Daniel Immerwahr: Redrawing the US map

Teaching American history in venues as varied as the University of California-Berkeley and San Quentin Prison, now Northwestern University professor Daniel Immerwahr began to sense that traditional American history and the normal maps of the nation failed, or one might say, served to conceal its true dimensions.

Immerwahr is the author “How To Hide An Empire: A Greater History of the United States.” Released in February, Immerwahr’s book is a pathbreaking history of the United States' overseas possessions and the true meaning of its empire.

Daniel Immerwahr

Generations of students were taught using classroom maps that presented the U.S. as the original lower 48 states. Until they became states, the territories of Alaska and Hawaii were often not featured on these maps. And far-flung pieces of American soil such as Guam and American Samoa weren’t to be seen at all. Even not-so-far-flung territories such as Puerto Rico weren’t there either. More remarkably, the biggest territory or colony if you like, the Philippines, which gained independence in 1946, wasn’t generally presented as part of the American union.

Immerwahr said he didn’t set out to provide a moral critique of America, but rather to reframe its history by fixing its map, but he has touched off plenty of criticism from the right and corresponding enthusiasm from the left, not a particularly unusual happening in the America of 2019. In the course of eight years of research, he found plenty to criticize about America’s second-class treatment of its insular possessions.

“There’s been a longstanding argument about whether the United States is or isn’t an empire and usually that argument is about its character, about whether it’s a force for liberty or a rapacious world dominator. And I took myself to be doing something different. I didn’t set out to vilify or venerate the United States, not to talk about its character but its shape, literally,” he said.

America’s notoriously short attention span and the remoteness of many of these areas from the mainland resulted in an out-of-sight-out of mind situation. Their resident U.S. citizens or nationals to this day have no voting rights in national elections and very limited representation in the U.S. Congress. They must often make pilgrimages to Washington to plead for attention to issues that affect them. Usually it’s a war or threat of war that puts the insular areas on the radar screen.

World War II made many Americans aware of the Pacific, as many engaged in island