I like history books that surprise me with something important that I should have previously known. Daniel Immerwahr starts his recently-published How to Hide an Empire: a History of the Greater United States with a photocopy of a draft of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous December 7, 1941, “Day of Infamy” speech. Scratched out of the draft is a mention that the Japanese had attacked the Philippine Islands as well as Hawaii. 
The same-day bombing of the Philippines, as well as coordinated attacks on Guam, Wake island and Midway Island, destroyed the largest concentration of military aircraft outside of the United States. And much worse was to come, with these islands quickly falling into Japanese hands, the start of years of the war’s cruelest horrors.
Immerwahr, an associate professor of history at Northwestern University, asks, “Why the deletion?” Why did most Americans only know on that Sunday that Hawaii was attacked? The likely answer was the uncomfortable political status and complicated history of these faraway Pacific lands, all under the domain of the United States.
When we think of “Empire,” we think primarily of the British Victorian period when the Queen’s dominion circled the globe, from Gibraltar to India to Australia. How to Hide an Empire tells a great story of the largely unrecognized American Empire starting in that same period of the late 19th-century, up through World War II and then to the present. Millions of people have lived under American Empire with a messy history of limited civil rights, political oppression, and deadly wars.
The author spends much of the book chronicling the acquisition and bad management of the Philippine Islands and Puerto Rico. Especially in these two colonies, America’s relationship was fraught with open racism and frequent cruelty. The most populous possessions by far, they were both acquired around the turn of the 20th century in the wake of the Spanish-American War. In her 2013 book The Bully Pulpit, Doris Kearns Goodwin presents this story from the point of view of future president William Howard Taft’s tenure as the U.S. “chief lawmaker” for the Philippines.  Immerwahr expands and extensively documents this history of the heavy military hand in suppressing lingering rebellion and civilian unrest.
The author’s chronicle of World War Two’s impact on the Philippines is a heart-wrenching page-turner. He documents over one million Filipino war deaths, emphasizing that these people were residents of an American protectorate for decades. They were taught English in their schools and their city streets bore the names of American presidents. But they died in massive numbers, not just at the hands of the Japanese, but also by American bombs and artillery as they laid waste to Manila in the attempt to drive the Japanese out. To quote Immerwahr: “The Second World War in the Philippines rarely appears in history textbooks. But it should. It was by far the most destructive event ever to take place on U.S. soil.”
The U.S. granted independence to the Philippines in 1946, just one year after this long and costly effort to rid the islands of the retreating Japanese. Manila was still in ruins. I already knew part of this history. In May of 1945, my uncle Melvin Lindgren, an infantry sergeant, was killed in near the end of that effort on the island of Luzon, just three months shy of the Japanese surrender. His brother Alan, my father, had arrived on Luzon about the same time with his Army Field Hospital unit after two years of “island hopping,” following the Pacific fighting front lines. For many American families the tragedy of the Philippines occupation hit home thousands of miles away.
A recurring theme in How to Hide an Empire is the often-open racism underlying the confusing mishmash of governance formats and civil rights afforded to the residents of this far-flung empire. This difficult history even extends to the two territories that eventually became states in 1959, Hawaii and Alaska. As schoolkids in that era, we received a very sanitized version of that story. The details of that era were much more complicated and uncomfortable. Indigenous Hawaiians and Alaskans usually got the short end of the stick, while a lot of others became rich in the process.
Various wars and commercial ventures throughout the Empire years created both intentional and unintentional territorial claims, from Saipan, the Northern Marianas Islands and other Pacific Ocean “insular” acquisitions, to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay in the Caribbean Sea. The Marshall Islands, even though populated, became a “convenient” spot to test atomic bombs in the 1950s. Donald Trump’s recent interest in buying Greenland was treated as a joke, however the U.S. basically seized the town of Thule in Greenland from Denmark in the early 1950s, moved the residents some 65 miles north, built an airbase, and moved in nuclear weapons to defend against the U.S.S.R threat.
Important but largely forgotten Supreme Court cases beginning in the mid-1800s had to parse difficult questions about the reach of the U.S. Constitution to these territories. Were the residents citizens of the U.S.? If not, to what extent did both U.S. laws and Constitutional protections apply? For instance, the Philippines had open remnants of slavery at least through the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt and perhaps beyond.
The issues remain today. In recent weeks, a federal court granted citizenship to residents of American Samoa for the first time, trying to clear up their long-messy status, but then put the decision on stay. Sweatshops for the manufacture of clothing on Saipan have been the subject of political scandals because of lucrative loopholes in tariff and wage-and-hour laws. And of course, President Trump has been at odds with residents of Puerto Rico ever since the devastation of Hurricane Maria in 2017. He even appeared to not understand that Puerto Ricans are by law citizens of the United States. And despite being citizens, Puerto Ricans have no voting representation in Congress unless they move to “the mainland.”
All of that political and human confusion, and more, is a fascinating saga, and Daniel Immerwahr documents it too uncomfortably well. I suspect he has received criticism from some quarters because the Americans are often not “the good guys” here. As a kid during the 1950s I collected postage stamps from most of these places of American Empire. I could even point them out on a map back then, but clearly, I did not know their stories.
- Immerwahr, Daniel. How to Hide an Empire: a History of the Greater United States. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2019, p. 5.
- Goodwin, Doris Kearns. The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism. Simon & Schuster, 2013.