Review: Daniel Immerwahr, “How to Hide an Empire”

In June of 1944, Dwight Eisenhower hesitated for cause of bad weather in crossing the English Channel and launching the Allied re-invasion of Nazi-controlled Europe.

In this he was following an example set some two millenia prior by Gaius Julius Caesar, at the time the scouring governor of Gaul, in both its Cis- and Transalpine flavors, and mighty Illyricum too.

In his own De Bello Gallico, Caesar described the approach to Britain:

When about eighty transports — enough, in his opinion, to carry two legions across — had been collected and concentrated, he distributed all the ships of war he had over between his quartermaster-general, lieutenant-generals, and commandants.​ To the total stated eighteen transports should be added, which were detained eight miles off by the wind, and prevented from entering the port of concentration;​ these he allotted to the cavalry…

These arrangements made, he caught a spell of fair weather for sailing, and weighed anchor about the third watch; he ordered the cavalry to proceed to the further harbour,​ embark, and follow him. They took somewhat too long to despatch the business; he himself reached Britain about the fourth hour of the day, and there beheld the armed forces of the enemy displayed on all the cliffs.​ Such was the nature of the ground, so steep the heights which banked the sea, that a missile could be hurled from the higher levels on to the shore. Thinking this place to be by no means suitable for disembarkation, he waited at anchor till the ninth hour for the rest of the flotilla to assemble there.

Julius Caesar, De Bello Gallico Book IV: 21-22

Twenty centuries of progress could not deliver Ike good forecasts for the twenty miles of sea between Dover and Calais, but they could deliver him something nearly as useful: live real-time computer-based messaging with the other top brass.

Daniel Immerwahr’s language here is neat: “Before the invasion of Normandy, George Marshall in Washington used a similar system to confer for more than an hour with Dwight Eisenhower in Europe, Douglas MacArthur in the Southwest Pacific, and John Deane in Moscow. The generals communicated by sending short typed messages, which appeared on a screen. In other words, they texted.”

Taken from George Raynor Thompson and Dixie R. Harris, The Signal Corps: The Outcome (Mid-1943 Through 1945). Office of the Chief of Military History, Washington DC: 1956.

This little contrivance is found in Immerwahr’s 2019 tour de force history, How to Hide a Nation, in the portion of the book devoted to what he refers to as “empire-killing technologies”. It’s one of the many striking anecdotes he marshals to build an alert and lively argument concerning US imperialism, its impacts on the colonized around the world, and the striking lack of impact left on mainland citizens.

Immerwahr’s book received all the praise it deserved; the New York Times called it a best book of 2019. My review, then, is not only late, but also redundant, because I feel similarly to the other, quicker (some might call them professional) reviewers. Still, I hope to bring out a few more interesting morsels from this very well-constructed book.

Hide an Empire succeeds because it is principally not about the actual land grabs with which most people are familiar from an AP US history course, neither Teddy Roosevelt carving up the decrepit Spanish Caribbean nor Seward’s folly.

No, Immerwahr did something bolder: he dared to bring us with him into the history of those new American lives and what the brutality of the 20th century visited upon them even as we mainlanders remained safe, two oceans away from the firestorm of it all.

How to Hide an Empire does what it says on the tin – it traces the capture of America’s overseas territories, their development (or lack thereof) in the period leading up to World War II, the wartime experience, and the twin processes of either decolonization or true mainland integration (via statehood) which followed the war.

It is important, I think, that Hide an Empire is not only concerned with the titular empire-hiding, which takes place in the imperial period, but also in the birth of the American empire and in the surprising new form of American hegemony developed after decolonization.

This fullness upgrades the work from “pretty good” to “great,” offering no-nonsense mechanical narratives of how wartime advances in science and technology “killed” the empire, or at least the need for the American government to administer a set of overseas territories directly.

Learning a bit of Immerwahr’s background reveals the seed of research around which the rest of the book coalesced pretty plainly. His academic career at Berkeley and then Northwestern has been made in intellectual history, and his “real historian” bonafides are unimpeachable – his first book, Thinking Small: The United States and the Lure of Community Development, won the Organization of American Historians’ 2016 award for best intellectual history.

That seed, then, must be somewhere in the tradition of American intellectual history, and indeed, some of the book’s most interesting and novel arguments come in the discussion of mapmaking and cartography in early-20th c. America. The introduction to the book is subtitled “Looking Beyond the Logo Map,” Immerwahr’s term for the cartographic depiction of the United States as merely the Lower 48, and a few chapters later he describes the impact of the successful end to the Spanish-American War on American cartography:

To McKinley…[there was] only one option: take the Philippines, ‘educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best for them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died.’ Resolute, he sent for the War Department’s cartographer…

The war with Spain gave rise to the only moment in US history when cartographers aggressively rejected the logo map. In its place they offered maps of the empire. Publishers, cashing in on empire fever, rushed to put out atlases showcasing the country’s new dimensions…

By 1900, such maps were common. They appeared as a matter of course in atlases, on classroom walls, in textbooks and at the front of the census report. Some showed the North american mainland surrounded by insets. Others showed the United States stretching out over the world from the Caribbean to the edge of China. Either way, the message was clear: the country had undergone a metamorphosis.

Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire, p.74
United States of America, 1900. - David Rumsey Historical Map Collection
A map of the US, published by Rand McNally in 1904, showing the state of the country as of 1900.

This is clearly not hiding an empire – so what was? By the 1910s, once the glory of war had settled into the doldrums of occupation, the appeal of empire had vanished to the mainland audience – “a regrettable drunken binge,” in Immerwahr’s telling. First Filipino and then Puerto Rican nationalists admirably profiled in the book, like Emilio Aguinaldo and Pedro Albizu Campos, agitated militarily for independence from rule by Washington DC.

The war in the Philippines was brutal, ugly stuff, reportedly claiming more lives than the American Civil War and defying the best efforts of the nascent Roosevelt administration to bring about a swift end. “As [Aguinaldo] saw it, the point of guerrilla warfare was not to defeat the U.S. army…he hoped he might influence the 1900 presidential election.” That year’s Democratic party platform indeed called it a war of “criminal aggression,” thanks to the work of anti-imperialist activists no less prominent than Mark Twain.

As much of a push factor as the miseries of the Philippine War represented, anti-German sentiment which coalesced into a resurgence of white American nationalism pulled mainlanders away from any attachment greater than the purely imperial towards their colonies.

Woodrow Wilson declared Flag Day in 1916, just two weeks before the first offensive in the Battle of the Somme, and as Immerwahr points out, even if they’d wanted to, there wasn’t much for mainlanders in the old Stars and Stripes to celebrate about the empire:

Whereas British children were made to examine the world map [for Empire Day], U.S. children venerated the national flag, which had a star for each state but no symbol for territories.

If U.S. teachers had pulled out their maps, as many surely did, it’s not clear what they would have found on them. The ‘Greater United States’ maps in vogue a decade earlier were no doubt still hanging on some classroom walls, but by 1916 few such maps were being newly commissioned. Cartographers were returning to the old logo maps, showing only the states.

Immerwahr, p. 111-12

By this point, we’ve strayed from talk about cartography. The book does too, covering the exploits of the US in its colonies up to WW2 in the intervening period, but returns, just as Truman is unwinding the US’ territorial claims, to discuss map projections, the favorite of every devoted West Wing fan.

Pivoting from Sorkin to Immerwahr, we find the following:

In 1898 imperial expansion had inspired new maps. The 1940s wartime expansion yielded a similar burst of cartographic innovation. Writers tapped surprisingly deep reservoirs of feeling as they touched on the subject of map projections. The long-familiar Mercator map, which showed North America protected on both sides by enormous oceans, became an object of scorn. It had worked well enough in an age of east-and-west sail, but the editors of Life deemed it ‘a mental hazard’ in an age of aviation…

More popular was the ‘polar azimuthal projection’ perfected by the dean of wartime cartography, Richard Edes Harrison. It showed the continents huddled around the North Pole, a jarring angle of view that highlighted aviation routes and showed how dangerously close North America was to Germany’s European empire.

The map was an enormous hit, reprinted and copied frequently. Joseph Goebbels waved it in reporters’ faces as proof of the United States’ world-conquering ambitions. The U.S. Army ordered eighteen thousand copies, and the map became the basis for the United Nations logo, designed in 1945.

Immerwahr, pp. 221-22

While the history of cartography alone would make for a compelling read, there’s a lot more to this. In fact, the breadth of topics which Immerwahr manages to fold into his book on American imperialism in itself is startling and worth reading, let alone the actual content of those topics. This is purposeful; as he claims, the work is designed to be “perspectival, seeing a familiar history differently”.

As such, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! comes out of the history of the actual settlement of Oklahoma, especially the former Indian territory never honored. The celebrated architect Daniel Burnham, designer of the White City and author of the Plan of Chicago, is revealed to have had much greater success in American-era Manila, though many of his creations were sadly destroyed in the Philippine Campaign of WW2.

Burnham’s Plan for Manila

The late 19th-C. craze for guano islands on the Pacific drove the earliest urges of American settlement beyond the North American continent, but the pioneering work of Fritz Haber, who synthesized ammonia, made the acquisition of guano moot. For this Immerwahr calls him “arguably the single most consequential organism on the planet”.

More tragic is the story of Haber’s later career; the worthy scientific work of his wife, Clara, stalled while her husband canoodled with Albert Einstein and set up a new institute for further research. After that work led to the development of poison gas, the German military staff kept Haber on tap to supervise its first deployment on French troops at Ypres. After that war, Haber helped develop a new insecticide named Zyklon A, and which would later be redeveloped into Zyklon B, used in the gas chambers of the Holocaust.

“Clara’s relatives were among those who died in the camps,” Immerwahr writes, continuing, “Luckily, not all of them perished. Although Clara’s married name was Haber, she is today known by her maiden name, the name under which she defended her dissertation: Clara Immerwahr. Her cousin Max was my great-grandfather.”

After that rhetorical mic drop, the book tracks the story of medical practice in Puerto Rico, in what turns out to be a particularly piquant example of the perspectival thesis. All $4.1 billion of the money managed today by the Rockefeller Foundation for “improving lives and the planet” would never have been put to work if not for an an early imperial-era deworming campaign on the island. Bailey Ashford, the physician responsible for this life-saving campaign, was replaced in time by one Dr. Cornelius Rhoads as the main medical administrator on the island. Rhoads, by contrast, spent much of his time performing detestable medical experiments on unconsenting patients; racist and eugenicist private correspondence of his, discovered by housekeepers, helped stoke the flames of revolutionary Puerto Rican nationalism.

And yet while Ashford remained on Puerto Rico for love of the island, Rhoads went on to become director of Memorial Hospital in New York, then head of the medical division of the Army’s Chemical Warfare Service, for which he received the Legion of Honor. He ended his career as the director of Sloan-Kettering, and the American Association for Cancer Research later established an award for promising young doctors in his name.

“But so complete,” Immerwahr notes, “was the informational segregation between Puerto Rico and the mainland that the prize was given for thirty-three years before anyone objected…Even the donor who’d funded the award hadn’t known of Rhoads’ Puerto Rican legacy. And that’s how you hide an empire.”

I really can’t say enough about this book; if you’ve followed along to this point just go out and read it.

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