In a long essay in a recent issue of the London Review of Books, titled ‘Is This The End Of The American Century?’ the British historian Adam Tooze took a deep look at the United States as the world’s only superpower and concluded that it was not anywhere close to being knocked off its perch by China, considering that the two pillars of its global power — military and financial — were still firmly in place.
This is the conclusion Daniel Immerwahr too arrives at, in his book How to Hide an Empire – A Short History Of the Greater United States. The country is so big and so spread out, he tells us, that not many of its citizens, fixated on the ‘logo’ map of the US mainland, are aware of their country’s true dimensions, hence the ‘ Greater’ in the title of the book.
Well hidden from view is the ‘empire’ the US ‘conceals’ in full view, comprising numerous military bases it possesses across the Pacific, and others it has leased or forcibly retained such as Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, Okinawa in Japan, Osan, Kunsan and Busan in South Korea, Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and several others in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region.
Together these constitute the original ‘string of pearls,’ through which the US has rarely hesitated to assert its authority everywhere with an immediacy and force unmatched by any other country in history.
As Edward Luce observed in a recent Financial Times article, ‘It’s a principle that the US has long followed, meeting perceived threats, however slight, at their doorsteps — in Europe, Korea, Vietnam and the Middle East’.
Melding trivia with detail, Immerwahr walks us through the history of the US from its early beginnings, to the huge and powerful country it has become. While doing so, he also brings out what went into making the US so formidable, as a military, economic, technological, scientific and cultural power unmatched by any other.
There is hardly anything that Immerwahr misses out on the US, even managing to cover, in entertaining detail, how it set the standards for the rest of the world to follow — from traffic signs to ball bearings, brake linings, tyres, nuts, bolts and fasteners.
The big bully
Starting life as a small country hugging the edges of a massive landmass, the US grew in every direction across the North America through appropriation, deceit, purchase and war.
The American Indians were most affected as they were pushed into smaller and smaller areas — and even forcibly resettled in unfamiliar territory — to make room for a rapidly expanding Caucasian population in a form of ‘Lebensraum,’ that presaged Hitler.
Immerwahr dwells in considerable detail on the rotten manner in with which the US treated some of its own people.
The story of Puerto Rico, taken over by the US from an imploding Spanish Empire, makes depressing reading. It hammered the Puerto Ricans into submission while leaving their province in political limbo as an unincorporated territory of the US.
Immerwahr also graphically relates the US’s brutal handling of the Philippines, which it terrorised and briefly colonised.
Connecting the dots
The strength of Immerwahr’s book lies in the way he connects disparate events to give us a coherent account of the rise of a remarkable country.
A growing population requiring more and more food, for instance, resulted in a rush to collect a ‘miracle’ natural fertiliser, Guano — essentially bird droppings — which accumulated over time on uninhabited or lightly populated islets across the Pacific. These the US proceeded to appropriate and mine and later convert into military bases across the Pacific touching Asia’s doorstep in the Far East.
Immerwahr demystifies the US with remarkable candour. Far from being the land of the free and the brave, the US, he explains, has always been an expansionist, predatory and racist country. Even President Woodrow Wilson, widely considered liberal and fair-minded, stood for a global order dominated by whites, going so far as to state that their interests were paramount to his country. It might come as news to some of us that the US armed forces remained a segregated fighting force right through the two World Wars.
There are other books that try to make sense of the US and its power. The ones that deserve to be flagged are Ronald Segal’s America’s Receding Future, written just when America’s intervention in Vietnam was souring, Harold Evan’s The American Century, and Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, a much discussed work on democracy, keeping the American version in view, written soon after the breakup of the USSR.
However, Daniel Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire is a rare ‘warts and all’ account of the US written by a historian with the general reader in mind and it is by far the most engaging.
For better and for worse, the US continues to remain, as it has been for well over a hundred years now, the most important country in the world — frequently a bully, sometimes a saviour, but always a rude and arrogant enforcer of its authority everywhere.
Immerwahr’s book has two serious shortcomings. He does not adequately explain how the US, despite its failings, went on to become an increasingly fairer country, one that is far less racist today than ever before. It also does not adequately enlighten us on how much immigrants like Albert Einstein, the Nobel Prize winning astrophysicist, S Chandrasekhar in the past, and younger ones today like Sundar Pichai and Salman Khan of Khan Academy fame are transforming the US dramatically. How does an ostensibly racist society give such people space to thrive and prosper? But these are small failings in an otherwise wonderful book.
For anyone — and that should be most of us — wishing to know why and how the US determines what other countries can or cannot do — example, trade with Iran or purchasing its oil — How to Hide an Empire is essential reading.
It also explains how US actions — its war on terror for instance — have led to the long-running turmoil in the Middle East and Asia while enlightening us on why President Duterte of the Philippines continues to spew venom on America and the Americans.
MEET THE AUTHOR
Daniel Immerwahr is an associate professor of history at Northwestern University and the author of Thinking Small: The United States and the Lure of Community Development, which won the Organization of American Historians’ Merle Curti Award.
The writer, a former civil servant, taught public policy and contemporary history at IISc. Bengaluru.