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An Empire in Points

For those of you still trying to rinse off the neighbor’s patriotic glitter from the July Fourth weekend, I can’t recommend highly enough the new book by Daniel Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States. Even as a long-time anti-imperialist critic of US foreign policy, I found this book eye-opening and paradigm shifting. I’ll never be able to look at the USA in quite the same way again.

How to Hide an Empire makes clear that the United States has been anything but “great” in its long history as conqueror, occupier, and colonial power. But it also makes clear that, since its inception, the USA has often, indeed always, been “Greater.” That is, from its inception to the present, the United States has never been just a collection of united states, but also a collection of territories and colonies, places divided off from the “States,” where millions live under the reign and the flag of the USA without being full included, recognized, or given full rights as “Americans.” Immerwahr refers to this inclusive whole as the Greater United States, and as his sweeping and well-told cross-continental American history makes clear, recovering the history of what has happened in the US colonies and territories is not just marginal matter. Rather, it has major implications for how we view the US “mainland” itself, as well as the USA’s relationship with the rest of the world, right up to the present.

For those who won’t be able to read the whole book, I’ve tried below to pull together some of the most memorable and startling facts. There is much more to say of course, but for now, I’ll let those facts speak for themselves. As much as Immerwahr himself argues that the main contribution of the book is “perspectival” and not “archival,” there was plenty of history—and the author tells it well—that I’d never heard before. It boggles the mind to think how so much of this could be so thoroughly hidden for so long. How to Hide and Empire indeed….

Ok, so below is a list of astonishing facts I learned from the book, How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States :

* The term “America” as a noun was hardly ever used in politics until after 1898, following the US conquest and occupation of territory (from Cuba to the Philippines), when it became explicitly clear that “the United States” was no longer an apt descriptor for a power that ruled over tens of millions of people who lived beneath its flag, but were (as non-whites) considered subjects, largely not as potential citizens.

*Though it no longer formally occupies mass territorial colonies as it did after WW2 (and as the British Empire did for generations) the United States in 2020 maintains roughly 800 military bases outside its continental borders–with access agreements for other sites. The rest of the world combined has 30.

*Since 1945, the US military has been deployed abroad for combat or potential combat 211 times in 67 countries.

*If prevailing estimates are correct, about 775,000 people were killed in just one of those lesser known wars, the US War on the Philippines (1898-1913), amounting to roughly one fifth of the Filipino population. This is greater than the total number of people who died during the US Civil War. The US military lost 4,196 men, more than three-quarters of whom died of disease.

*In one of the most infamous massacres, at the volcano crater site Bud Dajo, twenty one US soldiers died in the process of machine gunning between 600 and a 1000 Moros. (The photos of those mass graves look like something out of Nazi Germany.)

*There are TO THIS DAY about 4 million people living in US territories (in Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the US Virgin Islands, and the Northern Marinas) who are still subject to the rule by Congress and the President, but have no right to vote for either. They remain formally disenfranchised.

*The same Supreme Court that handed down the infamous Plessy vs. Ferguson decision (1896) affirming “separate but equal” as the law of the land, made a set of decisions around 1901 known as the Insular Cases, denying Filipinos and other US colonial subjects from its conquered territories equal rights under the Constitution (even when they were visiting the continental United States).

*The number of people who were effectively stripped of Constitutional Rights by the Insular Case decisions was around 8 million, equivalent to roughly 10% of the total US population, and just a bit less than the African American population of the time (8.8 million).

*While Plessy v. Ferguson was famously overturned in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education, the Insular Case decisions are still on the books, denying Constitutional rights to those born in US colonial territories.

*Often the colonies became the sites for experiments–from medicine to the military to architecture–that could not be conducted as easily on the mainland. Puerto Rico became a free trial zone for the study and treatment of hookworm and cancer, as well as the place where the modern birth control pill would be tested and developed.

*Unfortunately, the colonized subjects were often mistreated in these experiments, and seldom saw the full benefits of the advancements made possible by the use of their people as guinea pigs.

*In 1932 a private letter written by Cornelius Rhoads, a Harvard-trained physician in charge of the hookworm program on Puerto Rico, was made public. In it, Rhoads wrote that of the local population that “they are beyond doubt the dirtiest, laziest, most degenerate and thievish race of men ever inhabiting this sphere…What the island needs is not public health work, but a tidal wave or something to totally exterminate the population.” To this he added a personal confession: “I have done my best to further the process of extermination by killing off 8 and transplanting cancer into several more.”

*This letter, made public, ignited a firestorm, and helped make revolutionary nationalism a mainstream politics on the island. While a strike of sugar workers in 1934 paralyzed the economy, a Puerto Rican Liberation Army turned to violence, with many US-identified sites bombed in 1935–including a bomb on July 4.

*Dr. Cornelius Rhoads never even lost his job following his inflammatory, confessedly homicidal, and openly genocidal letter. (He claimed to have been angry and drunk while composing it.) He went on to a celebrated career and is now known mainly as the father of modern chemotherapy.

*A mass march of unarmed Puerto Rican nationalists led by the Liberation Army through the city of Ponce on Palm Sunday 1937, was surrounded and attacked by police, armed with Thompson submachine guns. Eighteen demonstrators and bystanders were killed, along with two police killed in the crossfire.

*An ACLU investigation deemed the violence not a mishap but a “massacre.” The FBI’s own agent reported that the police were “almost 100 percent to blame.” The Ponce massacre to this day is the bloodiest single police shooting in Greater US history.

*Puerto Rican Nationalists in the Fall of 1951, as part of a island-wide uprising, came very close to assassinating Harry Truman in Washington D.C., likely influencing his decision to not run for re-election in 1952.

*As a result of massive “population control” efforts in Puerto Rico, by 1965 more than a third of Puerto Rican mothers between 20 and 49, had been sterilized, some without their permission.

*Back on the mainland, in the late 19th century, following the forced relocation and military confinement of dozens of different native nations and tribes into the expansive reservation of “Indian Territory,” there was a native-led petition effort to create a majority-native state into the Union. It was to be called Sequoya.

*That petition was denied by Congress. Instead the territory came into the Union as the State of Oklahoma (in 1907), the boundaries drawn to ensure a strong white majority.

*The blockbuster musical Oklahoma! (1943) was originally based on a native-authored novel that foregrounded the “Indian blood” of small town resistance, but the native roots of rebellion were whitewashed out.

*The blockbuster film The Birth of a Nation (1915), which openly celebrates the white terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan as the savior of civilization in the face of black rule run amok, was screened and celebrated in the US White House, just months before Woodrow Wilson deployed US marines to violently occupy the black republic of Haiti and “restore order.”

*The pursuit of massive piles of bird shit—aka guano deposits–motivated some of the first American capitalist and state direct overseas imperialism, as the US sought to assure access to the soil-enriching nitrogen that enabled the exponential growth in US farm production during the 19th century.

*Guano mining on desolate islands was one of the most miserable and sickening jobs on earth, prompting a group of African American workers recruited from Baltimore to revolt against the Navassa Phosphate Company in 1889. Their killing of five white company officers, after being fired upon by their bosses, led to the rebels being denounced in the press as “Black Butchers.”

*The resulting trial of the Navassa “rioters” led to ground-breaking Constitutional case law regarding whether or not companies (and workers) in the US island colonies were subject to US law, debates with implications flowing all the way down to detainees now being held at Guantanamo Bay—a base area that was itself taken from Cuba following the US occupation of that island.

*The Supreme Court decided that the rebels could be prosecuted under US law, even though the revolt took place outside the formal United States. And even though other laws–namely labor laws–were not being enforced on the guano island whatsoever.

*The importance of guano–and the guano islands–while central for much of the 19th century plummeted following the invention of chemical nitrogen fertilizers, a harbinger of the ways that chemical engineering would often make Western imperial powers less dependent on direct territorial access to the natural resources of formally colonized people, leading to forms of empire in the 20th (and 21st) century that were less dependent on direct military occupations.

(*Side note: the same German-Jewish chemist, Fritz Haber who invented chemical nitrogen fertilizer in 1909, and thus radically increased the possibilities for feeding humanity, went on to develop for the German state both the formulas for poison gas used in World War One as well as the infamous Zyklon B, used in Nazi death camps.)

*In 1940, more than 1 in 8 (12.6%) of the population of the Greater USA lived outside the states, as colonial subjects—18,833,023 people.

*The colonial territory held by the US at that point was larger, in geographic terms, than the acreage of the original 13 Colonies that declared Independence from Britain in 1776.

*Manilla in the Philippines was then the sixth largest city in the Greater US, much larger than Boston or D.C.

*While re-drafting his famous “War of Infamy” speech in Dec. 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt edited out prominent mention of the Philippines, so as to not call attention to the fact that it was US colonies (including Hawai’i) that Japan was attacking.

*During the war, Hawai’i was put under martial law for three years, despite the lack of further military threat, with all inhabitants forced to carry ID cards on pain of arrest, and the first mass forced fingerprinting campaign in US history. Dictatorial “Provost courts” delivered summary judgments on hundreds of Hawaiians per day (with a 98.4% conviction rate).

*One black Hawaiian was sentenced to five years in prison for accidentally colliding with two military police while running away from a bar bouncer.

*The all-Japanese-American 100th Infantry and 442nd Infantry units, recruited from Hawaii and sent to fight the Nazis in Europe, became, per person, the most decorated US military unit in all of World War 2.

*In the war to retake the colony of the Philippines from Japan, during the Battle of Manilla, 1,100 US troops died, as did 16,665 Japanese troops. Over 100,000 Manilan civilians perished–about 100 times the number of Americans.

*Over 1 million Filipinos would die during the war, due to relentless US bombing and shelling and brutal Japanese massacres on the ground. 518,000 Japanese died as did and slightly more than 11,000 US Army troops. This makes the War in the Philippines by far the bloodiest war ever fought on US territory.

*The US preferred strategy of mass shelling and bombing—which minimized US combat deaths, while increasing impacts on civilians—led to the total destruction of 15% of all buildings in the Philippines before the end of the war (another 10% were damaged).

*Later, during the Vietnam War, the United States dropped 5 million tons of bombs on that country, more than 750 pounds of bombs for every person in Vietnam.

*The 1942 Hollywood hit They Were Expendable told the story of the suffering in the Philippines during what became known as the “Bataan death march,” and created an entire new popular film genre known as the “Bataan film.” It ignored the mass suffering of Filipinos to focus on the US soldiers, one of whom was played by John Wayne.

*Five future US Presidents were directly involved in the brutal Pacific War against Japan: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush.

*The key to the US strategy in WW2 was overwhelming the enemy with ordnance—mountains of bombs, shells, and bullets–all made possible by the country’s incredible, and state-directed manufacturing output.

*For every ten US soldiers deployed in WW2, only one saw actual shooting combat. The vast majority were employed in construction and logistics, shipping massive amounts of materiel to the front.

*The US constructed 30,000 installations on 2,000 overseas bases during the war.

*This massive construction and transport of US materiel was made possible by an astonishing revolution in standardization, logistics, and chemistry that was both essential to the US war effort, and that radically transformed the post-war world economic system, as well as the workings of empire.

*To give an example: until the creation and imposition of nation-wide standards by the US govt. during WW2, there were as many as 100 different types of screws and bolts, most of which were incompatible with one another. Productivity wasn’t enough; it needed to be coordinated.

*Prior to 1927, traffic lights were not standardized, even within the mainland USA. In Manhattan, green still meant “stop.” After the war, seeking to make the world safe for its soldiers everywhere, the US compelled most of the rest of the world to adopt the now ubiquitous street-side octagon as the agreed upon shape for “Stop.”

*Winning worldwide uniformity for the *yellow* octagon in 1953, the USA then changed its mind and compelled countries to change its “Stop” signs again, this time to RED, which by 1954 was seen by Americans as a better code for danger.

*It was in the 1940s that the word “global” entered US popular and political discourse.

*In 1945, following the end of WW2, the Greater United States included 135 million people living outside the mainland (compared to 132 million on the mainland). Making it slightly more likely that a person looking up at the “Stars and Stripes” was a colonial subject under a formal military occupation than an “American” born in the “USA.”

*When it became clear that the US War Department was planning to maintain massive forces abroad even after the war’s end, there were dozens of mass protests by active duty soldiers on military bases across the US colonies, including tens or even hundreds of thousands. US soldiers declared solidarity with local anti-colonial guerillas, declared that they wouldn’t fight to deny other people’s freedom, and even burnt effigies of the military high command. Technically, it was mutiny.

*Within only a few years, most of these formal colonies were granted independence, a product of the combination of growing decolonization movements abroad, US troop protests, and logistical and scientific breakthroughs (such as the development of synthetics) which allowed the US to forego direct control over territory for a more “pointillist” approach to empire, focused on controlling key nodes and networks.

*Only two territories were allowed into the Union as states in 1959: Alaska and Hawai’i.

*During his famous 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Martin Luther King Jr. and many others wore Hawaiian lei. Why? Because as the first majority non-white state admitted into the Union (in 1959), Hawai’i was seen as disproving the idea that granting full rights to non-whites would somehow lead to racial discord.

*Across the Atlantic, there were 1.65 million US servicemen stationed in Britain during the lead up to the invasion of Normandy, and hundreds of thousands for years after the war ended.

*A contributing cause to the cultural rock n’ roll explosion in Liverpool (most famous for producing the Beatles) was the massive military base in Burtonwood, the largest US Air Force site in Europe.

*The famous anti-nuclear weapons “Peace” symbol was created just a few miles down the road from Burtonwood as well, the product of British mass protests against the (nuclear-armed) US military presence.

*The US Marshall Islands were the sight of at sixty-seven nuclear weapon detonations between 1946 and 1958, with nuclear fallout and radiation sickness affecting inhabitants of the surrounding islands.

*The popular two-piece bathing suit designed by French fashion designed Louis Réard was named the Bikini just days after the first atom bomb tests conducted on the Bikini Atol in July, 1946, “on the grounds that the sight of a woman’s mostly unclothed body was as sensational as the bomb.”

*When asked about the possible effects of the US nuclear tests of the civilians, Henry Kissinger, American empire’s expert extraordinaire, replied: “There are only 90,000 people out there. Who gives a damn?”

*Back in the Caribbean, the CIA used a massive radio installation on tiny Swan Island in the Caribbean to broadcast misinformation and fake news to assist the overthrow of the democratically elected Guatemalan government in 1954, and to support the failed invasion of Cuba known as the Bay of Pigs.

*The American version of the film that we know as Godzilla (1954) is an edited and defanged version of the original Japanese film Gojira, which includes an explicit call to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

*The Japanese technology and media firm Sony, which would take the world market by storm in the decades following WW2, picked its name to play off of the association with “Sonny,” a common (racist) pet name by which US soldiers often referred to Japanese males during the period of occupation.

*Donald Trump’s first proto-presidential appearance on television in the 1980s was hosted by Oprah Winfrey. Trump railed against the damage Japanese imports were doing to the US economy, prompting Oprah to comment that that sounded like “Presidential talk.” Trump replied, “probably not.”

*Besides Joe Biden, the other three US Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates in 2008 were all from the former colonies or territories. Barack Obama was born in Hawai’i, John McCain in the Panama Canal Zone, and Sarah Palin in Alaska. (Biden is from New Jersey.)

*Osama Bin Laden’s family made its fortune in the construction of US military bases across the Middle East. These included some of the very bases that would outrage Al Queda into striking at the heart of the Empire on September 11, 2001.

***

“Why do they hate us?” is a question that no one who reads How to Hide an Empire can honestly ask anymore. It’s not only the injuries, it’s the insult of American obliviousness that makes me honestly surprised that hate is not more common. How can an oppressed subject even register on mainland consciousness, when so much of the above has still failed to?

So let us pose a different question, a question not about “them” but about “us.”

Who are “We”?

Unless we are willing to look back at the USA from the perspective of its hidden and repressed margins, we may never know.