Today we pause to honor and mourn the military personnel who have given the last full measure of devotion for our country. As we fight a worldwide pandemic on this particular Memorial Day, we would do well to recognize the global identities of those American service men and women we honor.
Let us remember the more than 57,000 Filipino soldiers who died fighting as members of the U.S. Army from 1941-1945. We should add our gratitude for the 23 members of the Army’s 65th Infantry Regiment, a segregated Hispanic unit made up primarily of Puerto Ricans, who were killed in World War II while participating in the battles of Naples-Fogis, Rome-Arno, central Europe and Rhineland. And we should never forget the more than 600 soldiers who died while serving in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team — the most decorated unit for its size in U.S. military history and almost entirely composed of second-generation American soldiers of Japanese ancestry (Nisei) — fighting valiantly in Europe against the Axis powers although many had families confined to internment camps in the United States.
These men and women were U.S. citizens or U.S. nationals. Yet we seldom take the time to recognize their heroism and the sacrifice made for their country. In fact, they are often purposefully forgotten.
Stories of military heroes from the territories of the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico, Hawai’i, and Alaska — along with the reasons they are often overlooked — are part of the remarkable 2019 book How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States by Northwestern University historian Daniel Immerwahr. The “Greater United States” was a term used by some at the turn of the 20th century to describe the states and territories of the U.S. As a lifelong student of history who learned new lessons from virtually every page of this unexpected and enlightening work, I am here to say that How to Hide an Empire should be required reading for all Americans.
Immerwahr is standing on the shoulders of many scholars who have focused on aspects of U.S. imperialism in the past. Yet he brings their work together in a narrative of impressive scope and depth, changing the way one thinks about the U.S. The history we’ve learned growing up is that America is a republic, born out of a desire to overthrow an empire. When someone talks about Americans as imperialistic, it raises our hackles. But as Immerwahr writes, “At various times, the 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.”
That blindness continues today, when barely half of mainland Americans know that Puerto Ricans are fellow citizens. And an important reason is that what we think we know as the United States, coming from what the political scientist Benedict Anderson called the “logo map,” doesn’t begin to capture the full amount of territory the United States has controlled in the past and continues to control today.
Immerwahr’s more accurate map shows the inhabited parts of the Greater United States at the beginning of World War II at the same scale and with equal-area projections. When you do that, Alaska isn’t shrunken down to fit into a small insert, as we normally see it. Nope, it is the right size — or, to put it simply, it’s huge. The Philippines are also large and the entire Hawaiian chain — not just the eight main islands — “if superimposed on the mainland would stretch almost from Florida to California.”
Introduced in the opening section of this imminently readable work, the map is used throughout to show how little we know of our country. The “logo” map showed the true extent of American territory for only three years, from 1854-1857. We began acquiring and annexing overseas land in the middle of the 19th century, and in some ways we haven’t stopped. In 1940, one in eight of the people in the United States lived outside the mainland. They were not fully counted in the census of that year, however, which only focused on “the United States proper,” which isn’t a legal term.
And so, Immerwahr writes, “as with the logo map, the country was left with a strategically cropped family photo.”
Readers of the 1940 census were told our largest minority was African American, that our largest cities were nearly all in the East, and that the center of our population was in Indiana.
“Had overseas territories been factored in, as western territories had previously been (my emphasis), census readers would have seen a different picture. They would have seen a country whose largest minority was Asian, whose principal cities included Manila (about the size of Washington, D.C. or San Francisco), and whose center of population was in New Mexico.”
Immerwahr divides the history of the Greater United States into three periods. The first looks at our period of westward expansion and the Indian wars. Most Americans actually know at least some of this history. But by the middle of the 19th century, we’ve begun to move into the second period, as the U.S. starts to annex land overseas, including more than 100 uninhabited islands whose main attraction is bird droppings.
Yes, in a remarkable chapter entitled “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Guano But Were Afraid to Ask,” Immerwahr demonstrates his considerable skills as a storyteller who brings his readers along with a quick pace and wry observations. It turns out that guano — or the droppings of seagulls and other feathered friends — had a wonderfully restorative effect on U.S. land that was already deteriorating due to over-farming. And while his tales of these remote “shit-spattered rocks and islands” make for some good laughs*, he points out that the legal, strategic, and agricultural legacies of these acquisitions continue to influence our country today. Soon afterwards, the U.S. was acquiring much larger land-masses, including the granddaddy of them all: Alaska. We kick into high gear with the Spanish-American War and our one president who wasn’t afraid to talk about American Empire: Teddy Roosevelt. Around the turn of the 20th century we acquire the Philippines, Guam, Cuba, Hawaii, Samoa, Wake Island, and Puerto Rico.
Immerwahr takes the reader through the arguments made at the time about the question of empire. “In essence, it was an argument about a trilemma. Republicanism, white supremacy, and overseas expansion — the country could have at most two.” The country’s anti-imperialists had generally accepted republicanism and white supremacy, noting the inconsistencies between the concepts of republicanism and empire. Imperialists such as Roosevelt were willing to sacrifice republicanism, “at least as applied to so-called backward races.” The third option — to jettison white supremacy — was never seriously considered by most mainland politicians, but it had strong support in the territories, where the multi-ethnic populations pushed for a pathway to statehood but were blocked by America’s long-held focus on maintaining a country with a racially-based hegemony and hierarchy.
There are fascinating chapters on the impact of World War II on U.S. territories and the implications of that conflict that still reverberate today. We think of Pearl Harbor as the greatest attack ever to occur in America, but Immerwahr points to the combination of American shelling and Japanese slaughter of civilians in the Philippines and rightly notes that this part of the war was “by far the most destructive event ever to take place on U.S. soil.”
The third period of this history looks at the extraordinary act of the United States to win World War II and then give up territory — most famously with the Philippines which gained independence on July 4, 1946. Again, Immerwahr takes us through the reasons why we distanced ourselves from colonial empire (including a riveting chapter — and I’m being serious — about Herbert Hoover and the standardization of screw threads). The U.S. figured out how to achieve “domination without annexation,” and took on what Immerwahr describes as a pointillist empire — small dots all over the globe where technology and man-made substitutes for raw products allowed us to maintain global advantages without having to manage enormous amounts of territory.
To maintain control of our interests, the U.S. has 800+ agreements granting us access to foreign sites for bases and other support facilities. By contrast, Britain and France have 13 such foreign bases between them, Russia has nine, and various other countries have one. But even though they are small points on a map, there were multiple unforeseen problems that arose from having even a pointillist-sized empire.
Here, again, Immerwahr’s storytelling skills shine.
Liverpool England in the 1950s was near one of the largest U.S. bases in the world, Burtonwood, which was the gateway to Europe. The American influence on the area was enormous in all sorts of ways. One we may not immediately identify is entertainment. U.S. soldiers at Burtonwood looked for music that sounded like home (among other pleasures). Four musicians from the city were more than happy to oblige. While the rest of England was stuck in the vaudeville era, Liverpudlians had a special advantage with access to American records — especially from African American artists — and a big financial incentive to master that music. The first song that the Beatles recorded was a Buddy Holly cover. “They cut it in 1958, the same year the antinuclear marchers moved on Aldermaston” (a nearby nuclear facility in England) so that the Beatles and the peace symbol debuted within months of each other and were both side effects of the U.S. basing system.
Immerwahr also tells the story of how two enterprising Japanese men, working in a country on the brink of starvation, used contacts with American soldiers and bases to crib materials and ideas as they started a technology company in the aftermath of World War II. That company eventually became Sony — the Apple of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s — and in using Japan to launch its military campaigns in Asia, the U.S. sowed the seeds of its own deindustrialization.
“Sony’s story was similar to that of the Beatles. Enterprising young men living cheek by jowl with the U.S. military get their start by imitating what they see around them. They learn guitar licks from Buddy Holly songs or struggle with stiff paper and raccoon-hair brushes to replicate a tape recorder. But give them time, and soon enough you’re listening to Abbey Road on your Walkman.”
Most memorably, Immerwahr reminds us that the September 11th attacks were Osama bin Laden’s retaliation against the U.S. empire of bases…sites that his family’s construction company had built for the Saudi’s and the U.S. over several decades in the holiest land of Islam.
Immerwahr has written a remarkable work with the important thesis that territory matters. It matters not only for those who live there, but it matters for the entire country. World War II began for the U.S. in the territories and, Immerwahr adds, the war on terror “started with a military base.” Politicians up to and including John McCain, Sarah Palin, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump, have all been touched by colonialism.
You simply cannot understand the history of the United States without understanding territory. Because, as Immerwahr ends this highly recommended book, “The history of the United States is the history of empire.”
Remembering on this Memorial Day those U.S. citizens and U.S. nationals from the territories who died — often in obscurity — fighting for this country.
More to come…
UPDATE: As if to press the point that many in America forget – or want others to forget – the sacrifice made by U.S. citizens living in our territories, the Puerto Rican Veterans Memorial in Boston’s South End was vandalized during a weekend dedicated to honoring service members.
*It was no laughing matter if you were involved with Guano mining. Immerwahr suggests that the tunneling, picking, and blasting of guano, along with hauling it to waiting ships, was arguably the single worst job you could have in the nineteenth century. It featured the backbreaking labor and lung damage of coal mining, but “you had to be marooned on a hot, dry, pestilential, and foul-smelling island for months” and you were subject to shrieking seabirds who darkened the skies and unleashed “the occasional fecal rainstorm.”