Nobody knows in America…

Front cover of "A Short History of the Greater United States"

…Puerto Rico’s in America!

You probably remember that song from West Side Story. By the time Sondheim had put together enough lyrics for the original version of the fast-moving theme-song of ‘The Sharks’, he’d accused Puerto Rico of everything from ugliness and tropical diseases through hurricanes to a population problem. The song is discussed in Daniel Immerwahr’s How To Hide An Empire. Apparently, the bit about Americans not knowing Puerto Rico was American was about the only bit he got right. Most of it though, got complained about by Puerto Ricans.

Elsewhere in this fascinating book, Immerwahr tells the tale of a GI in Manila, “handing out cigarettes and Hershey bars, speaking slowly”, who was surprised to discover the Filippino kids spoke fluent English. They had to explain to him that they all used English at school, because their country was an American colony.

The United States of America has never encouraged its citizens to be aware of its off shore uh — territories, and has always avoided being seen by the world as an imperial endeavour, but there has never been a time when it wasn’t in control, one way or another, of lands far outside the States themselves. Immerwahr has much to say about those two words “territories” and “states”. US politicians have always been very careful who they bestow citizenship and voting rights to, and the best way to avoid handing them out is to control “territories” rather than add “states” to the constitution. In the early days, this was a way to avoid allowing political representation to Native Americans and “free blacks” but citizenship by skin colour appears to have continued as a theme throughout the centuries.


 It all started with bird shit, apparently. Having more or less run the Native Americans off the place, and overseen the establishment of vast numbers of farms to feed the burgeoning population, the twinkling new USA found itself desperately in need of fertilizers to keep its farms going, and keep the food arriving.  The way to do that, it was decided, after 101 less workable ideas were explored, was to grab rights to a load of guano-coated oceanic islands, and scrape them bare. But how to do that, without getting accused of imperialism? You do it by writing the “Guano Islands Act” and fiddling with the words of the requisition. Don’t send boats out to capture territory and make it your own, send them out to find places you can declare “appertain to” your country (and don’t define that tricky term).

Map of "The Greater United States"


The  trick became unfortunately visible in 1889, when there was a riot on Navassa Island. When the reasons for the riot came to light, many commenters simply stated that they weren’t surprised. Not being a state, the Island didn’t come under the US constitution, the people there weren’t citizens, and didn’t have rights. As a result, the island was being treated like a prison camp by an extraction company. There was no government authority on the island, and no workers’ rights to apply even if there had been anyone to apply them. Meanwhile, on the other side of the argument, the rioters’ lawyers claimed they could not be prosecuted for rioting because the island was not under US jurisdiction.

Potted history correction

Reading Immerwahr’s tale of the years is a cascade of “oh I see!” moments, like the ones you may have had growing up – when you discovered the truth about Daniel Boone for example, or The Little House on the Prairie, or Oklahoma, or The Virginian — in fact, cowboys generally — any of the hundred and one other things that together painted a picture of what we used to think the USA was. For me, a lot of that kind of unpicking went on a few years ago after the Windrush scandal came to light, and we in the UK all started looking again at our own history but Immerwahr takes it a lot further, as the tale of the USA moves into the 20th century, and the birdshit islands become air bases.

The USA continues to pick its words carefully, so it can continue to set up communications, surveillance and landing strips all over the world without thinking of itself as any kind of empire, let alone The Evil Empire.

One way it can be done is to rush in and help anywhere a country’s leader is losing control, get formal permission to send troops in to “pacify” places, take on financial and trade powers but leave sovreignity well alone. The really clever bit it to make sure you leave with a document in your pocket – one that gives you permission to send your troops back in on sight of anything you may deign to call “instability” in the future.

If, like me, you’ve always had a slight case of double vision around the USA, perhaps occasionally wondering quite what Pearl Harbour was, that Japan’s famous attack was classed as an invasion of the USA, or how so many of the USA’s tropical islands can turn out to be so very far away from – well, the USA, I highly recommend this book. It will help to identify some of the “misplaced books” in your personal mental library, to sort out the confusions that schools and movies create – like the one about how the USA gets to behave so utterly reprehensibly to people it mysteriously sends to Guantanamo Bay, that place that is and isn’t in Cuba, and like why you’ve always vaguely noticed the absence of any kind of government – or indeed any human action at all, in Alaska.

And just this morning, when a friend who’s on her travels left a message on my blog, a glance at my stats told me her message came from somewhere called “The Palestinian Territories” – I immediately thought of Immerwahr’s explanation of how the USA avoided bestowing statehood or constitutional rights on “undesirable people” (Native Americans say, or “free blacks”) by calling certain “appurtenances” territories rather than states. Ahah, I thought – someone is using the USA’s playbook, there.

An admirable constitution

No, not the USA’s, but Japan’s. At the end of the second world war, the USA had a vast network of bases, territories and occupier-responsibilities all over the world. Far more than they could keep control of. According to Immerwahr, the only reason they allowed their troops to go home at all was that they couldn’t hope to control the revolts that broke out across the Pacific when demob was delayed – USA citizens were yelling BRING DADDY HOME, and the not-quite citizens of all the not-quite colonies were yelling GO HOME, and the USA didn’t have an army to send out to beat their own army into submission.

Among the things the USA failed to control was Beata Sirota, a young Jewish woman who found her way onto the constitution drafting committee whilst Japan was under US occupation. Being one of the few white people in Tokyo who spoke Japanese fluently, Sirota got stuck in, and Japan got a constitution that banned war, racial and sexual discrimination and torture, mandated equal rights within marriage and academic freedom, and granted all citizens the right to “minimum standards of wholesome and cultural living.”

No wonder post-war USA politicians applied themselves to scaling down their international responsibilities – they were though, careful to keep what has been called a pointillist empire – tiny pieces of just about everywhere, enough to house their military and surveillance bases, their communications and trading infrastructure – tiny dots across the globe the modern US empire may be, but they very carefully hang on to exactly the powers of control and defence they need – no doubt by means of lots of words like appurtenance.

Please consider reading How to Hide and Empire and, as you read, please think about what proportion of the wars and other human-made disasters in this world are triggered, managed and maintained by the USA, and please think about what happened at the end of the second world war, when the USA realized it was well placed to run the world, but the occupied peoples, and the millions of GIs and GI wives all over the world went out on the streets saying, BRING DADDY HOME and GO HOME… Please think about what would happen if the citizens of today’s 400-odd appurtenances, dotted all over the world, decided to do the same.


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