Immerwahr, Daniel. How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States. New York: Farrar, Strous, and Giroux, 2019.
As Heather and I began organizing our belongings for our move to Alabama in May of 2021, I rediscovered a cache of books I had meant to read but, for whatever reason, had slipped through the cracks. I duly filtered them into my queue, and one in particular earned a place near the front of the line. From the moment of rediscovery, I could not wait to get my hands on Daniel Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire. Long-time readers of Concerning History will know of my preoccupation with the imperialism of the United States’ past, and a book devoted entirely to how we as a country has maintained an image of anti-imperialism while actively pursuing and maintaining empire was tailor-made for me. By the time I finished Immerwahr’s work, my initial interest had been exponentially rewarded.
How to Hide an Empire opens with a retelling of a pivotal moment in United States history: the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Most Americans know its history, of a surprise attack on American soil that drew us, finally, into the Second World War. Immerwahr, however, points out key discrepancies with that story that open an entirely new window of viewing American history. Hawaii at the time was American territory, but not a state; it was an imperial possession whose inhabitants were not US citizens and were not represented in Congress. Nor were they the only Americans attacked that day. Hours earlier, the American territories of the Philippines were also attacked by the Japanese, but were omitted from FDR’s later speech informing the American public of the declaration of war against Japan. These elisions in historical memory prove to only be the tip of the iceberg as Immerwahr charts the United States’ history as an overseas empire, from claiming Pacific guano islands to seizing territory from Spain to reinventing global hegemony following the Second World War. As the geographic map of the United States changed, however, so too did its psychological map. Immerwahr deftly demonstrates how American exceptionalism, racism, and realpolitik served to influence not just the course of expansion but its perception, resulting in today’s near-total American ignorance of our own imperial history.
The power of How to Hide an Empire lies in how humbling Immerwahr’s text can truly be. I consider myself a well read student of American, global, and imperial history, and yet I had never even heard of many of the events related in these pages. From American racism ironically stymying early imperialism (Congress rejected annexing the Dominican Republic in 1870 explicitly because it would add more non-white people to the nation) to the indiscriminate shelling of American subjects by American soldiers in Manila during its reconquest from the Japanese in 1945 to Puerto Rican nationalists’ attempts to assassinate President Truman and, later, assault Congress (bullet holes still remain in the House Chambers), Immerwahr relates a litany of vital historical events and commentary that has been entirely omitted from Americans’ education. In light of this narrative, other realities of which I was previously aware took on even more weight. The fact that American overseas territories are still denied representation in Congress due to Supreme Court cases that–in a decision that still holds legal precedent–they are “foreign to the United States in a domestic sense,” is nothing less than infuriating.
My one regret while reading How to Hide an Empire came early, when it became apparent that Immerwahr would not be discussing the United States’ other hidden empire. It is a shame that his same methodology was not applied to Americans’ simultaneous recognition of the existence of Native Americans and denial that their country has been, from its inception, a territorial empire, but one can always hope for a future installment rectifying this oversight. In the meantime, I cannot recommend How to Hide an Empire highly enough, and honestly think it should be required reading in all American history classrooms before students graduate high school. We cannot strive to be the best nation we can be if we continue to deny or simply ignore the facts of our history. For America to truly live up to its potential, we need to stop hiding our empires.