Did you know that for decades, clothing manufactured in the Northern Mariana Islands could be labeled “made in the USA” even though federal minimum-wage laws didn’t apply to its makers? Historian Daniel Immerwahr’s meandering but never boring book is packed with such tidbits. He begins “How to Hide an Empire” with what he calls the “logo map” of what we usually think of as the United States: that familiar shape “bounded by the Atlantic, the Pacific, Mexico, and Canada.” But, of course, our national territory includes far more: Alaska and Hawaii (states only since 1959), Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam and a curious collection of other bits, from tiny Pacific islands to Guantanamo in Cuba. And in the past it included still more, most notably the Philippines, an American colony for almost half a century. Although since 1776 we’ve proudly considered ourselves anti-colonial, we were, for some decades, one of the five largest empires on Earth.
Often the imperial territories were under military rule, and often they were laboratories for things that couldn’t be done at home. Daniel Burnham, builder of the famous “White City” of plaster for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, built an entire, more permanent city in the Philippines. Baguio, in the mountains, was to be the islands’ summer capital, away from the heat of Manila. Back home, of course, no architect would be hired to build a whole new capital city. Some experiments were more sinister: Puerto Rico was a prime testing ground for a wide variety of drugs, including the birth-control pill. Its earlier versions left women’s cervixes deformed, leading researchers to lower the dose when the pill finally reached the mainland.
Immerwahr sometimes wanders far afield, almost like a psychoanalysis patient in free association. He tells us, for instance, about the unhappy marriage of a distant cousin of his to the German chemist who invented the first poison gas used in World War I. The same man also figured out how to extract nitrogen from the air for use in fertilizer. The only connection to the American empire is that a previous source of fertilizer nitrates was the uninhabited “guano islands” in the Pacific and Caribbean claimed by the United States in the 19th century. And do we need a whole chapter on how English became the world language? A sign of American influence, yes, but surely the British empire’s spread around the globe had even more to do with it. His occasional attempts to be jocular fall flat. After quoting President William McKinley as saying he wasn’t sure exactly where the Philippines were, he writes: “The geography section . . . was the easiest part of the exam. The real head-scratcher was the final essay question, worth most of the grade: Having seized Spain’s Empire, what should the United States do with it?”
What we did with it, in fact, was to wage the Philippine War. Philippine nationalists had long believed that we supported their struggle for independence, only to find the United States turning these newly seized islands into a colony. In America’s first counter-guerrilla war in Asia, hundreds of thousands of Filipinos died. To his credit, Immerwahr does not stint on describing this brutal conflict, including the way American troops routinely tortured nationalist captives with the “water cure” — pouring huge quantities down a man’s throat until he talked.
This book, however, is somewhat one-dimensional. The full story of any empire must include what it does to the home country. In France, for example, the arrival of 1 million or so pieds-noirs, white settlers who fled Algeria after it became independent, became a powerful source of support for the French far right. In Spain, Africanistas — Spanish army officers who had crushed a string of rebellions in the country’s North African colonies — were the core of the movement that overthrew Spain’s elected government and installed one of their own, Francisco Franco, as longtime dictator. “Without Africa,” Franco declared, “I can hardly explain myself.”
Similarly, the Philippine War came home. Returning veterans took jobs in police departments, and, particularly in the South, the water cure came with them. In Scott Martelle’s “Blood Passion,” he describes how Karl E. Linderfelt, a veteran of the war as a Colorado National Guardsman, later became a ruthless commander in a guerrilla war in his home state: a bloody 1914 battle between the Guard and striking coal miners that left many miners dead. Linderfelt recruited fellow veterans to help suppress the strike, and he spoke of the miners he trained his machine gun on as “the enemy.” At one point he broke the stock of his rifle over a union organizer’s head, later complaining that he had “spoiled an awful good rifle.”
Even more far-reaching ways in which the Philippine experience has haunted us are detailed in Alfred W. McCoy’s brilliant “Policing America’s Empire.” We think of the intrusive surveillance state — from J. Edgar Hoover’s huge files on Americans he thought subversive to the National Security Agency’s vacuuming up of billions of our text messages and emails — as a home-grown problem. But its ancestry lies in the Philippines. The independence movement was suppressed not just by American military might but by a massive surveillance apparatus. Four hundred and fifty U.S. Army officers throughout the archipelago were ordered to collect information on the movement’s “civilian sympathizers.” Two hundred undercover agents in Manila alone gathered details about any people or groups that might be a threat to American colonial rule. By the 1920s, the American-controlled Manila police had some 200,000 alphabetized file cards of data, covering roughly 70 percent of the city’s population.
Ralph H. Van Deman, the officer who crafted this whole system, later constructed and was the first chief of a nationwide military surveillance operation against American radicals during the Red Scare that disfigured the United States for several years after we entered World War I. Still later, after retiring as a major general, he ran a private intelligence bureau that traded vast amounts of information with his friend Hoover until Van Deman’s death in 1952.
Immerwahr is right to remind us of victims like those Puerto Rican women, but the legacies of colonialism are never in colonies alone.