top of page

Book Review:
Reshaping the U.S. Empire

How to Hide an Empire

Daniel Immerwahr, 2019

This is a lively entertaining account of the explosive growth and reshaping of the United States and its empire from colonial times and continuing the story through the aftermath of 9/11. The book contains much new and surprising information, at least to me, and an authoritative account of how the U.S. maintains a global empire without having to manage colonial possessions: 


  • In 1940, a year before Pearl Harbor, the census count for U.S. territories ( the Philippines, Hawaii, Alaska, Puerto  Rico, Guam, etc.)  was 18,833,023 vs. a mainland US population of 131,000,000. Currently, the US territories without the Philippines (which was given its independence after WW II) , is about 4 million people. However, the US  also has about 800 military bases outside its borders vs. ( for example) Russia's 9, and 30 for all other countries in the world combined. 

  • By the mid- 18th century, the population of the U.S. was doubling every 25 years, as described by Benjamin Franklin, an outstanding demographer. At the time of the revolution, the U.S. population was 3-4 million while France's population was 30 million. By 1900, France had a population of 40 million people and the U.S. a population of 76 million. Franklin's prediction of  the growth of the US over more than a hundred years was off by less than one seventh of one percent! For 150 years, the U.S. population doubled every 25 years. 

  •  The Native American population had declined to 500,000 by 1800, possibly a 90% decline. Disease took a terrible toll on Native American tribes and so did violence associated with the land hunger of immigrants. Every attempt of policymakers to set a line west of which would be territory reserved for Native Americans was quickly overrun by settlers who appropriated Native lands. Settler demands gave rise to new states as governments were organized to stabilize what had already occurred in the displacement of Native Americans, with the notable exception of Andrew Jackson who spearheaded the expulsion of the Cherokees from Georgia in the 1830s. 

  • In the last half of the 19th century, the U.S. annexed thousands of islands in the Pacific and Caribbean because of their supply of guano (i.e., bird shit) which was used as fertilizer for the vast farm lands of the mainland U.S. "Guano mining ... was arguably the single worst job you could have in the nineteenth century, " with backbreaking labor, lung damage and isolation on "hot , dry, pestilential and foul smelling islands for months." Chinese laborers,  Hawaii'n Kanaka's and African Americans did much of the work at great cost to their health and mortality rates. 

  • Before1898, the U.S. annexed territories with vast geography but sparse non-white populations -- Louisiana, Florida, Texas, Oregon, California. The country opted for "all the territory of value we can get without the people." This changed in 1898 through the Spanish American War when the U.S. took Spanish colonies in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines  "By the time the shooting stopped, the U.S. had gained more than seven thousand islands holding 8.5 million people." These colonial possessions were described as US "territories." but without constitutional protections, e.g.  the right to trial by jury, representation in Congress.  Puerto Ricans became US citizens in 1917, US Virgin Islanders in 1927 .. "Filipinos were never made citizens in forty seven years under US rule." Filipinos, like Samoans, were US "nationals." 


The U.S. - Philippine war (1899-1913) was one of the longest  and most disgraceful in US history. To crush the rebellion, Filipino towns were burned to the ground, and local populations were forcibly moved into fortified camps. Any Filipino outside the camps could be killed, starved or burned out of their homes. Filipinos were tortured, including water boarding. Nationalists fighting the US military did the same to alleged collaborators. A Congressman who visited the Philippines in 1902 stated: "our soldiers took no prisoners. They kept no records. they simply swept the country and ... whenever they could get hold of a Filipino they killed him." Theodore Roosevelt called it a "righteous war."


According to Immerwahr, "The most careful study ... found that in the years 1899-1903, about 775,000 Filipinos died because of the war, "most from disease. An estimated 4196 American soldiers died by the middle of 1902.  However, the suffering of the Philippines was not over. Immerwahr estimates that more than a million Filipinos  died in World War II at the hands of the Japanese who were merciless and then from US bombing and artillery when the US Army returned to the Philippines in the last year of the war. Immerwahr states that many US soldiers were unaware that Filipinos were US nationals, and did little or nothing to limit Filipino casualties in their attacks on the Japanese. 


According to Immerwahr, Americans were never much interested in ruling territories; their administrators " simply didn't know much about the places to which they'd been assigned. "  Americans, unlike the British, have not ( with a few exceptions such as MacArthur) shown an appetite for ruling an empire.  Perhaps this distaste for the administrative burden of empire contributed to the decision of policymakers after WW II to divest the US of colonial possessions, beginning with the Philippines.


In the last chapters of his book, Immerwahr discusses how the U.S. reconfigured its empire after WW II through military bases, economic power, globalization, and by granting Alaska and Hawaii statehood. Immerwahr provides a lengthy enlightening history of the U.S.- Puerto Rico relationship, including the attempted assassination of Truman and Congressmen in the early 1950's.  The history of Puerto Rico since 1900 is an object lesson in what it means to remain a territory rather than becoming a state with Senators and Congressmen. Trump's contempt for Puerto Rico was overt, but his actions reflected implicit disdain and lack of interest which has been true among political leaders for most of the past century. It's not hard to hide an empire when most Americans could care less if Guam or Samoa were on the moon and could probably not find Puerto Rico or the Philippines on a map. 

-- Dee Wilson

bottom of page