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Sunday, March 24, 2019

How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States (2019) by Daniel Immerwahr


Book Review
How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States (2019)
 by Daniel Immerwahr

  Popular history has what I call a "Dad History" problem.  Basically, if you want to sell a non academic history book in the United States you have the following subjects available:

1.  Presidential biographies
2.  Civil War
3.  World War II
4.  General studies of the United States

  Everything other subject in the entire history of the world is either marginally or not at all commercial.   Even in great independent book stores, world history might take up one or two shelves.   How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States is interesting because it is in one of those four categories, but is not boring or repetitive in the way that the most recent biography of John Adams might be.   Immerwahr seems to be taking thematic cues from popular social science writers like Malcolm Gladwell, writing about a wide range of subjects unified under a theme that might alternatively be called, "The Secret History of the Greater United States." 

  By great United States Immerwahr is talking about Puerto Rico, the Philippines before independence, Guam, Alaska and Hawaii before statehood, and an intriguing group of possessions he calls "the guano islands."   At one point, the idea of the Greater United States was generally accepted, before the 20th century made it deeply unfashionable as the United States defined itself in opposition to European imperialism.

   The United States has used a variety of techniques to obscure the history of United States empire.  Primarily, though, the major technique is to deny a Greater United States exists through the dexterous deployment of terms like commonwealth and associated territory.  Immerwahr demonstrates the country-wide schizophrenia via our continuing Puerto Rican adventure, but his strongest chapter is on the Phillipines, where we "liberated" a country from a colonial power, only to immediately fight a bloody proto-Vietnam style conflict for half a decade, up to and including well publicized episodes that read like stereotypical war crimes. 

   Immerwahr is being kind by sticking to the "confused" theme, because certainly many of the episodes- the war crimes in the Philippines, unauthorized medical testing in Puerto Rico, the atomic bombing of occupied South Pacific islands, seem more like the actions of a fascist dictatorship than a global democratic super power. 

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