A supremely entertaining history of American empire

Cover image of How to Hide an Empire, a history of American empire

Is the United States an imperial power? No doubt, the overwhelming majority of Americans would answer the question with an emphatic no. But historian Daniel Immerwahr has a different take on the matter. In How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States, he argues with impeccable logic and entertaining detail that our country has been an imperial power ever since its origins in the colonial era. And, even though the ways and means of controlling other peoples have changed over the past century, the United States continues to exercise imperial power despite possessing only a smattering of territories that are colonies in the traditional sense. Today’s American empire is both far grander and less tangible than the colonial empires of the past.

What’s this about an American empire?

For starters, consider two overarching facts.

Military bases

As Politico noted in August 2015, “Despite recently closing hundreds of bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States still maintains nearly 800 military bases in more than 70 countries and territories abroad—from giant ‘Little Americas’ to small radar facilities. Britain, France and Russia, by contrast, have about 30 foreign bases combined.” Neither Rome nor the British Empire ever projected so much power so widely.

The “war on terror”

The “war on terror,” an American invention, “has spread to more than 40 percent of the world’s countries.” Since there are about 200 countries, that means the ongoing struggle to eradicate the human equivalent of a virus is underway in about 80 countries. And, according to CNN, “The United States has active duty military troops stationed in nearly 150 countries.” Since US Special Forces operate in secret, there’s no telling how many places Navy SEALS, Army Rangers, or the CIA’s Special Activities Division are engaged in action at any particular time. But the evidence suggests they’re deployed with great frequency. No other nation, however predatory, is even remotely as active outside its borders.

But these facts are only the most obvious manifestations of the American empire. Daniel Immerwahr explores a much wider range of evidence in this delightfully readable book.


How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States by Daniel Immerwahr (2019) 530 pages ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐


Cartoon image of Uncle Sam claiming an American empire
The US seizure of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines in 1898 enlarged the American empire, but it was far from the first move in the country’s expansion into the world. Image: PBS Learning Media

A 21st-century concept of empire

Immerwahr’s argument rests on a contemporary understanding of empire that encompasses all the many ways the United States extends its influence all across the globe. He refers to this 21st-century reality as a “pointillist empire” that no longer requires the US to occupy extensive territory overseas. Today, Immerwahr asserts, “powerful countries project their influence through globalization rather than colonization.” But the preeminence of the United States rests on several unique advantages.

Logistics

The roots of the new “pointillist” imperial reality lay in World War II. And that war, the world’s first truly global war, was about building stuff and moving immeasurable numbers of people and things from point A to point B. “During the war, fewer than one in ten U.S. service members ever saw a shot fired in anger. For most who served, the war wasn’t about combat. It was about logistics.” As Immerwahr explains, “the U.S. mastery of logistics would diminish the value of colonies and inaugurate a new pattern of global power, based less on claiming large swaths of land and more on controlling small points.” The American empire today is about power and influence, not holding land.

Synthetics

Another legacy of the Second World War was the success of America’s industrial chemists in contriving synthetic alternatives for essential materials no longer available from European colonies. “What’s extraordinary is how many raw materials the United States weaned itself off during the war. Silk, hemp, jute, camphor, cotton, wool, pyrethrum, gutta-percha, tin, copper, tung oil—for one after another, the United States found synthetic substitutes.” And all these materials, whether familiar or not, were essential ingredients in the stuff that allowed the United States to wage war around the globe.

Synthetic rubber, for example. Nazi Germany famously devoted immense resources to synthesizing rubber. But the efforts of German chemists paled beside the success of America’s vast industrial economy. For example, “By the end of the war, the [U.S.] government had built fifty-one synthetic rubber plants (compared to Germany’s three). . . Just one such plant, which might employ 1,250 workers, made enough rubber to replace a rubber plantation that had twenty-four million trees and a workforce of at least 90,000.”

Image of a synthetic rubber plant in WWII, central to this history of American empire
Just one of the fifty-one synthetic rubber plants built in the U.S. during World War II. The immense complex was built in 10 months, an impressive accomplishment that normally would have taken as long as 10 years. Photographed in 1945. Image: West Virginia State Archives, Richard Andre Collection.

The English language

As Immerwahr notes, Mandarin is the language with the greatest number of native speakers in the world. Spanish is second, and English only third. But English is by far the most widely adopted among non-native speakers. For one thing, “English is the de facto national language of India” as it is in many other multilingual countries. (At least 125 million Indians speak English, according to the BBC. But I’ve seen estimates that the true number is at least twice that.) About one in every four, or nearly two billion people, speak English.

There’s a good reason for this, since success builds on success. For example, Immerwahr reports, “A study commissioned by the British Council of five poorer countries (Pakistan, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Rwanda) found that professionals who spoke English earned 20 to 30 percent more than those who didn’t.” The trillion-dollar international travel and tourism industry alone provides one in every ten jobs around the world.

Today, Americans can travel nearly everywhere in the world and count on finding someone who speaks English. And that is surely evidence of an American empire.

Standards

As World War II ended, “the United States . . . accounted for an astonishing 60 percent of the industrial world’s production.” America was many other countries’ largest buyer and largest seller. So, if screw threads in America were tapered at a 55 degree angle, and its trading partner’s (such as Britain’s) were canted at 60 degrees, the American standard prevailed. And, once manufacturers had retooled to accommodate the new standard, they would revolt at the suggestion to change back again.

“Standards—the protocols by which objects and processes are coordinated—are admittedly one of the most stultifying topics known to humankind.” But they’re the rules that keep the world running. And for nearly a century, American standards have generally prevailed. All this, despite the fact that we Americans still measure in feet and pounds, while most of the rest of world has long since accepted metrics.

A history of imperial outreach

Most histories trace the origins of the American empire to 1898, when the United States seized the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Guam, and, effectively, Cuba as well from Spain. By contrast, Immerwahr’s survey digs into the historical roots of American expansionism, beginning in the colonial era.

The story Immerwahr tells encompasses four phases:

  1. Colonial expansion into Native American territory (16th through 19th centuries)
  2. Seizure of guano islands in the Pacific and the Caribbean (19th century)
  3. Governance of territories seized from Spain (first half of 20th century)
  4. The “pointillist empire” (post-World War II)

Although some of this history is well known, other aspects aren’t. And Immerwahr does an outstanding job dramatizing the story with unfamiliar facts and entertaining details. For instance, even if you remember the stories about brave frontiersmen from elementary school, you’re unlikely to know who Daniel Boone (1734-1820) really was. Or what steps the United States took to head off an agricultural collapse in the middle of the nineteenth century. (The US grabbed islands halfway around the world to harvest bird droppings as fertilizer.)

You’ll enjoy seeing how Immerwahr manages to discuss the origins of the Beatles, how Sony became a powerhouse, why so many Philippine nurses work in US hospitals, and the true story behind Little House on the Prairie. All these amusing tales make Immerwahr’s book both enjoyable and enlightening. This is American history the way it should be taught.

What does the future hold?

Given this impressive story, what should we conclude about the future of the United States on the world stage? For years, pundits have been opining about the decline of the American empire and the emergence of a multipolar world. And the evidence is abundant that the United States no longer commands the world’s undivided attention, especially after the disastrous years of Donald Trump’s presidency. Yet the continuing influence of the US as Immerwahr describes it is undeniable.

China is growing fast, of course, expanding its influence throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America. It’s fast making headway through an adroit combination of aggressive trade and currency policies, generous development loans, cyberespionage, military pressure, and the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. But China has a long, long way to go to surpass the ability of the United States to impose its will on the world.

About the author

Image of Daniel Immerwahr, author of this history of American empire

Daniel Immerwahr (born 1980) is associate professor of history at Northwestern University, where he specializes in twentieth-century U.S. history within a global context. He holds bachelor’s degrees from Columbia University and King’s College at the University of Cambridge and a doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley. How to Hide an Empire is his second book.

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