America extends far beyond the mainland.
In a richly detailed, thoroughly researched history, Immerwahr (History/Northwestern Univ.; Thinking Small: The United States and the Lure of Community Development, 2015) chronicles the vast American empire from its vigorous westward expansion on the mainland to its reach around the world. Drawing on archival sources and much scholarship, the author engagingly depicts the nation’s conquests, first displacing Native Americans, followed by the claiming of uninhabited islands, the spoils of war, and strategic locations. By World War II, territories comprised nearly one-fifth of America’s land area. Unacknowledged by most mainland citizens, these possessions have been relegated “to the shadows,” with the populaces, at various times, “shot, shelled, starved, interned, dispossessed, tortured, and experimented on.” America’s early forays abroad led to the annexation of small uninhabited islands—nearly 100 of them—that were piled high with bird droppings, coveted as fertilizer. In 1898, Spain’s defeat in the Spanish-American War brought a bounty: the Philippines (which the U.S. bought), Puerto Rico, Guam (which came free), and Cuba, which the U.S. occupied under military control. Later, the Virgin Islands, Samoa, and various other sites in the Pacific became American territories, which today comprise around 4 million people “who have no representation in Congress, who cannot vote for president, and whose rights and citizenship remain a gift from Washington.” Immerwahr animates the narrative with a lively cast of characters: brusque, egocentric physician Cornelius P. Rhoads, for example, who conducted medical experiments on Puerto Ricans, whom he deemed “the dirtiest, laziest, most degenerate and thievish race of men ever inhabiting this sphere.” Standing up for colonists’ rights—often to their frustration—were Ernest Gruening, governor of the territory of Alaska, and Douglas MacArthur, who led troops in the Philippines during WWII. Although the U.S. has divested itself of colonies, not needed in an era of economic globalization, the nation has invested heavily in military bases, which today number around 800. “The Greater United States,” the author notes, “is in everyone’s backyard.”
A vivid recounting of imperial America’s shameful past.