Series: Finding a Path Forward: Asian American Pacific Islander National Historic Landmarks Theme Study

Essay 1: Imperialism and Migration

chinese labor on sugar plantation from LoC
Chinese laborers at work on the Milloudon Sugar Plantation in Louisiana (identified as "Chinese Cheap Labor" in the original caption). Woodblock print by Alfred Waud; published in Every Saturday, July 29, 1871.

From the collections of the Library of Congress (

By Gary Y. Okihiro, Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, Columbia University

The United States was conceived in imperialism. The origins of US imperial history date back to the expansion of Europeans in their search for Asia and their wars against Asians, beginning with the ancient Greeks and continuing through Portugal and Spain's 15th century voyages of "exploration." That spread engulfed the planet in a world-system within which flowed capital, labor, and culture. The US was a consequence of that world-system in its origin as an extractive colony of shareholders in London.

After gaining independence, the US came to dominate that global, imperial network. The US postcolonial nation-state continued Europe's thrust toward Asia across the American continent, conquering American Indian lands and peoples and territory held by Mexico. The US extended its reach beyond the continent to Puerto Rico, Hawai'i, Guam, Samoa, and, for a time, the Philippines. In that way, all of Indian country, a substantial part of Mexico, and entire islands in the Caribbean and Pacific became US territories and its peoples, US subjects. Imperialism, thus, is a central feature of US history.

By imperialism, I mean powers over peoples and, often, occupation of their lands and waters outside the borders of a nation-state.[1] Those extra-territorial influences include economic, political, and cultural impositions. Unlike most standard US histories that depict imperialism as largely confined to the 19th century and as an aberration, this chapter maintains that imperialism, as discourses and material relations, is a crusial aspect of the republic's constutition. The US was made in the idea and act of accumulation. Read more >> [.pdf 3.4MB]

[1] Many scholars understand imperialism as a stage of capitalism. While I see capitalism and its search for markets and resources as influential in extra-terretorial expansions, I define imperialism more broadly than those conventional views.

The views and conclusions contained in the essays are those of the authors and should not be interpreted as representing the opinions or policies of the U.S. Government. Mention of trade names or commercial products does not constitute their endorsement by the U.S. Government.