A student once asked—after a classroom discussion of how 19th-century westward expansion connected to the ongoing injustices of American military bases in the Pacific—what she was supposed to do with this knowledge. Her question was as genuine as it was perceptive. It also felt like I had, again, failed.
As a historian and an educator of college students, my experience teaching about US imperialism is one of disappointment. I have largely failed to engender in my students a deep engagement with America’s imperial past and present. I believe in the importance of education and history. Yet, what the past years have shown me is that the classroom alone is insufficient in teaching the social and psychological realities of US imperialism.
When I ask students to define what an empire is, they typically picture Rome or the British Empire, not the United States. Imperialism, expansion, and colonialism have been integral to every period of America’s existence, including the present. Much of my work as a historian and an educator focuses on conveying and exploring this fact. Every year, however, I witness students struggling to internalize it.
Some deny it completely or make comforting historical comparisons. “At least we aren’t like the Nazis or the Belgians in the Congo,” a student told me during class. Generally, the responses—and this is particularly true of white American students—are powerfully emotive. Their cultural memory tends to place them on the side of empire’s agents. The idea is threatening to their very egos, their identities, and their ways of relating to the world. They are often empire’s beneficiaries. Many immediately bring up their families’ achievement of the American Dream in response to what they are learning. They generally don’t do this to provide counterfactuals to the horrors and continuing injustice of empire about which they are learning, but more to evidence their inability to place this data within their own experiences and political frameworks.
Even those who overcome the cognitive dissonance of American empire have few resources through which to imagine and work toward a more just future. Many students do not have anywhere near the experience or vocabulary to reconcile this history with their core image of America and their corresponding identity.
Here, I chronicle my ongoing attempts to find the right teaching tools to break this impasse. I have tried teaching through historical facts and through mixed media sources (such as photos of crushed Latin American revolutions and videos of bombed out Pacific islands subjected to nuclear testing), and I have even assigned works of speculative fiction and postmodern literature. Nothing worked until, unexpectedly, something did. Finally, during the protests that began in the spring of 2020, I saw my students draw connections between domestic issues of racism and social inequality and the historical legacy—and present realities—of American empire.
THE REALITY OF EMPIRE
The United States maintains military bases in over 80 countries, as well as possessing protectorates and territories: Guam, US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa. All these regions—and their people—were pried from other empires over the past centuries. The entire history of the United States is one of westward conquest of the territories of other empires, including Spain, France, Britain, and the Comanche. America dominates most of the world’s international financial institutions, such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
In addition to a lengthy history of foreign invasions and support for coups, the United States designs and deploys tools of empire to control populations abroad, including drones, innumerable types of military and security technologies, and less lethal weapons. Now, on the home front, these same imperial tools have been turned on American citizens protesting injustice, as we saw in cities from Portland to Philadelphia during Black Lives Matter protests. So why is the American empire so hard to see?
Professional historians have failed to impart the necessary conditions for inculcating public discourse on empire. To be fair, this is not for lack of trying. There is a vast academic literature on the topic. In addition, there are countless graduate seminars, academic conferences, and undergraduate courses devoted to every imaginable topic regarding the American empire, in disciplines such as history, anthropology, literary studies, and beyond.
Moreover, popular historians have written directly to the public about the US empire. Daniel Immerwahr has explored the reasons behind our collective amnesia and the erasure of empire from our cognitive (and literal) maps. Immerwahr’s assertion tracks with my experience in the classroom. His How to Hide an Empire historicizes long-forgotten imperial spaces and events that have defined American history and the lives of our colonized subjects: “The inhabitants of the U.S. Empire have been shot, shelled, starved, interned, dispossessed, tortured and experimented on. What they haven’t been, by and large, is seen.”1
The core features of empires are that they are extractive, hierarchical, and composed of differentiated regions and peoples under a concentrated source of political control. These are likewise core features of America’s push westward; slaveholders’ dreams of establishing an “empire of cotton” by conquering much of Latin America; the annexation of Guam, the Philippines (now an independent nation), and Puerto Rico from Spain; and the addition of Pacific Island territories such as American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the US Virgin Islands (not to mention Hawaii).
Yet, to my students—and to most Americans—the United States as an empire is an unthinkable proposition. Instead, for them, the country remains a fundamentally altruistic, if at times imperfect, force for good in the world. This psychological identification of many Americans with a rosy narrative of US history is difficult to understate.
For example, American students have little to no knowledge of the brutal counterinsurgency campaigns to pacify Filipino freedom fighters after the United States inherited the colony from Spain. I once began a lecture on the background of the Pacific War by showing images of these campaigns: black-and-white photographs of gleeful American troops posing atop stacks of broken Filipino bodies as if trophy hunting. These images obviously shocked the roomful of college students. But even more shocking was a comment that the photos evoked from a particularly reflexive student: “America has many characteristics of an empire, but I don’t feel direct relation to that fact. And it is difficult to imagine it, given my positive experiences of the US.” Confronted with the historically documented fact(s) of empire, many students in my and my colleagues’ classes have been unable to reconcile this data with their own identities and understanding of the world.
The classroom alone is insufficient in teaching the social and psychological realities of US imperialism.
Who among us can really blame this inability to imagine empire? Nothing students have encountered to this point has prepared them for this fact. There is an untraversable psychological gulf between personal privilege and the imperial extraction and dispossession that produce it. There is a lack of the very possibility of true identification of oneself as a member of an imperialist polity. My students are not thick-witted or unwilling to learn; they are trapped in a hegemonic cul-de-sac of historical and political imaginary.
Americans’ identities are integrally linked to a self-image of America as the leading democratic republic in world history. For centuries, America’s legacies of empire and social injustice have been intertwined yet largely concealed.
Children do not learn about American possessions and commonwealths in school. Samoans, Puerto Ricans, and other American subjects are excluded from democratic representation in our institutions of governance. No major films depict our empire or our roles as colonizers—they simply do not factor into the popular narratives of our nation. Can you locate Saipan on a map?
When American imperialism is mentioned in school, it is as an aside and typically relegated to a brief historical moment following the Spanish-American War (1898) and the direct colonial acquisition of the Philippine Islands, Puerto Rico, and Guam. This delimits empire to a specific period and form—colonialism—as opposed to framing it as a broader element of American history, as an original sin.
But it is not just textbooks. The inability to recognize American empire has ideological and psychological roots. Indeed, the application of American military might, interventionism, and dominance over global economic structures is inextricably linked to a narrative of American exceptionalism: the United States as purveyor of freedom and democracy. Even to those politically predisposed to questioning the US role in the world, the notion has a difficult time gaining purchase in their mind: the prerequisite vocabulary, emotional toolkit, and psychological dispositions are totally absent.
Whenever I taught on the subject, I found myself wondering: What will it take for the majority of Americans to assimilate, and act against, the reality of far-flung territories and the occupation of indigenous lands? What could make visible the connections between the racial and economic inequities in this country and America’s empire?
As a historian and professor, I’ve long sought to shift narratives of the US imperial past and present by inculcating better—and more relatable—accounts of this history. I’ve sought out texts and teaching methods to help my students grasp the subject. Assigning works of speculative fiction was the closest I came to creating conditions in the classroom that were conducive to reducing students’ inability or unwillingness to internalize the realities of US empire. But even this fell short.
The formulaic possibilities of fiction can lend themselves to imaginative explorations of simultaneous pasts, possible futures, and interiorities that are other to our own, while simultaneously speaking to our present. Compelling fictional narratives are one of the few tools that have been somewhat effective in my classrooms. These help to circumvent the ideological predispositions and emotionally laden accounts of US exceptionalism that historians have difficulty unmooring.
For instance, a recent work of speculative fiction—Matt Gallagher’s Empire City (Atria Books, 2020)—confronts America’s imperial legacy by reimagining empire as an overtly socially acceptable fact through the lens of alternative history. The novel is set in an alternative timeline in which the United States consciously embraces itself as an empire after triumphing in Vietnam. Situated within a popular genre (superheroes) and featuring an engaging plot, Empire City’s formal structure invites recognition and reflexive engagement from readers. Alternative history, for example, emphasizes the contingency of the past while simultaneously mirroring and referencing the real past. The time Gallagher constructs requires a nodal event or moment in the past that contains more than one possible continuation—in this case, a Vietnam War that ends in American victory and a concomitant acceptance of imperial status. That America is an empire in the mid-20th century is taken as a given fact that grounds the novel. That American society cannot come to recognize this fact, however, is not a given. The alternative timeline underlines the erasure of empire from Americans’ history and collective consciousness. The nodal event by which Gallagher’s alternative history departs from our own past contains myriad potential storylines, yet Gallagher chooses to create a reality in which his main characters confront the horrors of empire and consciously reject them.
Circumventing familiar modes of seeing the world bypasses readers’ defenses. And Gallagher’s fiction demonstrates the effectiveness of novelists’ use of alternative perspectives to enable readers to confront their own reflection.
Fiction can present the liberatory possibilities that spring from an honest, clear-eyed reckoning with history, from the vantage point of a present that never existed. In so doing, fiction can provide readers with a roadmap for the difficult process of recognizing one’s own role and attachment to empire maintenance. It can even show how rejecting that role brings healing, despite the personal costs.
Yet, in my teaching experience, even fiction’s ability to create a new imaginative space and vantage points within the classroom has been limited. This is because readers encounter fiction—indeed, perhaps most texts—in an individualized and comfortable setting as an imaginative and intellectual exercise. Reading fiction also does not solve my student’s question: What are we to do with this information? In terms of what personal experience can Americans recognize and situate themselves as living within an empire? To what collective political and material struggle does reading contribute?
Imperialism: A Syllabus
When I started writing this article, it was to be a review essay of fiction that I used to teach the subject of US empire. I tried in vain to think of texts and teaching methods that were silver bullets for the collective amnesia and psychic inability to internalize the fact of America’s imperial self. All I could think of were texts that barely moved the needle.
If American history and society is built on hiding our empire from our own consciousness and ignoring dissonant and marginalized voices, no amount of classroom or academia-imposed critical or literary engagement with this fact has been sufficient to engender its recognition, let alone action. Instead, what is necessary is directly challenging these beliefs through historical argumentation, protest, and direct action.
THE REAL CLASSROOM
In June 2020, I sat in a park, underneath a maple tree, and listened to local high school and community college students lead a small Black Lives Matter rally under the hot sun of Folsom, California. A surprisingly large crowd had gathered, bearing signs and bug spray. Speaker after speaker arose from the crowd to laud the students, praise local teachers, and disavow racism in the community.
While listening, we all huddled into the symbolic and literal shadows of several statues and flagpoles hoisting emblems to American foreign wars. Monuments and flags celebrating the war heroics and commemorating the (American) dead from “settling the frontier,” the Second World War (both in the Pacific and in Europe), Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan stood in the blazing sun. There was also a tattered POW/MIA flag: the emblem of an ongoing right-wing conspiracy that American soldiers were left behind in Vietnam. Banners read “God Bless Our Troops” and “Folsom (CA) Honors Veterans.”
At the gathering, no one explicitly addressed the relationship of America’s imperialist past to systemic racism and police killings of African Americans. The irony of demanding a better future and an end to systemic racial violence under monuments to America’s imperial history had not yet been raised to the forefront of the discourse.
But, by later in the summer, protests made these connections explicit. Organizers and protesters began decrying the connection between the tactics and technologies of imperialist violence abroad and police repression at home. White supremacy of many forms was examined, including genocide against indigenous peoples. The protestors and organizers used history lessons, conceptual thinking, and personal anecdotes to link to the legacies of empire the racial and economic inequalities that define our society.
The history of this broadening, of the growing critique against empire, can be seen in the defacement or removal of monuments to white supremacy and agents of empire. How else can one explain how the effort to remove monuments to Confederate leaders (many of whom wished to create an American empire based on slavery reaching down to Central America) grew to include genocidal figures from Spanish and American imperial agents, such as Christopher Columbus, Junipero Serra, and Theodore Roosevelt?2
As the summer protests went on and the rallies and protests continued, more and more voices decried the horrors of empire. America’s dark, supposedly domestic history of slavery and indigenous genocide was framed as integral to and part of imperial expansion and wrongs. Now, two years after the Black Lives Matter protests, the movement to confront American empire persists, largely led by Black and brown people who have most suffered within it and feel the connection between imperialism abroad and domestic disparities.
Many of my students witnessed the violence and weapons of empire firsthand and stood in opposition to them. My conversations with former students have evidenced that the collective protests, organizing, and difficult conversations of 2020 were more effective than any books or my university courses. Their lived realities forged experiential and intellectual connections between domestic and foreign systems of injustice, making imperial legacies, past and present, visible and politically salient.
It turns out, then, that I had been pushing in the wrong direction. It is through collective, direct action—led by those who have been most harmed by American empire—that the country’s past can be raised to the surface and confronted. Studying and reading books that provide the language and analytical frameworks necessary to recognize and describe America’s empire has merit, and I would like to think that the hard work of teachers and scholars helped to make the 2020 protests possible. However, although I still plan to teach and write, I’m going to remember that the streets are the best classroom.
This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom.