The United States of America is an empire. Perhaps it is the most successful, richest, most ethnically diverse, most powerful empire to have ever existed to date. The much-discussed founding document of the US contains still active legal language on the creation and absorption of new territories. It last admitted the territories of Hawai’i and Alaska in 1959, a mere 60+ years ago, still well within living memory.
Currently, the United States holds 14 territories, containing over 5 million souls, and claims to hold 2 additional territories beyond that, still disputing them with the nation of Columbia to this day. In the modern world, very few nations practice this kind of imperialism and fewer than that still hold territorial possessions. Puerto Rico, a US territory and colony for 125+ years, has the distinction of currently being the oldest colony in the world. While becoming a US possession in 1898, PR hasn’t tasted any sort of independence since 1508. It is a purgatory.
Believe it or not, this scale of territorial possession is slightly smaller footprint than the US imperialism of yesteryear. According to historian Daniel Immerwahr, at the close of World War II, the United States held more human souls under US-controlled territory than there were actual US citizens in the mainland of North America. The Philippines, for example, contained some 20 million people at the time and was a US territorial possession / colony for half a century. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in WWII, they also attacked the US naval base in Manila on the same day. The attack in Manila was far worse than Pearl Harbor, both in the loss of human life and in military equipment. Yet, we remember only Pearl Harbor in that moment.
But there is more to the story of US empire than that. In addition to the 14 territories and 2 additional, disputed territories, the United States invaded and currently occupies 574 ‘domestic, dependent’ but sovereign nations. Think about that number — 574. It is an insane, incredible number of nations. Most of those nations were, and are, sophisticated, powerful, sedentary societies whose technological, philosophical and culinary attributes literally built the modern world. The popular millenarianist anxiety now is to compare the US to the old Roman Empire. But…we have far, far surpassed the meager, backward, agricultural slave-owning Romans.
So, in totality, the United States is 574 sovereign, ‘domestic, dependent’ nations, 14 territories, an additional 2 disputed territories, 50 states, roughly 800 military bases positioned in other nations, and then the District of Columbia. We’ve even planted six US flags on the face of the moon and created a space-based branch of our military, Space Force, in case anyone else gets any funny ideas. According to Immerwahr, most of this expansion occurred in three phases:
BY LAND — A land-based phase from 1776, when British colonists wrestled over control of the British Empire so they might operate imperial levers as they see fit (i.e. speed up the conquest of Native America). Those colonists then attacked every nation and empire in North America, new and old, and cobbled together the contiguous United States (the ‘Lower 48’) and supplemented that expansion with the highest recorded birthrate in history — a staggering 4% population growth.
BY SEA — A sea-based phase, beginning in 1867 with then Secretary of State William Seward’s push to buy Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million. This continued as the US grabbed many Pacific Islands and practically all of Central America and the Caribbean. Puppet governments, conquests, invasions, and military occupations were the order of the day.
BY AIR — An air-based empire beginning from WWII onward, using an interconnected series of hundreds and hundreds of military bases placed strategically around the planet. The US leveraged its position in WWII to set many of the industrial standards of the modern world. And because of this interconnected military system, we have to power to invade any country on the planet within minutes.
You start to see a lot of wild, potential states and territories show up during the 19th century. Lots of suggested states would have been carved out of Native American territory, as current states were, or carved out of already existing states. There were also situations like the many times that Cuba almost became a US state, or the Italian Unionist Movement that proposed that the US annex Italy, or even the time that the US Congress debated taking the Yucatan Peninsula. The idea of an expansionary United States was as common as air and ideas of how to grow or shrink the US are still topics of public debate.
HOW TO FEEL ABOUT ALL THIS — I type all this not out of pride or disgust. Americans have been trained to hate empires and to not see themselves as one (Star Wars, anyone?) so I think the need here is simply awareness. Most of this expansion happened before most of us were born, so we certainly didn’t have a say in any of it. And being proud of it seems strange, like being proud of a mountain. The mountain exists no matter how you feel about it.
All we can do now is to operate this nation, as its collective, democratic rulers, in a way that suits our morality best. And I feel that acknowledging the past and aiming not to repeat it, paying homage to the wildly diverse ethic make-up of the United States, is the best way to do just that. Vote so that oppressed people’s have a larger voice in our democracy. Give oppressed peoples independence if they desire it. Understand where things come from. Don’t believe the narrative that politicians and state-sponsored historical narratives profit from — they profit from your ignorance. Eat some freaking corn and drink some chocolate. Learn a few words of an indigenous language, many of which are still spoken widely across the United States.
If you’d like to dive down a rabbit hole on this topic, I recommend ‘How To Hide An Empire’ by Daniel Immerwahr, where I gathered the strucutre of what is written here. Also see Walter Nugent’s ‘Habits Of Empire: A History Of American Expansion.’ Between the two books, you will have excellent grounding. But if you want more, the podcast, ‘On The Media,’ did a three-part series all about his topic, called ‘Empire State Of Mind.’ Dive in.