When I saw this book up for request on NetGalley, I knew I had to get it. I mean, a different perspective on American history? Uh… sign me up! And I’m so glad I ended up loving this book. It offers great insight into the would-be states, from Guam to Puerto Rico and to the tiny islands spread across the Pacific Ocean.
Title: How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States
Author: Daniel Immerwahr
Genre: nonfiction, politics
Published on February 19, 2019 by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
Page count: 528 pages
s y n o p s i s
We are all familiar with the East-to-West 50-states maps of the United States, but they don’t always tell the full story. We’ve all heard accusations that the United States is an empire, but where are its colonies? In this book, Daniel Immerwahr takes the reader to the territories of the United States. He explains their history, how they came to be annexed (or almost annexed) to the US, and the systems of oppression that ruled in these territories and that continue to harm their future.
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Disclaimer: I was given an e-book copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
I want to start off by saying that nonfiction books about American history are my thing. Obviously, they’re not just my thing, but I love reading about history from different points of view. Given that I’m majoring in North American studies, this only makes sense. And it’s been amazing to compare what I learned from my degree versus what I didn’t learn and am learning now with amazing books like this.
I know nonfiction history books aren’t for everyone, but I still want to convince you to read this one. I promise it’s different from the others!
🌞 Fast-paced, fast-paced, fast-paced
It’s not often that history books are fast-paced, but this one was written with such engaging language and with so many amazing rhetorical elements that reading it felt like reading about an adventure.
As the author took me on a trip to Southeast Asia, to the Caribbeans, and to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, I couldn’t help but be glued to the screen (I read an e-copy). Immerwahr puts everything is tangible terms that are easy to follow and easy to be amazed by. There’s a lot of story-telling elements, which definitely helped keep me hooked. And since we meet different characters and get to know a little more about them outside of what history textbooks tell us, it was so much easier to connect with the flow of the book.
Seriously, this book is never boring. There’s always something happening, either in war, in secret machinations, or in conspiracies.
🌞 Very interesting point of view
I’ve been reading a lot more about American history lately, and so reading this book was a massive addition to my growing knowledge of the topic. I love how the author took a view of 20th-century history that is not mainstream at all.
Daniel Immerwahl starts his book off by writing about the map of the United States. The shape we are used to, which is the same used in the book cover, doesn’t actually represent the real shape of America. This is what he argues and he presents several points throughout to book to explain why the country’s shape is actually more complicated than normally imagined.
One example he gives the reader is Puerto Rico. This is probably the US territory most people recognize as being a part of the country in some way or another. Yet, only 37% of those younger than 30 see Puerto Rico as a territory of the United States. Plus, not even Hurricane María was enough to bring Puerto Rico to the limelight to the extent it should have been.
Puerto Rico is just one of the many territories discussed. From the former frontier states to Hawaii and Alaska and including the Philippines and Guam, Daniel Immerwahr builds a story of the territories and of the oppression they have suffered through the centuries.
🌞 Different narratives make their way in
I love how the book had both the overview of geopolitics of the mainland and territories, but also gave the voice to the locals, making it more personal and impactful. For example, we understand why the US would want to have Puerto Rico under its rule, we understand why Puerto Rico would champion for independence, and we see why that is so. It’s not just theory, it’s also about the personal level, personal stories.
The best example of this was one that left me completely shocked, as I had no clue (the same way virtually no Americans know about it): the story of Cornelius Rhoads. This man was a doctor sent by the United States to the island to look into Puerto Rico’s steep death rate. During the six months he was there, he came to develop a deep hatred for the people, as the author describes in this book. In fact, he went as far as to write an awful, nasty letter detailing his bigotry against Puerto Ricans, going as far as to wish they were all wiped out.
While Puerto Ricans know of this story and hold him as a criminal who went unpunished his whole life, as Immawahr reports, mainlanders (that is, citizens of the 48 mainland states) have lauded him as a pioneer in the cancer research field. It baffles me that there is so much controversy around this man and that, yet, I had never heard of his alleged criminal baggage before.
All this to say that… The author has done a great point focusing on individual stories that help explain Puerto Rico’s long wish for independence, the Philippine’s drastic change of opinion about the United States in just a decade, and much more. I found it very interesting and engaging.
🌞 The accounts are so thorough, they kept me shocked
I’m seriously surprised at how shocked I was reading this book. So many disgusting, heartbreaking things happened throughout history to the poor people living in the territories. It’s such a shame we don’t have the memories of this more present in our brains today.
Native Americans because chased off their lands, Puerto Ricans being unknowing lab rats for chemical warfare, Filipinos being the subjects of medical trials without knowing the full picture… You get the point. I had no idea most of these things had happened, which just goes to show how 1) ignorant I am of the history of the Greater United States, and 2) that the memories of these atrocities are not being preserved enough. It made me question a lot of things, and for that I am grateful.
🌞 Overall, it’s an amazing look at US Foreign relations and imperialism
It’s very often to hear accusations being hurled at the United States for being imperialistic, but at the same time, there isn’t a lot of awareness about the US colonies. I mean, ask about Britain and everyone will tell you about the West Indies, India, and so forth. But where are the American colonies?
While a lot of us (me included) will say that the imperialism the United States fostered is not geographical, but rather economical, that isn’t the whole truth. What I loved the most about this book was how it presented the colonies the country has held over a century and the political maneuvering they have done to not hold physical colonies.
I’m terrible at explaining this, but Daniel Immerwahr so isn’t. You should totally pick up his book How to Hide an Empire if you want to delve deeper into this topic. I highly, highly recommend it!
Who do I recommend it to?
To sum up, here is a list of people who I think would love to read Immerwahr’s latest book:
🌎 history enthusiasts
🌎 nonfiction long-time fans
🌎 newcomers to the nonfiction, politics genre
🌎 anyone who is interested in geopolitics and colonialism, with a focus in the US especially!
I hope you liked this review and that you pick up How to Hide an Empire! It taught me so many things and solidified my love for American history and politics…