Critics of American foreign policy have long accused the country of imperialism in a general sense — of meddling and bullying, starting wars and inciting coups — but Immerwahr, a historian at Northwestern University, wants to draw attention to actual territory, to those islands and archipelagos too often sidelined in the national imagination. For decades, scholars have researched American colonialism in places like the Philippines and Puerto Rico; Immerwahr builds on their work to encourage a shift in the typical “mainland” perspective of American history, showing that “territorial empire” hasn’t been just an aberration but an inextricable part of the country’s fabric, woven throughout.
To call this standout book a corrective would make it sound earnest and dutiful, when in fact it is wry, readable and often astonishing. Immerwahr knows that the material he presents is serious, laden with exploitation and violence, but he also knows how to tell a story, highlighting the often absurd space that opened up between expansionist ambitions and ingenuous self-regard.
He divides the history into three phases. The first was the 19th-century period of westward expansion, including President Andrew Jackson’s forcible expulsion of Native Americans from their land. By the middle of the century the second phase was also beginning, as the United States started to notice enticing bits of territory outside the continent, including small islands in the Caribbean and the Pacific.
These places were rocky, barren and devoid of people; what they offered was plenty of nitrogen-rich bird droppings, the better to remedy the “soil exhaustion” of a rapidly industrializing United States. The Guano Islands Act of 1856 decreed that whenever an American citizen found guano on an uninhabited, unclaimed island, “such island, rock or key may, at the discretion of the president, be considered as appertaining to the United States.”
“It was an obscure word, ‘appertaining,’” Immerwahr writes, “as if the law’s writers were mumbling their way through the important bit.” It seemed to signal a discomfort, or at least the semblance of it. Soon enough, such official compunction was decidedly on the wane. Theodore Roosevelt, serving as William McKinley’s assistant secretary of the navy, pursued the Spanish-American War of 1898 with the zeal you would expect of someone who toted around a book called “Anglo-Saxon Superiority.”