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Amer­i­can em­pire

Smithsonian Magazine - - Contents - In­ter­viewed by Anna Di­a­mond

Why do you con­sider the United States an em­pire?

From day one the United States has in­cluded both states and ter­ri­to­ries, with the ter­ri­to­ries treated dif­fer­ently. In 1940, when the Philip­pines was a U.S. pos­ses­sion, there were 19 mil­lion U.S. na­tion­als liv­ing out­side of the 48 states. That’s more than the im­mi­grant or African-Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tions at the time.

“Em­pire” can be a loaded term.

It can be used as a pe­jo­ra­tive, but I’m not talk­ing about the coun­try’s char­ac­ter. I’m talk­ing about its shape—its ter­ri­to­ries and out­posts. To­day, around four mil­lion peo­ple live in the U.S. over­seas ter­ri­to­ries. That’s about the pop­u­la­tions of Maine, New Hamp­shire and Rhode Is­land com­bined.

Tech­nol­ogy helped the United States give up ter­ri­to­ries?

Tra­di­tion­ally, coun­tries claimed colonies to se­cure re­sources or mil­i­tary out­posts. By the 1940s, the United States had sat­is­fied some of those needs with tech­nol­ogy. De­vel­op­ing syn­thetic rub­ber meant it didn’t need trop­i­cal colonies to grow rub­ber. With air­craft and wire­less com­mu­ni­ca­tions, it didn’t re­quire con­tin­u­ous swaths of land for rail­road tracks and tele­graph ca­bles to main­tain its mil­i­tary pres­ence.

How do we think about our ter­ri­to­ries to­day?

A lot of peo­ple don’t. Woodrow Wil­son spoke of them as ly­ing “out­side the charmed cir­cle of our own na­tional life.” That at­ti­tude is in­grained. The ter­ri­to­ries al­most never ap­pear on maps of the coun­try, and cen­sus sta­tis­tics usu­ally ex­clude them. (If it had been in­cluded, Manila would have been one of the top ten largest cities in the coun­try in the 1940s.) You can see that ne­glect to­day in how lit­tle aid

Puerto Rico and the U.S. Vir­gin Is­lands got af­ter hur­ri­canes Maria and Irma. Or by the lack of na­tional at­ten­tion to Typhoon Yutu, which laid waste to the North­ern Mar­i­anas.

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