Guantánamo Public Memory Project

Imperialism in American History

It is hard to deny that the United States of America is an imperial power. This is clearly seen in the United States’ ongoing actions in Cuba starting in the Spanish American War or the existence of any of our territories. However, being an imperial power does not mesh as well with the American story. The United States seeks to represent itself as always fighting for freedom and justice and democracy for all. It is part of the reason why Americans have a hard time confronting the existence of slavery in our history, as it is in direct contradiction to our ideals. Since we cannot deny imperialism, we try to explain it away as something different than the examples of European imperialism that we fought so hard against to become our own country. As Louis Perez wrote in his book The War of 1898: The United States and Cuba in History and Historiography, “When Imperialism could be neither denied nor disregarded it could be defended: as high minded something akin to American ‘exceptionalism’”. Through the Spanish American War the Americans, in addition to the brief occupation of Cuba gained Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. The United States treated this as a “happy accident”.

This history of America as an imperial power, however, is often overlooked in our textbooks. Throughout middle school and high school, history was one of my favorite subjects, so I feel I remember a lot of what I learned. While the Spanish-American War was mentioned, we did not cover this topic as succinctly as others. The country’s involvement was summed up to fighting for Cuban independence, but little detail was given on exactly what that meant. Our resulting occupation and demands received little thought. Dealings with Cuba were always overlooked for other “more important” historical events. It was not until the Cuban missile crisis did the textbooks mention Cuba again. That was only mentioned under the umbrella of the Cold War, more of a side note than anything.

The United States needs to address its whole history — even the parts that make us look bad, such as our involvement in Haiti. People often look at history to learn from the past to not make the same mistakes, but that depends on us being honest and forthright with our past. Learning about the past also allows us to better understand the present issues. The history of Guantánamo Bay is a perfect example of knowing the past to understand the present. Beginning discussions historically also allows a safer point to enter into dialogue about America’s imperialism today.

Posted by Wenonah Nelson- M.A. Candidate at New York University


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