How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States
by Daniel Immerwahr.
Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2019.
Hardcover, 528 pages, $30.

Reviewed by Joseph S. Laughon.

A common Lovecraftian theme is the peril in searching deep within one’s own history for some vindicating truth, as the searcher may only find terrible disappointment. In “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family,” the titular character explores throughout the world for proof that his ancestor was not insane after all. Regrettably he ends up cursed with information that is “a thousandfold more hideous.” Similarly America is on a voyage for a bygone idyllic world. It seems we are daily inundated with calls to “go back” to some older era where the American republic “worked.” However Daniel Immerwahr is here to tell us that there is no virtuous era that we can go back to. America was never the honest republic she pretends to be and has always been unscrupulous empire.

How to Hide an Empire is an engaging and surprisingly fast paced history of American territorial expansion. Immerwahr’s argument is functionally that America is not only an empire, but an empire in the narrowest sort; a physical empire, which Immerwahr labels the Greater United States. Detailing its rise, How to Hide an Empire contends that our empire is innately traditional in this sense—and that national ignorance of this fact produces disorder and misery across the world.

The book is a whirlwind recounting of the actual and conceptual growth of the Greater United States from the earliest territorial expansion to imperial legal precedent. From the beginning, America’s earliest acquisitions were governed in a total legal black hole, left entirely up to Congress’s discretion. Even Jefferson himself, architect of the Louisiana Purchase, called the arrangement a “despotic oligarchy.” Further encroachments on indigenous land lead to abuses like the Trail of Tears and threatened to divide the country into self-governing states and non-governing territories. Luminaries like John Quincy Adams felt such expansion would threaten the very character of the early republic itself.

The book then suddenly jumps from Manifest Destiny to the preludes to the Spanish-American War. The need for bat excrement—really—and developments in political theory led to our collision with the Spanish empire. In the wake of the sudden American victory, the United States turned from welcomed liberator to conqueror. The author recounts in painful detail how the unexpected annexation of Puerto Rico and the Philippines created conditions for misgovernance, outright abuse, unrest, and overall neglect. After World War II the lion’s share of the Greater United States was resolved either with Filipino independence or statehood for Hawaii and Alaska.

Even as the United States largely transitioned to an empire of influence and overseas chokepoints, however, Puerto Rico’s sad saga continues today, our last relic of the late nineteenth century.

Immerwahr’s book has much to recommend. Even though it covers a relatively dry topic, it is admirably fast paced. The book really picks up speed as it covers our long and dubious involvement in the Philippines. Even the most jingoistic American cannot help but cringe reading how Americans betrayed their Filipino allies, conquered them in a brutal counterinsurgency—America’s second-longest after Afghanistan—and largely abandoned them to the Japanese. It is hard not to hang one’s head as Immerwahr recounts how the United States focused its efforts on Europe while American nationals lived under Japanese occupation.

How to Hide an Empire does much to recover this shameful, yet critical history from the American memory hole. While it may be more blissful to be ignorant of America’s overtly imperial past, this luxury also is to our own shame. As Americans have no historical concept of an “American empire” we also have no sense of imperial obligation to residents of this once-massive empire, be they Filipino, Hawaiian, Native Alaskan, Chamorro, Marshallese, or Samoan. How can Americans be expected to rectify injustices of which they know nothing? Hopefully an expanded popular discussion of these topics will lead to a more robust public memory.

Despite its strengths, there are weaknesses. The book is less focused on the Mexican-American War and later difficulties in governing former Mexican and indigenous lands. Any mention is almost entirely in passing, which feels incomplete given the Mexican conquest’s role in fueling the American Civil War. This gap seems especially odd given how the Civil War’s legacy could be felt in our later imperial expansion. This legacy is echoed, if only tangentially, in How to Hide an Empire when Immerwahr recounts how a particularly gruesome version of “Marching Through Georgia” was adapted to the Filipino-American War.

The book’s largest shortcoming is how the domestic political argument over empire is functionally never mentioned. There is the occasional mention of some objection, but not any real attempt to get at the root of the ideological cause of American imperial expansion. There is a brief mention of a “Progressive Era,” but no discussion at all about why imperial expansion skyrocketed during this era of progress. While Immerwahr’s overall narrative is quite gripping, it would have been immensely improved by exploring the connection between Roosevelt’s muscular progressivism, Wilsonian idealism, and our nascent imperialism. Could not the relentless desire for reform and “improvement” lead to a desire to “rectify” ostensibly benighted governance abroad? Is it a mere coincidence that many cherished progressive social policies, like eugenics and population control, became imperial diktat? While some conservative critics of empire are briefly noted, their motivations are neatly boxed into a category of white supremacy, submerging an entire anti-imperialist tradition, and one that had adherents beyond conservatives.

Ultimately How to Hide an Empire is a terrific and sobering read. Any shortcomings aside, Immerwahr proves his main point: if we define empire as a country ruling over multiple places that do not govern themselves, then the United States is an empire. It may be an empire that is less enthusiastic than our British or French cousins. It may be an empire of which the average American is reluctant toward as well as ignorant of. But the Greater United States is nonetheless an empire: a place where legalized lawlessness was created and institutionalized abuse is condoned. This fact is as unavoidable as it is unpleasant. As the Trump administration causes Americans to reconsider foreign policy strategies and priorities, we may want to ask our imperial subjects—and fellow Americans—what they think.  

Joseph S. Laughon is a freelance writer and editor, and is a Concordia University graduate in political thought.