Deceptively straightforward, this rich and detailed study of something ‘hidden’ turns out eventually to be a contentious argument about the United States in the world. With the Second World War, Daniel Immerwahr suggests, colonial empire was transformed into a ‘pointillist’ structure: dots on the map, which do not make up a picture in the manner of Georges Seurat, to be sure, but nevertheless indicate something new. With the empire of dots, we are told, colonization is replaced by globalization. Immerwahr, who teaches history at Northwestern, has written a study of the us that runs from the 1770s to the age of Donald Trump. Until this war-time inflection, halfway through the book, How to Hide an Empire does not have any systematic argument. This is by design, for Immerwahr’s initial move is heuristic—to ask, essentially, what kind of account one might produce should the object be, strictly speaking, all the territory of the United States in its jurisdictional sense. The result he aims at is a ‘perspectival’ shift, revealing a dynamic and heterogeneous polity, with borders shifting throughout North America, the Caribbean, the Arctic and the Pacific—the ‘Greater United States’.

One reason for our lack of awareness of this polity, Immerwahr says, is our fixation on the ‘logo map’, an image of which duly embellishes the cover of his book. This is the popular idea of the United States as nothing but the continental lower forty-eight—the familiar rectangle, with the generous curve of the California shoreline, ruler-straight 49th parallel and ragged Atlantic coast. Immerwahr borrows the pithy notion of the ‘logo map’ from Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (the second edition), where it is used to show how the jigsaw colouring of the old imperial maps eventually allowed colonial peoples themselves to construct nationalist counter-maps out of their particular piece of the puzzle. Here, by contrast, the logo map suggests the us as a limited, politically uniform space: a voluntary union of states, on an equal footing, with nothing outside. This ‘hides’ both internal and external difference. The Republic, Immerwahr argues, was itself always a disparate collection of ‘states and territories’—an ‘empire from the very outset’, including not only subjugated Indian lands but also the unequally defined white-settler territories on the frontier. ‘Empire’, then, is defined minimally as little more than hierarchical difference, heterogeneity, within given borders: the relation between the core and its dependencies inside the ‘Greater United States’. In this sense, empire becomes Immerwahr’s enabling device for descriptive narrative, the place where things will happen. No particular narrative follows: the wager is that by describing events in this space—which includes, at various times, Cuba, the Philippines, 94 guano islands and Puerto Rico, among much else—he will reveal what has hitherto been hidden. This is not, then, a causal account. As in his first book, Thinking Small (2014), on us village-level developmentalism during the Cold War, Immerwahr’s ‘argument’ is the object of inquiry. Causes vary. Things happen.

How to Hide an Empire is pitched as a ‘full portrait’ of ‘the whole’ but, as a philosophically trained historian (unusually so, not least in narratology), Immerwahr knows that his unmasking operation entails some ocular exclusions, if not deliberate acts of ‘hiding.’ No single subject such as ‘the Greater United States’ marches through world history, and no single history of it can therefore be written. For one thing, the ‘Greater United States’ is very differently proportioned to the ‘Greater United Kingdom’. The empire is just not that important for the American metropole, which looms far larger for the territories possessed than they do for the ‘folks at home’. Reflecting that disparity, the spatial configuration Immerwahr describes does not become a unified ‘imperial’ structure with any discernible single logic attached to it. This is why the metropole never spends much bureaucratic energy on running things, as he notes. After the empire reached its apex in the early 20th century, it would still take a couple of decades before Washington, in the person of Franklin D. Roosevelt, finally created the ‘Division of the Territories and Island Possessions’. Symptomatically, he put an old anti-imperialist (Ernest Gruening) in charge and allotted him no more than a handful of officials. This was a period in which Albania commanded more attention in the New York Times than Alaska. The ‘full portrait’, then, necessarily becomes a matter of choice: episodes in the life of empire.

One advantage with the minimalist concept is that Immerwahr need not engage with the kinds of dispute common to the early 2000s: is the us an empire, should it be one, can it be? There is no ‘system’ in his account, no social classes or driving mechanisms in general. Relatedly, he can skip questions of ‘imperialism’—a larger concept that would entail all kinds of investigations that go beyond the territorial limits. This, by the same token, is also a shortcoming. ‘Dollar diplomacy’, domination by controlling the financial systems of foreign places, falls largely beyond his purview—no small matter, as this is perhaps the most ‘American’ of approaches to empire, even though the would-be substitution of dollars for bullets often turns out to require military intervention.

Immerwahr’s minimalist conceptual frame also flattens out the 19th century. The book underestimates the originality of the ‘American empire of and for liberty’, with its serial state formation the continuous reenactment of the foundational contract. That process, relatively autonomous and lacking an imperial centre, was certainly fuelled by rapacious settler colonialism and led to the genocidal suppression of the Native Americans; but politically, as a process of state formation, it was a brilliant innovation in unrepeatable historical circumstances. Jefferson’s teleology was powerful and functional—even though the setup proved incapable of resolving the supreme contradiction of slavery, except by means of an extremely violent civil war. A minimalist notion of empire also obscures the degree to which the Spanish War of 1898 and its imperialist aftermath broke with existing norms of us exceptionalism: one of the signal demands of the Theodore Roosevelts and Alfred Mahans of that moment was that the nation had to get with it in a ‘Euro-civilizational’ sense—that is: as a Great Power and preferably the best.

The historical ground Immerwahr covers here is well known in its contours and, as critics have noted, certainly not ‘hidden’ from the vantage point of anyone with more than a passing knowledge in the field: settler colonialism, dispossession and removal of the Indians, expansionism, the War of 1898 (the Rough Riders get yet another outing), annexations in the Pacific and Caribbean, bloody counterinsurgency in the Philippines, ‘Progressive’ experimentation and impositions. Even the one obscure episode here, Senator William Seward’s signal opening in the Guano Islands Act of 1856 for the addition of ‘appurtenances’—small islands having deposits of bird droppings—has been intensely scrutinized. Historians of the us do write about empire, and a great deal of attention has been devoted to such subjects as colonial rule in the Philippines. Immerwahr is of course aware of this; but he claims, with some justification, that much of that attention is episodic, focused on the pronounced imperialist moment around 1900 and its immediate aftermath. Books on us overseas territories are metaphorically ‘filed on the wrong shelves’, he claims—they seem to be about ‘foreign countries’. Besides, his target audience is ‘the public’; hence he largely avoids historiographical engagement. Nevertheless, general readers, too, could have benefited from an appendix on the historiography and his position within it.

The genre, then, is popular history, and the author pursues it with vigour. The book is packed with pictures, the tone is informal, the language flows, the stories are poignant, if occasionally formulaic. Immerwahr writes with passion about the many ‘native’ victims of his Greater United States, from evicted Cherokees to Filipino navvies and Puerto Rican freedom fighters. Colourful figures and personalities are evoked to considerable effect. One striking case is Fritz Haber. A German-Jewish chemist around the turn of the century, Haber was a chief inventor of substitute fertilizer, thus eliminating the need for guano and greatly aiding the German position in World War I. He followed this up by creating poison gas. After the War, he did pioneering work on insecticides. Upshot one: Haber the brilliant chemist unwittingly provides substances that would later be used in the extermination programmes in which some of his relatives would perish. Upshot two: Clara, Haber’s long-suffering scientist wife and opponent of his war-time work who committed suicide in 1915, was the cousin of Immerwahr’s great-grandfather. Personal anecdote aside, Immerwahr has an outstanding eye for the telling detail and the unusual angle. The factual approach, sometimes deadpan, sometimes existentially invested, is effective. As popular history, it works: How to Hide an Empire is filled with stories many general readers may not have come across. The problems lie elsewhere. They have to do with the argument, which eventually materializes.