Interview: Daniel Immerwahr on the ‘Hidden’ US Empire

The United States has a controversial and rich imperial legacy, but is it still an empire today?

Interview: Daniel Immerwahr on the ‘Hidden’ US Empire
Credit: Daniel Immerwahr

The Diplomat’s Franz-Stefan Gady speaks with historian Daniel Immerwahr about his latest book How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States, in which the author discusses the importance of the United States’ overseas possessions in shaping not only the cultural, economic, and political history of the continental United States, but the world at large.

The United States’ Empire reached its territorial apogee at the end of World War II, when Washington claimed jurisdiction over more people living outside the states than inside them, only to relinquish most of its possessions shortly thereafter. Yet, the imperial legacy of the U.S. persists and there is a good case to be made that the United States continues to be an empire to this day. At the same time, Americans have usually seen themselves as anti-imperialist — fiercely dedicated to the principles of republicanism and democracy while diametrically opposed to empire and imperial rule. As Immerwahr shows in his book, imperialism and colonialism has always been part of the U.S. body politic.

Dr. Daniel Immerwahr is an associate professor at Northwestern University, specializing in 20th-century U.S. history within a global context. His writings have appeared in Modern Intellectual History, the Journal of the History of Ideas, Dissent, n+1, and Jacobin, among other places. He tweets @dimmerwahr.

The Diplomat: How do you define Empire in the American context? Is the United States an Empire today? If so, what kind?

Immerwahr: There are many ways to define it. U.S. dominance of global markets, its omnipresent military, and its centrality in world diplomacy can all be seen as imperial. However, my book’s focus is on territory, on being an “empire” in the sense of having colonies and outposts. By that modest definition, the United States is an empire and has long been one. In 1940, at the height of U.S. colonialism, 19 million subjects lived in U.S. colonies. They made up about one in eight U.S. nationals.

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What do you say to those that argue that the U.S. is not an empire today because it does not have substantial direct political influence in countries, even where there is a large physical U.S. troop presence, like in Germany and Japan, and that its economic and political influence is more informal, centered around the concept of “soft hegemony”?

An important thing to note is that U.S. world power is not entirely informal, and it’s never been so. U.S. “soft” power is undergirded by territory, by the hundreds of foreign military bases that the United States claims worldwide, making up what I call the “pointillist empire.” These are U.S. enclaves, the product of legal arrangements and the site of on-the-ground deployment of forces and materiel. Though they are there by agreement, there is nothing informal about them.

In your book you cite the Democratic Party platform from 1900: “No nation can long endure half republic and half empire. Imperialism abroad will lead quickly and inevitably to despotism at home.” Is this the reason why Americans have been uncomfortable with the concept of empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries? Ernest Gruening, head of the Division of Territories and Island Possessions with the Interior Department — the U.S. equivalent to Great Britain’s Colonial Office — also at one time helped lead the Anti-Imperialist League and is quoted in your book as saying that “a democracy shouldn’t have any colonies.” Is this where the desire to “hide” an empire among the economic and political elite of this country comes from?

There’s always been a cognitive dissonance in the United States. It’s a country that persistently sees itself as a republic, even as it has colonies containing millions. I think that’s one important reason why colonial history has often been swept under the rug. In Britain, where leaders took great pride in colonies, there was much less attempt to hide the empire.

Was there a difference between European and U.S. imperialism during the heydays of Empire in the 19th century? A review of your book in the Wall Street Journal apparently makes the case that U.S. imperialism was more “benign” than, for example, German imperialism as it was not primarily driven by a goal of subjugating others and had more to do with the ongoing geopolitical competition among Great Powers at the time. Do you think the idea of American Exceptionalism makes it easier to “hide” the current American Empire?

Well, the Third Reich was, of course, unspeakably horrific, and by that extreme measure the U.S. Empire was comparatively “benign.” But that shouldn’t lead you to the opposite conclusion that the empire ran on rainbows. In my book, I investigate some dark moments, such as the reckless medical experiments doctors ran on Puerto Ricans or Washington’s knowing sacrifice of the Philippines during the Second World War — we think more than a million Filipinos died in the war, and many died from the “friendly fire” of U.S. bombs and shells. Despite all this, the notion that the United States has been unusually kind-hearted in its treatment of its colonial subjects — Nothing to see here, folks, just school-building and public health campaigns — has made it hard to get people to pay attention to the U.S. Empire.

A number of policymakers and commentators have made the same case for American Empire today. The U.S. may be an empire, but U.S. hegemony is preferable to no hegemon at all or, for example, China bestriding “the world like a colossus,” as Shakespeare would say. Only the U.S. can uphold the so-called liberal international order that advances globalization and liberalism, the argument goes. Do you think this is true?

It’s an empirical proposition and the problem is we have no good way of testing it. It’s not like we can try history without the preponderant power of the United States and then, if we don’t like it, go back to the start and change our minds. But here’s something suggestive: Since the 1970s the degree of U.S. preponderance has diminished. Washington still exerts hegemonic power, but it has less discretionary ability to arrange world affairs than it used to. And since the 1970s, deaths from wars, including civil wars, have gone down, not up, and they’ve gone down significantly. It’s very hard to separate causation from correlation here, but what this suggests is that the world may be able to sustain a significantly more democratic international order than it is currently enjoying.

Why have the United States overseas possessions — today over 3 million people continue to live in U.S. territories in Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Marianas — been so neglected in the overall historical narrative of the United States?

I think the problem has to do with basic conceptions of what and where the United States is. When most people map the country in their minds, they imagine that familiar shape, suspended between Canada and Mexico and the two oceans. Yet that shape only actually reflects the borders of the country for three years of its history. In the first part of its history, as everyone knows, the United States was smaller. What is less acknowledged is that since 1857 the United States has gone beyond the borders of that map, and in some cases far beyond, extending its reach into of the Arctic, Pacific, and Caribbean. Yet most histories of the country, from the textbooks taught in schools to the overviews written by major scholars, treat it as if it were just the contiguous blob. Places like the Philippines or Puerto Rico don’t seem like they are part of the country or part of its history.

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To what degree did racial politics factor into the imperial expansion of the United States? In your book you note that Teddy Roosevelt, during the Spanish-American War of 1898, carried a book titled Anglo-Saxon Superiority while in Cuba, which is exemplary for the sentiments of the dedicated imperialists. Did ideas of white supremacy actually inhibit the United States’ imperial expansion?

Racism has played a complicated but significant role. On the one hand, the “white man’s burden” ideology that says it’s fit and proper that the United States should govern distant nonwhite people has been essential to imperial expansion and rule. On the other, racists have sometimes been the most vociferous anti-imperialists, because they’ve worried that expansion would incorporate more nonwhite people into the country. The reason why the United States didn’t take more land than it did during the 19th century is that racists wanted to keep the country majority white.

During and right after World War I, the United States for the first time emerged as the champion of self-determination and democracy under Woodrow Wilson, a dedicated segregationist who thought that the American South itself was a victim of Yankee colonialism in the 19th century. Yet, with Wilson’s consent the British and French Empires reached their biggest territorial expansion in the 1920s. What best explains Wilson’s ambiguous stance on empire and self-determination?

You can explain it all in terms of Wilson’s growing up in the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction. The occupation of the U.S. South by the Union army before and after the war gave him a bitter resentment of foreign rule. But Wilson thought that the worst part of the whole time — worse by far than the war itself — was the temporary elevation of black people to positions of political power. He was incontrovertibly a racist who tended to regard nonwhite people as children, incapable of governing themselves or others. Combine a commitment to self-determination with one to white supremacy, and you get the sort of “ambiguous stance on empire” that Wilson exhibited.

In World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt was vehemently opposed to European imperialism, yet he had no problem exercising suzerainty over Hawaii and the Philippines — both colonial possessions that constituted the casus belli for the United States’ entrance into the war. How can one reconcile Roosevelt’s opposition to colonial rule while at the same time, by all definitions, presiding over an empire of his own?

We should acknowledge that FDR sought Philippine independence and played an important role in assuring that the post-war period would see the Philippines free. But that didn’t make him an abolitionist when it came to empire — a position that others, including in his administration, took. He sought a middle ground, an eventual, gradual end to colonialism, but one that might take decades to secure. He could be an astute observer about the cruelties of European imperialism, but he also understood the temporary continuation of empire in places to be an important expedient.

Why did the United States give up its formal empire after 1945, at a time when it was the most powerful country in the world? You talk about “empire-killing technologies” as one crucial factor. What were some of the others?

In 1945, the United States wasn’t just the richest and most powerful country on the planet. It had also spread out all over the globe. If you take all the lands it had occupied and colonized by the end of that year and add their populations together, you get about 135 million. That means that if you looked up in late 1945 and saw the Stars and Stripes flying overhead, you were more likely to see it because you lived in a U.S. colony or U.S. occupied territory than because you lived in a state. Yet 15 years later, there were only 4 million people living under U.S. jurisdiction outside states (and DC). I think there are two reasons. One is that a global revolt of colonized peoples — who got organized and got weapons — drove the cost of colonies up. At the same time, those “empire-killing technologies” drove the demand for colonies down, because they made it easier for the United States to project power globally without claiming large and populated territories.

Last, to what degree does Washington’s pointillist empire contribute to global anti-Americanism in your opinion?

I think it’s easy for people in the United States to not think very hard about those hundreds of foreign bases around the planet. But for people living in host countries, the bases are a political flash point. Two Japanese prime ministers have resigned over basing-related issues. U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia were the initial provocation that drove Osama bin Laden to jihad against the United States. The peace symbol, a British invention, came out of an anti-basing protest there. So, yes, even though the bases don’t take up much of the surface of the planet, they are extremely important, and they stoke a fair amount of resentment around the world.