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“How to Hide an Empire” opens our eyes to the bloody past of U.S. imperialism

Most students could easily identify imperialist European nations, like Great Britain or Spain. Fewer would identify the U.S. as an imperialist nation. The United States hides imperialism in euphemism, holding territories, not colonies, and fulfilling manifest destiny, not conquering nations. “How to Hide an Empire” paints a very different picture of U.S. history. The book explains that the United States, a product of an anti-imperialism revolution, portrays itself as “a republic, not an empire.”

Written by Daniel Immerwahr, “How to Hide an Empire” opens the reader’s eyes to the long and often  overlooked history of U.S. colonialism. From the forced relocation of Native Americans to lesser known events including the annexation of 59 islands in the Pacific and the Caribean Oceans between 1857 and 1863 for the mining of guano (bird poop), Immerwahr offers a guide through the lingering effects of colonialism to this day. In school I have been taught that the U.S. is a beacon of freedom, but this teaching glosses over the country’s bloody past.

The U.S. continues to maintain territories, the most well known being Puerto Rico, as well as lesser-known territories in Samoa, Guam, the Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands. Immerwahr’s book reveals the indifference those who live in the contiental U.S. have towards residents of these territories, highlighted most recently by tardy and insufficient disaster relief to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Immerwahr details the lesser-known events on the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor, such as the fact that the Japanese also bombed military bases in the Philippines at the same time as Hawaii, and he reveals that many Puerto Ricans were used to test the effectiveness of chemical weapons during World War II. These startling facts, along with many others, do not make it into history curricula.  

Despite the serious repercussions of  U.S. imperialism, Immerwahr’s book is also sprinkled with amusing facts to pique the reader’s interest. In one little known episode of history, U.S. reformers attempted to increase the spread of the English language in foreign countries by inventing a version where every word is spelled phonetically. Had this effort been a success, Abraham Lincoln’s famous words may have read “Forskor and sevn yeerz agoe.” 

The most engaging aspect of “How to Hide an Empire” is its recent publication in 2019. References to current events set within the present political climate made reading much more relevant. Towards the end of the book, Immerwahr highlights how imperialism continues to affect us today by describing colonialism’s impact on recent presidential elections. Several famous presidential candidates, including John McCain and Barry Goldwater, were born in U.S. territories that did not confer automatic citizenship. This caused a controversy as to whether they qualified as “natural born,” a Constitutional requirement for serving as President. Another prominent politician, Sarah Palin, came from an Alaskan family that did not support annexation of Alaska as a state. 

From large events to little known details, Immerwahr’s book exposes many elements of U.S. imperialism that were hidden in plain sight. “How to Hide an Empire” provides an essential perspective to balance the educational curriculum taught in most schools.