BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On The Media. Bob Garfield is off just one more week, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Last week, dear listeners we set off together on a journey to chart some key differences between America's founding notions of itself–and reality. Last week the subject was the frontier, the official idea of frontier as the birthplace of American individualism, versus the revisionist view of it as a safety, valve facilitated by the state to divert the poor from waging war on the rich.
GREG GRANDIN: Ceaseless expansion. That there is no problem caused by expansion that can't be solved by more expansion.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Greg Grandin, author of The End of The Myth, laid out in vivid detail how the nation's psyche and politics were forged in the shadow of that ever advancing continental frontier–that is, until we hit the ocean. Now we pick up the story with another American conceit, that we are a republic, a union–if an imperfect one. Turns out, that was almost never so. This week we moved deeper into that history with Northwestern University history professor Daniel Immerwahr, author of How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States. He was launched on the back by a trip he took some years back to the Philippines. He was stunned by what he found–streets with American names, people speaking American English. As an historian, he knew that the Philippines were once annexed by the United States but realized, until that moment, truly understood what that meant.
DANIEL IMMERWAHR: I realized that the United States that I was teaching a history of, was a truncated version. It was the contiguous United States. What people and territory sometimes called the mainland. But that's not the whole country and it's never been the whole country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That whole country is represented by what Immerwahr calls the logo map. You know, the lower 48 spanning from coast to coast, jutting out in the southeast with a protrusion for Florida and a smaller one for Texas.
DANIEL IMMERWAHR: So that map, the contiguous blob with oceans on either side and Canada and the north and Mexico on the south, that's only been the borders of the United States for three years of its history.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: To illustrate how some of us never got past the truncated version of history we're all taught in our formative years and the implications of that, we need look no further back than the past week.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The White House spokesperson calls Puerto Rico that country, while defending the presidents treatment of the U.S. territory. We're back in a moment. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Puerto Rico's status says belonging to the United States seems to be thoroughly misunderstood by vast swaths of our nation. To see how we arrived at this point, we must journey back to the 19th century when the population boom and our soil was dangerously depleted. Turns out nitrogen is the best remedy for pooped posture and the best source happens to be poop of the avian variety.
DANIEL IMMERWAHR: In the 19th century, that bird poop, guano, was called white gold because it was seen as so valuable as fertilizer for farms that, once they've converted to industrial farming, we're losing a lot of their fertility. An acre of farmland that might formerly have grown 20 bushels of wheat was, by the mid and late 19th century, growing down to 10 bushels an acre. This is a serious crisis.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You need lots of usable nitrogen and there are whole islands basically made of this white gold.
DANIEL IMMERWAHR: Islands in the Pacific in the Caribbean that don't get a lot of rain but they do get a lot of visits from birds. And then they poop on the Islands year after year after year. And it piles higher and higher, bakes in the sun so that over centuries, you're looking at an island that is basically made out of fecal matter. I asked some historian friends what do you think is the worst job in the 19th century to have and I think I can now say with confidence guano mining is the worst.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wow.
DANIEL IMMERWAHR: Because it's like coal mining with all the pulmonary damage that you might suffer except you essentially have to be marooned on a rainless island where there's only the food the ships can bring with them, very little water supply. Where people are suffering from all kinds of intestinal illnesses as a result. Guano entrepreneurs sell African-American men in Baltimore. A story about the tropical lives that they'll be able to live consorting with beautiful women picking fruit, occasionally shoveling a little guano. But once the men step on that ship, their reality changes. Where else are you going to go? Right? That ship takes to the guano islands, deposits you there. You're under the supervision of a white overseer. You just have to work and to have to pay for their passage. So the second they arrive, they are in debt to their employers and they have to shovel enough guano or blast it free from the islands in order to pay for their return passage.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: These workers were abused terribly. Left tied up in the sun if they violated an order. And then something happens.
DANIEL IMMERWAHR: And to understand it, you have to understand the harsh regime of labor discipline on Navassa Island.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Off the coast of Haiti.
DANIEL IMMERWAHR: Yeah, this is an island that is full of black men who have been deceived. They're not very enthusiastic about backbreaking work in the scorching sun on a jagged island. It's not a shock to me that these men mutiny. Gather some rocks, weapons and some dynamite and they stage a full out riot. And they end up killing five of their white overseers. The papers all report it. Black men have butchered white men. And they're hauled back to Baltimore for a trial.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Which becomes a milestone in America's legal history of imperialism. Ultimately they win, but how?
DANIEL IMMERWAHR: So it's kind of incredible. The African-American community in Baltimore rallies around them and their legal team make this extraordinary argument which is to say Navassa Island isn't part of the United States. And because it's not part of the United States, federal law doesn't apply. And a federal law doesn't apply, how can you try these men in U.S. courts? They're outside of the jurisdiction of the United States. So what this legal team does is it challenges the constitutionality of the idea that the United States can expand overseas. So it goes all the way up to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court has to decide is the United States the kind of place that can expand overseas. And the court decides that yes, it is constitutional, right and proper, that the United States should expand overseas. So this minor incident on a place that seems very remote from the perspective of the mainland, suddenly lays the legal foundation for the United States is territorial empire.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But also, doesn't this decision thereby declare that what happens there is subject to American law. And these companies that were mining the guano were also massively breaking the law?
DANIEL IMMERWAHR: That's right. It cuts two ways. If these places are part of the United States, where do they go to appeal for justice? Right? What are they supposed to do when they're being, as they are, clearly abused? Benjamin Harris concludes that, 'OK yes these places are indeed part of the United States but that means that people working on them should have some appeal to all the institutions and courts of the United States.' And he, as a result, takes this issue up and decides to commute the sentence, so they're not sentenced to death, then they have to spend the rest of their lives at hard labor.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It was the pursuit of guano that forced us, as a nation, to publicly acknowledge that we were going to expand beyond our manifestly destined borders into realms unknown. By 1898, most of America seems all in on this imperialism idea. Maps for redrawn and hung in classrooms across the country. Maps that we certainly didn't grow up with, that showed us America and the world as it truly was.
DANIEL IMMERWAHR: It's an extraordinary moment. In 1898, in 1899, the United States basically goes on a sort of imperial shopping spree. It fights a war with Spain and as a result of that war it takes the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico and it briefly occupies Cuba. And at the same time, almost in a fit of enthusiasm, the United States also annexes Hawaii and American Samoa. And cartographers see their opportunity and start publishing these extraordinary new maps. New maps that show the U.S. mainland surrounded by boxes–so Alaska, Hawaii, Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa. Why these are so extraordinary, at least for me, is when I saw them I thought, you know, 'I've never seen a map like that.' I've never seen a map of the United States that had Puerto Rico on it. I've never seen a map of the United States that had that box for Guam. But this is a moment, when a lot of people in the U.S. mainland are so proud of this new facet of the United States that they are eager to see it differently. I found books that have titles like The Greater United States, The Imperial Republic. The old way of referring to the country as the United States, the Republic or the union in the 19th century, those don't really work anymore. Because it's now transparently not. Not a republic and not a union. This new polity, quite transparently, has not been created by the voluntary entry of all parts. The Philippines fights a bloody war of independence that we think racks up more bodies than US civil war.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I remember there was a time when the U.S. was referred to as Columbia in songs like "Columbia the Gem of the Ocean."
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DANIEL IMMERWAHR: Yeah because Columbia was, in a way that we have the District of Columbia, Columbia was a literary name for the country. And what's striking about this is the literary name that we all have in our heads that really wasn't that often used in the 19th century–America. A lot of people in the 19th century understood that if you were speaking of America, you were speaking of the Americas–the whole region. That changes in 1898 partly out of this desire to find a new way to describe the country–a new shorthand for it. America, it's a vaguer more expansive term and the president who takes office after the war with Spain, Teddy Roosevelt, uses the word America in his inaugural address. And there's a two week period where he uses it in different speeches more times than every past president has used it collectively in the entire history of the country. And ever since then, it's off to the races.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why was 1898 an imperial shopping spree? What was going on?
DANIEL IMMERWAHR: The United States bonked into the Pacific. The census in 1890 had issued a report suggesting that the frontier was no more. And it inspired a few, such as Teddy Roosevelt, to try to make new frontiers, to find new places where the United States could restore its vigor.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So explain the Philippines.
DANIEL IMMERWAHR: It partly has to do with Teddy Roosevelt. He's the assistant secretary of the Navy. His boss leaves the office for an afternoon to visit an osteopath, and Roosevelt springs into action and orders the U.S. Asiatic fleet to prepare to invade Manila if the United States has a war with Spain. And his boss doesn't countermand the order, possibly fearing looking weak. And so when the United States does go to war with Spain, it engages the Spanish fleet, defeats it and suddenly the United States has the Philippines on its hands.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Not suddenly, takes a while.
DANIEL IMMERWAHR: Right. The actual conquest of the Philippines takes an enormous amount of time. Part of the reason the United States is in a good position, vis-a-vis the Philippines, is that the United States has allied itself with Filipino insurgents who have been fighting against Spanish colonialism for quite a long time. And they think that they are doing so in the name of liberating their colony with the aid of the United States. They are able to conquer the archipelago. The United States ends the war by purchasing the Philippines from Spain. But then it has to deal with the Philippine insurgents and ends up fighting a long and excruciatingly bloody war. The Philippine archipelago isn't restored to civilian rule until 1913. It was only recently surpassed by the Afghanistan war as the longest war in U.S. history.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On what grounds did the U.S. go to war for the Philippines. Because the US was still hesitant to say, 'we do this for the sake of empire.' The US was never quite as frank about this as, say, the British were.
DANIEL IMMERWAHR: Well this is a really interesting and rare moment in U.S. history where the leaders of the country will start talking like the British. The reason that the United States needs to fight the Philippines, and fight to retain the Philippines, is in order to civilize and uplift Filipinos. The most famous poem justifying empire, Rudyard Kipling's "White Man's Burden" is written as advice to the United States about what to do in the Philippines.
ACTOR: Take up the white man's burden. Send forth the best ye breed. Go bind your sons to exile to serve your captives need. To wait in heavy harness and fluttered folk and wild. Your new court sullen peoples, half devil and half child. [END CLIP]
DANIEL IMMERWAHR: Teddy Roosevelt receives an advance copy but a lot of politicians are deeply enthusiastic about this notion that the United States could achieve its adulthood by becoming like Britain, like France–a transparent and forthright empire that's taken on the white man's burden to uplift and to educate its colonial subjects. That's the rhetoric of the time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You quote Mark Twain, who had been as ardently imperialistic as Rudyard Kipling, but then reversed himself. Quote 'there must be two Americas. One that sets the captive free and one that takes a once captive's new freedom away from him, picks a quarrel with him with nothing founded on and then kills him to get his land. For that second America,' he proposed adding a few words to the Declaration of Independence, 'governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed White men.'
DANIEL IMMERWAHR: That's right. Mark Twain and Kipling were friends and initially Mark Twain had been, as he described it, a red hot imperialist. But as he saw the war in the Philippines start to unfold, he came to be one of the most withering critics of the war, just as vociferously anti-imperialist as Kipling was pro-imperialist.
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DANIEL IMMERWAHR: And for the rest of his life, he would chronicle with sarcasm, with outrage, everything that the United States was doing in the Philippines. The massacres, the tortures, the hypocrisy.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, how the world's professed to leading democracy learned to reconcile itself to imperial brutality. This is On The Media.
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