Northwestern professor’s new book explores US empire, overseas territories


Evan Robinson-Johnson/The Daily Northwestern

History Prof. Daniel Immerwahr with his new book “How to Hide an Empire.” Immerwahr said Americans need to consider U.S. territories when thinking about the history of the United States.

Aaron Boxerman, Reporter

Most Americans think they know what their country looks like: a union of states stretching from sea to shining sea, said history Prof. Daniel Immerwahr. But, as he argues in his new book, it’s not so straightforward.

Immerwahr has spent the last few years writing his latest book, “How to Hide an Empire,” in which he describes the United States’ complex and violent relationship with its overseas territories — a relationship many mainland Americans know little about, he said.

“From the mainland, it’s really easy never to think about U.S. empire and the U.S. territories,” Immerwahr said. “From the territories, it’s impossible to miss.”

Even the name “United States” is misleading, he added. Since its founding, the U.S. has been a “union of states and territories.”

Today, the U.S. possesses five populated territories — Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands — which are home to over three million people. The territories cannot send voting representatives to either Congress or the Electoral College and exercise little sovereignty over their own affairs.

For most of their history, Americans have hidden the existence of their territorial possessions — even from themselves, Immerwahr said. American classrooms and textbooks use the classic “contiguous blob” map of the mainland United States next to Alaska and Hawaii, but that familiar figure accurately represented the United States for only about three years, he said.

Immerwahr wants Americans to draw their mental maps of the United States anew — and by doing so, rethink major events in American history. The book, he said, tries to “use what we know to see U.S. history differently.”

“How to Hide an Empire” has been reviewed not only in the academic press, but also in The New York Times, The New Republic and The Times. The Guardian also published an excerpt as one of its weekly “Long Reads.” Immerwahr said he deliberately chose to write for a wider audience to promote new conversations about U.S. history.

Kevin Boyle, a history professor at Northwestern, called Immerwahr’s book “brilliant.”

“Professor Immerwahr’s new book does a remarkable thing: It makes you see the history of the United States in an entirely new way,” Boyle said.

Immerwahr has not been without his critics. Paul Kramer, a history professor at Vanderbilt University, published a scathing article on Immerwahr’s body of work in the journal Diplomatic History in 2018.

“Immerwahr’s claim that U.S. overseas colonialism has long been inadequately studied is completely without basis,” Kramer wrote. “Academics, policymakers, intellectuals, writers and activists in both the United States and its overseas colonies have subjected U.S. colonial empire to study … beginning in 1898 itself.”

Immerwahr said that the book is meant to be “perspectival” rather than “archival.” There are new stories in the book, he said, but the primary contribution is thinking about the United States and empire in a new way — about territory, not simply about global influence.

“There are countless books about U.S. empire, but a lot of them are about something different than what I’m writing about,” Immerwahr said. “I am interested in describing the shape of the country, not the character.”

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