Part 3: Empire State of Mind
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On The Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. We conclude our hour with historian Daniel Immerwahr by looking at the hidden ways empire has changed our history–and more importantly, for our purposes, our view of our history. Because that view enables us to look past human rights violations committed on our own soil. Today, we have military bases where American law doesn't apply.
JIM MORAN: The reason we have Guantanamo is that this was set up to be above the law. It's extrajudicial. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Former Virginia Congressman Jim Moran.
JIM MORAN: The rules don't apply. The rest of the world looks at this and it undermines our credibility and our security as a nation. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We have people born on American territory who aren't legally citizens.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The people of American Samoa are considered U.S. nationals.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: You're born owing allegiance to the United States but are not a citizen. America does have its allegiance back. [END CLIP]
And of course, this--.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: President Trump tweeting, 'the people of Puerto Rico are great but the politicians are incompetent or corrupt. Their government can't do anything right. [END CLIP]
Even during the height of American empire, even during World War II, even among soldiers fighting in U.S. territories, there was confusion about what exactly the status of those territories was.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: From the United States of America, Uncle Sam presents--[END CLIP].
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In your book, you recount the story of a young Filipino boy, Oscar, who encounters a G.I. coming down the street handing out cigarettes on Hershey bars. Speaking slowly, the G.I. asks the boy's name and when he replies easily in English. The soldier was startled and he said, 'how did you learn American?'
DANIEL IMMERWAHR: Yeah that story slays me because you have to think of it from the perspective of the soldier first. He's across the Pacific, he's been given maps, he's been told where to go, whom to shoot. He's arrived in the Philippines. He has seen some of the bloodiest fighting of the war and he meets this kid. And when the kid speaks in English he's totally confused why this kid should speak in English. When Oscar explains, 'oh the reason I speak English is that after the Philippines became a U.S. colony, you guys sent a bunch of teachers and we all learned to speak English.' The soldier just looks at him and says, 'oh I didn't realize that the Philippines was a U.S. colony.'
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DANIEL IMMERWAHR: He doesn't actually realize that he's fighting on U.S. soil.
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DANIEL IMMERWAHR: Usually think of the war as catapulting the United States into the position of global leadership with a larger military, a more bustling economy than anywhere else. Actually, the war did something else too. It gave the United States a lot of territory. So much territory that there were more people living in its colonies and occupied zones, like Japan, than were actually living in the States. If you looked up, at the end of 1945, and you saw a U.S. flag flying overhead it was more likely that you were living in a colony or occupied zone than you were actually living on the U.S. mainland.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Truman saying--.
HARRY TRUMAN: We do not seek for ourselves, one inch of territory in any place in the world. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: FDR said it. Everyone said it. But people are like we're going to keep Micronesia right? I mean suddenly our borders are malleable.
DANIEL IMMERWAHR: It's a moment when the United States has the ability to decide what its territorial destiny will be. It could take a lot of that territory. It could convert its occupations into annexations if it wanted to. And when Truman says the thing that so many past presidents had said, 'we covet no territory,' there is a scandal about that– the State Department complains, the military complains, the public complains. Are you really saying that we're going to give up all the land that we fought so hard to get. The places where we've planted our flag and they're particularly concerned about Micronesia, which is a sort of buffer zone between Japan and the western parts of the United States including Hawaii. That's where a lot of the bloody fighting in happens in World War II. And the idea of the United States surrendering the strategically valuable space, that's hard for a lot of people to continents. And in fact Truman amends his statement.
HARRY TRUMAN: Outside the right to establish necessary bases for our own protection, we look for nothing. [END CLIP]
DANIEL IMMERWAHR: We're going to keep what we need to preserve our security. In that moment, right after World War II when the United States has so many options territorially, the end of World War II brings a worldwide revolt centered in Asia against Empire. Formerly colonized people have often seen their empires dislodged–often by Japan. They have access to arms. They've heard the idealistic speeches of FDR that this war is not a war for empire. This is a war for liberation. Which produces a sense of shame, which makes it a lot harder for powerful countries to insist that empire is right and proper. And that's just how civilization goes without fearing the kind of real on the ground and possibly violent resistance that they'll face in the colonies. The cost of colonialism has gone up.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So that's one of the trends. The other one is that there are new ways to project power worldwide without controlling vast swathes of territory. A lot of these are technological. We can now produce a kind of nitrogen based fertiliser that replaces guano. We needed rubber and we developed fake rubber. We got plastic and then basically all we really needed were military bases.
DANIEL IMMERWAHR: That's exactly right. So on the one hand, the United States figures out how to generate synthetic substitutes for a lot of things that had formerly depended on colonies for– rubber is a really good example. At the start of the war, the United States has a rubber crisis.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: We'll Charlie, this is one of the last rubber tracks we'll get.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: That's right.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: If we don't get rubber, we'll have to stop making good tanks. [END CLIP]
And the reason it has a rubber crisis is that Japan has seized a number of European and U.S. colonies in Southeast Asia in rich rubber growing lands. And it looks to a lot of people like the U.S. Economy is just going to fall flat on its face because you can't fight a war, it turns out, without rubber. What happens, and this is a surprise to a number of people who lived through this and are watching, it is that the United States figures out how to make rubber not from rubber plantations but from petroleum, from oil–of which it has a great deal. And so suddenly, it's done a sort of colonies for chemistry swap that allows it to no longer depend, for strategic reasons, on tropical colonies. Rubber's one example plastic which is also honed during the war replaces any number of tropical products and allows the United States to, sort of, be immune to the desire to colonize large places so that it can control for strategic reasons their economies.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We got radio to facilitate communications.
DANIEL IMMERWAHR: It used to be the case that if you wanted to send a secure message from one part of the planet to another, you had to send it through a wire. And if you wanted that to be secure from sabotage, interruption or espionage, you had to control all of the territory along that wire. And So the British Empire was obsessed with getting a large telegraphic network that went only through British controlled territories. So its adversaries couldn't snip its cables or listen in. But the world of radio bring something different. With radio, you can just control one transceiver in one spot, another in another spot and beam the message from one to another. Now people can still listen in but if you get really good at encrypting your messages, you can solve that problem as well.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: A roger six [inaudible] they're between hills, two, nine or a zero, three, two, six, south of the--[END CLIP]
DANIEL IMMERWAHR: A similar thing happens in transportation as you see a world that goes from surface hugging transportation, such as steam ships, cars, trucks and railroads, to a world where, ultimately, if you need to get something from point A to point B and you don't control the territory in between, you can transport it by plane. The United States gets really good at using plane and radio and it figures out that, ultimately, when push comes to shove, what it really needs is just a series of well situated points all across the planet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's what you call a pointillist empire which still endures today.
DANIEL IMMERWAHR: Yeah. It's important to recognize that, although the United States has distanced itself from colonialism–it no longer has the Philippines, Hawaii and Alaska have become states, Puerto Rico underwent a constitutional change although it's still very much a U.S. territory–but from a strategic perspective that's not the core of the U.S. Empire today. What the United States has is hundreds of overseas bases. Places where it can land, places where it can detain people, places where it can repair and places where it can store weapons. And that is really the face of power today for the United States. If you took all U.S. overseas territory today and mashed it all together, you would have a land area that's less than the size of Connecticut. They may be small but, oh boy, are they important.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A lot of history turns on those places and a lot of culture, a lot of Americans may not know this country's colonial history, but people in Puerto Rico do, people in the Philippines do. And so do people who live near those bases all over the world.
DANIEL IMMERWAHR: So one really good example is the city of Liverpool. Before World War II, it hadn't been a particularly culturally inventive city. And then after the war suddenly it lights up like a Christmas tree.
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DANIEL IMMERWAHR: And it's just band after band after band and, you know, hundreds of them and they're playing rock music.
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DANIEL IMMERWAHR: Suddenly, it's a sort of world center. And it's not all of Britain it's doing it. It's particularly the Liverpool.
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DANIEL IMMERWAHR: Liverpool has, right outside of it, the largest U.S. base and all of Europe. And as a result, Liverpool is the sort of borderlands between this outpost of the United States and, a still very much. Impoverished and war torn Europe. And young people from Liverpool and from the area, recognize that the men on the base are a great source of cash. And at the same time they're receiving records from them. They're getting musical instruments from them. So it's not an accident that The Beatles come from Liverpool. Liverpool is the sort of contact zone between the United States and Western Europe.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: It isn't all sunny. In Japan, there's a deep sense of resentment. Riots every 10 years or so. Two Japanese ministers forced to resign because they deferred to the U.S. in matters related to the base. And then the Saudi Arabian bases, one could say that they had a role to play in 9/11.
DANIEL IMMERWAHR: That's right. Often in areas where bases are stationed, people are drawn into them because their sources of income, but they often find themselves resenting the bases–understandably. And you can see that so well in Saudi Arabia. So after the war, the United States establishes a military base in a place that had already been a sort of company town for a set of oil companies, Dhahran, and it has to build up this base. It draws on a lot of local laborers to do so. One guy who's been working on this space for a while is a Yemeni bricklayer named Mohammed and he's really good. And the people he's working for are very encouraging of him and he starts his own firm and starts to get a lot of contracts. The firm is called Mohammed and Abdullah sons of Allaud bin Laden. The guy who builds this base and who built some other U.S. bases is Osama bin Laden's father. And Osama bin Laden grows up around U.S. bases in the Middle East, U.S. sponsored construction projects in the Middle East. And on the one hand, he's part of this. That's where his money comes from. He gets really into construction. He's a construction guy. On the other hand, he gets deeply resentful and regards it as a form of imperialism. And it's this basing issue, particularly as the United States puts more troops in a formerly closed based in the 1990s, that sets Osama bin Laden on his jihad against the United States. It's the issue of U.S. troops being stationed in Saudi Arabia, the land of Mecca and Medina. Turning, as Osama bin Laden regards it, turning Saudi Arabia into a U.S. colony. That's his main source of complaint about the United States.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do we know that?
DANIEL IMMERWAHR: The first thing that we know Osama bin Laden did is a bombing at that base.
BILL CLINTON: An explosion occurred this afternoon at the United States military housing complex near the Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. [CLIP UNDER]
DANIEL IMMERWAHR: Precisely the base that his father helped to build, and that bombing is timed so it is the eighth anniversary of the stationing of U.S. troops there. He's communicating through that date exactly the thing that he is protesting.
BILL CLINTON: The explosion appears to be the work of terrorists. And if that is the case, like all Americans, I am outraged by it.
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BILL CLINTON: The cowards who committed this murderous act must not go unpunished. [END CLIP].
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DANIEL IMMERWAHR: I think that the United States has to get it right on empire. For too long, it's been so easy, from the mainland, to not think about the overseas parts of the United States despite the fact that mainlanders have been consistently affected by them. The overseas parts of the United States have, too often, been sacrifice zones. Places where the full cost is paid for decisions made in Washington. World War II in the Philippines, that's where most U.S. nationals died in World War II. And many of them die from the U.S. military itself, which bombs and shells its own cities as it's trying to dislodge the Japanese. My point is not that military strategy was wrong but my point is that it was made in a kind of bubble without any real reckoning of who it is that lives in the United States. And I think that can't keep going on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Daniel, thank you so much.
DANIEL IMMERWAHR: Brooke, it's been a pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Daniel Immerwaher is a historian at Northwestern University and author of How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's it for this week's show. On The Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger. Jon Hanrahan and Asthaa Chaturvedi. Leah Feder, however, did the heavy lifting. We had more help from Xandra Ellin and Sherina Ong and our show was edited by me and Kat. Our technical director is Jennifer Monsen. Our engineers this week were Sam Bair and Josh Han. Big thanks to WNYC archivist and Andy Lanset. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On The Media is a production of WNYC Studios. Bob Garfield will be back next week. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
UNDERWRITING: On The Media is supported by the Ford Foundation the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the listeners of WNYC Radio.