In “The Not-Quite-States of America,” travel writer Doug Mack presents a lively guide and history of U.S. territories, and assesses how the U.S. has treated these far-flung parts of our nation.
“The Not-Quite-States of America: Dispatches from the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA”
by Doug Mack
Norton, 306 pp., $26.95
We’re used to thinking of Hawaii as the USA’s westernmost/southernmost outpost. Ditto with Maine, when it comes to our eastern border. But these geographical facts come with significant footnotes.
Guam, American Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands — all part of our nation — extend our global footprint as far west as Japan (Guam), well south of the equator (American Samoa) and slightly east of Maine (St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands).
“The territories,” travel writer Doug Mack declares in his new book, “are not part of our conception of ourselves.” When he realized he didn’t know “why or how the United States controlled them, why they weren’t states, who lived there, what life was like there,” he set off to find out. “The Not-Quite States of America” is the dandy result.
As Mack flew 31,000 miles to Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands and the territories named above, he never had to change currency or obtain a visa. Visiting the Marshall Islands, a former territory that’s now a sovereign country with a seat in the U.N., he learned that the U.S. dollar is used there, too, and that residents don’t need visas to live and work in the U.S.
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In almost all the territories and “freely associated states” (the Marshall Islands, Republic of Palau and Federated States of Micronesia), military enlistment, Mack says, is higher than in any American state. Yet in American Samoa, residents are only “U.S. nationals,” not full citizens. Similar secondary status exists in all the territories, with the particulars varying from place to place.
The territories’ odd situation, Mack discovers, started with a 1901 Supreme Court decision decreeing that “the territories belonged to the USA but were not wholly part of it. Therefore, Congress could decide what laws and parts of the Constitution did and did not apply to territories, treating them like states or like foreign countries, depending on the mood.”
Taxation, labor law and entitlements [all differ in these U.S. possessions, with the federal government often having little idea how its policies affect the people living there.
Mack digs into the history of each territorial acquisition to explain why this is. He chats eagerly with everyone he meets on his travels. He has a fondness for comic hyperbole and a sharp eye for local color. (In American Samoa, he sees two teenage boys with quarters for bus-fare tucked in their ears because their saronglike lavalavas don’t have pockets.)
At the same time, he gamely grapples with the nuts-and-bolts of each territory’s ambiguous legal status. Not every territory, surprisingly, aspires to statehood or full citizenship rights.
In Puerto Rico the debates over the advantages of statehood versus independence have raged for decades. In American Samoa, all but 1.5 square miles out of 7,600 is communally owned, and some Samoans fear this traditional practice would be destroyed with full entry into the USA. (Seattle-based American-Samoan attorney Charles Ala’ilima has much to say on this and other matters.)
Controversies that seemingly affect only the periphery of the American empire wind up shedding unexpected light on the country as a whole. “You cannot write an honest master narrative of the U.S. without including the territories as key components,” Mack argues. “And you cannot write an honest master narrative of the territories without feeling acutely uncomfortable about the United States and its continuing struggle to live up to its own ideals.”
Mack includes you in all the fun of his journey, while making strong points about it.