Logistics and the demand for empire

Daniel Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States is one of the more surprising and interesting history books I have read in a while. One part of the book’s agenda is clear from its title: to bring to light the often-forgotten history of the margins of the US, places like the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Hawaii and Alaska, and various Pacific islands. And there is a wealth of fascinating stories here that I (and I suspect most Americans) had never heard.

But the second part of the book’s agenda is even more surprising and ambitious: Immerwahr presents a theory of how technological change has shaped the global political order. The puzzle he sets out to answer is why the US, after acting not so differently from other imperial powers in the 19th century, changed tack after its victory in World War II:

Today, the idea that the United States might have annexed France or claimed Europe’s Asian colonies in 1945 seems like an absurd counterfactual. But it wasn’t unthinkable. That was, in fact, precisely what Germany and Japan had just done. And it wasn’t too different from what the United States had itself done, repeatedly, to formerly Spanish lands throughout the preceding century…

At the war’s end, the United States possessed the world’s fourth-largest empire, accounted for more than half the world’s manufacturing production, and had atom bombs. Why not conquer the globe?

But of course, that’s not what happened. Not even close. Instead, the United States and its allies did something highly unusual: they won a war and gave up territory…

Partly this is because many places were no longer so willing to be colonized: political change reduced the supply of potential colonies. But Immerwahr argues that the US was happy to endorse independence for its colony of the Philippines, and not to seek out new colonies, because it had less demand for colonial territory:

It may help to look at the decline of colonialism from a different angle, focusing not just on supply but on demand as well. The worldwide anti-imperialist revolt drove the cost of colonies up. Yet at the same time, new technologies gave powerful countries ways to enjoy the benefits of empire without claiming populated territories. In doing so, they drove the demand for colonies down.

The “empire-killing technologies” ranged from skywave radio to screw threads, and they worked in different ways. But, collectively, they weaned the United States off colonies. In so doing, they also helped to create the world we know today, where powerful countries project their influence through globalization rather than colonization.

What follows is a fascinating short history of the technical change inspired by wartime pressures. The developed industrial economies had sought colonies for access to raw materials they could not produce at home. Fertilizer was imported from the guano islands of Peru, and rubber from the plantations of Southeast Asia–trade flows that were quickly disrupted by conflict. But developments in chemistry produced substitutes for both of those goods: synthetic ammonia and rubber. Industrial technology could therefore substitute for access to tropical colonies.

Perhaps even more interesting is the discussion of how the unprecedented scale and scope of conflict in World War II led to the development of a whole battery of new techniques and equipment for moving goods around the world:

It’s telling that before the war started, ‘logistics’ had been a specialist’s term, not much heard in general speech. The military academies exalted courage, leadership, and tactical acuity, not procurement and transportation. Yet, fairly soon into the Second World War, commanders grew accustomed to speaking of tonnage, inventory levels, and supply lines with the knowing reverence previously reserved for accounts of battlefield heroics.

What is more, they got good at it. During the war, the military devised a suite of logistical innovations, all designed to move people, things, and information cleanly and quickly around the planet. Planes were the most obvious—the United States came to dominate aviation—but others were no less important. Radio, cryptography, dehydrated food, penicillin, and DDT: these technologies laid the foundations of today’s globalization.

The logistical innovations did more than speed everything up. They also enabled the United States to move through places without carefully preparing the ground first, as it had in Panama. No longer would seizing large areas or zones be necessary to run a long-distance transportation network. Mere dots on the map, sometimes little more than airfields in jungle clearings, would suffice. And so, just like plastic and other synthetics, these new technologies helped to make colonies obsolete.

Empire did not vanish as a result, but its shape changed: Immerwahr calls the US, with its eight hundred military bases strewn around the globe, a “pointillist” empire, focused on occupying strategic points rather than governing large swathes of territory. This does indeed seems to be the contemporary model of empire, as evidenced by China’s effort to build up its own access to strategic points and ports.

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