Editors Review: Daniel Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire

A Brief Summary:

From page one of How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States, Daniel Immerwahr deftly undercuts readers’ comfortable assumptions about the history of the United States. He begins with a discussion of the “logo map,” a “strategically cropped family photo” showing only the mainland U.S. and ignoring the Greater United States—the overseas territories that few Americans acknowledge or are even aware of.

This incomplete map quickly becomes a central motif. It illustrates how Americans’ perception of themselves—where their borders lie and who counts as a citizen—is exclusive and historically inaccurate. From this first example, Immerwahr embarks on an extensive campaign of dissection. His words shear through centuries of romanticism, obfuscation, and idealization, cutting to the disquieting core of America’s national identity and the insidious misconceptions that disguise its imperial past and present.

In Review:

Guam, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and many more across history: these seemingly foreign locales have supplied bases for WWII-era island hopping, bird guano to rejuvenate American agricultural production, and conscripted bodies for foreign wars. Each has a unique story of exploitation, but all share a unifying factor. They are responsible for building the lauded foundation of a nation to which they have no legal right. Worse, this injustice has been intentionally obscured.

This is the wrong Immerwahr intends to make right, a task for which he is remarkably well suited. From the first, the reader is left disoriented. Immerwhar alters the familiar ebb and flow of U.S. history, shifting it to reflect the stories of tyranny, torture, and triumph that traditional tellings refuse to touch.

The deprogramming begins with the logo map but does not end there. Instead, it stretches to span the full scope of American history, excising its inaccuracies to reveal just how hollow the constitutional promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is for so many Americans. Eye-opening and occasionally overwhelming, How to Hide an Empire is a welcome and much-needed awakening.

Immerwahr lingers in the nation’s most disgraceful moments, sharing the untold stories of lives lost, freedoms forgotten, and dreams discarded in the dogged, thankless pursuit of American exceptionalism. In short, he grants the tragedies of the past their time. Yet, he also embraces levity where appropriate, interspersing witty remarks and subtle rejoinders throughout.

Thoroughly researched and dryly humorous, his prose avoids the ivory-tower language that so often peppers historical writing. Instead, he embraces a straightforward and snort-inducing style that allows readers to easily slip into the lives and legacies of American history’s finest—and most frightening—figures.

The narrative leaps across centuries and continents, tracing America’s legacy across time and space. But these stories soon meet and meld. Guano islands become military bases become sites of conflict and murder. And, like marionette strings, they all lead back to a shadowy imperial puppeteer.

The book is not simply a string of blandly tied facts and phenomena. Instead, it is an invitation. It is a reminder to readers that we, too, are a part of this tangled web of privilege and responsibility, of suffering and sorrow. And Immerwahr wouldn’t have it any other way. As he puts it, the book’s purpose “is not archival…it’s perspectival, seeing a familiar history differently.”

From the eighteenth century to the twenty-first, from the Philippines to Saudi Arabia, and from the standardization of screw threads to the scramble for guano islands in the Pacific, How to Hide an Empire recontextualizes it all. Frankly, it should be required reading in schools—if only because it tells the history of the United States in a way no other textbook will.

Not convinced? Check out our study guide and let our educators walk you through the specific examples, surprising facts, and untold stories Immerwahr shares in each chapter of How to Hide an Empire.

Similar titles to How to Hide an Empire

Are you looking to dive deeper into the study of global imperialism? Curious about American territorial policy and its legacies? If so, check out our guides for these related titles:

Titles about Imperialism:

Empire by Niall Ferguson
Empire traces Britain’s complex history from the seventeenth century to the mid-twentieth.

Culture and Imperialism by Edward Said
Said evaluates imperial literary cultures to understand how literature reinforces a nation’s imperial status.

Imperialism at Bay by William Roger Louis
WWII ignited debates over colonial policy. Louis explains how the era forced the world’s superpowers to grapple with their colonial legacies—and their consequences.

Titles about American History and Empire:

American Myth, American Reality by James Oliver Robertson
The United States hinges on a collective canon of myths. Robertson argues that these stories gloss over the brutal truth of the country’s creation.

An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Dunbar-Ortiz reimagines U.S. history, presenting the nation’s development through the lens of displaced Indigenous peoples.

The United States and the Caribbean, 1900-1970 by Lester D. Langley
American empire was omnipresent in the Caribbean for much of the twentieth century, a fact Professor Langley intends to bring to light.