Anti-imperial Technologies: Planes, Radio, and Plastic

Saturday, January 9, 2016: 2:50 PM
Salon C (Hilton Atlanta)
Daniel Immerwahr, Northwestern University
At its zenith, the British Empire encompassed one-fifth of all the land area on the planet. The United States, by contrast, achieved global hegemony without claiming large colonies. Rather, as it grew in power it lost much of its empire: the Philippines became independent, Hawai‘i and Alaska became states, the bulk of the wartime basing network was surrendered. Why?

An obvious factor in the failure of the United States to claim colonies is the rising tide of global anti-imperialism. But this paper argues that another factor was the rise of “anti-imperial technologies,” methods of projecting power across distance without territorial control. It examines three, all closely associated with the United States. Shortwave radio, in replacing telegraphy as a means of long-distance communication, obviated the need for control of telegraphic routes. Planes similarly replaced trains, again replacing routes with single points. Finally, plastic substituted for a number of key tropical products (rubber, silk, gutta percha), thus ensuring that security interests would no longer depend as much on tropical colonies.