarities) - it’s just surprising to read because we never talk about US in the same vein as British while discussing colonization.

What was truly horrific and revolting to read about was the illegal and unethical experiments that so-called pioneers of American medicine conducted on their colonial subjects, with no regard for their consent because they didn’t care about “those” people. Forced sterilizations, experimenting the initial versions of the birth control pill (with highly adverse side effects), deliberately not giving medicine to some patients to determine how they fare, and airdropping mustard gas on thousands of people to understand its effect on humans - these are not so dissimilar to what Josef Mengele did - but while one is the infamous Angel of Death, other is the father of Chemotherapy. I guess this is what it means when we say history is written by the victors.

The latter half of the book deals more with how the nature of imperialism changed after WWII and technological advances made during the war enabled it to take the form of globalization. I was utterly fascinated by the chapters about how American standards became the norm across the world in every field and ISO came to be, and the rise of English as the global connecting language. Some might think this was actually good and only happened because of “free market capitalism” and not forced on anybody, but when one country controls more than 60% of the manufacturing economy of the world, the leverage it holds is enormous and what other countries do to appease it is just pragmatism and not enthusiastic acceptance. One very stark fact that reiterates it is that while all countries across the world decided to adhere to many US standards, US still separates itself from everyone by refusing to use the metric system. This may also seem trivial to Americans because they are used to believing they are the best at everything, but as an Indian, the fear of losing our languages and ultimately our culture to the hegemony of English isn’t really that unfounded.

The last section of the book about the pointillist empire is where I lost interest a little. The author rightly points out that the more than 800 US bases across the world make it an empire even now, albeit just a different kind but he doesn’t go into much detail. We only get to know a little about the military bases in Japan as well the initial ones in Saudi Arabia, which eventually and very unexpectedly led to the rise of Japan as a tough industrial competitor to the US; and the accumulation of wealth by the bin Laden family and then using it to fight against the US which facilitated that wealth in the first place. The author also points out little known facts about how Guantanamo bay came to be which eventually led to its use as a detention facility, as well as the loopholes in law which led to exploitation of labor in Northern Mariana Islands even though they were by right US citizens. The author refrains from going into much detail about any of these though, and also only makes cursory references to all the wars the US has fought in after WWII. I guess this was done to limit the size of an already big book, but it just gave a feeling that some important events were glossed over.

Wow did I go on quite a rant in this review. I didn’t even realize I had so much to say. To conclude, I just want to mention that this book is well written and very readable for anyone, whether you know anything about US history or not. Even if you usually find history books boring, I promise that this is very engrossing and enjoyable, mostly due to the author’s excellent storytelling skills. And if you are someone who is interested to know more about the usually hidden and unknown parts of American history, you should definitely give this a try. It’ll surely surprise you. And I think it’s important to know this history but ignorance of it can only lead to mistakes in the future.
Profile Image for Lauren .
1,701 reviews2,299 followers
November 23, 2020
▫️ HOW TO HIDE AN EMPIRE: A History of the Greater United States by Daniel Immerwahr, 2019.

"What kind of government is this?" asked one of the soldiers. "What are we that scream piously, 'the world must be free', then keep it to ourselves?" [US solider protesting the Army's orders, in Manila, Philippines, January 1946]

This outstanding history opens with the deliberate word choice made by Franklin Roosevelt to describe the events of December 7th, 1941 to the US public. Pearl Harbor - Yes, but a few hours after there was an even more devastating attack and occupation of the Philippines, which was ALSO a US "territory" (read: colony) at the time. WHY THE ERASURE? The deliberate removal, even when early drafts showed that his undersecretary included Philippines, Guam and Hawai'i... WHY the non-action?

This book attempts to answer these questions in a myriad of ways. WHY + HOW. Stepping back to the early 1800s, Immerwahr traces settler colonization of "Indian Country" (actually the name on official maps of the time), through early overseas acquisitions and spoils or war, to the prominent discussion of statehood versus territory, and globalization.

For lack of time and space, and for want of writing about TEN more posts on this book's topic (I'll spare you that... But I could 🤓), I'll give some highlights of topics discussed at length in this history:

- Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands
- Panama Canal
- Very dark history of medical experimentation on colonized peoples
- "Language is a Virus" - on English language primacy and cultural imperialism
- "Pointilist empire" and "Baselandia" - military bases as colonialism
- Japanese economics in the 1980s/1990s
- Imperial standardization of weights, measures, and logistics
- Modern imperialism - "Birther-ism" and xenophobia

📚 So much more. If you want to read and understand colonialism / decolonization, and you crave highest quality historical research, I cannot recommend this book enough. The book is academic, YET very readable and accessible.

"At various times, inhabitants of the U.S. Empire have been shot, shelled, starved, interned, dispossessed, tortured, and experimented on. What they haven't been, by and large, is SEEN."
Profile Image for David.
1,630 reviews102 followers
December 28, 2021
How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States by Daniel Immerwahr is a very detailed account of the growth of the United States as territories were added including how they were acquired, some becoming states while others remained territories even to this day. 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? It's not all a rosy picture one should be proud of, there are some American worts, but on balance, I think America is still one of (if not THE) best countries in the world.

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 space. 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.
Profile Image for Numidica.
362 reviews8 followers
December 10, 2019
A reader's view of this book will depend on how much history they know and how much they have traveled. I already knew quite a bit of the history recounted in the book, though there were many tidbits that were new to me, such as the history of the Guano Islands, Ernest Gruening, and the role of Albizu in Puerto Rico. I enjoyed the section on the development of standards such as ISO and ANSI, because those have directly impacted my career, though I suppose most sane people would find those parts boring. But the broader story was not a surprise to me, because I served in many of the "points of empire" detailed in the book. Vieques Island; tiny bases in Korea; rough camps in Honduras; Thule, Greenland; small kasernes in Germany? Been there. I get his central point, but what the author misses is how the privileged status of the United States is being frittered away by the current leadership of the country, either through a complete ignorance of what that privilege is based on, or by a self-interestedness blind to all else. Or both; it's probably both. Example: the US Dollar is the reserve currency of the world, and that status confers enormous advantages on the US in terms of its cost of borrowing, just to name one benefit. Yet political idiots have threatened to not pay the US debt, thus triggering a downgrade of US T-bills. Second example: the willful disruption and degradation of international treaties and relationships, all of which are beneficial in some way to the US, and are often very one-sided in favor of the US. Again, whether this is the result of stupidity or from some nefarious motive, I don't know.

The discussion of the treatment of Native Americans was eye-opening in parts. My grandparents lived in Alaska, so I had some exposure to the treatment of native peoples there, though the WW2 concentration camps for Aleuts and Inuits was a shock. The story of the Cherokees is well-known, but it's still disconcerting to hear the condensed narrative of that series of betrayals. The treatment of the Philippines is hard to explain away.

So if one is not aware of the arc of America's empire-building over the last 150 years, do read this. But I do not accept, as the author seems to imply, that it was all sordid business. The defeat of Hitler was not, the defeat of the murderous Tojo Regime was not, the rescue of the South Koreans from the tender mercies of Kim il-Sung was not, in my opinion. But it is a fair point that the US has been, too often, on the wrong side of history, notably in our own backyard in the Caribbean, Central and South America. But the case is not irredeemable. Dealing with other countries fairly and morally, and with respect for past shared sacrifices is a hobby that can be taken up at any time. Though don't hold your breath for the current president to do so.
Profile Image for Thomas Ray.
912 reviews314 followers
January 24, 2022
How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States, Daniel Immerwahr, 2019, 516pp, ISBN 9780374172145 Dewey 973

Empire is all about grabbing land and resources for "us," at "their" expense. Especially, militarily-strategic land and resources.

A citizen on the mainland has a constitutional right to trial by jury, but when that citizen travels to Puerto Rico, the right vanishes. p. 86. Four million territorial residents have no constitutional rights. p. 87.

U.S. armed forces have been deployed 211 times in 67 countries since 1945. p. 14.

Pre-1492, indigenous population of what became the 48 contiguous states was perhaps 5 million (estimates range from 720,000 to 15 million). p. 36. By 1800, indigenous population was down to around 500,000. The U.S. census did not count indigenous people until 1890, when there were fewer than 360,000. p. 78-79.

U.S. population was 4 million in 1790; 76 million in 1900: exploded by a factor of 19 in 110 years. p. 33-34. By 1907, there was no Indian territory left, with Oklahoma admitted as a state. p. 44.

Which of these people are the savages? p. 42.

The U.S. took all of Mexico's territory it could without taking its people. p. 77.

The 1854 Gadsden Purchase completed the present 48-state boundary.

Importation of Peruvian guano began in the 1840s. p. 49. It's the government's duty to secure it at a reasonable price. --Millard Fillmore. p. 50. From 1857 to 1902, the U.S. annexed 94 Caribbean and Pacific guano islands. pp. 46, 53. These were mining companies' fiefdoms. p. 55. Speculators used Chinese, Hawaiians, and African Americans to mine 400,000 tons of guano. p. 56.

By 1914, the Haber-Bosch process was supplying ammonia fertilizer made from atmospheric nitrogen. Malthus's limits to human population growth were seemingly repealed. p. 57. Without Haber-Bosch, Earth could sustain only 2.4 billion people. World population reached 3 billion in the early 1960s and has been rising by 1 billion every 12 years since. Sixty years on, we're approaching 8 billion in the early 2020s. https://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i...

Fritz Haber also prolonged WWI by 2 years by providing Germany with nitrate explosives. p. 57. And invented the poison gases of WWI trench warfare and of the Nazi death chambers. p. 58.

"I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one." --Theodore Roosevelt, 1897. p. 64. "McKinley is bent on peace, I fear." --Theodore Roosevelt, 1898. p. 66. But the American people wanted war. The U.S. beat the Spaniards easily because the Cubans and Filipinos had already weakened the Spanish army. p. 70. The U.S. gained 7,000 islands holding 8.5 million people. p. 80. The Filipinos then fought their new overlords. 1899-1903, U.S. soldiers killed 775,000 Filipinos. p. 103. And the war continued until 1913. p. 107. Theodore Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906.

Cuba was to be, nominally, independent. But, North Americans owned its export agriculture, its mines, its banks, and much of its land. p 113. The U.S. was not, technically, sovereign of the Panama Canal Zone. But it had all the rights, power, and authority. p. 114. The U.S. seized control of many countries' finance and trade--"gunboat diplomacy," invading dozens of times, replacing governments.

Southerner Woodrow Wilson's writings were an inspiration for the 1915 film, /The Birth of a Nation/, which lauded and rebirthed the then-defunct Ku Klux Klan. p. 117. Wilson invaded Haiti; the U.S. occupied it until 1934. Wilson annexed Virgin Islands for a naval base. p. 120.

The World War I victors took the losers' colonies. These were the prizes they fought the war for. p. 120.

Disappointed natives of occupied countries who had hoped for, and expected, colonialism to end after WWI included Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, and Sayyid Qutb. p. 121.

Germany, Italy, and Japan lacked large empires, going into WWII. Everybody wanted more colonies. p. 158.

Fewer than 10% of U.S. WWII armed-service members were in combat: more than 90% were in logistics. p. 215. The U.S. built ports, assembly plants, railways, roads, airports, barracks, hospitals, warehouses, in Egypt, Palestine, Iraq, and Saharan Africa to get armaments to defend British control of the Suez Canal and Iraqi oil. pp. 216-217. And a trail of air bases, Miami-Brazil-West Africa-Cairo. U.S. materiél saved Britain's access to its colonies.

The same thing happened all over the world. In WWII, the U.S. had 30,000 installations on 2,000 overseas base sites. p. 219.

G.I.s were "overpaid, over-sexed, and over here." --British complaint.

Postwar, the Stars and Stripes flew over 135 million colonized or occupied people (including almost 80 million Japanese), and 132 million residents of the 48 states. p. 226.

Only Stalin kept U.S. personnel out of his country. Soviet pilots took delivery of U.S. planes in Fairbanks. p. 218.

U.S. control waned as 8 million servicemen abroad, May 1945 reduced to 1 million, June 1947. p. 234. The (shattered) Philippines became independent July 4, 1946. p. 238.

Puerto Rico, with widespread poverty, so depended on sales to mainland U.S. that a reduction of trade (as from tariffs if independent) would destroy all hope of life and civilization. p. 245. Attacks on police were met with the threat of independence and ruinous tariffs.

Doctors used Puerto Rican women as guinea pigs to find out what birth-control pill, intrauterine device, and other contraceptive methods work. p. 250. By 1949, 18% of hospital deliveries were followed by surgical sterilization of the mother. Of mothers born in the 1920s, nearly half had been sterilized.

In 1950, a Puerto Rican nationalist very nearly shot President Truman, whose life was saved by a dying police officer who killed the would-be assassin first. pp. 254-255. In 1954, Puerto Rican nationalists shot and wounded five U.S. congressmen in the House chamber. p. 258.

Corporations paid no taxes. p. 257.

By 1955, nearly 25% of Puerto Ricans lived in mainland U.S. p. 252.

Synthetic rubber made from oil reduced the need for tropical colonies. By 1945, The U.S. was producing 800,000 tons a year. p. 269. Plastics too. Also made from oil.

Logistics were central to WWII. Aviation, radio, cryptography, dehydrated food, penicillin, DDT, laid globalization's foundation. p. 282. DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) protected against insect-borne diseases by eradicating all plant and animal life. p. 292

During WWII, "many of us realized that foreign languages have actual, objective reality, that there are areas of the earth where, strange as it may seem, English is neither spoken nor understood." p. 321. The English language conquered the globalizing fields of Aviation, science ("God couldn't get tenure: he has only one publication, and it's not in English."), and especially the Internet. p. 330. "If the Chinese rule the world some day, I suspect they will do it in English." p. 331.

The U.S. keeps lightly-populated islands as bases, where it need account to no one. p. 345.
Profile Image for Becky.
1,319 reviews1,612 followers
January 9, 2020
I love history. It was one of my favorite classes in school, even though I'm pretty bad about remembering dates or specifics. But more than history, what i really love is origin stories. I LOVE knowing how things start, how they form. In my opinion, expert as it so obviously is, I can only truly appreciate the history of something if I know how it started. That's the most important part. It's the reason that the saying "Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it" exists. I think we're living a moment in time right now that bears that out.

But anyway, back to the point. I really enjoyed my history classes in school, but I can tell you that of the plethora of US history outlined in this book, almost nothing beyond the dates that Alaska and Hawaii became states was covered in any of my history classes. This isn't a failure of my school (though it was in Florida, so it wouldn't be TOO far off the mark to question it), but rather a deliberate concealment of a series of decisions, policies, territories, exploitations and atrocities that the US has acted and enacted upon various peoples and lands since landing at Plymouth Rock.

This is somewhat explained by looking at the situation in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico, if you are not aware, is a US territory. The people who live there are US citizens. But like Guam and the US Virgin Islands, they do not have the same rights as US citizens that reside within the 50 states. They do not have representation in Congress. They cannot vote for president. They are considered property of the US, subject to US laws, but not its protections under the Constitution.

So, when Hurricane Maria devastated the island, and we all watched on the news as single rolls of paper towels were tossed into the crowd. These are OUR CITIZENS, having rolls of Bounty (probably) thrown at them, like "Go wipe it up." There was outrage, just in general, at the horrific callousness of the 45th occupant of the White House. But, to hear quite a lot of people tell it, Puerto Rico is a foreign country, and any aid we gave them was more than we had to. They mismanage their resources, owe the US money, are corrupt, are not-white... whatever bullshit spewed out, the real underlying commentary was "they are other, and undeserving."

But they are not. They are US citizens. (And even if they weren't US citizens, they are human, and for fucks sake, are we not better than this YET??) But this is why it's convenient to let these blemishes fade into the background. The people in power want the status quo just as it is, not people demonstrating and protesting for Puerto Rico's rights. The fact of the matter is that if people were aware of Puerto Rico's history as a US territory and how they've been used and mistreated, it would be a lot harder to justify abandoning them now - and that's politically inconvenient.

Ugh. SO much of this book made me ashamed of this country, and our history. I know I wasn't there, had no role in the decisions that were made... but I benefit from them now simply by living here and by the luck of having been born in a geographical area recognized as a "state" rather than one recognized as a "territory". Being a citizen and not living property. Or an inconvenience to be removed. Or a convenient captive pool of people for exploitation.

This book covers a LOT of ground, from the arrival of the settlers, westward expansion, and the Trail of Tears, to practically yesterday's headlines. And it was utterly fascinating. I learned SO MUCH that filled in the gaps of my knowledge of the country I've lived in for (cough cough) years. Such as... why Guantanamo Bay exists, for instance. And why Guantanamo Bay's location was specifically relevant when people started being detained there indefinitely during the war on terror. It's really interesting to really see the whole picture (or a much more complete picture) of how and why things are the way they are, and how that has been relevant or convenient during the US's foundations and history.

One thing that was noticeable for me, but that isn't a criticism necessarily, was that the tone of this book had a very progressive, modern edge. This is clearly a man writing history while looking through the lens of today's attitudes and mindsets. I don't mind that, because I'm not really of the opinion that an author such as this should not have an opinion on the atrocities that history witnessed and just present the facts. I'm totally fine with him looking askance at the shitty things that we did... but it is quite noticeable, and at times, almost humorous, which I found surprising. I would not have thought that I'd be chuckling at someone giving the side-eye to history, but here we are. I can see how this would be a criticism for others though.

Still, this book was incredible, and should be required reading. We should be willing to look at our history - all of it- so we can know who and what we are, and then we can determine who we want to be going forward.
Profile Image for thefourthvine.
504 reviews196 followers
May 10, 2019
Ever since I read The Not-Quite States of America: Dispatches from the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA, I’ve been looking for a book on the United States’s imperial possessions, and the first half of this book is exactly what I wanted. Not-Quite States is mostly a travelogue; I wanted the background, the details, the history, and this absolutely provides.

I do think the second half of the book gets a bit scattershot; I wanted it to be more like the first half, with more details on the remaining bits of our empire. And it definitely treads territory I’m very familiar with; I didn’t learn much in the second half. But the first, wow, totally makes this book worth reading.

(Warning: depressing and infuriating. But, hey, it’s history, so you knew that.)
Profile Image for Lynn.
3,192 reviews55 followers
November 12, 2019
This is a run don’t wait to read type of book. It’s dense with information but so readable. There was so much in this book that i didn’t know before or was exposed to a whole other viewpoint. It really brought home the idea of standardization and makes me wonder about it has affected my profession, education. A great great book. A necessary read.
Profile Image for William Harris.
103 reviews3 followers
January 22, 2019
I recently had the privilege of receiving an advanced copy of "How to Hide an Empire," by Daniel Immerwahr (courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux). I am pleased to report that this book is one of the finest recent analysis of imperialism (in its modern, evolved, guise). What is more, this formidable task is accomplished in a very accessible and well documented manner. Fundamentally, it is a text which assesses the new American and Global Empire, as distinguished from the 18th Century models most of us grew up examining. The analysis is thoroughly engrossing and supported by copious endnotes. The analysis is particularly strong is assessing what I think of as Cultural Imperialism. The author makes his points clearly, concisely, and with verve through his far ranging romp through the ways in which American culture and economic and military power has obviated old fashioned land grabs in favor of a far more sophisticated model based on global projections of military and economic power. It is nothing short of a breathtaking tour de force, witty and anecdotal, often surprising (not least in being very balanced (no easy accomplishment). I am pleased to recommend this book to anyone who wants to challenge their existing views of the modern world. It is thought provoking and a great read!
Profile Image for Karen.
559 reviews1 follower
July 31, 2019
This is a fascinating book that exposes details about U.S. history unlike anything I learned in school. (I didn't realize that Alaska and Hawaii didn't become states sooner because of racism in the lower 48. Shameful.)

I found How to Hide an Empire so interesting that while I'd checked it out from the library, I went ahead and purchased so I can re-read it.
37 reviews19 followers
March 28, 2019
Starts off stronger than it ends; the more abstract the empire gets, the less revelatory it is. But at least half of this book has some stunning thing on every page that we all should have learned in middle school.
Profile Image for Kara Babcock.
1,906 reviews1,235 followers
November 11, 2019
I heard about this book on Twitter, I think, and read an excerpt (basically the introduction of the book) in The Guardian, and I was immediately sold. These days I read history books because I’ve discovered since leaving school that history is actually really, really difficult to learn. There’s just so much of it, and it’s just so subject to interpretation depending on the evidence available, the lens you use for that evidence, and your own biases. Even when you’ve done your best to be diligent and check your biases, at the end of the day, there is just so much history!

How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States is all about the overseas territories and possessions of the United States of America. Did you know that the US owned the Philippines from 1898 to 1946? I didn’t! To be fair, I at least have the excuse that I’m Canadian, not American. But I’m not going to spend my entire review dissing the American education system. Daniel Immerwahr makes it pretty clear that any ignorance of the status of these islands, or the history of Hawai’i and Alaska, isn’t just a failure of the education system. It’s inherent in the United States’ abject ambivalence regarding its role as an imperial superpower. Indeed, this book isn’t just a chronicle of how the US came to exert control over far-flung islands in the Pacific. It’s an examination of the ways in which the USA has been an empire, is still an empire, and also, at times, has rejected the notion of empire and colonialism.

My first praise: this book is utterly fascinating and captivating. I mentioned learning that the Philippines was once a US territory—I learned this on page 2! I learned that “sixteen million Filipinos—US nationals who saluted the Stars and Stripes and looked to FDR as their commander-in-chief—fell under a foreign power.” Pearl Harbor is remembered on the mainland as a bombing of a naval base, yet it was actually part of a larger coordinated attack that included the utter invasion of the Philippines. Yet this is a subject that rarely comes up. And that’s just the first two pages of the book. Nearly every page is a non-stop revelation of ideas. Huge kudos to Immerwahr and his editor for being able to stay on track.

Not being American, I don’t read a lot of American history. When I do, I try to find books like this, books that don’t subscribe to the manifest destiny myopia that, thankfully, seems to be a lot less common these days in general. I don’t need history books that lionize certain people and talk about how the west was won. I want history books that examine how present-day patterns and systems are built atop the legacies of what came before. That’s exactly what Immerwahr does here.

Beyond discussing how the US acquired various territories, Immerwahr anchors these acquisitions in the zeitgeist of various periods, from the turn of the 20th century to the interwar period to post-war and Cold War geopolitics. One of his more striking observations for me is how the US came to realize that colonialism as practised and perfected by powers like Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands was obsolete after World War II. Instead, the ability to synthesize many resources once only found in remote locations provided an alternative to expensive colonization efforts. In this way, Immerwahr illustrates how colonialism has always existed as an economic expediency, a symptom of capitalism created by inefficiencies of technology and scale. That doesn’t mean colonialism has gone away, mind you—it has just shifted forms, as Immerwahr discusses in an entire chapter devoted to international standards. (He talks about screw thread angles. Yes, that sounds terribly boring. Yet it’s not—it’s downright fascinating!) He mentions “Coca-colonization” briefly but doesn’t quite engage with it that much, although to be fair, cultural imperialism is more of a digression within this book than the main point.

It’s difficult for me to decide what other facts to share, because I learned so many. It’s difficult to know how else to praise this book, because it’s really quite interesting. So let me zoom out for a moment and explain the appeal of Immerwahr’s subject and his approach to it.

On its surface, How to Hide an Empire contains a lot of stories about individuals and their role in events. In no way is this book a “Great Man” book of history though. Even when discussing General Douglas MacArthur, who looms largest perhaps because of his role in multiple colonial situations, Immerwahr is careful to observe how numerous other people and entities amplified or attenuated MacArthur’s influence. Indeed, How to Hide an Empire is actually a systems theory approach to history on a global level in a way that is broad enough to be useful yet granular enough to remain valid. Each chapter explores how the US embraced or stepped away from empire depending on its particular social needs at the time. The chapter on technology and transport, “This is What God Hath Wrought,” is a particularly keen example of this; Immerwahr details the logistical needs of managing a fighting force that spans the entire globe.

I love this, because it’s really hard for we humans to think on an abstract, systemic level like this. Take climate change. There’s so much emphasis put on individual reduction of emissions and carbon footprint. Yet 100 companies are responsible for 71% of the world’s carbon emissions, and the US military is one of the largest single consumers of oil in the whole world. When viewed from a larger systems angle, then, we see that the problem of climate change is not something we can solve from a grassroots, individualist approach. That isn’t to absolve everyone of responsibility—I’m still going to do my part—but every individual doing their part still won’t matter if we don’t actually alter the systems that allow these corporate emissions to continue.

Similarly, I was recently reading a piece that was very passionately trying to convince me we should switch to all-natural fibres in our clothing. Now, I’m a big fan of natural fibres when it comes to my knitting. As I previously mentioned, Immerwahr discusses how the US switched to synthetic materials to reduce its dependency on acquiring them from other countries. Some natural materials are difficult to grow/sustainably source from within North America—so insisting we switch to them could usher in another era of exploitation and colonialism if we aren’t careful about how we do it. These types of issues are so complex and fascinating, and it’s important for us to think on a global scale (then act on a local one).

So my final and highest praise for this book is that reading How to Hide an Empire is a valuable and edifying exercise in thinking systemically. It encourages the reader to view our global human civilization as a dynamic network of interdependent economies and societies. What one society does affects every other society in some way, with certain actors, like the US, having an outsize amount of influence. Immerwahr reminds or informs people of the various territories that the US once or currently holds, including the beleaguered people of Puerto Rico, who are American citizens yet have no representation in Congress or the White House. (Speaking now as a Canadian, I do have to say I think it’s silly for any American to claim theirs is the greatest country/democracy on Earth when some of your citizens can’t even vote in your elections. Get your act together.) On this basis alone, the book is worth reading. On a wider level, the book is a great way to get you thinking about our world through a different lens. And that’s the best thing a history book can do. Check out the excerpt I linked to at the beginning of my review if you need any more convincing.

Creative Commons BY-NC License
1,131 reviews16 followers
May 21, 2019
4.5 stars.

This book was pretty great. I suppose I’m in the majority of Americans who know very little of the nitty gritty of the american empire. And it really is that, classically in the beginning and in a new way over the past 60 years.

And this book covers it all - from the early days of pushing out native Americans, to the fight for the guano islands (there is some fascinating stuff if you haven’t heard about that!) through the aftermath of World War II and the US’s rise in globalization.

A very large portion of the book dwells on World War II, and it’s just the kind of stuff that I like. I’m not one for war history books, but this focused on the amazing innovations of the war, and what came after based on that innovation. THAT is the stuff I love to hear about. Random tidbits like that. Who knew the saga of worldwide standardization could be so interesting?

And then of course all this led to the reasons why America was able to give up most of its classic empire - because who needs one when you can control the world through air power, and industrial standardization, and corporations?

For me personally, the only parts I didn’t like were the lengthy portions on the Philippines war and the like - not because it’s not important and good for every American to know (it is!) but because, as I mentioned, I’m not one for war and military history stuff.

Regardless, every American needs to know this stuff. Every.
Profile Image for Rachel Dick Plonka.
148 reviews13 followers
December 4, 2019
Have you ever wondered why so many nurses are Philipino? Or why Puerto Rico isn't a state? How did the American standard for screws and screw threads become the world standard? How did 91% of the world's countries come to use red octagons as stop signs? How did English become a global language? Did you know that the man whose discovery of synthetic fertilizers that keeps billions of people fed was also behind the creation of zyklon b gas?

This book was a real adventure. I learned so many interesting facts and stories about the US and its global reach. While I felt like the author had quite a negative bias toward the United States, I did learn a great deal about the history of racism in this country. The author spends a great deal of time painting American colonialism as a sinister plot by some old powerful white men, while making almost no mention of the organic reasons that American values and culture have spread across the globe. While the US is far from a perfect country, entrepreneurship, innovation, freedom, and tolerance are but a few of the values that encourage millions worldwide to wave our flag and try to gain access to this country. I wish the author would have delved a bit more into some of the positive aspects of American colonialism.

Overall this is a very thought provoking book that I would definitely recommend. It really made me pause and think about the meaning of culture, humanity, empires, and what it means to be a global citizen.
Profile Image for Randall Wallace.
525 reviews379 followers
June 10, 2019
This book is the story of U.S. territories, which Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson openly called “colonies” (Puerto Rico, Guam, The Philippines, Hawaii, Wake, American Samoa, U.S. Virgin Islands, etc.) Just three years after the continental US was filled, we began invading/occupying land overseas that belonged to others. Our official U.S. dollar bill was copied from the Philippine dollar bill we made them use during US occupation. The Philippine War was also the longest war in US history after the Afghanistan War. It claimed more victims than the Civil War – which is probably why the U.S. media will never mention it. We talk about Sand Creek and Wounded Knee Massacre, but few have a clue about the Bud Dajo Massacre of 1906 which dwarfs them. Everyone knows how The Birth of the Nation was a racist film, but did you know that it was the MOST popular film in the country? Even Woodrow showed it at the White House (preceded by a short “Blatant Racism: Is it for You?”) 1919 Post-War was a big year – lots of racist violence in the US in the Red Summer and nationalist movements gaining serious traction abroad (Gandhi, Mao, Ho Chi Minh).

Did you know during WWII, the U.S. military tested its chemical warfare gases on more than 60,000 of its own men? What a recruitment ad that would have made. This was orchestrated by the father of Chemotherapy, Dr. Cornelius Rhoads, who developed his skills experimenting on Puerto Ricans because they were easy to get, and easy to expose them to toxins. One GI interviewed, had later got stomach and throat cancer thanks to Cornelius. Cornelius is rightfully despised in Puerto Rico, but he’s happily on the wall at Sloan-Kettering and even made the cover of Time Magazine. After Harvard Cornelius went to Puerto Rico in the 30’s to study anemia but quickly started Immoral and illegal tests on humans, inducing disease in some but not others to see what would happen. Experimentation without consequences. He called his patients “experimental animals.” In a letter he wrote, he said, “…the thing to do, really, is to exterminate the population. And I’ve started that. I’ve killed eight of my patients and I’ve sought to transplant cancer into 13 more. Hope you are doing well in Boston.” Puerto Ricans then found the letter. CR flees from Puerto Rico to easily become president of the New York Academy of Medicine and then becomes Army chief medical officer in the Chemical Warfare Service. His new job is to test all poisonous gases on goats and animals and then on humans (including uniformed men without consent). After the war, he took surplus stock of mustard agents and went to town, by becoming the first Director of the Sloan Kettering Institute trying chemical after chemical on human subjects. “Hi, I’m Dr. Rhoads, let’s get started. You aren’t Puerto Rican by chance, are you?” Sloan Kettering was really into Cornelius because he felt that some mustard agents actually might cure cancer. Alfred Sloan, the GM founder, famed destroyer of US public transportation, as well as Hitler’s car maker, started Sloan Kettering with a $4 million-dollar grant and immediately hired to run it his old friends from the Chemical Warfare division from San Jose Island off of Panama, where they gassed people from overhead to see the effects on mock combatants.

Did you know we gave Hawaiians three years of martial law (that’s longer than we even gave the Japanese!) during which Hawaiians got $50 tickets for things like kicking their own car when it didn’t start. Japan gave the Philippines their Independence (1943), not the US. “In 1940, nearly one out of three individuals on the planet was colonized. By 1965, it was down to one in fifty.” After WWI, the Army returned to civilian status within a year. After WWII, all the soldiers wanted to come home and Truman ordered a return home slowdown in 1946. Truman privately called it “plain mutiny”. Imagine tens of thousands of troops heckling their commanders and declaring solidarity with guerilla forces, echoes of upcoming Vietnam (see Sir! No Sir!). The Army knew it couldn’t court martial tens of thousands let alone execute them. The message to higher ups from the troops was clear: given this resistance, the U.S. was in no position to colonize the planet. In addition, every soldier abroad required a whopping “sixty-seven pounds of material” to be shipped to them each day.

Globalization replaced colonization because many products needed from the third world suddenly became manmade through chemists and fossil fuels. Without the Haber-Bosch Process, the world could only feed 2.4 billion people. Without it, you would have soil exhaustion, like the exhaustion that had plagued the Southern states forcing the move west. Southern politicians didn’t want Hawaii or Alaska admitted as states for racist reasons. Germany’s problem was that it was geographically denied both Peru’s guano and Chile’s sodium nitrates for agriculture and weapons making. Solving this problem led to German chemists discovering the Haber Bosch Process for synthesizing ammonia. Denied rubber during WWII, to hurt people instead US chemists developed Napalm with rubber-free (non-thermite) incendiaries. Luckily for American sadists, one of the Chemists from Harvard then suggested adding phosphorus – a nice touch that would continue to burn deep into the musculature (read Sven Linqvist) of the women and children who would naturally be its main collateral damage. Winston Churchill, who usually enjoyed a good war crime, criticized American napalm use in Korea, and called it "very cruel", and complained the US/UN forces were "splashing it all over the civilian population", "tortur[ing] great masses of people". 

Daniel writes that Ben Franklin spoke French, German, Italian, Spanish, Latin in addition to English. So, it must have been easy for Ben to first ask racist questions (like the time he asked, “Why should we in the sight of superior beings, darken its people?”) and then translate them five ways to appalled statesman of many other countries. I wonder if diplomats would also enjoy Ben’s other comments translated, such as his calling Native Americans "drunken "savages who delight in war. take pride in murder," or that they should be pursued with "large, strong, and fierce dogs”. I’ll bet such comments sound much better in French. After George Washington, the Cherokees did everything to appease white America, even assimilating, in order to hold onto their lands but they too were evicted, which sent a delightful CandyGram to all other natives saying, “Whatever you do, we will take your lands. Placating us is a waste of your time because our words are empty; we lie to everyone we have conveniently labelled ‘the other’.” Teddy Roosevelt says in 1897, “I should welcome almost any war for I think this country needs one.” I think Teddy just liked hanging with buff young white men in uniform. Four million people live in our territories today and they aren’t allowed to vote but remain disenfranchised well beyond fifty years after the Voting Rights Act. That’s American Justice: if our press doesn’t cover it, it isn’t happening.

The Bravo shot hydrogen bomb test at Bikini of 1954, if dropped over Wash DC, would have “killed 90 percent of the populations of Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York within three days.” In response to the blast which killed a lot of people near to Bikini in the Pacific, Henry Kissinger gave the standard white boy cost-benefit analysis, “There are only 90,000 people out there, who gives a damn?” Meanwhile, for the world beyond Henry’s sadistic questions, “alarming levels of radioactivity in seawater” was soon found two thousand miles away from Bikini. And the Japanese emperor started carrying a Geiger counter.

Fifteen thousand workers died while building the Panama Canal by accident or disease. Natural latex gutta-percha from Malaya was the only non-synthetic material that could “effectively insulate deep-sea submarine cables”. Japan held on the western most tip of Alaska for a year during WWII. Did you know that for 30 years, the US had the legal right to invade Cuba written into Cuba’s constitution? We then exercised that right to invade four times.

Liverpool influenced the Beatles, not just as we were told because it was a busy port, but because it had a huge US military base called Burtonwood and that was where the R&B records came in, many Liverpoolers, including musicians, worked on those bases. This meant Liverpool groups were essentially cover bands because they heard and learned the coolest new songs first. What a perfect setting for the Beatles to appear. You know tons of cool songs your fellow Brits don’t, and you can do all the cool licks that make you look like an original God.
Profile Image for Jim.
1,102 reviews64 followers
October 5, 2019
I enthusiastically give Daniel Immerwehr's book, published this year (2019) *****! He presents a wealth of information on "the US Empire." And, yes, we live in an empire, although we prefer to call it a "superpower." There's a lot of information in this book that just did not make it into our history textbooks and I'm talking about college textbooks. For example, I would hope that most Americans know that Puerto Rico is American territory ( a "commonwealth"), but most of us know very little about its history. I had never heard of Dr. Cornelius Rhoads, a name which should rank among the most infamous in American history ( he conducted medical experiments on Puerto Ricans, acceptable to people on the mainland- as most whites considered Puerto Ricans to be an "inferior" or "mongrel" people). Most of us don't know that what Rhodes did provoked Puerto Rican nationalists to try to assassinate President Truman and shoot up the US Congress.
How many of us know that the Philippine Islands were our colony until given independence following World War II? The most destructive war that occurred on American soil was NOT the American Civil War--but the World War II campaigns fought in the Philippines, with over 1,000,000 Filipino deaths.
Immerwehr also gives us histories of Alaska and Hawaii, which were colonies or territories until they gained statehood in 1959. I think I can safely say (?) that most Americans know about the internment of the West Coast Japanese-Americans during WWII, but do they know about the internment of the Aleut people of Alaska's Aleutian Islands during the war? And, while the Japanese of the Hawaiian Islands were not interned, there was an extremely strict martial law maintained on the islands during the war. The whites running the Hawaiian colony just did not trust the loyalty of the non-white majority of the islands.
In the second half of the book, the author tells us that the US actually decolonized to some extent (such as by giving independence to the Philippines and statehood to Hawaii and Alaska). It wasn't just that nationalist movements were on the rise around the world, but that due to technology (notably electronics and aviation), the US could maintain and extend its global power without needing to control land areas-and populations. The US Empire today includes at least 800 overseas military bases, many of which are on islands with small populations (most notably Guam I think) or completely unpopulated (the Swan Islands). And, of course, Bikini Atoll was a testing site where the military removed the natives so that nuclear bomb testing could be done there. It's a point-to-point empire, as Immerwehr says. And an empire that's hidden out of sight of most mainland Americans-most of the time... I would like to conclude by saying that, while A LOT of information is presented, the book is very engaging and readable-a great job by Immerwehr, a Northwestern U. professor of history. And when I reached the Notes, I was looking for more books on some of the subjects covered in the book to read more...
9 reviews
March 21, 2022
A fascinating read, and contained a shocking amount of subjects I'd never even considered. It is a well written history book, full of funny, interesting or horrifying anecdotes, would definitely recommend to everyone with an interest in (US or world) history and policy.
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