Book of the week
How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30)
Daniel Immerwahr’s new book only sounds like a yawn, said Jennifer Szalai in The New York Times. “Wry, readable, and often astonishing,” the young history professor’s chronicle of United States territorial expansion entirely recasts our nation’s story. Though our politicians have always described an America that disdains imperialism, the nation we encounter in Immerwahr’s book has been ruthlessly acquisitive from its inception. First, the U.S. spread west, of course, expelling native populations. But it also began picking up island territories by the 1850s, and continued to expand its total land mass for the next century. Today, the nation maintains 800 overseas military bases to Russia’s nine, and remains an imperial power in all but its self-image. “Seen through Immerwahr’s lens, even the most familiar historical events can take on a startling cast.”
“You learn something amazing on almost every page,” said Christopher Borelli in the Chicago Tribune. Seabird droppings, valuable as fertilizer, spurred the U.S. to claim dozens of barren islands in a crucial early overseas expansion, and Immerwahr finds ways to fit Godzilla, the Beatles, and the peace sign into his surprising history. He opens on a darker note, with the Dec. 8, 1941, Japanese air attack on the Philippines, a U.S. territory that suffered far greater losses than Pearl Harbor but was talked about less from the start because the truth about our nation’s interests in the Pacific didn’t help the case for war. Racism often played a part in such decisions, said Patrick Iber in The New Republic. Though Hawaii eventually became a state, Puerto Rico, the pre-1946 Philippines, and pre-1902 Cuba—with their large nonwhite populations—were never granted that option. Our leaders preferred to obscure U.S. imperialism, and to take advantage of lands where the residents lacked full citizenship rights.
Immerwahr is right to point out certain American self-deceptions, said Max Hastings in The Sunday Times (U.K.). “In his anger, however, he ignores the critical truth”: that U.S. hegemony has been “broadly a Good Thing”—especially compared with the world’s possible fates had a different superpower emerged. “Still, for Immerwahr, shame or guilt is somewhat beside the point,” said Lidija Haas in Harper’s. He wishes simply to wean Americans from comforting myths and awaken them to their nation’s true role in the world. It’s “a question of accuracy—of knowing what it is you see when you look in the mirror.”