by Howard Hills
Puerto Rico’s arrested political development caused by U.S. imperialism, or island territory’s failed “autonomy” experiment?
More empty cliches and misplaced historical guilt
The San Juan Daily Star recently re-printed a book review by New York Times non-fiction critic Jennifer Szalai. How to Hide an Empire by Daniel Immerwahr holds few surprises or original insights on the history of U.S. territories.
The author far less competently charts much of the same historical landscape explored in The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War by James Bradley (Flags of Our Fathers, Flyboys).
Dr. Immerwahr hails from University of California at Berkley, before joining faculty of Northwestern University. Szalai positively gushes about how charmingly clever and shrewdly witty the author proves himself in approaching what she surmises to be an esoteric if not stodgy topic.
The conspicuously uncritical critic announces herself “riveted” by “astonishing…skilled storytelling…laden with exploitation and violence…a provocative and absorbing history of the United States ‘not as it appears in its fantasies, but as it really is…’”
She couldn’t be more wrong. What we have here is American territorial history as re-imagined by yet another opportunistic historian, marketing one more predictable reiteration of the worn out narrative of historical guilt written already a thousand times.
As such, the book is old wine in a new bottle that has gone bad. It does not require a discerning palate to be left with a bad taste in one’s mouth. This is a sampling not of the real America but the author’s own ideological fantasies.
In grandiloquent verbosity Immerwahr impudently scolds America for the moral failures of territorial traditions and policies in which he sees only evil as real, and anything good as chauvinistic delusion and American self-deception.
What the author and his intellectually infatuated critic fail to recognize is that the very title of the book articulates a false premise. The truth is America’s history of territorial rule – including its imperialist experimentation – is not “hidden” at all.
Rather, the sweeping historical spectacle of America’s anti-colonial heritage, along with conspicuous contradictions rising from both lawful territorial acquisition and annexation of new territories by stealth and intrigue, is an open book for all the world to see.
All that was good and evil about our “manifest destiny” extending national borders was if nothing else manifest to all the world.
Few topics have been studied and debated more transparently in real time or retrospectively than the 19th century story of our nation’s continental expansion. That was followed in the 20th century by advent of overseas possessions and the burdens as well as benefits of empire.
The expansion of American interests beyond contiguous borders enabled the U.S. to project power into every corner of the world. It also induced an optimism both naive and arrogant. The presumption was the U.S could manage pragmatically cross cultural relations with foreign peoples in overseas territories any better than it had in the case of American native tribal peoples.
In the well-trodden paths of scholarship on these topics, How to Hide an Empire rates as an inventory of American failures. As such it detracts from rather than adding value to baseline scholarship the likes of Whitney Perkins’ 1962 book Denial of Empire: The United States and Its Dependencies.
Simply stated, How to Hide an Empire does not attain an intellectually honest assessment of the balance between national successes and failures in the field of territorial rule. This book fails accurately to reflect both the triumphs and reversals of American interests and national values in territories temporarily under provisional rather than permanent rule by the United States.
Little if any value for Puerto Rico
The author and his smitten critic repeat as if a great revelation the tirelessly cited decades old axiom that “Barely half of mainland Americans know Puerto Ricans are fellow citizens.”
This was already a political and social cliche in 1957 when the dancing chorus in West Side Story sang “Nobody in America knows Puerto Rico’s in America.”
What’s new since the 1950’s is that there are six million Puerto Ricans in the 50 states, and three million in the territory, and every politician in America knows Puerto Ricans are a swing vote that can decide local and national elections. No other territory has remained in political status limbo after conferral of U.S. citizenship long enough to acquire that degree of democratic political power before admission to the union.
Unfortunately, especially as it relates to Puerto Rico, the premise of How to Hide an Empire is at best misdirected, at worst ideologically biased. Among the reasons why this is true, the majority of those “fellow citizens” in Puerto Rico have now voted twice for America by choosing statehood as their preferred future political status.
No one understands what is wrong, imperfect, hypocritical and just plain bad about U.S. territorial law and policy better than Puerto Ricans. Yet, once the ideological haze of historical revisionism and “autonomist” doctrines that clouded the actual choice between independent nationhood and statehood dissipated, the people who know the realities of the real status options best chose statehood.
Ethnic identity politics and Puerto Rico
Undaunted by the book’s lack of intellectual and historical sobriety, Szalai is so taken with the author’s prose she uncritically embraces his flawed theory of reality. According to Immerwahr and the NYT book reviewer, Puerto Rico’s relationship with the U.S. can be understood only by focusing on symptoms of American racism and imperialism.
Thus, as with so many books by other authors, this work represents one more writer who thinks he is the first to truly understand the moral depravity of American imperialism. On that basis the writer and his NYT cheerleader critic believe what is most true about Puerto Rico is that its non-Anglo Saxon people have been “sidelined in the national imagination.”
However, defining Puerto Rican identity simplistically as a non-Anglo Saxon community is itself a race-based misconception. As many Puerto Ricans identify as white Hispanic people of European descent (from Spain) as those who identify being of Caribe or African descent.
As to being “sidelined” in the life of the nation, tell that to the Republican and Democratic candidates for Governor and the U.S. Senate from the powerhouse swing state of Florida. Every politician left or right has come out in support of statehood or whatever other status the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico choose, in order to win the crucial Puerto Rico vote.
Ask Puerto Rican Luis Fonsi if he feels sidelined after his song “Despacito” topped American charts in 2017, and has been remixed in dozens of languages worldwide.
Tell Lin-Manuel Miranda he was sidelined, despite his play Hamilton winning recognition for reviving American political identity for all races and creeds in our nation.
Tell Steven Spielberg not to worry about whether his planned re-make of West Side Story will backfire because it is a movie Puerto Ricans love to hate. If the island’s people have been sidelined, who cares what Puerto Ricans think?
And tell that to Alexandra Ocasio Cortez, the Puerto Rican political novice who for better or worse is bringing vibrant left wing ethnic identity politics to the corridors of power in Washington.
Puerto Rico sidelined itself based on bad advice
The only sense in which the people of Puerto Rico have been “sidelined in the national imagination” is that full democratization has been prevented by a 70 year failed social engineering experiment embraced by socialist leaning local leaders the late1940’s and early 1950’s. It began when New Deal collectivist crusaders in Washington and San Juan were treating Puerto Rico as a laboratory for testing impacts of socialism.
It was not, however, democratic socialism, because U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico do not have voting rights for equal representation in Congress or the Electoral College. It was undemocratic socialism instead.
It was the FDR New Deal and LBJ Great Society undemocratic socialism experiment in so-called “autonomous ” status that sidelined Puerto Rico politically and economically for 70 years. The hypothesis of that experiment was Puerto Rico could adopt a new status with features of both statehood and independence. This policy fostered federally subsidized crony capitalism and corporate welfare tax shelter scams instead of a sustainable “best of both worlds” status.
Labeled “commonwealth” this experiment produced economic benefits that distorted the economic and political future of the territory and produced a worst of both worlds outcome. “How to Hide and Empire” does not even begin to explain the failure of the “commonwealth” regime of territorial government in Puerto Rico, with its pretensions of an “autonomous” status somehow accommodating both U.S. citizenship and separate national sovereignty.
That “commonwealth” regime of territorial government – politically rationalized as a way for Congress to avoid the difficult but real choice between full democracy through statehood or nationhood – collapsed in bankruptcy in 2015.
If Puerto Rico had not become beguiled by autonomist ideology in the late 1940’s, and instead joined Alaska and Hawaii in seeking statehood, it could have become a state in the same decade. Similarly, if Puerto Rico had joined the U.S. territory of the Philippine Islands in seeking true sovereign national independence, nationhood would have been attained before 1960.
Instead Puerto Rico wanted to have it both ways, demanding a perverse combination of some but not all the defining features of statehood with some but not all the benefits and burdens of nationhood.
America both champ and chump among colonial powers
The fabricated historicity embraced by Immerwahr and Szalai is so warped the fallacy of what they write separately and together jumps off the page.
For example, both clearly experienced cognitive dissonance over the fact that in the post-WWII era the U.S. declined territorial expansion that we not only could have justified, but that the world would have recognized as legitimate. In the NYT book review Szalai details the book’s assertion that it was “nearly unprecedented” for the U.S. not only to renounce claims to “prize of war” acquisition of new territories.
However, these two butchers of historical truth simply could not allow themselves to give the U.S. credit for doing moral good. So they improvised the absurd and truly anti-American propagandistic argument that the U.S. relinquished territorial expansion primarily due to advances in application of military science and technology.
The “reasoning” supporting this revisionist thesis is that the U.S. could use weapons and technology developed in WWII to project power across strategic geographic frontiers without physically occupying remote territory outposts. That simply is not true as a matter of technology and logistics at the time.
We are talking about the post-WWII period before satellites had been invented, and there was no sophisticated over the horizon radar. The idea that in the midst of the Cold War the U.S. no longer wanted forward geographic presence around the world is simply unfounded.
The reality and truth is U.S. policy on territorial expansion after WWII was one of our finest moments as a nation and as leader of the free world. In fact, the principle renouncing “territorial aggrandizement” attained through acts of aggression, or even lawful national defense by nations that were attacked, was articulated by the U.S. and Britain in the Atlantic Charter of 1941 before America had entered WWII.
Immerwahr and Szalai know those facts, but the NYT review still chooses to misinform readers that the primary reason for U.S. restraint in territorial expansion was due to advances in military technology. This is nothing less than two ideologues in historical denial.
American tools of democracy
What these two agents of revisionism don’t want to admit is that in America the solution to racism and exploitative imperialism is our constitutionalism based on equal rights of national and state citizenship. It is when we the people give consent of the governed to just government that America becomes more perfect instead of less perfect.
The U.S. makes freedom and justice possible through equal voting rights in federal elections for full representation in the Congress and the Electoral College. U.S. citizens in territories have no constitutionally defined rights of representation, hence the constitutionally temporary nature of territorial status.
Equal voting rights and representation are apportioned to the citizens of states under Article I, Section 2 and Article II, Section I of the U.S. Constitution.
There never has been a better political system than the American model of constitutional federalism. That’s why the United Nations Charter and all major international conventions on political rights are based on the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
All cultures and societies and nations have racist legacies and exploit other countries to promote their national self-interest. But the U.S. has the most advanced process to correct injustice and preserve an ordered scheme of liberty.
Freedom in the U.S. is based on citizenship with protected rights. If anything America gives its citizenship out too freely to people of territories that come under U.S. sovereign rule. Arguably the U.S. should not even offer statutory citizenship until it determines it will offer full constitutional citizenship through statehood or integration into an existing state.
Constitutionally, full equal rights of government by consent at the federal level are limited to national citizens who live and vote in one of the 50 states. Yet, those in any territory dissatisfied with self-government limited to local civil matters not governed by federal law are free to acquire full equal rights by relocating to a state.
Of the 9 million citizens of Puerto Rican descent alive today, 6 million have chosen equality by going to live under statehood. A majority of the 3 million remaining in the colony have voted to stay and bring statehood to their homeland.
Thus, in one sense American imperialism in Puerto Rico resolves itself into a form of reverse colonialism in which the metropolitan super power is colonized by its provisional subjects. Full integration of the territory based on equal rights and duties of constitutional citizenship (i.e. statehood) eventually becomes the course of least resistance.
For each of the 32 territories that became states, admission finally happened when the only thing worse than statehood was to deny it. The same was true for the four smaller states formed out of large states. Puerto Rico is larger than Rhode Island, Delaware and Connecticut, with a population larger than 20 states.
Statehood historically inevitable
In that historical context, How to Hide an Empire is simply historically wrong about territorial invisibility. The world certainly knows Guam is a front line strategic military asset since the leader of North Korea threatened to vaporize it.
Puerto Rico and all small U.S. territories are still making a U.S. taxpayer subsidized trek to the U.N. every year to denounce U.S. colonialism in its territories.
Yet, this new book and its review in the NYT misleadingly suggests America’s territories are invisible colonies. In doing so this book may be compelling and fun to read, but we grow weary of the idea that being more perfect than any other nations in most respects somehow doesn’t matter because we remain in some respects still imperfect.
The ideological notion America as it exists somehow is less than the America we promise has long since been beaten to death a thousand times. That’s a cliche ignoring our ordered scheme of liberty has been proven over the sweep of time and the span of history.
Our constitutionalism brings out the best in us despite our worst impulses and instincts. Alexis de Tocqueville had it right back then when we were far more imperfect, and it is still true. The America that we want and the America that is remain on balance something we should be proud of most if not all of the time, not something we should be ashamed about.
American territorial policy more enlightened than other imperial powers
The promise of the Northwest Ordinance tradition based on equal citizenship through statehood was not broken during the continental expansion into the west.
All or part of 15 states were formed when the U.S. acquired foreign territories under the Louisiana Purchase, and granted citizenship to the non-English speaking populations. Another 17 states were formed from the territories the included the original Northwest Territories of the Ohio Valley, the mid-west, and eventually the west coast.
The westward movement led to a clash of cultures and eventually a clash of arms between the descendants of European settlers and Native American tribal peoples, most of who remained non-citizens. As noted below, How to Hide an Empire also oversimplifies that saga as well.
It was not until almost 1900 that the U.S. again acquired foreign territories with non-citizens, including the vast and populous Philippines and Puerto Rico. As it turned out, the utter brutality of the American experience in the Philippines led to that territory’s independence, but ironically may also have led to denial of statehood to Puerto Rico.
It is a complex story that How to Hide an Empire gets all wrong. Starting with the wildly incorrect assertion that military action in the Philippines was “the single most destructive event ever to take place on American soil.”
By what standard of measurement or relevant relative criteria? Ever heard of the American Revolutionary War, which led to the advent of a new republic and both national as well as state citizenship? What about the Civil War in which 1 million died to extend U.S. citizenship with equal rights to all?
It is true that the U.S. Army killed Filipinos by the tens of thousands, between 100,000 and 200,000 by some estimates. And the Japanese invasion followed by U.S. liberation were massive. But to suggest conflict in the Philippines represents the greatest politico-military event in American history is misleading.
The insurgency in the Philippines was, however, one reason why the U.S. imperial territorial viceroy, Gov. William Howard Taft, later would oppose full integration of Puerto Rico into the nation.
He had supported denial of citizenship in the Philippines, leading in 1916 to a policy declaring independence as the future status of the territory, finally attained in 1946. Unfortunately, when Taft went on from Governor of the Philippines to become U.S. President and then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United Sates (SCOTUS), he had become convinced the U.S. should not admit any more non-Anglo Saxon populated territories to the union.
That opposition to placing Puerto Rico on the path to statehood was in part because he lost his bid for re-election to a second term as President for reasons that included a scandal in his administration’s oversight of public administration and finances as well as exploitation by Wall Street business syndicates in the territory of Alaska.
Taft was next confronted by the “problem” of Puerto Rico when Congress granted citizenship there. Like Hawaii and unlike the Philippines, in its wisdom Congress conferred U.S. citizenship for Puerto Rico in 1917.
Citizenship would lead Hawaii and Alaska into statehood, as it did for 30 other territories. Taft was opposed to any more non-Anglo Saxon peoples in island territories joining the union, so Taft simply suspended the Northwest Ordinance model of territorial integration in the case of U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico by judicial edict.
Its ruling in the 1922 case of Balzac v. Puerto Rico, written by Taft, the SCOTUS held statutory “U.S. citizenship” is not constitutional citizenship, unless Congress declares a policy offering terms for Puerto Rico to seek eventual statehood. That denial of a path to equal citizenship through statehood gave rise to the “have it both ways” autonomy movement in the late 1940’s.
That lasted until SCOTUS ruled in 2016 that “commonwealth” was not a sovereign status. This was followed by majority vote for statehood in 2017, confirming an earlier 2012 majority vote for statehood.
Being best counts even if still not perfect
What I like to ask of people who think America is the most racist and imperialist country in the world is simple.
What other country would you go to for more honesty about racism and imperialism in the past or present?
What country would you go to for greater racial justice or a more effective model of international relations?
What other nation has been as restrained in its use of military power, especially when unmatched by competitors, adversaries and enemies?
What nation has a more enlightened territorial policy?
The Northwest Ordinance was the most enlightened imperialist policy ever adopted. It promised equal rights of citizenship to any territory joined in permanent union.
The promise of equality was first redeemed in 1796 when Tennessee was admitted. That tradition continued in 1959 when Alaska and Hawaii were admitted as states.
The blame America industrial complex laments American hegemony over the native Alaskan tribes. Does anyone think the Eskimos would have done better – or nearly as well – under the Russians?
Go ask the people of Siberia and Chernobyl if they got a better deal when Soviet nuclear weapons testing and energy production led to tragic consequences.
By comparison, the U.S. placed the Marshall Islands territory under the U.N. trusteeship system after WWII, and conducted nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands with U.N. approval from 1946 to 1958.
The U.S. belatedly allocated $500 million to address the impact of radiation in a few thousand people and four small island chains, a strategic success and a humanitarian failure by U.S. standards. But no one in the Marshall Islands seems to want to trade places with victims of nuclear testing or technology in Russia or any other nuclear power.
Would Hawaiians have done better under the Japanese or Chinese if America had receded? Could Hawaii have preserved its sovereignty? We’d all like to know the answers, but unless Hawaii seeks and Congress grants a retrocession of sovereignty the will of the people will continue to be expressed through American constitutionalism.
More broadly, we know Congress can fix what is wrong with territories any time it wants. In the case of Puerto Rico it can do that by admitting the territory as a state. Again, any truly historical analysis would suggest it is now inevitable and will happen, it is only a matter of time.
The alternative is to continue a “legal status” for Americans in Puerto Rico, and even continue to call it “citizenship,” but still deny equal rights of U.S. national citizenship unless it is combined with citizenship of a state.
So it is the conferral of a less than equal citizenship status that is imperialist doctrine as it relates to the U.S. territorial empire. It is the equivalent of the policy advocated for alien border violators under which they have a “legal status” but not equal rights of citizens.
That “legal but not equal” status is a policy not only of racism and imperialism, it is a restoration of feudalism and serfdom. Being able to live and work in the U.S. but be indefinitely denied equal rights of full citizenship is nothing if not a new age of serfdom.
That is wrong for both citizens in the territories and non-citizens within our borders. But it is more wrong for U.S. citizens than it is for non-citizens border violators. It is inane that we would even have to affirm this truism, but Immerwahr and Szalai force us to do so.
How imperfect is America’s more perfect union?
The U.S. remains the least imperialist and least racist of any nation past or present, despite our tendency sometimes to practice racism and imperialism.
All nations practice racism and imperialism to the extent its serves national self interest and the ability to do so exists.
The British started slavery in America, and the citizens of the U.S. ended it, at the price of a million lives.
Next we saw Native American tribes suffer due to multi-cultural non-adaptability leading to violent conflict. America allowed itself falsely to be made the poster child for tragic conquest of indigenous peoples.
But wait a minute! Didn’t the Northwest Ordinance set asidea huge territory larger than multiple midwestern states for the tribal nations?
Why didn’t that work out? Well, for starters, several tribes including Creek, Seminole, Choctaw, imported African slaves as cheap labor on their farms in the Indian Territory.
The only thing worse than being a slave owned by white plantation society in the south was to be an African slave of Native American tribes in the tribal territories.
Is it true the tribes President Jackson drove west from the states had conquered and stolen the lands from which the new Americans drove them? In many cases, did prevailing tribes drive conquered tribes west, or simply exterminate the vanquished?
Can it be said the only thing worse than what the Europeans did to Native American tribes was what they were doing to each other before the Europeans arrived?
In any event, after unconscionable bloodshed it was the Europeans who established a new social order where after decades tribal genocide and beheading of tyrants were no longer necessary.
The Northwest Ordinance provisions creating an “Indian Territory” for recognized tribal nations may have been a trail of tears for the tribes, but it was a path forward the indigenous tribes under Spanish rule might well have welcomed.
Then a territorial law ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court applied the nation’s Constitution to Kansas before it was a state, and declared that slavery had to be allowed in all states or abolished in all states. That 1857 ruling held the Missouri Compromise creating one law for free states and another law in slave states to be unconstitutional.
That meant that existing slave laws had to be enforced uniformly until slavery was abolished. There was no middle ground or third path, and that meant civil war.
To truly understand American territorial history and the forced acculturation of non-Anglo Saxon peoples, it should at least be recognized that the slave holding tribes joined the rebellion on the side of the Confederacy in the Civil War, and inflicted terror on the military and civilian population loyal to the Union.
That contributed to the savagery of the Indian Wars that followed the Civil War. Did veterans on both sides including tribal warriors play out the tragedy of Civil War blood grudges on the western frontiers?
That is a question for Native American historians, but for purposes of territorial history it is not insignificant that Tuscon, Arizona, was occupied by the Union Army after the territorial government sided with the Confederacy.
Nor is it insignificant that the tribal peoples who sided with the Confederacy and U.S. Army troops who fought in the Civil War also became combatants in the Indian Wars. In that final conflict 40,000 tribal people died and 15,000 U.S. Army and civilian loyalists to the Union were killed.
It is in the context of the collapse of the Missouri Compromise and the political balance it created through tandem admission of slave and free territories into the Union that we find evidence requiring more critical thinking.
Specifically, can it be argued division among territories that sided with the Union or the Confederacy was a powerful force driving the “Manifest Destiny” destiny doctrine both North and South of the line on the map that separated slave and free territories and states?
For most Americans at the time, conversion of territories into states was as much if not more about preservation or abolition of slavery as it was about territorial expansionism.
Blaming everything bad on America denies anything good
Why is America singled out as a racist and imperialist nation, when Spain imposed tyrannical colonial rule on Puerto Rico for three centuries, exterminated indigenous peoples far more aggressively than the Americans, and practiced slavery in Puerto Rico after slavery was ended in the USA?
Szalai makes much of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s denial that America is an imperial power. She, of course, is right, and he was wrong.
But what he should have said was American imperialism strikes a batter balance between national self-interest and nation building than the imperialism of any other nation.
That would have been an accurate statement as to all nations with the ability to project sovereign power over peoples and territories not yet able to project sovereign power over their own homelands.
The U.S. is the least racist and the most just nation in the history of the world. When you think of all the bad things the U.S. has done at home and abroad, that may not be saying much for the rest of the nations in the world, past or present.
But that is where a realistic and honest discussion of what it right and wrong, good and bad about American territorial and imperialist policy can begin.
Howard Hills is a former legal counsel on territorial affairs in the Executive Office of the President, National Security Council and U.S. State Department. He is author of the book Citizens Without A State.