When we were done conquering the west, done warring with Mexico, done fighting Native Americans, we looked out across the Pacific Ocean and said… “huh… I wonder what’s over there?” The truth is that the United States is an empire. We accomplished that by fighting wars and by seeking out resources.
In the 1800s the United States faced a very real problem: we were running out of nitrogen. Not in the air. There is plenty in the air. We were losing it in our soil. Plants need nitrogen. Where were we going to get it?
The answer we came up with was: bird poop. It’s rich in nitrogen and makes a great fertilizer. The trouble is that we didn’t have any way to get large quantities of it. Until American businesses took over islands off the coast of our country.
This is the story of greed, a different kind of slavery, a Supreme Court battle, and the worst job in the 1800s.
Our guest this episode is Daniel Immerwahr, author of the book “How to Hide an Empire” and an associate history professor at Northwestern University. In his book, he argues that the United States has been an empire since it’s inception.
New York Times review of a book on the Spanish American War where I first learned about German plans for the Philippines.
Helpful info about President McKinley’s declaration of war against Spain.
New York Times archived article about the German plans to attack the US otherwise known as Operation Plan III.
Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book The Bully Pulpit which provided some background on Teddy Roosevelt and the Spanish American War. It’s a good book, but its main focus is on Roosevelt’s relationship with Taft.
What do you think of when you hear the word “empire”? Maybe Great Britain? The Soviet Union? The Mongols? Sure. But what if I told you that the United States is also an empire. And always has been.
Our guest this episode is Daniel Immerwahr, author of the book “How to Hide an Empire” and an associate history professor at Northwestern University. In his book, he argues that the United States has been an empire since it’s inception. We claimed lands owned by native peoples, and then expanded into places like the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Alaska, and more. This is the story of war, greed, resources, and tragedy.
We’ve been asking a lot of big
questions lately. Like, what is the difference between communism and
socialism? And how do they impact the Christian church? How did the
United States react to communism? This week we’re taking a short
break from Russia to explore this elemental question… what IS the
(people playing a game)
Like, physically. What is the US? I was
recently at the Spark Christian Podcast conference, where I made a
bunch of new friends. So, as you do, when you make new friends, I
decided to do an art project.
(people playing a game)
Is it just the fifty states and the
district of Columbia? Or is it also Guam, American Samoa, Puerto
Rico… What about the land under out embassies in foreign countries?
Our military bases?
(people playing a game)
CS: Today on the show we try to explore
that question… what IS the United States? If we are a Christian
nation, as some people say that we are (and as a lot of people say we
aren’t) we should probably know what the US is. Get out your pencil
and crayons… we’re redrawing the map.
You’re listening to the show that uses
journalistic tools to look inside the Christian church. We press
pause on the culture wars in order to explore how we got here and how
we can do better. I’m Chris Staron. This is Truce.
I hope you’re as excited as I am. I
have been able to speak to some great authors this year and for the
next few episodes you get to hear one of my favorites.
DI: My name is Daniel Immerwahr. I’m an
associate professor of history at Northwestern University outside of
Chicago. And my book is called How to Hide an Empire: a History of
the Greater United States.
CS: It’s a great read. My copy is just
filled with highlights. In the book, if you can’t tell by the title,
he argues that we have this vision of the United States as being one
tidy clear cut thing. Fifty states, the district of Columbia not much
else. But that’s not accurate. The United States, is like a whole
list of countries in their heyday. Great Britain, France, Spain,
Austria, Russia… the United States is actually an empire.
DI: And that just has to do with not
what the quality of it’s foreign policy is… not really who it is in
the sense of character, but rather where it is on the map.
CS: You can explore this to yourself
and wow your friends at parties just by looking at a map.
DI: Because most people when they call
to mind a map of the United States when they imagine what it looks
like they imagine that familiar shape.
CS: Oh, the shape. The US is basically
a rectangle with a strip of land going up in New England, another one
going down on the south east for Florida, and Texas is just kind of
hanging out there on the bottom. How else do you describe the shape?
Oh, and we have to include those other two states.
DI: Yes, Hawaii and Alaska too…
CS: Hawaii and Alaska too, maybe in
little boxes off to the side…
DI: But that’s mainly the center of it.
And the thing is that’s not actually a very good map of the United
States. It’s not a very good map now because it doesn’t include
places like Puerto Rico and Guam.
CS: Yes! Puerto Rico and Guam. We
always forget about Puerto Rico and Guam.
DI: It certainly wasn’t a very good map
earlier in US history because it didn’t include really large places
like the Philippines. So what I tried to do in my book was to re-tell
US history in a re-mapped way to actually show it to… from a
different perspective and show you all of the places that are a part
of the United States and tell Us history that way.
CS: Not only is our understanding of
the United States as it is today just not accurate, but it also does
not reflect the past. The United States has been on an aggressive
expansion campaign basically since it’s inception.
DI: The first day when the United
States had its independence from Great Britain ratified, when the
treaties had gone through and signed by both sides, etc… the name
of the country was the United States of America and that suggests
that it is a union of states. But by that day the United States was
no longer a union of states. It was… it wasn’t really a union
because union suggests voluntarily entering into… it was an
amalgam. It was an amalgam of states and territories.
CS: Territories. That is the keyword, the concept that makes this whole thing really sticky. Sure the founding fathers got together and knocked out the Declaration of Independence then the Constitution and that group of men created a whole new country. They split from Britain and took with them not just people who wanted the new country, but also British loyalists. Including a whole bunch of Christian pastors who preached that we should stay in the Union. Also dragged into this country… the native people who were here long before Europeans. And of course, enslaved peoples who had no say at all.
The US was not just a bunch of states
who agreed to this thing. You know this part, right? This is the
stuff we cover in middle school. How we slowly took over native
American lands. It took a long time for us get to our weird rectangle
with a side bubble off to the side.
DI: That’s the map in 1854 after the
United States, you know, through a series of annexations and
conquests and dispossessions of indigenous people sort of filled out
that familiar shape on the North American continent. And 1854 was the
year when the final treaty was ratified and that’s what the United
States looked like.
CS: Not all of it was violently acquired. We bought the Louisiana Purchase (a bunch of the center and the southern end of the country) from our old friend Napoleon Bonaparte.
NAPOLEON: Zu ta lore! My wars they are
so expensive! How am I going to pay for this?
AID: I’m afraid our bake sale didn’t go
so well, sir.
NAPOLEON: Zu ta lore! Have we pillaged?
AID: We have pillaged, sir.
NAPOLEON: Have we plundered?
NAPOLEON: What else can there be? I
will have to sell my pointy hats.
AID: Or, if I may be so bold. We could
do a real estate deal.
NAPOLEON: I am, how you say, listening.
AID: Sell our holdings in the New World. That would make us a lot of Benjamins.
NAPOLEON: Mon Due!
CS: That’s not how it happened, but
wouldn’t it be great if it was?
The Louisiana Purchase may not have
been that silly, but at least it was peaceful. The country had
expanded quite a lot. But there was a long way to go. Do you know how
we got much of the southwest? In the 1840s we fought a war with
Mexico to get Texas, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and California. What
we call the southwest is about 1/3 of what used to be Mexico.
A bunch of the states most embroiled in the immigration debate… used to belong to Mexico. Which we purchased or wrestled away from them through war. We could have taken more too. People estimated at the time that we could have conquered all of Mexico. Instead, we took the sparsely populated parts. According to Daniel, we took the parts where there weren’t many brown-skinned people.
John C Calhoun, a Senator who, no
surprise, really dug slavery, said:
CALHOUN: “We have never dreamt of
incorporating into the Union any but the Caucasian race – the free
CS: Mind you, this was not whispered in
some parlor. This was on the Senate floor.
CALHOUN: “Are we to associate with ourselves, as equals, companions, and fellow citizens, the Indians and mixed races of Mexico?”
CS: Yeesh. You know, they’re making a
third Bill and Ted’s movie. I hope they travel back in time just to
slap that guy. (slap sound) No… that’s not the godly thing to say.
Okay… maybe Bill and Ted pair him with W.E.B. DuBois and some
hijinks ensure, leading, no doubt, to an enduring bromance.
I don’t think that’s too much to ask.
John C. Calhoun was not alone. Not by a
long shot. We invented a lot of shenanigans to keep people of color
out of our country. Either consciously or unconsciously people in
territories as opposed to states… are largely non-white.
You and I have covered a lot of ground
already! Mexico, the Louisiana Purchase. A lot of work to make that
nice map we all remember from our elementary school classrooms.
DI: Here’s the thing, though. That map
was only accurate for three years.
Only three years of that familiar shape. Everything in that rectangle thing except for the District of Columbia would eventually become a state. Wyoming, California, Arizona, Texas, on and on. To form what we think of as the lower 48, the core of the country. That map that so many of us can draw with some degree of accuracy. Lasted for three years.
We’ve been talking for a long time about how communism impacted Russia. In a few weeks, we’ll start talking about the US response to that movement. How, since the USSR was communist and atheist, the US tied Christianity to capitalism. That may seem trivial, but our ties to capitalism have a huge impact. You can attend churches that preach the benefits of capitalism. That encourage their congregants to bring in so much money, have side businesses, or where the preacher will straight up push a product from the pulpit. Big oil gets tied to our faith. Arts and craft supplies. Even chicken sandwiches. I’m not here to tell you that’s good or bad, but we are going to explore how, at least in the least 150 years it came to be that capitalism, the US, and Jesus got tied together.
we get there, I feel like we need to talk about what the US is. What
it really is.
me start with a story.
year I was at the Podcast Movement conference in August. My friend
Eric and I were just two of a few Christians in a sea of podcasters.
Because this show is about the church, I ended up having
conversations with many people about the church. About Christianity.
But something somewhat unexpected happened: almost everyone who
talked with me about God also brought up the United States in one
form or another. Politics, the president, a Christian company, some
moment in history.
I was in this giant hotel, talking about the most important thing in
my life, my faith, and… in order to share Jesus with my new friends
I had to also give compelling arguments for US policies on foreign
affairs, domestic laws, and apologize for the darker parts of our
history. There were all of these hurdles in the way of me sharing the
gospel. And that isn’t a new thing. It has happened my whole adult
tied to the US isn’t all bad. We’ve got some great things like the
national parks system, access to public education, equal voting
rights, freedom of speech, religion, and assembly. The trouble is
that Christianity is also tied to US history. Murdering native
people. Slavery. Gerrymandering.
purpose of this series is to expand our idea of what the United
States is. It’s all of those things, good and bad. In my personal
ministry that connection often slows down or inhibits my ability to
share the gospel. It might be different for you.
more thing before we go. People throughout the Bible are confronted
with idol worship, putting anything else ahead of God. Money, statues
made of stone and metal. Patriotism itself is not bad. Loyalty to a
group is part of the human experience. But when that patriotism
trumps our worship of God… we’re in danger of worshipping an idea
over the creator.
purpose of this series is not to make us feel bad. But to add some
depth. It’s not just people within the US who are impacted. Our
actions to the rest of the world reflect back on God. For better or
for worse. Because our aggressive expansion didn’t stop with manifest
some point, after conquering from the Atlantic to the Pacific, all
the stuff we learn in middle school… we looked out across the waves
and said… huh… I wonder what’s over there.
continue that story in the next episode.
Special thanks to Daniel Immerwahr. His book is “How to Hide an Empire”. We’ll be hearing from him in the next few episodes. Truce is listener supported. If you want to continue to stretch what’s possible in Christian media, partner with me by donating even a little bit each month. If you do it on Patreon you’ll even get access to bonus materials not heard anywhere else. Like updates on the shows progress from me or extra audio I couldn’t use in the show. Learn more at trucepodcast.com. Follow us on social media at @trucepodcast.com. My challenge to you this week: sign up for our email list! You’ll get notifications about new episodes, links to our guests, access to our media fast curriculum, and so much more. Sign up on the website.
Special thanks to our vocal volunteers.
They include Holland Webb from The Afterword Podcast, Angel McCoy
from Angel reads the Bible, Colleen and Danny from Fitness and
Houston’s First, Savannah, and Erin . You can see some of their
drawings of the US on the website and our social media feeds.
Thanks for listening. I’m Chris Staron.
This is Truce.