Teaching About Imperialism
Presentation at the Association of American Geographers (AAG) annual meeting,
Chicago, March 9, 2006. Text presentation accompanies the powerpoint at
(Each indented paragraph represents a powerpoint slide.)
Dr. Zoltán Grossman (The Evergreen State College)
Member of the Faculty in Geography/Native American & World Indigenous Peoples Studies,
Lab 1, Room 1015, 2700 Evergreen Parkway NW, Olympia, WA 98505 USA
Tel. (360) 867-6153 E-mail: [email protected]
Web: http://academic.evergreen.edu/g/grossmaz
Dr. Joseph Nevins (Vassar College)
Assistant Professor of Geography,
Box 66, 124 Raymond Avenue, Poughkeepsie, NY 12604-0066 USA
Tel.: (845) 437-7823 Fax: (845) 437-7577
Email: [email protected]
We are starting to work on a book that we call A People’s Geography of American
Empire, a project inspired by Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and the
People’s Geography Project begun by Don Mitchell. We will write the book for a mass
audience or undergraduate readership, in part to respond to the disturbing lack of geography in
the teaching of imperialism in North American classrooms.
Our book will track the expansion of the U.S. from Manifest Destiny in Native North
America, through overseas imperialism in the Pacific, the Caribbean, and Latin America to
present-day resource wars in the Middle East.
Our project does not so much examine each stage of expansion as a series of isolated
interventions representing past historical periods, but instead stresses the place-making
processes inherent in each stage of expansion, and their present-day imprints or legacies on both
the human and physical landscape.
We base much of our discussion on identifying and describing “imperial places,” or
places which have been profoundly shaped by a particular era or stage of expansion, and which
in turn have shaped each of those eras.
When textbooks or even progressive histories discuss imperialism, they tend to focus on
the origins or rationales for imperialism, or the violence that was inflicted by the U.S. military
on colonized peoples only at the time of the actual conquest, thus safely locating them in the
past. Imperial processes are portrayed in a way that is distant and removed, without any effects
on local communities, especially in the U.S., and with little to say about place-making. More
recent studies of corporate globalization make the process appear placeless or evenly
distributed, without a serious treatment of the role of the American state, and how some areas of
the world are more affected by U.S. imperialism than others.
Our central question is how and to what extent the world’s landscape reflects and helps
to reproduce U.S. imperial power. We are interested in presenting imperialism in a way that
does not separate local or domestic policies from global or foreign policies, and shows the
lasting legacy of past imperial policies on present-day local places.
We see coercion—whether exercised through political-economic mechanisms or
military terror--as one of the defining elements of imperialism, which, more broadly, is a
relationship of domination and subordination between territorially-based entities, albeit ones
highly differentiated within. Given this definition, Native American lands and the U.S.
Southwest are imperial places. So, too, are Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and the Marshall
Islands. Also American imperial places are those over which Washington exerted considerable
influence through proxies backed up by intermittent force (direct or indirect) or occupation,
especially in Latin America.
That the U.S. no longer exercises classical imperialist control over most of these places,
or that the U.S. has been highly successful in eradicating resistance and “Americanizing” those
places within its claimed national territory, does not erase the imperial origins of their
integration into the U.S. or its sphere of influence. Nor should it divert us from trying to
understand how the imperial origins have laid the basis for a set of relations whose outcomes
mirror in various ways those of empire. To suggest that would be like saying that racism no
longer exists simply because slavery and Jim Crow are dead. Imperialism persists to the extent
that new imperial projects unfold, and to the extent that the dispossession, inequality, and
injustice that grew out of formal empire were not remedied or eliminated, and continue to
inform, and are reproduced by, contemporary social relations. In other words, they are
embedded into the global landscape and social structures, and are constantly given new life.
We acknowledge that U.S. power is extremely uneven across the globe and has evolved
over time. At the same time, we appreciate—as John Agnew argues—that there are significant
hegemonic aspects to U.S. power. In other words, the U.S. has gotten others to enroll in the
exercise of its power on a global scale through means other than simple coercion. That said, we
want to insist on the historical and continuing importance of coercion in making extra-territorial
U.S. power and in shaping who gets and decides what on a global scale.
As other powerful states, the U.S. does not simply project power onto the
international stage from within its territory. Imperialism is often a team effort, one involving
a number of Western bloc states and various international, regional, and national institutions
and actors. U.S. imperialism is unique given the extent to which it relies on partner
countries—ones that are nominally equal, but in reality are inferior in terms of political,
military, and economic power—to maintain and further its interests. Given the team-like
nature of the U.S.-led imperialism, the benefits it produces for those who maintain it also
flow to its partners. This empire is predicated on a global market—one over which the U.S.
has a disproportionate amount of influence—rather than on a sub-global economic sphere
made up of colonized areas ruled by and centered on a single “mother country.” It is a
“nationalist globalism”, in the words of Neil Smith. Together, these partnerships help to
resolve the geographical contradiction between a world of national territorial states and an
increasingly globalized economy.1 Yet distinct areas of the world, such as parts of the
Persian Gulf and Central America, remain part of a U.S. sphere of influence, rather than, say,
French, British or Japanese. Governing elites in these areas still take their weapons and much
political direction from Washington, DC.
In order to demonstrate the impacts of specifically U.S. imperial control and the
continuity of U.S. control, we are organizing them within a typology of “imperial places,”
thus showing the common stories of many seemingly separate places across the globe. Some
of these places may be small, such as Diego Garcia, Okinawa or Bahrain, but they figure
prominently in the extension and reproduction of U.S. imperial influence.
For example, we will look at imperial places emptied of their indigenous inhabitants
for settlement or weapons testing, via processes of forced removal or “ethnic cleansing,” as
well as some cases in which the place has been wiped off the map.
We will tell stories of places of terror, where the U.S. military or its proxy armies
have committed massacres or systematic torture to intimidate and subdue populations. El
Mozote (El Salvador) and Abu Ghraib are not mistakes or aberrations in this regard.
We will also incorporate the narratives of “ground zeros” that were systematically
destroyed through bombing, shelling or burning, and are trying to recover.
Some places have not been visibly destroyed, but were poisoned in course of
colonization or warfare, and continue to contaminate its inhabitants, whether from Gold Rush
arsenic, defoliants, or radioactive waste.
The book will place a heavy emphasis on the string of U.S. military bases around the
world, and the military, socio-economic and environmental impacts on the local
communities—such as pollution, prostitution, and diminished democratic rule.
This discussion is especially pertinent as each military intervention of the past 15
years has deliberately left behind new permanent bases, increasing U.S. imperial power in the
arc from Poland to Pakistan. Geographers are well-equipped to look at the cumulative effect
of these interventions: the rise of a new U.S. military sphere of influence between the
emerging economic competitors of the European Union and China.
Our book project will not simply mystify American Empire as an unstoppable
juggernaut. We will also include places of resistance, where communities have either
physically fought back, or mobilized to contest specific military projects.
In some cases, the success of this resistance has closed U.S. military bases or
bombing ranges, and reclaimed land for the affected communities. By telling these stories,
we hope to avoid the other pitfall of studying imperialism: depressing outcomes that relegate
afflicted peoples to the status of passive victims.
A People’s Geography of American Empire will roughly follow a structure of
chapters based on a particular era of imperial expansion (such as the first annexations in the
Caribbean). The first section of each chapter will focus in-depth on a single case study of an
imperial place (such as the Vieques bombing range in Puerto Rico), tracing its story from the
initial conquest during that era to the present-day legacy of that conquest. The second
section will review other places incorporated into the empire during the era, and more briefly
follow and intertwine the imprints of U.S. hegemony on their societies. In this way, we want
readers to acquire an understanding of the complexities and nuances of reading a single
“imperial landscape,” but also to develop a literacy of the distinct imperial places
incorporated during each stage of expansion.
We understand, of course, that certain places reappear in different eras of U.S.
expansion. Guantánamo Bay, for example, may have been leased to the U.S. after the
Spanish-American War, but also played a central role in the Cold War and the current
(ostensibly placeless) global “War on Terror.” We intend to use such places to illustrate the
continuities in U.S. policy, and the multiple layers of imperial rule that can be peeled back in
a single place.
We have organized the chapters to initially focus on the conquest of the North
American land base, and the incorporation of different regions through the Indian Wars and
Mexican-American War, and the continued imposition of U.S. sovereignty around places
such as reservations, military bases, and the southern borderlands.
Richard Drinnon’s classic Facing West helps us draw the connection between Indianhating and empire-building, between Manifest Destiny and overseas imperial expansion,
whether in the Pacific, the Caribbean or Central America. In each of these chapters,
we would also draw the connections between past military interventions and the poverty and
instability of the region today.
We will treat the Cold War not primarily as a global contest between the U.S. and
Soviet Union staged in theaters of conflict, but as a vehicle that served as a pretext for the
defeat of local revolutions and democracies that threatened so-called U.S. interests or
presented an obstacle to their extension.
Similarly, we will not describe the growth of contemporary globalization as an even,
placeless process that erodes the power of the American state, but as part of a project for
expanding the U.S. sphere of influence under the guises of furthering humanitarianism,
preventing terrorism, or integrating markets. We will conclude with an examination of how
U.S. imperialism relates to U.S. corporate hegemony, how it is reshaping domestic and
foreign landscapes, and how ordinary citizens are reacting to head off these unwanted
changes, while trying to heal wounds from the past.
One way to illustrate our approach in the book is to briefly compare two wars of
conquest, one in North America, and the other in Asia, and two massacres that have left their
imprint on the American Empire.
First, the 1890 massacre of more than 300 Lakota (Sioux) at Wounded Knee
symbolized military atrocities against Native Americans, and the supposed “end of the Indian
The general who directed the massacre was later involved in the early imperial
conquests overseas. The Lakota had won some military victories over the U.S. Army in the
1860s and 70s, notably at Little Big Horn, but Wounded Knee was said to have marked the
end of their resistance.
Medals of Honor were granted to the cavalrymen who carried out the massacre, and
to this day the Lakota descendants have demanded the withdrawal of these medals.
With the Americans victorious, the memorial to the slain Lakotas consists only of a
gravestone at their mass grave. No other recognition has been given to this lonely cemetery
on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
The Native Americans were not only militarily defeated, but their economy, culture
and landscape was transformed by the Americans’ decimation of the buffalo. By 1890, not a
single bison herd could be seen on the remaining Indian lands. The Lakota at Pine Ridge
were left dependent on government rations, and turned into wards of the Bureau of Indian
In 1973, however, Lakotas who remembered the theft of their lands and resources,
and resented BIA rule, used the power of the Wounded Knee massacre site to call attention to
their grievances.
They called on the American Indian Movement to make a stand in the village, where
they were met by camouflage-clad FBI agents and US Marshalls with armored personnel
carriers and other Army equipment.
The FBI referred to itself as a “colonial police force,” and its forces were kept at bay
by poorly armed but motivated Native fighters, many of whom were veterans of the Vietnam
War, which was just then winding down.
One Vietnam veteran joined the warriors at Wounded Knee, and described his
nighttime experience watching an Armored Personnel Carrier shoot off flares: “In that
moment on the ravine, I realized the U.S. military was looking for me. ..I was the gook now.”
Woody Kipp had witnessed racist attacks on Vietnamese civilians during the war,
including elderly people and children, and drew parallels between their experiences and the
history of his people.
The dynamics of the Wounded Knee massacre were in a sense repeated half a world
away at My Lai. The U.S. infantrymen in 1968 were reminded of the 19th century slogan
“the only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
Native Americans also saw the connection between My Lai and Wounded Knee, and
the American public began to turn against the war.
Just as the U.S. had commited ecocide as part of its war against Native Americans, it
defoliated much of Vietnam, turning it into a moonscape, and leaving behind cancers and
birth defects among the children of Vietnamese and Americans alike.
Yet at the end of the war, Vietnam and not the U.S. emerged victorious—albeit in a
Phyrric sense--and the site of My Lai is recognized in ways that Wounded Knee is not. Ten
years ago, Vietnam veterans from the U.S. joined with Vietnamese to establish a peace park
at the site as a memorial to the massacre, twinned with the U.S. veterans’ Highground
memorial in Neillsville, Wisconsin. It almost seems that an American massacre is more
likely to be recognized only if the U.S. lost a war.
In a way, this memorial resembles not Wounded Knee, but one recently dedicated at
the Little Big Horn battleground to honor the Native warriors who defeated Custer.
After a long struggle, the Lakota and other tribes were allowed equal time with
Custers’ men with their own memorial.
Native Americans also have a chance to tell their own version of the battle at a
tribally directed reenactment on the Crow Reservation, at the same time as a reenactment in
the nearby white “border town” of Hardin.
The Lakota and other tribes are also reintroducing bison on many reservations as a
way to develop their economies and revitalize their cultures. So in both Lakota and
Vietnamese history, we have wars that are not relegated only to the past, but still have living
resonance in the places where they occurred, whether through memorials or through
poisoned landscapes.
In our book, we hope to overcome the divisions between the study of global or
foreign policies, and local or domestic policies, as well as the study of imperialism that safely
locates it always in another land or in another time.
We want our project to be accessible to a mass audience, written at an undergraduate
reading level, telling real stories about real local places today, to make the study of
imperialism more stimulating and relevant to students.
Finally, we want A People’s Geography of American Empire to help further the
accomplishments of Howard Zinn’s popularization of a “view from below,” but by using
geography as the approach to understanding and contesting the lasting imprint of the past in
the present, and the making and remaking of imperial places. We invite and welcome your
comments and critiques in helping to realize this project.