“How to Hide an Empire”: Colloquium with Northwestern Prof. Daniel Immerwahr


In the final version of Roosevelt’s famous “A Date Which Will Live in Infamy” speech, the President mourns the bombings on “the American island of Oahu,” a turn of phrase significant here for how it consummates FDR’s behind-the-scenes resistance to editorial suggestions that he place equal emphasis on the tragic bombing of the Philippines and Guam, U.S. Territories also targeted in the same offensive against the backbone of the Allied Forces’ air defense.

Not long afterward, a group of Michigan 7th graders wrote to Rand McNally, publisher of the wartime atlas they were using to dutifully oblige FDR’s request that the public follow along with the events of WW II, asking why Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippines were listed in the atlas’ index of “foreign places.” Rand McNally wrote back that these islands belonged to the U.S., yes, but were not integral to the nation, a rejoinder that drew stern pushback not only from the 7th graders but also the Department of the Interior, to whom the aghast students forwarded Rand McNally’s response.

Both the President’s rhetorical choices and the publisher’s specious logic speak to the larger point driving Northwestern Associate Professor of History Daniel Immerwahr’s April 26 talk at the Kinder Institute: though we have consistently, often actively, failed to acknowledge it, the telling of the story of the United States’ becomes far, far richer—not to mention far more candid—when the history of its overseas holdings factor into the narrative. Drawing from his recent book on the subject, How to Hide an Empire, Prof. Immerwahr focused on three specific dates in illustrating this thesis.

1898: The Treaty of Paris

Post-Gadsden Purchase, the “logo” or mainland map of the United States lasted only three years un-amended before the United States began expanding, first into strategically important, uninhabited islands in the Pacific and Caribbean, and then into Alaska. Colonial discourse would catch up to colonial ambition in 1898, when alliance with the Spain’s colonies during the Spanish-American War led to the acquisition of Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam as U.S. Territories (this era also saw the annexation of Hawaii and American Samoa). As Prof. Immerwahr showed, this would lead to cartographical, nomenclatural, and cultural shifts in how the United States’ now openly global identity was represented: maps took on an entirely different nature, highlighting holdings and territories, with one even dividing the mainland not into states but into moments of expansion; writers would cast about for new ways to refer to the U.S. in its adulthood, testing out ‘Greater Republic’ and ‘Greater United States’ before landing on ‘America’ (Teddy Roosevelt would use this term more in two speeches than all previous presidents combined); and following suit, after decades of singing “Hail, Columbia,” “America the Beautiful” and “God Bless America” rose to prominence.

It would be a short-lived fervor. While Great Britain introduced the new celebration of Empire Day, the U.S. introduced Flag Day, a prioritization of nation over empire that was reinforced by the scant, ad hoc federal resources devoted to territorial governance; in 1916, The Office of Territory and Island Possessions had only 10 employees above the level of clerk.

December 7, 1941: Before and After Pearl Harbor

This emphasis on nation began to become more vivid in the mid-1930s, when the United States did little to build up or prepare its Western Territories as a potential war with Japan loomed, even putting the Philippines on a countdown to independence in 1934 and thus establishing it as a commonwealth that the U.S. no longer had an obligation to protect. This stance became more pronounced during World War II, when the United States’ Europe-first strategy—magnified by its denying the Philippines’ request for expedited independence so it could negotiate on its own behalf—ultimately led to the brutal colonization of the Philippines, as well as Guam, by Japan. The U.S. would eventually re-divert resources to the Pacific Theatre, but the cost on the ground—absorbed almost entirely by residents of the region—would be catastrophic. Liberating (or, alternately, re-claiming) Guam, which was taken in a day, required two weeks of bombing. Liberating Manila—at that point the 6th largest city in the United States—would take twice as long and claim over 100,000 Filipino lives; result in widespread ecological destruction; and decimate huge swaths of the city’s urban landscape and civic infrastructure.

In his research on the liberation of Manila—conducted largely by sifting through diary entries and letters from the time—Prof. Immerwahr un-earthed a telling exchange. After offering a young Filipino boy chocolate, an American G.I. was surprised when the recipient thanked him in English. The G.I.’s response when he found out that, post-colonization, English was the language of instruction in Filipino schools: “We colonized you?”

The 2008 Presidential Election

The Philippines would gain independence on July 4, 1946, a development, Prof. Immerwahr noted, that marked a shift in U.S. imperial thinking that tilted its colonial footprint toward the “pointillist empire” of military bases that we see today. But if the United States’ colonial approach has changed, the colonial dimensions of political life have in no way vanished. Take, for example, the 2008 presidential election. Republican candidate John McCain was born in the extraconstitutional Panama Canal Zone at a time when the citizenship status of children born there—even if to U.S. parents—was still being sorted out; Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s husband was affiliated with the Alaskan Independence Party, which has long deemed U.S. annexation of the state illegitimate; and, of course, Barack Obama, whose citizenship has repeatedly (and egregiously) been called into question since the election, was born in Hawaii a year after it officially became a U.S. state.


Daniel Immerwahr received his B.A. from Columbia University, a second B.A., as a Marshall Scholar, from King’s College at Cambridge, and his Ph.D. from University of California-Berkeley. He joined the faculty at Northwestern University in 2012, after a year as a Postdoctoral Fellow at Columbia’s Committee on Global Thought. His first book, Thinking Small (Harvard University Press, 2015), received the Merle Curti Prize in Intellectual History from the Organization of American Historians and was the co-winner of the Annual Book Prize for U.S. Intellectual History, and his second book, How to Hide an Empire (forthcoming from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), has been supported by NEH and Andrew Carnegie Fellowships. His work has appeared in Diplomatic History, Modern Intellectual History, the Journal of the History of Ideas, the Journal of African Cultural Studies, Modern American History, Jacobin, n+1, and Dissent, among other places, and he is the past recipient of the Allan Nevins Prize in American Economic History, for his doctoral dissertation, and the Stuart L. Bernath Lecture Prize from the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, which is given every year to a younger scholar for “excellence in teaching and research in the field of foreign relations.”