Daniel Immerwahr: Redrawing the US map

July 7, 2019

 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.

 

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-hopping battles against the Japanese. The GIs fought hard in the re-taking of Guam from Japanese occupation, but while this is annually celebrated on the island with Liberation Day events, the reality is a little different. Local people later came to realize that Washington had declined to spend more money to build up Guam’s defenses and that the American military, though aware of an imminent Japanese invasion, had been systematically pulling out its personnel before the Japanese arrived with bombers and ground forces.

What does this say to other U.S. insular areas, some of which lack important military bases or major resources? Immerwahr watched a 2017 video of former Guam Gov. Eddie Calvo on the phone with the president during the “fire and fury” standoff with North Korea, leaving him to wonder what that was all about.

Immerwahr said the Americans also showed little concern for the estimated 1.1 million Filipinos who died during the war, by far the worst blood bath in American history.

 

“What’s so painful about it is the complicity of Washington in those war deaths, because a lot of those folks who died, died both as the result of U.S. grand strategy and also died in some cases from friendly fire. And the fact that this was just blithely passed over on the mainland, doesn’t even count as part of U.S. history, that struck me as completely unacceptable.”

 

Immerwahr said it was a familiar pattern, now being played out in Puerto Rico, a flag territory to which President Trump seems to be hostile, or contemptuous as reflected by tossing paper towels to a gathering of hard pressed Puerto Ricans during his post-Hurricane Maria visit. The legal challenges to Trump’s travel ban, one of them from a sitting federal judge reflected some of the prevailing attitude.

 

 

“[Former Attorney General Jeff] Sessions said he was amazed that a judge sitting on a Pacific island could interfere with the president, revealing that he still didn’t regard Hawaii as part of the United States. I sort of get the sense that the Trump administration would be thrilled to de-annex Puerto Rico, though I can’t imagine that happening any time soon. The Trump administration is feeling that this territory is filled with foreigners, so why should the United States have any connection with this island, just let the thing go. In this way, Trump is kind of recapitulating an older racist imperialism that desired to restrict the United States to the mainland so it wouldn’t have to deal with people who don’t seem to fit.”

 

What does this say to other U.S. insular areas, some of which lack important military bases or major resources? Immerwahr watched a 2017 video of former Guam Gov. Eddie Calvo on the phone with the president during the “fire and fury” standoff with North Korea, leaving him to wonder what that was all about.

 

“I can easily imagine that Trump knew Guam only as a base site and not as part of the United States. That seems completely plausible to me,” he said.

 

And as to the other parts of what Immerwahr styles the American empire in plain sight, “I don’t think there’s a lot of reason if you’re living in one of these areas to be particularly optimistic about this administration’s support. I do think we’re at a moment when overseas territories are getting a lot more visibility and I think there’s a lot of reason to believe that we could see a future Congress that would be more interested in talking about status changes, increased representation and that’s not unthinkable. So I think the present administration is probably hostile to any part of that but I don’t think it is unthinkable that there could be status changes and increased representation down the line.”

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