How the USA became an imperial power, and why we’re likely to stay one

The US seizure of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines in 1898 enlarged the American empire, but it was far from the first move in the country’s expansion into the world. Image: PBS Learning Media

Is the United States an imperial power? No doubt, the overwhelming majority of Americans would answer the question with an emphatic no. But historian Daniel Immerwahr has a different take on the matter. In How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States, he argues with impeccable logic and entertaining detail that our country has been an imperial power ever since its origins in the colonial era. And, even though the ways and means of controlling other peoples have changed over the past century, the United States continues to exercise imperial power despite possessing only a smattering of territories that are colonies in the traditional sense. Today’s American empire is both far grander and less tangible than the colonial empires of the past.

What’s this about an American empire?

Military bases

The “war on terror”

But these facts are only the most obvious manifestations of the American empire. Daniel Immerwahr explores a much wider range of evidence in this delightfully readable book.

How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States by Daniel Immerwahr (2019) 530 pages @@@@@ (5 out of 5)

A 21st-century concept of empire

Logistics

Synthetics

Synthetic rubber, for example. Nazi Germany famously devoted immense resources to synthesizing rubber. But the efforts of German chemists paled beside the success of America’s vast industrial economy. For example, “By the end of the war, the [U.S.] government had built fifty-one synthetic rubber plants (compared to Germany’s three). . . Just one such plant, which might employ 1,250 workers, made enough rubber to replace a rubber plantation that had twenty-four million trees and a workforce of at least 90,000.”

Just one of the fifty-one synthetic rubber plants built in the U.S. during World War II. The immense complex was built in 10 months, an impressive accomplishment that normally would have taken as long as 10 years. Photographed in 1945. Image: West Virginia State Archives, Richard Andre Collection.

The English language

There’s a good reason for this, since success builds on success. For example, Immerwahr reports, “A study commissioned by the British Council of five poorer countries (Pakistan, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Rwanda) found that professionals who spoke English earned 20 to 30 percent more than those who didn’t.” The trillion-dollar international travel and tourism industry alone provides one in every ten jobs around the world.

Today, Americans can travel nearly everywhere in the world and count on finding someone who speaks English. And that is surely evidence of an American empire.

Standards

“Standards — the protocols by which objects and processes are coordinated — are admittedly one of the most stultifying topics known to humankind.” But they’re the rules that keep the world running. And for nearly a century, American standards have generally prevailed. All this, despite the fact that we Americans still measure in feet and pounds, while most of the rest of world has long since accepted metrics.

A history of imperial outreach

The story Immerwahr tells encompasses four phases:

  1. Colonial expansion into Native American territory (16th through 19th centuries)
  2. Seizure of guano islands in the Pacific and the Caribbean (19th century)
  3. Governance of territories seized from Spain (first half of 20th century)
  4. The “pointillist empire” (post-World War II)

Although some of this history is well known, other aspects aren’t. And Immerwahr does an outstanding job dramatizing the story with unfamiliar facts and entertaining details. For instance, even if you remember the stories about brave frontiersmen from elementary school, you’re unlikely to know who Daniel Boone (1734–1820) really was. Or what steps the United States took to head off an agricultural collapse in the middle of the nineteenth century. (The US grabbed islands halfway around the world to harvest bird droppings as fertilizer.)

You’ll enjoy seeing how Immerwahr manages to discuss the origins of the Beatles, how Sony became a powerhouse, why so many Philippine nurses work in US hospitals, and the true story behind Little House on the Prairie. All these amusing tales make Immerwahr’s book both enjoyable and enlightening. This is American history the way it should be taught.

What does the future hold?

China is growing fast, of course, expanding its influence throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America. It’s fast making headway through an adroit combination of aggressive trade and currency policies, generous development loans, cyberespionage, military pressure, and the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. But China has a long, long way to go to surpass the ability of the United States to impose its will on the world.

About the author

Daniel Immerwahr (born 1980) is associate professor of history at Northwestern University, where he specializes in twentieth-century U.S. history within a global context. He holds bachelor’s degrees from Columbia University and King’s College at the University of Cambridge and a doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley. How to Hide an Empire is his second book.

For further reading

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