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

3 Jul

How to Hide an Empire
After Hurricane Maria ravaged the island of Puerto Rico in September of 2017, a poll went viral showing that almost half of all Americans did not know that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. As thousands of Puerto Ricans waited for humanitarian aid from the mainland, lots of historians expressed shock that a large number of Americans seemed to have so little knowledge about an island that is a part of their country. In his provocative new book, How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States Danniel Immerwahr argues that people living in the contiguous 48 states have always mischaracterized the size and scope of their country and sets to expand American history beyond the borders that readers are likely to be familiar with.

Unlike the British, Spanish, and French empires, which were all global in scale and clearly understood to be massive colonial empires, many people in the U.S. grow up learning that their country was founded as an anti-empire or a republic that sought to do away with the colonial ambitions of the European monarchies. This idea is an important part of America’s mythology. Immerwahr’s fascinating book shows why this conception of U.S. history leaves out so much. While many people have little understanding about Puerto Rico’s relationship to the mainland of the U.S., even fewer know that the Philippines was a part of the U.S for almost fifty years. Some maps from the early 1900s even showed the Philippines alongside the United States.

Even more obscure is the history of the hundreds of tiny islands that the U.S. has occupied and claimed. Some of these earliest claims were called the “guano islands,” which were literally uninhabited islands covered in the droppings of seabirds. These islands were valuable because the guano could be scooped clean and bought back to the mainland to be sold as powerful fertilizers.  Another set of islands called Bikini Atool was used as a nuclear testing site after the U.S. forcibly relocated over 100 indigenous inhabitants. Other tiny islands throughout the Pacific became important naval bases. All of these islands remained hidden to the average American.

After World War II, most of the world began giving up their colonies. However, the U.S. would go on to maintain 800 military bases around the world. Immerwahr calls this a “pointillist empire” where instead of powerful countries occupying less powerful ones, a pointillist empire maintains power through hundreds of tiny points on the globe. What I learned from reading How to Hide An Empire is that it’s wrong now and has always been wrong to think of the U.S. as one contiguous land mass. Our history has always been much more complex and expansive than that. This fascinating book made me conceptualize my entire understanding of American geography in a whole new light.

If you are interested in Hoboken history our local history collection is again accessible on the second floor of the main branch.  You can email reference @ hoboken.bccls.org to make an appointment with our Local History Librarian.

The staff of the Hoboken Public Library wishes you a terrific Independence Day!

Written by:
Karl Schwartz
Young Adult Librarian

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