America’s hidden empire: the USA’s forgotten imperial expansion

From the end of the 19th century, the United States collected a roster of overseas territories in the Pacific and Caribbean. Daniel Immerwahr explores the story of America’s forgotten imperial expansion programme

US secretary of state William Seward (seated left) signs the agreement to buy Alaska from Russia in 1867

On 25 October 2018, a Category 5 storm ploughed into the United States. With maximum sustained winds of 180 miles per hour, it was the most powerful storm anywhere on Earth that year, and the strongest in US history since 1935. It tore roofs from houses and badly damaged the power grid.

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Despite this damage, the superstorm barely made a dent in the national news cycle. It received less than 1% of the television coverage that had been devoted to Hurricane Florence – a storm that battered North Carolina – earlier in the year. It was, wrote Anita Hofschneider in the Columbia Journalism Review, “The super typhoon American media forgot”.

That storm garnered so little attention because of where it hit. Typhoon Yutu laid waste to Saipan and Tinian in the Northern Mariana Islands, in the western Pacific Ocean. These islands are part of the United States, and people born there are US citizens – but few on the mainland seemed aware of that. “I’m afraid most Americans don’t know that we have overseas territories,” commented Phil Klotzbach, a hurricane expert at Colorado State University.

A US coastguard with a machine gun during the Second World War, US forces took Saipan and the rest of the archipelago from June 1944
A US coastguard with a machine gun wears a kimono and totes a parasol during the Second World War. US forces took Saipan and the rest of the archipelago from June 1944; inhabitants subsequently voted for integration with the US. (Image by FPG/Getty Images)

Weather, like war, has a way of teaching geography lessons. In fact, the US has a number of overseas territories, including Puerto Rico, Guam and American Samoa, and has had more in the past. On the eve of its entry into the Second World War, the US empire – which also included the populous Philippines as well as the territories of Hawai‘i and Alaska, nearly two decades before those latter two became states in 1959 – had some 19 million colonial subjects. At that time, if you lived in the US (the whole country, not just the part on the North American continent), you were more likely to be colonised than you were to be an immigrant – indeed, there were more colonial subjects than African-Americans.

Historians today are wrestling with these facts. Increasingly, they are telling the history of the US as the history of an empire.

Whatever the country named the United States was, it wasn’t a union, it wasn’t a republic, and it wasn’t limited to states

That history starts from day one of the nation. “The Name of this Confederacy shall be the ‘United States of America’,” read John Dickinson’s draft of the Articles of Confederation in 1776, capturing the heady rush of political possibility in those early days. The country would be a union rather than an empire, composed of states rather than of a motherland and colonies.

Except that the name wasn’t accurate. By the time Britain ratified the Treaty of Paris in 1784, which granted sovereignty to the new country, it wasn’t a union of states. The government had taken its westernmost lands from such states as Virginia and Massachusetts and placed them under federal supervision. Thus, the United States of America was a collection of states and federal territories – and it has been that way ever since.

For the first seven decades or so of US history, those territories neighboured the states and were expected to join them. But just three years after completing its final western annexation in 1854 – gaining a sliver of Mexico known as the Gadsden Purchase – the United States embarked on a new phase of expansion overseas. It started by claiming dozens of uninhabited islands in the Caribbean and Pacific, sources of guano, essential fertiliser for nitrogen-parched farms. A deal with Russia yielded Alaska. A pivotal war with Spain in 1898 brought the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam into the country, and the non-Spanish lands of Hawai‘i and American Samoa were annexed at around the same time. By 1900, the overseas territories encompassed an area nearly as large as the entire US at its founding, and held a population numbering more than twice as many as that living in the original land area.

One mooted name appeared in the title of seven books published in the decade after 1898: ‘Greater America’

Impressed by the country’s overseas expansion, cartographers offered new maps showing the Philippines, Puerto Rico and other territories alongside the states. Writers, convinced that overseas empire marked a new era, reconsidered the name of the country. Technically, its name was the one Dickinson had given it – the ‘United States of America’ – but in the 19th century it had most commonly been called ‘the United States’, ‘the Union’ or ‘the Republic’ for short. Yet after the great imperial land rush, these names no longer fitted as well. Whatever this country was, it wasn’t a union, it wasn’t a republic, and it wasn’t limited to states. Various names were proposed: ‘Imperial America’, the ‘Greater Republic’, and – a phrase that appeared in the title of seven books published in the decade after 1898 – ‘Greater America’.

Dissatisfaction with ‘the United States’ led to a more enduring verbal shift. Before 1898, though its people were called ‘Americans’, it was unusual to call the country ‘America’. One could travel 5,000 miles and read 100 newspapers before encountering that word, a British writer observed. ‘America’ appeared in none of the patriotic songs (‘Yankee Doodle’, ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’, ‘Hail, Columbia’, ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever’, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’). A search of speeches by presidents from the founding to 1898 yields only 11 unambiguous references to the country as ‘America’ – about one per decade.

Yet after 1898, things changed quickly. Theodore Roosevelt, the first president to take office after the war with Spain, used the word ‘America’ in his first annual message and then frequently thereafter. The name was looser, more expansive, and implied nothing about the country being a union of states. Every president since has used ‘America’ freely. And new anthems cropped up, with such titles as ‘America the Beautiful’ and ‘God Bless America’.

In the years after 1898, it was obvious that the United States was an empire. Its maps showed off the colonies, and powerful men in Washington voiced imperial ambitions openly. But then something strange happened. Perhaps due to the exhaustion of a violent war of pacification in the Philippines, or perhaps due to a persistent vision of the country as a republic, powerful people started ignoring the colonies. Without giving them up, the US simply spoke less of them – brushing them under the rug. By the 1910s, they had largely dropped off the maps, and they were no longer called ‘colonies’. That word, warned a federal official in 1914, “must not be used to express the relationship that exists between our government and its dependent peoples”.

In the years after 1898, it was obvious that the United States was an empire. Its maps showed off the colonies, and powerful men in Washington voiced imperial ambitions openly

This cognitive dissonance around empire, it should be said, was fairly unusual. Britain wasn’t confused as to whether it had colonies. It honoured them annually on 24 May, Empire Day, celebrated in schools for decades and made an official holiday in 1916. The United States, as it happens, had its own patriotic holiday, one that also started in schools before receiving federal recognition in 1916. The US version was called Flag Day, and was designed to encourage citizens to gather “in united demonstration of their feeling as a nation”, as President Wood-row Wilson put it in 1916. There was no holiday for the empire.

Writers said little about the colonies. The most famous literary engagement with them was surely Coming of Age in Samoa, a much-read 1928 ethnography by the anthropologist Margaret Mead. But Mead wrote of ‘Samoa’, the region, not of ‘American Samoa’, the colony where she had lived, and she avoided mention of colonies, territories and empires altogether. It’s entirely possible to read Mead’s book without realising that the “brown Polynesian people” she describes encountering on a “South Sea island” are, just like her, US nationals.

US soldiers land on Guam on 21 July 1944 at the start of the battle to retake the Micronesian island from Japan
US soldiers land on Guam on 21 July 1944 at the start of the battle to retake the Micronesian island from Japan, which had invaded in December 1941. (Image by Historical/Getty Images)

In 1930, a representative year, the New York Times printed more articles about Poland than about the Philippines, more about Albania than Alaska. It ran nearly three times as many articles about Britain’s largest territory, India, than it did about all US territories combined – territories that held more than 10% of the US population.

This lack of attention to the colonies mattered. It mattered especially in the 1930s, when Japan’s imperial ambitions in Asia became clear. A quick glance at the map revealed Guam, the Philippines, Alaska, American Samoa and Hawai‘i as potential targets – indeed, Japan did ultimately attack them all. But polls showed little mainland interest in sending the US military to defend such places, and military planners did little to fortify them. As a result, the meagre defences in the Pacific territories proved unable to repel Japan’s first attack when it eventually came in December 1941.

That attack is usually remembered in the US simply as a strike on the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawai‘i. Yet, within a span of hours, Japan also attacked the US territories of Midway, Wake Island, Guam and the Philippines; the British colonies of Malaya and Hong Kong; and the independent kingdom of Thailand. Some attacks were launched on 7 December and some on 8 December, but only because Japan’s manoeuvre crossed the international date line. The event, known in the US as ‘Pearl Harbor’, was in fact a near-simultaneous strike on various Pacific holdings of the Allies.

The USS Arizona Memorial marks the attack at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. The impact of fighting in territories that suffered far more over a longer period - such as the Philippines - is barely remembered in the United States (Danita Delimont/Getty Images)
The USS Arizona Memorial marks the attack at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. The impact of fighting in territories that suffered far more over a longer period – such as the Philippines – is barely remembered in the United States (Danita Delimont/Getty Images)

Pearl Harbor was the first US target struck. But it wasn’t clearly the place where the Japanese did the greatest damage; the US Army’s official history rates the strike on the Philippines as just as damaging. Moreover, whereas the attack on Pearl Harbor was just that – an individual attack, never to be repeated – the raid on the Philippines was followed by more assaults, then by invasion and conquest. The Philippines, Guam, Wake Island and the western tip of Alaska – the populations of which totalled more than 16 million US nationals – all fell to the Japanese.

The US eventually recaptured its lost Pacific territories, but at a cost rarely acknowledged. It bombed or shelled every major structure in Agana (now Hagåtña), capital of Guam, in its fight to reconquer the island. Manila, capital of the Philippines, was similarly decimated, as were many other Philippine urban centres. “We levelled entire cities with our bombs and shell fire,” recounted the Philippine high commissioner. In the end, he said, “there was nothing left”. It’s been estimated that more than 1.5 million people in the Philippines were killed during the Second World War. It was easily the bloodiest event ever to take place on US soil – more than twice as lethal as the Civil War.

The war in the Philippines isn’t part of national memory in the US. The National Mall in Washington DC has no shrine for the dead of those islands. The carnage was, like Typhoon Yutu, something that happened ‘over there’ – of limited relevance in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Yet empire is worth a thought or two. The Philippines is no longer a US colony, having gained its independence in 1946, and Hawai’i and Alaska are now states. But the United States still has five inhabited overseas territories: Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the US Virgin Islands, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. Some four million people live in them – four million people who can’t vote in presidential elections, aren’t protected by the constitution and have no role in making federal law.

This disenfranchisement matters. In 2017, Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico, taking out its electricity for months. Thousands died as a result of the storm, but it wasn’t the weather itself that killed them directly. It was longstanding neglect, followed by a lack of federal aid after the hurricane struck.

“Recognise that we Puerto Ricans are American citizens,” came the desperate plea from the island’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló. Yet a poll of US mainlanders taken after the hurricane showed that only a slight majority – and barely one-third of adults under 30 – were aware of that fact. One wonders if those numbers will be any higher when the next storm hits.

Daniel Immerwahr is associate professor of history at Northwestern University, Illinois. His latest book is How to Hide an Empire: A Short History of the Greater United States (Bodley Head, 2019)

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This article was taken from issue 15 of BBC World Histories magazine