Book Review: How to Hide an Empire by Daniel Immerwahr

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We are familiar with maps that outline all fifty states. And we are also familiar with the idea that the United States is an “empire,” exercising power around the world. But what about the actual territories–the islands, atolls, and archipelagos–this country has governed and inhabited?
In How to Hide an Empire, Daniel Immerwahr tells the fascinating story of the United States outside the United States. In crackling, fast-paced prose, he reveals forgotten episodes that cast American history in a new light. We travel to the Guano Islands, where prospectors collected one of the nineteenth century’s most valuable commodities, and the Philippines, site of the most destructive event on U.S. soil. In Puerto Rico, Immerwahr shows how U.S. doctors conducted grisly experiments they would never have conducted on the mainland and charts the emergence of independence fighters who would shoot up the U.S. Congress.
In the years after World War II, Immerwahr notes, the United States moved away from colonialism. Instead, it put innovations in electronics, transportation, and culture to use, devising a new sort of influence that did not require the control of space. Rich with absorbing vignettes, full of surprises, and driven by an original conception of what empire and globalization mean today, How to Hide an Empire is a major and compulsively readable work of history.

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I’m not someone who knows much of American history – we obviously didn’t need to study it in school and whatever I’ve gleaned through in the past few years has been by watching documentaries, tv shows or reading fiction inspired by true historical events. Even in those cases, I have probably read more about WWII because the Holocaust is one of the most horrific events that I’ve come to know perpetrated by design by one evil man. As far as American history is concerned, I know about important events and key figures related to the Civil war and the civil rights movement, but not much more. So, why did I pick up this book? I have no idea. I just read one glowing review on Goodreads and decided to give it a try. And whatever I was expecting it to be, it surpassed all my expectations.

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The one common refrain we always hear is that history books are boring. And this book is most definitely written by a history professor. But boring it ain’t. While I hoped that it would be interesting enough that I can read it slowly over the course of a week or two, I didn’t expect it to suck me into it so wholly that I managed to complete in just three sittings. The author writes in such an accessible manner with lots of anecdotes and dry humor that you can’t help but enjoy it. Particularly, the first half to two thirds of the book is very engrossing – the details of the events the author is describing are truly horrific and I was frankly appalled that I didn’t know any of it. However, what is more appalling is that this actual history of the United States is nowhere taught in its schools. Americans might very well proclaim (and even believe in their hearts) that they are a nation built out of anti-imperialist notions, and by virtue of literally erasing all this history from their textbooks ensure that this image stays intact, but the fact is, US has been an empire and colonized millions of people since the late 19th century and continues to do so till this day.

There are many important chapters of history that the author decides to talk about, but the two which get most page time are Philippines and Puerto Rico. While I had some idea that PR is still a colony of the US and has no representation in Congress while being very dependent on federal aid, I knew nothing about how it came to be so. And I literally had no clue that Philippines, a country in Asia was colonized by the US for around 47 years. The years of oppression, the wars and massacres that were raged to quell any rebellions and exploitation of resources reads like any standard imperial fare (I’ve read enough about British in India to see the similarities) – it’s just surprising to read because we never talk about US in the same vein as British while discussing colonization.

What was truly horrific and revolting to read about was the illegal and unethical experiments that so-called pioneers of American medicine conducted on their colonial subjects, with no regard for their consent because they didn’t care about “those” people. Forced sterilizations, experimenting the initial versions of the birth control pill (with highly adverse side effects), deliberately not giving medicine to some patients to determine how they fare, and airdropping mustard gas on thousands of people to understand its effect on humans – these are not so dissimilar to what Josef Mengele did – but while one is the infamous Angel of Death, other is the father of Chemotherapy. I guess this is what it means when we say history is written by the victors.

The latter half of the book deals more with how the nature of imperialism changed after WWII and technological advances made during the war enabled it to take the form of globalization. I was utterly fascinated by the chapters about how American standards became the norm across the world in every field and ISO came to be, and the rise of English as the global connecting language. Some might think this was actually good and only happened because of “free market capitalism” and not forced on anybody, but when one country controls more than 60% of the manufacturing economy of the world, the leverage it holds is enormous and what other countries do to appease it is just pragmatism and not enthusiastic acceptance. One very stark fact that reiterates it is that while all countries across the world decided to adhere to many US standards, US still separates itself from everyone by refusing to use the metric system. This may also seem trivial to Americans because they are used to believing they are the best at everything, but as an Indian, the fear of losing our languages and ultimately our culture to the hegemony of English isn’t really that unfounded.

The last section of the book about the pointillist empire is where I lost interest a little. The author rightly points out that the more than 800 US bases across the world make it an empire even now, albeit just a different kind but he doesn’t go into much detail. We only get to know a little about the military bases in Japan as well the initial ones in Saudi Arabia, which eventually and very unexpectedly led to the rise of Japan as a tough industrial competitor to the US; and the accumulation of wealth by the bin Laden family and then using it to fight against the US which facilitated that wealth in the first place. The author also points out little known facts about how Guantanamo bay came to be which eventually led to its use as a detention facility, as well as the loopholes in law which led to exploitation of labor in Northern Mariana Islands even though they were by right US citizens. The author refrains from going into much detail about any of these though, and also only makes cursory references to all the wars the US has fought in after WWII. I guess this was done to limit the size of an already big book, but it just gave a feeling that some important events were glossed over.

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Wow did I go on quite a rant in this review. I didn’t even realize I had so much to say. To conclude, I just want to mention that this book is well written and very readable for anyone, whether you know anything about US history or not. Even if you usually find history books boring, I promise that this is very engrossing and enjoyable, mostly due to the author’s excellent storytelling skills. And if you are someone who is interested to know more about the usually hidden and unknown parts of American history, you should definitely give this a try. It’ll surely surprise you. And I think it’s important to know this history but ignorance of it can only lead to mistakes in the future.

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8 thoughts on “Book Review: How to Hide an Empire by Daniel Immerwahr

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  1. Oh wow! Sahi! I hadn’t at all expected that a book on history could be so beguiling. I mean, all the most it’s not even our history , where you know there’s that urge to know more or a familiar and therefore the connection that requires you to see the book through. But god, the experiments you’re speaking about the way in which the whole of the book seems to unfold really captured my attention.

    Fantastic review Sahi. Perhaps you should consider writing a post on how you prepare for writing of your reviews? I’d love to see that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Me too babe.. I never thought you can make a history book sound like a story, but the author was very good in that way…
      and while it’s not our history, I’ve atleast become a little familiar and interested because of living here, so I wanted to read… what I always find fascinating is finding the parallels between those events and our current world…

      Thank you so much !!! And I don’t even know if I have a process and prep for writing reviews, but am gonna try 😊😊

      Liked by 1 person

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