Islands in the stream
Welcome back to The Long Version, a newsletter by Jonathan M. Katz.
Hurricane Dorian was bearing down on Puerto Rico yesterday when it made a sudden jerk to the right. Instead, it ran headlong into the U.S. Virgin Islands, knocking out power on St. Thomas and causing minor damage to St. John.
The shift was a blessing for Puerto Rico, already up to its ears in economic and political crises worsened by the catastrophic hurricanes two years ago. But it didn’t come before another sudden jerk to the right took the opportunity to sucker punch his least favorite Americans:
I don’t know what the most incredible part of that tweet is. Is it the bald lie about Federal Emergency Management Agency readiness, hours after journalists Julia Ainsley and Frank Thorp revealed he is stripping $155 million from FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund to expand his concentration camps? Or is it the snide “as usual,” reminding citizens he regards their life-threatening disasters primarily as personal inconveniences to him?
But of course he couldn’t leave it there.
As for the Virgin Islands—the American territory that did get hit—the president had nothing to say.
This might have seemed par for the (bedbug-ridden) course, another beat in the reality-show reunion episode that now passes for politics in the richest, best-armed country in the world. But it was part of a bigger picture that’s emerged over the last few weeks, revealing an important truth about the source and nature of American power, and how the nation’s current ruling class is worsening the most serious crisis of our time.
To see what I mean, we’ve got to step back to the other, even weirder, cesspit of insular madness the president engaged in this month.
I’m talking, of course, about Greenland.
For those who don’t remember (and I’m envious of you), a few weeks ago the Wall Street Journal reported that Trump wanted to buy Greenland, the enormous arctic island that neighbors Canada but is an autonomous part of the Kingdom of Denmark.
The idea was met with laughter in America and rejection in Copenhagen and Nuuk. Greenland’s government said the island was “not for sale.” Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen called it “an absurd discussion.” Trump, petulant and misogynist as ever, canceled a planned visit with Denmark’s Queen Margrethe II, ignored the island’s natives, and called the prime minister’s comments “nasty.”
“I thought it was not a nice statement, the way she blew me off, because she was blowing off the United States,” Trump said. He added: “Greenland was just an idea.”
That may be, in the sense that the United States is just an idea. Greenland is better described as 830,000 square miles, home to 56,000 people, the vast majority Inuit. It is nearly twice the size of Alaska and more than a quarter the size of the contiguous United States. It is covered almost entirely by ice.
The ice is now melting at horrifying rate thanks to man-made global warming. Ironically, considering his murderous climate denialism, that’s exactly why the president wants it. Melting glaciers are opening sea lanes for shipping or war. (That’s Greenland in white below. Russia is the big enchilada above it; China lies just beyond.)
As the precious ice vanishes, raising sea levels around the world, they reveal zinc, iron, uranium, gold, rare earth elements, and potentially oil and gas. Extracting and burning all that will only reveal more.
That Trump was motivated by something beyond mere senility was treated as a win by his allies. (This is the bar for this presidency.) Sen. Tom Cotton rushed out a New York Times op-ed pronouncing the president “crazy like a fox” and making his own case for buying the frozen subcontinent.
Cotton turned to history to build his case. “The negotiated acquisition of sovereignty is a longstanding and perfectly legitimate tool of statecraft, particularly in the American tradition,” he wrote. That’s a hilariously overwritten way of saying “America has bought a shit-ton of land from other countries,” but it’s true. The senator name-checked Florida, the Louisiana Purchase, Alaska, and a good chunk of the southern border as examples. Harry Truman, he noted, once made a rejected bid for Greenland.
In fact, the senator pointed out, bringing it back home, we’ve even bought land from Denmark. In 1917, Woodrow Wilson “paid $25 million to purchase the Danish West Indies, which have ever since been known as the U.S. Virgin Islands.”
But those are only fragments of the real story, as the senator surely knows. The United States has always expanded its borders with a purse in one hand and a gun in the other. It has seldom worked out well for everyone.
The Long Version
We’re an island empire. America’s first spree of overseas annexation came in the mid-nineteenth century when farmers went crazy for guano. That is to say bird shit, in the form of a nitrogen-rich fertilizer that collects primarily on outcroppings at sea.
In 1856, the United States adopted the Guano Islands Act—one of the most gangster actions by a government on record. “Whenever a U.S. citizen discovered guano on an unclaimed, uninhabited island, that island would, ‘at the discretion of the President, be considered as appertaining to the United States,’” the historian Daniel Immerwahr wrote in his terrific book How to Hide an Empire. “Those islands would, in some way, belong to the country.”
A few decades later, we pulled out the purse and gun. In 1898, the United States declared war on Spain and took its island colonies: first Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, then the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam. We also annexed Hawaii, whose queen had already been overthrown by white businessmen, carved out American Samoa, and took a few more uninhabited islands in the process.
The Philippines was an excellent example of how Cotton’s “negotiated acquisition of sovereignty” actually worked: We promised the Filipinos we’d aid their fight against Spain, betrayed them, then crushed them in a spectacularly bloody and expensive war. And yes, we also paid money: $20 million to Spain, in exchange for a colony that no longer belonged to them.
Citing explicit white supremacy and the logic of the Guano Islands Act, the Supreme Court, fresh from upholding segregation within the United States in Plessy v. Ferguson, ruled that all the new island territories except Hawaii (with its white sugar-planter elite), belonged to the United States but were not “incorporated” into it—thus denying constitutional rights to their nonwhite peoples.
With that, Puerto Ricans, Filipinos, Guamanians, and the rest were rendered second-class persons, subject to our government and military but with no power or say over them. The Philippines were granted home rule just after World War II, with a million of their people dead and their capital a smoking crater from the war. (Trump put a paw in that history this year, when he screwed Filipino-American World War II veterans for no clear reason other than racist posturing.)
When Cotton cited Wilson’s purchase of the Virgin Islands, he was either purposefully or strategically missing the point. Positioned at the far corner of the Caribbean islands arc, just east of Puerto Rico, they were the finishing touch on an American archipelago of control stretching halfway around the world, connected through a transoceanic canal we built in Panama—a country we helped secede for that purpose.
That the Virgin Islands were bought with money, in other words, is more or less an accident of history. Their value was derived entirely from the rest of the territory we’d conquered in the chain—paid for, like the rest of the expansionist history the senator elided, in blood.
That Is What We Are
The point of all that conquering and buying was to make the United States a world power—to control sea lanes for warships and merchant vessels, like the ones Trump and Cotton now envision in the melting arctic. Americans achieved that at tremendous cost. Among other things, the conquests helped trigger World War II. It’s no coincidence that the populated U.S. territories Japan attacked on December 7, 1941, were the islands we’d taken four decades earlier: Hawaii, the Philippines, and Guam.
After those wars, U.S. presidents realized that conquering an entire territory and its people weren’t necessary when a well-placed military base and influence over a host government would do. That’s why Harry Truman gave up so easily on his long-secret Greenland bid. We had (and have) Thule Air Base. He didn’t need the rest.
Trump is reviving an earlier, more white-supremacist era of American imperialism, one that cost countless lives, led to a horrific global conflict, and almost undid itself. He and his crew are doing that because, deep down, they are dedicated to conquest for its own sake—because of how it makes them feel, and the personal profits they think can be gained.
You can see it in Trump’s destructive racism toward Puerto Rico and his neglect of the Virgin Islands, old stanzas of colonialism lifted like faded scraps from a segregationist Supreme Court. The same instinct fuels his sudden lust for Greenland—the “manifest interest,” as Cotton called it, knowing exactly the allusion he was making.
Island-grabbing still risks conflict with rivals, especially China, a nuclear power that is amassing an island empire of its own. But there’s an even bigger threat. Trump’s vision of an American arctic filled with diesel ships and drilling rigs can’t last very long. The forces that make Greenland appealing to the greed and ambition of shortsighted men will also be its destruction, and ours. They’re the same forces fueling the hurricanes that flatten Caribbean islands and threaten the mainland.
Trump, Cotton, and their crew think they can just go on buying and taking, burning down the Amazon, cooking the planet, threatening the lives of their own grandchildren to stay rich and own the libs. Their mistake is the mistake of every expansionist who ever dreamed of endless bird shit, endless oceans, and endless profit. There’s no such thing as an inexhaustible resource. Eventually, you run out of room.
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Jonathan M. Katz is a freelance journalist and author. His next book, Gangsters of Capitalism, traces the origins and contradictions of America’s empire. You can find him on Twitter @KatzOnEarth
Photos: Ramon Espinosa/AP, Google Earth, archival photo