When you arrive at the end of a four-hundred-page book called How to Hide an Empire you probably don’t expect to find this question: “So does all this mean the United States can be classified as an empire?”1 Is there really any doubt? Surely by now the subject has been driven into the open and its motives, deeds, and effects fully exposed and explored. If so, the reader could breathe a sigh of relief, assured that the question is merely rhetorical, a setup for the grand finale, the book’s last, and apparently unambiguous, sentence: “The history of the United States is the history of empire.”
In truth, however, author Daniel Immerwahr, a professor of history at Northwestern University, gives us a book with ambiguities and definitional constraints that make his conclusion far more hedged than it may seem. He raises the “is the United States an empire?” question at the end in order to distinguish his own narrowly couched usage of the term from others. “Most often,” he claims, empire “is used as a pejorative, as an unfavorable character assessment. Empires are the bullies that bat weaker nations around. It’s not hard to argue that the United States is imperialist in that sense.”
Maybe so, but that’s not the argument or the definition Immerwahr puts forward. Rather, he claims, “empire is not only a pejorative. It’s also a way of describing a country that, for good or bad, has outposts and colonies. In this sense, empire is not about a country’s character, but its shape. And by this definition, the United States has indisputably been an empire and remains one today.”2 What do we make of these perplexing sentences?