The United States, a “Christian” nation, has a bad habit of forgetting its own people. Really. We’ll prove it to you! We forget that the territories are a part of our country. Why does that matter? It impacts if/when they can vote and allows us to withhold federal aid. That matters! What happens when a “Christian nation” ignores its own people?
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.
Special thanks to:
- Stand up comedian Nick Staron
- FDR’s “Day of Infamy” speech
- Is the United States an Empire?
- Can Puerto Rico vote in congress?
- Can Puerto Rico vote for president?
- Can American Samoa vote for president?
- Who was bombed on December 7, 1941?
CS: Chris Staron (host)
DI: Daniel Immerwahr (guest)
CS: This is the third part in a series about the US as an empire. It’s nestled into all of season three, which is about how communism in Russia shaped American Christianity. This episode can stand on its own, but when you’re done listening, go back to the beginning of season three.
I recently brought my brother over to the mic… so we could reminisce about the old days. Some good and some… not to great.
(Chris and Nick talk about how their roommates in Los Angeles didn’t include them on their roommate get-togethers)
CS: Nobody wants to be left behind. No, I’m not referring to the books and movies with the title Left Behind. I mean, we don’t want to be forgotten. Especially not by our own people. But it happens all the time.We do this… as a nation.
Allow me to demonstrate. Think back to middle school history. Who got attacked on December 7, 1941. What if I say it like this (like FDR) December 7, 1941. Still no? I’ll give you a hint: the Japanese military was the aggressor. Go ahead and think about it for a moment.
December 7, 1941 – that’s the day that Pearl Harbor was attacked. How many of you knew that? Go ahead, raise your hand wherever you are. I won’t judge you. We Americans think we know about it because it’s one of the reasons we joined in WWII. And because of the Ben Affleck movie. But what else happened on that day?
It’s not a trick question. Pearl Harbor was not the only place attacked on that fateful day.
The Japanese military also hit the Philippines, Guam, Midway Island, and Wake Island. All of which were territories of the United States at the time. They also struck the British colonies of Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong. And they invaded Thailand. All on the same day they struck Pearl Harbor.
Now, did you know that? I’m guessing… no. I didn’t either until I started researching this episode.
We’re not taught about the other places that were attacked. We’re pretty much focussed on the fifty states. We don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about the territories. Some of us take a strong stance, saying that the United States is a Christian nation. We just did a series disproving that point. But… it’s important to keep examining that claim because it is so prevalent. We need to examine how we, a “Christian nation” have treated our own people. Not just Native Americans, African Americans, and other minorities. But also those who are easier to overlook. Like people who live on US soil that is outside of the 50 states.
Our guest today is Daniel Immerwahr. He’s the author of the excellent book “How to Hide an Empire”. He’s also an associate professor at Northwestern University.
In the book, Daniel writes about the events of December 7, 1941. The very next day, FDR gave a speech in front of congress. We know the first part really well.
FDR: Yesterday, December 7, 1941… a date which will live in infamy.
CS: But listen to this second part.
FDR: But listen to the second part…
FDR: The United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the empire of Japan.
CS: What did he call Japan?
FDR: Of the empire of Japan.
CS: He called it an empire. Conveniently, he did not characterize United States the same way. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were keen on calling the Philippines, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the others colonies. But… FDR not so much. Here is Daniel.
DI: Yeah, there’s a really interesting moment right after 1898 when the United States went to war with Spain and as a result of that war took Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines from Spain and then also at the same time took Hawaii and American Samoa and it’s kind of an incredible moment because a lot of people in the United States at that point were really proud of this and made maps that showed Puerto Rico and Guam on them and started referring to the United States openly as an empire, as having colonies. And this wasn’t something that they hid.
CS: But it kind of fell out of style. It was much cooler to call them territories.
DI: So one of the frustrating things for me as a historian, historians are always annoyed when people don’t know things, right? You know that’s like our thing. And one of the frustrating things for me as a historian is that despite the fact that the Philippines, Puerto Rico, places like that have been part of the United States they haven’t largely been integrated into the stories of US history. At least not into the textbooks, not into the overviews, not into the books that a lot of people read. And Pearl Harbor is a really good example of that. So, it’s incredibly important event in national history. If you were to ask people in the United States which events they could name by date, which historical events… it’s probably only three. Pearl Harbor, the signing of the Declaration of Independence and September 11th. Those are the things that people know by date.
CS: We know about Pearl Harbor. Of course we do… As I said earlier, what we don’t know is that Pearl Harbor was not the only place struck on that fateful day.
DI: If the Philippines and in Guam and Wake Island, it was more than that because the Japanese attacked and then they kept attacking and then they conquered all of those places. And so that means millions of US nationals falling under foreign flags. And having some very painful and difficult years during the war where, despite the fact that technically these places are a part of the US, the US is basically kind of… prioritized the European theaters. Not prioritized, you know, rousting Japan from these places. And they have a very different kind of war than other US nationals do.
CS: We have pretty selective memories when it comes to national history. I’m not sure why that is, but it’s true.
I can prove it one more time. If I were to ask you which conflict on US soil killed the most people you might be tempted to say the US Civil War. No. It was WWII, if, like me, you’re counting the territories in the Pacific. Places like the Philippines, which saw massive losses.
In 1940, 1 in 8 people living on US soil lived in the territories. For context, at that time only about 1 in 12 were African American. The number of people living in territories was much greater than the number of African Americans. Yet, we forget the territories, even when talking about their participation in the number one war featured in movies, books, and documentaries. It’s like they’ve been erased.
DI: It’s always been states AND territories, and I think it’s really easy to think of US history entirely in terms of what happened in the states. But if you were to do that you’d miss quite a lot.
Goodness gracious. I need a break. Anyone else need a break? When we come back, we’ll explore how we’ve treated people in these forgotten territories. Including… when and where we let their voices be heard. We’ll be back after these messages.
We get exhausted beating ourselves up. Right? Americans are supposed to feel bad about a lot of stuff that happened before most of us were alive. Jim Crow laws, blocking women from voting, exterminating native peoples. I don’t mean to browbeat us with all of those things. There are plenty of other resources for that.
So… lets take a quick break and run through some of my favorite things about the United States. Yes, these are real:
- The Pacific Crest Trail – its possible for a person to walk from the border with Mexico to the border of Canada on the same trail. If that’s not incredible, I don’t know what is.
- Our rights to free speech, free press, free assembly. We’re not the only country with these, but they still bare repeating.
- You’ve maybe never thought of this, but here it is, something I’m really thankful for: The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation or FDIC – the organization that insures bank deposits in the US. They’re not perfect but… c’mon. Even if your bank gets robbed, you’ve still got your money. Isn’t that amazing? Why don’t we ever talk about that?
Okay – there are a lot of things to be grateful for in the US. Since it is important for us to know our heritage… which means we have to talk about the dark stuff.
With that in mind… lets return to World War II, the so-called last righteous war. During that conflict, remember, we weren’t just fighting the Nazis. Also, Italy and Japan. Because Japan was our enemy… we started looking around at Japanese-Americans… and got really nervous. What if these people… were not on our side? What if they were spies? They didn’t have our best interest at heart?
Today, we’re tempted to think we would never have done this. We do a lot of crazy things when we’re afraid. So, definitely learn from their decisions, but don’t be quick to judge.
The United States interned Asian Americans on our soil. We were afraid that, since we were fighting the Japanese, there could be spies scattered throughout our country. So we rounded them up and put them in internment camps like Heart Mountain here in Wyoming. Here’s again is Daniel.
DI: One of the greatest flaws or one of the greatest missteps in US policy in the war was the internment of Japanese and Japanese ancestry people on the west coast. Or the incarceration of those people. And that’s something that we talk about a lot. It’s in textbooks, I mean, people know about it.
CS: To be fair, I didn’t know about it until I was in my thirties. But there is another component that I didn’t know until I read Daniel’s book.
DI: The United States also at the same time interned Alaska natives in the territory of Alaska. Not because it suspects that they’re the enemy, but just to get them out of the way, because here’s another thing a lot of people don’t know, but Japan also invades and conquers the western tip of Alaska and holds it for a year.
CS: Wait… what? There are two huge things there! The United States interned native Alaskans to get them out of the way, just as we did Japanese Americans in the lower 48. Also, Japan had invaded the western tip of Alaska??? What??? Alaska was really remote then. There were no roads connecting the lower 48 to the territory. Meaning it would be hard for the US to fight the Japanese because we didn’t have much of a presence there. The Japanese took over three Aleutian Islands in June of 1942 and bombed Dutch Harbor. The ugly truth is that we were not the only ones moving around native Alaskans. Japanese forces took the population of one island, 42 people, to Japan as prisoners of war. Half of them died there.
Doesn’t that just confuse your righteous indignation? It does mine. The only two choices were being POWS in Japan or being interned by the US? History is complex, right?
It probably comes as no surprise, but we did not treat Alaskan natives well. They had their own Jim Crow style laws imposed upon them, segregating schools, hotels, theaters, and restaurants. This is when Alaska was a part of the United States. And it’s about as far north as you can get.
The truth is that the United States has a complicated track record when it comes to human rights. Even when it comes to its own people, especially those without a lot of power. The United States eventually accepted Alaska as a state. Cuba got its independence and then went communist. We let the Philippines establish themselves as an independent nation. After we leveled it during WWII.
But what about the other territories? Those that were not absorbed or set up as their own countries? Guam, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, all the rest? Where do they stand?
It’s an interesting thing. The United States broke away from Great Britain, an empire, only to become an empire itself. Remember this phrase from high school: taxation without representation? What do you think we’re doing to our territories today?
DI: So, right now the US has 5 overseas territories: Puerto Rico, Guam, the US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianna Islands and between 3-4 million people live in them.
CS: That’s the population of Chicago. And we often don’t think of them as part of us.
DI: And here’s the deal: by every branch of government they are in some way subordinated. So they can’t vote for president.
CS: You know, the chief executive who oversees them. They can’t vote for the person.
DI: They can send, in some cases, send delegates to congress but those delegates are, in the case of the Senate, non-voting.
CS: They’ve got someone there, representing them… but they don’t have the right to vote on behalf of the territory.
DI: In the case of the House it’s even weirder. They can vote but if the vote turns out to be close enough that the territorial delegates would matter then the House has to re-vote without them. So their vote is purely symbolic and, frankly, a little insulting.
CS: They can have people in the House representing them, and they can vote. But does it really count if they’re votes are thrown out in the event of a close call?
DI: And, um, the Judicial branch they’re also subordinated because one of the things that the Supreme Court does is that it decides on the constitutionality of things. But here’s the point about the five inhabited overseas territories that the US currently holds: the constitution doesn’t fully apply to them. Which is why you can be born in American Samoa, and it’s quite clearly American. It’s in the name. But nevertheless you would be born a US national not a US citizen. Because the 14th amendment doesn’t apply to you. So the inhabited territories of the United States exist in this legal in-between space.
CS: They’re citizens and they’re not. Their representatives can vote, but it doesn’t count. If England had pulled the same stuff with the United States, what would we have done? Yeah, we would have left. Maybe this whole thing feels a little academic to you. Like these are just side issues. But because we can keep these places at arms length, it allows us to avoid dealing with them in times of need.
DI: It’s been a problem I think for a long time but it feels more urgent today then it has before. Partly because, just think about what’s happened in the last two years. Major hurricanes have hit and done extraordinary damage to the US Virgin Islands and to Puerto Rico.
CS: Including Hurricane Maria in January of 2020 which hit Puerto Rico, as well as a 5.8 magnitude earthquake that same month.
DI: There’s a huge typhoon, the largest storm in US history since the 1930s, that hit the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianna Islands especially Siapan and Tinian… didn’t hear much about that in the news but its a huge deal. And then North Korea threatened to envelope Guam in missile fire. That’s all in the last two years, that’s four of the fire territories facing existential threat.
CS: How are we going to handle it when those territories, our territories, are hit by natural disasters or threatened by foreign governments. Are we going to step in and help out?
Maybe. The Trump administration withheld aid to Puerto Rico this winter, claiming that it did so because of corruption. President Trump’s tweets call Puerto Rico one of the most corrupt places in the world. Without really acknowledging… that place… is us. Our unwillingness to put a ring on these territories means that we can withhold aid and they don’t have a voice in our government with which to protest.
This is not how we treat a foreign country. It’s how we treat our own people. I don’t want to downplay the oppression endured by African Americans, Latinos, women and other marginalized people in the US. But at least we know about them. We learn about them in high school. We don’t learn about the lands we conquered in the Spanish-American war, or native Alaskans. Maybe because we don’t like to think that the United States is what it is.
I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months talking about how people outside the country view us when we try to bundle Christianity with the United States. It hurts our witness in other nations when they see Christians backing questionable actions done by our country. But how do we expect people in our own empire to view the church? A church that we sometimes try to fuse with the US: a country unwilling to let its own people vote for real. One that whittles its history down so that we forget that our territories are a part of us.
The truth is that the US is both the land of the free and the home of the forgotten. The Philippines, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the Virgin Islands, and more. We have a history of interning our own people. We broke away from the British Empire, only to become an empire ourselves.
Begging the question… is the American form of empire always such a bad thing? Really – it may be too simple to say it’s always bad. I’ll be posting about this on social media all week. I’d love to hear your thoughts.Your comments may even be read on the show.
There’s a lot of great content coming. Next week I’m posting a special episode of the show about military bases exclusively on our Patreon page. Patreon allows you to give a little money each month to keep this thing going. If you want to know more about military bases, go to patreon.com/trucepodcast. Then in two weeks we’ll explore the ups and downs of empire. Is it always a bad thing? With a game. No joke. A game you can play with your friends, family, and church. After that, we’re going to see just how Christianity became tied to capitalism and the United States in the first place.
I want you to be a part of the fun. I’m inviting you. Subscribe to the podcast and you can come along.
Special thanks to Daniel Immerwahr. His book is “How to Hide an Empire”. We barely scratched the surface. It is just so good, you guys. We didn’t even have time to cover the Panama Canal, which he covers so well. I first heard about Daniel on WNYC’s podcast, “On The Media”. I used the Internet Archive for the FDR speech.
Thanks to everyone who loaned their voice to this episode. Thanks also to Nick Staron for being my sounding board for this and so many episodes. I’m also excited to announce that I am available for public speaking gigs. If your church or organization would like to have me speak at your event, please send me an email.
If you like what you hear on Truce, please tell a friend. I’m taking a lot of risks on this show, using different formats, covering topics that you won’t hear in most Christian shows. If you like what you hear, tell a friend and consider donating to keep the show running. I’m traveling to several podcast conferences this year, and I’d like to buy a sound board to help boost my microphone signal. Get rid of some of the hiss that runs behind my voice. You can partner with me by donating a little each month or in a one time gift. Details are at trucepodcast.com. If you donate on Patreon, you’ll also gain access to bonus material I recorded with Daniel that I couldn’t use in these episodes.
Thanks for listening. Really, you’re going to love our episode in two weeks. I hope you’ll subscribe so you get each new episode at it’s released.
I’m Chris Staron. This is Truce.