The US’s national traditions of American exceptionalism and anti-imperialism perpetuate the myth that the US is not and has never been an empire. How can anyone forget George W Bush’s infamous claim that the US was the only great power in history to have refused the opportunity to become an empire?
But Bush was wrong: the US’s imperial past is very real – and remnants of its empire are still around to this day. This year, the US Virgin Islands, located in the Caribbean basin, mark the centennial of their formal transfer from Denmark to the US. The US purchased the islands in 1917, when they were known as the Danish West Indies, hoping that they’d be an ideal strategic location for a naval base and would help secure the region surrounding the Panama Canal.
By purchasing the islands, the US would also ensure the maintenance of the Monroe Doctrine, the historic 1823 declaration that the US would view any further colonisation or interference in the affairs of the western hemisphere by European powers as a threat to its national interests.
The brief history lesson on the US Virgin Islands’ official centennial website is all well and good, but it fails to grapple with the taboo topic of empire. Buying the Danish West Indies was one small act in a wider imperial policy – one that historian David Healy describes as nothing less than a “drive for hegemony” in the western hemisphere.
Bought and sold
During the Spanish-American War of 1898, the US transformed into a colonial empire, annexing the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico and Hawaii. In the years after the war, Cuba effectively became a protectorate, and the US supported Panamanian separatists in Colombia and took control of the Panama Canal Zone. Over the next two decades, Washington pursued a policy of informal imperialism in and around the Caribbean; the Monroe Doctrine was reinterpreted to meet the US’s imperial needs and justify its repeated political, economic, and military intervention in the western hemisphere countries.
In the early 20th century, the US became paranoid that imperial Germany also wanted to purchase the Danish West Indies, as well as the Galapagos archipelago from Ecuador. The US Virgin Islands thus became closely associated with the Monroe Doctrine during the first two decades of the century. For many Americans, it seemed unquestionable that the US was the only legitimate purchaser of the islands. After many attempts to negotiate their transfer from Denmark, a deal was finally struck in 1916 and, by March 31 1917, the US flag flew above the renamed US Virgin Islands.
Over time, the US began to shed its colonial possessions. It relinquished control of the Philippines in 1946 and granted statehood to Alaska and Hawaii in 1959 – but today, the US Virgin Islands are still classified as unincorporated territory, as are Puerto Rico and Guam. Virgin Islanders hold US citizenship, yet they cannot vote in presidential elections and their elected delegate to Congress has limited voting power. Together with Guam and Puerto Rico, these islands linger in a colonial system from the early 20th century.
The United Nations has not ignored this affront to self-determination and has classified the islands as among the world’s Non-Self-Governing-Territories. Its Special Committee on Decolonisation recommended in a 2016 resolution that its parent organisation should “actively pursue a public awareness campaign aimed at assisting the people of the US Virgin Islands with their inalienable right to self-determination” and reaffirmed that “it is ultimately for the people of the Virgin Islands to determine freely their future political status”.
This year’s centennial deserves attention, not just as a celebration of Virgin Island life but because it reminds us that the US’ colonial past survives today, albeit in limited form. Recognising these islands as a colonial remnant is part of thinking clearly about how the US’s history of imperialism affects its foreign relations to this day.