The United States of America prides itself as a republic—a governing body that derives its power from the people and their elected representatives. The idea of representation alone was what sent colonial Americans on the road to revolution. In the Declaration of Independence, the Founding Fathers decreed that consent should exist between the government and its people. After securing victory against the British, the United States declared itself to be a bastion of democracy and freedom. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.
In How to Hide an Empire, Northwestern professor Daniel Immerwahr argues how the United States of America is, in fact, an imperial machine that continues to thrive and shape our planet to this day. The country’s iconic image—a modestly-sized nation stretching from sea to shining sea—is deceptively isolated. The reach of the United States is staggeringly vast. According to a 2015 Politico report, the U.S. possesses nearly 800 military bases in more than 70 foreign countries and territories.
Immerwahr argues that the U.S. is a “pointillist” empire. Other than sizeable additions like Alaska and Hawai’i, the Greater United States’ real power lies in a series of strategic islands scattered across the globe. On strips of land like Puerto Rico and the Bikini Atoll, the American government was able to test new medicines and nuclear weapons with impunity. These islands belonged to them, and the inhabitants were neither subject nor citizen. They occupied a national limbo, one in which they were privileged—and exploited—by American presence.
The paradox of the U.S. republic
The United States fought to become independent of an empire. Ironically, it became the very thing it sought to be free of.
In its quest for land, the United States came across the sticky question of race. In the past, it had no issues with relocating Native Americans to tiny reservations; Black slaves had built the backbone of American infrastructure. But when the U.S. wrested the Philippines from the broken Spanish empire, they asked once again: what did a U.S. citizen look like?
After supporting the American victory, the Filipinos’ jubilation soon descended into outrage when it became clear the U.S. would not let the Philippines govern their own affairs. The decision by U.S. policymakers to annex the Philippines was controversial. Those who supported annexation viewed the Philippines as a stepping-stone into Asia. Those who opposed annexation argued that it was morally wrong for the United States to engage in colonialism, especially when it had staged its own revolution to attain self-autonomy. Ultimately, both arguments hinged on the issue of race: were Filipinos capable of self rule? Were Filipinos equal to white Americans?
The United Empire of America
After defeating the Spanish, the Americans turned on their Filipino allies. The United States military leashed the archipelago under a bloody cull.
Like their compatriots in Guam and Puerto Rico, the Filipinos occupied a limbo of statelessness. They were reliant on the United States. The country housed diplomats, trained nursing personnel according to American standards, and taught schools in English. Immerwahr writes that the United States often “threatened” territories with independence: if they pulled out, the Philippines would pay exorbitant taxes, brave threats without the support of the American military, and many other pitfalls. Even after the Philippines gained its independence in 1946, their political and economic interests still had to align with those of America.
This case illustrates the paradox of the American republic. The Philippines was an American territory, and its people were not legal citizens. However, they were subject to American laws and statutes that could—and in many cases did —actively work against their well being.
To rule by fear
The Philippines is not a solitary case, but remains a prime example of the sheer expanse of American imperialism in Asian affairs. After World War II, the U.S. government built nearly 112 base facilities a month. The number of permanent institutions spiked during Cold War conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, and Laos.
These bases were heavily stocked with military men and weapons. Just the reminder of American presence was enough for any nearby or occupied country to acquiesce to the demands of their conqueror.
This detail is particularly telling given the United States’ origin story. They rebelled against the British crown because they were being taxed without representation. Fast forward a century later, the United States government was gobbling up land for personal gain while simultaneously disempowering the local inhabitants—all from the vantage of a loaded gun.
Is this so-called republic truly a haven for democracy and self-autonomy? How can they profess to want to free the world when they seek to control every foreign affair?
Why does this matter?
Worldwide, the United States has exported its brand of democracy. It even started a phase of “Americanization,” essentially urging others to be like them.
When the United States occupied post-WW2 Japan, they forced the country to follow a new form of democratic capitalism. They wanted the Japanese to be more like them, but in the 1980s, when Japanese tech products rapidly outpaced American ones, the United States waged a trade war on Japanese workmanship. The message was clear: be like America but never outshine it.
It creates this idea of Americanism where only white individuals can excel. This is what comes of an imperial legacy rooted in race and domination. These actions create a perceived other—a dangerous “us versus them” mentality where the “other” is dehumanized and/or objectified.
This kind of anti-foreignness also creates ill-feeling towards immigrant Americans who may hail from these countries. While fighting wars in Asia, white Americans turned their frustrations towards naturalized immigrants and residents already born inside the country (i.e. Japanese internment).
The dimension of gender
Asian migrants began to settle in the U.S. during the mid-1800s. Their presence was tolerated, but when the post-Civil War depression made jobs scarce, angry white mobs took their rage out on bands of unsuspecting “coolies.” The U.S. government then enacted the two decades-long Chinese Exclusion Act.
While some Asian men were still allowed into the country, the United States government banned Asian women from entering for “the purpose of prostitution.” Ultimately, this new law painted Asian men as threats, and Asian women as sexual conquests.
During the Vietnam War, the United States army gunned down civilians and insurrectionists indiscriminately. They committed war crimes in the name of keeping the world safe. Of these tragedies was the infamous My Lai Massacre. Soldiers eradicated what they thought was a Viet Cong village. In reality, most of the inhabitants were women and children. The rape and then immediate murders of these victims illustrates the callous disregard for people of color.
The highly controversial Broadway play, Miss Saigon immortalized this unsavory legacy of violence. The play essentially sanitized the trauma that many women faced at the hands of American G.I.’s. It was a love story that reflected a white man’s fantasy of Asian women.
Consequences of empire
In 2014, a U.S. Lance Cpl. Joseph Scott Pemberton murdered transgender woman Jennifer Laude. In 2020, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte granted Pemberton an “absolute pardon.” The highly unpopular verdict was slammed by LGBTQ+ and anti-Imperialist groups alike.
The main reason for this outcome is the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement, a document that governs United States military presence in the Philippines. The agreement determines where convicted American personnel can be detained. The agreement also disproportionately favors American misconduct; the two countries already have a predetermined process if a service member be arrested and charged with a crime.
Is this what American justice looks like?
The recent shooting in Atlanta is a reminder of this insidious history. On March 16th, a white male purchased a gun and visited a spa. He murdered 8 people including 6 Asian women. He decided to eradicate the source of his supposed sex addiction and within minutes erased 8 lives forever.
The legacy of violence against Asian women has turned inward into the United States. In a recent article for the Nation, Christine Ahn, Terry Park, and Kathleen Richards write:
Liberty and justice for all
The Founding Fathers declared that a government can only be established through consent. They believed in the ideals of self-determination and self-autonomy. In their quest for expansion, however, the United States began to operate like an empire.
If America is to stay united, it must reexamine a paradoxical history that continues to undermine its status as a democracy. It must reexamine an imperial legacy that continues to perpetuate cyclical violence against individuals within and without. If this does not happen, perhaps the United States will become something even they themselves cannot stop.