Tuesday, September 3, 2019



          Connecting the Dots

When people speak of empires they are usually referring to geographical outgrowths such as the Byzantine Empire or the Roman Empire. The vast British Empire crossed so many time zones it was said, “the sun never set” on it.  But Americans have always rejected building an empire and being a colonial power – right? Not according to Daniel Immerwahr in his new book, “How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States”.

Immerwahr connects the dots by first asking questions such as: Why did Hawaii, which is so far away from the American mainland, became a state while Puerto Rico, which is much closer, remains a territory? Why do the Philippines import so many nurses to the United States? What role did the American military have in the creation of The Beatles? What does synthesizing rubber have to do with shrinking the empire? Why lease land rather than conquer it? Why did the US go half way around the world to occupy a desolate island full of guano? What role did technology have in building and expanding an American Empire?

With abundant natural resources and safely separated from potential enemies by two vast oceans, America felt confidently self-sufficient. And yet from thirteen colonies on the eastern seaboard the American empire expanded by first encroaching and colonizing lands to the west occupied by the aboriginal cultures of Apache, Chippewa, Sioux and others. Then additional lands were seized from Mexico to create Texas and Arizona. The expanding American empire was further enlarged with acquistions of Hawaii, Alaska, Guam, Samoa, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and more.

As the United States would discover, the highway of empire building has two lanes going in opposite directions. As Americans traveled the outbound lane, reaching out, to acquire new real estate around the world, the inbound lane was occupied by a kaleidoscope of people with different cultures, languages, dialects, and diseases traveling towards America. Hawaiians,  Inuits, Samoans, Puerto Ricans, Filipinos were added to the American melting pot as American music, clothes, language, ideas were simultaneously spreading like a virus through the new possessions.

Immerwahr points out that something as mundane as weights and measures could and did wreak havoc. During WWI
when American troops arrived in Europe, they discovered that, “…Europeans used different caliber weapons, had a different sizing system for uniforms, and measured distance differently”. How do you keep an empire together without basic standardization? Whose standards should prevail? Beyond weights and measures, how do you communicate when people speak a variety of languages? Language is important because, “…what language you speak will affect which communities you join, which books you read, which places you feel at home....and will have profound consequences.”

Flying the American flag in these distant places didn’t mean that Americans back home bonded with these strange, foreign people and places. There are times when looking at history means understanding and accepting that attitudes and mores of today can’t fairly be applied to people of the past. But some of the history exposed in this book can't be excused. Some readers will be familiar with the history of land grabs, termination of Native Americans, and flagrant racism. While everyone remembers the Nazi butchers of WWII how many Americans have ever heard about the Balangiga Massacre and the savagery of General Jacob Smith? One of the most shocking parts of this book is the realization that bad people have an alarming rate of success throughout history.

Connecting the dots is about understanding how seemingly unconnected events can influence nations, armies, individuals, ideas, and cultures. Immerwahr asks many interesting questions and provides answers by connecting the dots into a clear and comprehensible picture of history that educates and amazes.