31 October 2020

The Guardian: “How the US has hidden its empire”

That was how the first draft of FDR’s speech went, too: it presented the event as a “bombing in Hawaii and the Philippines”. Yet Roosevelt toyed with that draft all day, adding things in pencil, crossing other bits out. At some point he deleted the prominent references to the Philippines.

Why did Roosevelt demote the Philippines? We don’t know, but it’s not hard to guess. Roosevelt was trying to tell a clear story: Japan had attacked the US. But he faced a problem. Were Japan’s targets considered “the United States”? Legally, they were indisputably US territory. But would the public see them that way? What if Roosevelt’s audience didn’t care that Japan had attacked the Philippines or Guam? Polls taken slightly before the attack show that few in the continental US supported a military defense of those remote territories.

Roosevelt no doubt noted that the Philippines and Guam, although technically part of the US, seemed foreign to many. Hawaii, by contrast, was more plausibly “American”. Although it was a territory rather than a state, it was closer to North America and significantly whiter than the others.

Daniel Immerwahr

Fascinating piece of history on the Unites States. On some level not much has changed in the eight decades since the start of the Second World War: the average American continues to care very little about events outside US borders – even outside the continental US. A more recent example was the lackluster support for Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria in 2017 – Puerto Rico is officially a commonwealth of the United States, the same statute the Philippines had during World War Two. And this attitude reflects in the foreign policy trend of retreating from international affairs, a growing isolationist sentiment that was partially responsible for the election of Donald Trump.

Flags on top of the fortress in Old San Juan in Puerto Rico
Flags on top of the fortress in Old San Juan in Puerto Rico. Photograph: Anton Gorbov/Alamy

One of the truly distinctive features of the US’s empire is how persistently ignored it has been. This is, it is worth emphasising, unique. The British weren’t confused as to whether there was a British empire. They had a holiday, Empire Day, to celebrate it. France didn’t forget that Algeria was French. It is only the US that has suffered from chronic confusion about its own borders.

The reason is not hard to guess. The country perceives itself to be a republic, not an empire. It was born in an anti-imperialist revolt and has fought empires ever since, from Hitler’s Thousand-Year Reich and the Japanese empire to the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union. It even fights empires in its dreams. Star Wars, a saga that started with a rebellion against the Galactic Empire, is one of the highest-grossing film franchises of all time.

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