The hidden, ugly face of US empire

The radio program On The Media this week had an absolutely gripping interview with Daniel Immerwahr, author of How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States. It begins at the 3:30 mark and lasts for about 50 minutes, laying out in great detail the hypocrisy of claiming to be a republic while actually being an empire that denied rights to the large populations under its control.

I immediately went out and bought that book and am reading it now. He says that the US has tried to hide its imperial ambitions and conquests for two reasons. One is that the idea of an empire went against is professed republican ideals.

The British weren’t confused as to whether there was a British Empire. They had a holiday, Empire Day to celebrate it. France didn’t forget that Algeria was French. It is only the United States that has suffered from chronic confusion about its own borders.

The reason isn’t hard to guess. The country perceives itself to be a republic, not an empire. It was born in an anti-imperialist revolt and has fought empires ever since, from Hitler’s Thousand-Year Reich and the Japanese Empire to the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union.

This self-image of the United State as a republic is consoling, but also costly. Most of the cost has been paid by those living in the colonies, in the occupation zones, and around the military bases. … At various times, the inhabitants of the U.S. Empire have been shot, shelled, starved, interned, dispossessed, tortured, and experimented. What they haven’t been, by and large, is seen. (p.19)

The second is that the people that constituted its empire were people of color and the US did not want to face the possibility of granting them eventual citizenship rights. So they called its conquered lands ‘overseas territories’ just like it had called various parts of the continental US ‘territories’ during its period of western expansion. But unlike those earlier territories that were given eventual statehood as the white settlers displaced and exterminated the native populations who lived there, the US was careful not to do so with these ‘overseas territories’.

Immerwahr says that in 1940, these overseas territories constituted the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Alaska, the Panama Canal Zone, US Virgin Islands, Guam, and American Samoa. They had a total population of nearly 19 million, or 12.6 of the total population, making the US the fifth largest empire at that time. Only Hawaii and Alaska with their small population of about 500,000 total eventually became states. He says:

[T]he racism that pervaded the country since slavery engulfed the territories too. Like African Americans, colonial subjects were denied the right to vote, deprived of the rights of full citizens, called “nigger”, subjected to dangerous medical experiments, and used as sacrificial pawns in war. They, too, had to make their way in a country where some lives mattered ad others did not. (p. 11,12)

After the war, the US ceded independence to its largest colony the Philippines. There were two major reasons for this. One is that there was a surge of anti-colonial struggles across the globe that forced the colonial powers into retreat. But in the case of the US, advancing technology enabled the US to retain many of the benefits of an empire without the problems of having to directly administer colonies. Globalization replaced colonization.

It is must-listen radio and I find the book to be well-written and gripping.


  1. says

    Most Americans today think Teddy Roosevelt was a kind of offbeat fellow with a high energy level and a great patriot. What they don’t realize is that he was one of the most ruthless imperialists since Julius Caesar, and a racist to boot.

    That’s definitely on my reading list.

  2. says

    The second is that the people that constituted its empire were people of color and the US did not want to face the possibility of granting them eventual citizenship rights.

    It’s important to emphasize that; the decision not to allow statehood for US colonies was openly discussed and made in racist terms. The colonies were also set up using the US oligarchy’s favorite tricks for creating pseudo-democracies, which meant political structures created by and for white people, white christian people, and set up so that the locals would not only have no say in their own politics, they could never change it. All the tricks that we saw on display in the American south, we see on display in Puerto Rico, Haiti, Nicaragua, Venezuela, etc.


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