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'Throughline': Becoming America

NOEL KING, HOST:

Here's a really interesting bit of American history. Our country's name has always officially been the United States of America, but at some point, a lot of us started referring to it simply as America. It turns out there are other names throughout history that this country tried, and America is just sort of what we ended up with. To explain how we got to this place, I'm joined by Rund Abdelfatah of the NPR history podcast Throughline. Rund, thanks for being with us.

RUND ABDELFATAH, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

KING: So Throughline did an episode about how the United States of America became just America. When did this shorthand start?

ABDELFATAH: Well, you know, as you mentioned, the official name from the beginning was the United States of America, which is kind of a mouthful.

KING: Sure (laughter).

ABDELFATAH: So people were looking for nicknames pretty early on. But interestingly, America wasn't one of the first nicknames floated because there's so many other places with that name - South America, Central America. And so some of the contenders were Columbia, after Christopher Columbus; Freedonia, a country of free people; or just the Republic or the Union.

But then everything about our language shifted dramatically in 1898, when the United States declared war against another world power, Spain. Me and my co-host Ramtin Arablouei pick it up in the episode.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI: It began in the Caribbean with two Spanish imperial territories, Cuba and Puerto Rico. The United States military provided support to rebels and engaged directly in the fight to help these nations gain independence.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

ABDELFATAH: The U.S. got involved in another rebellion in another Spanish territory. This time it was a nation on the other side of the world - the Philippines.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: The U.S. sent troops and aid to help Filipino revolutionaries. The Filipino provisional government chose the colors red, white and blue for their flag, a symbol of their appreciation.

ABDELFATAH: But it wouldn't take long for those feelings to change.

DANIEL IMMERWAHR: Suddenly, very confusingly, the United States takes the Philippines from Spain - ends the war with a treaty at which no Filipinos were present for the negotiation, where it, for $20 million, purchases the Philippines from Spain.

ABDELFATAH: This is Daniel Immerwahr. He's a history professor at Northwestern University.

IMMERWAHR: You know, you can imagine the dashed hopes of people who'd been fighting for independence, suddenly who have to realize they have to do it again. And they do do it again.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS)

ABDELFATAH: In February 1899, Filipinos began a new fight for independence, this time against the United States.

IMMERWAHR: And it becomes, you know, a war that just consumes so many lives. What people quickly see are photographs of, you know, trenches full of Filipino nationalists who are seeking independence, getting tortured and killed. And that's really hard to understand how that's compatible with the animating virtues of the United States.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: The U.S. was taking control of nations across the world. It annexed Guam and Hawaii. And this brought up an identity crisis.

IMMERWAHR: This stuff makes headlines, and it becomes harder to think of the United States as just a contiguous collection of states because it's quite obvious that the U.S. flag is flying in all sorts of places.

ABDELFATAH: This identity crisis brought into question the country's very name - the United States of America.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

IMMERWAHR: At the very beginning, when the name is first proposed, it does seem like it's going to be a union of states. But by the time the United States actually legally wins its independence from Great Britain, the name is no longer accurate because by that time, it is now no longer just consisting of states; it actually consists of states and territories.

ABDELFATAH: Still, people are hesitant to call the country America for short. But that all changes at the end of the 19th century.

IMMERWAHR: And it's not the way you might think it would be. It's not a just sort of gradual shift. As far as I can tell, there's actually a pretty abrupt shift.

ABDELFATAH: Starting with the 1898 war with Spain and the Filipino-American war that followed. These wars mark a kind of before and after in how this country viewed itself and what it called itself.

IMMERWAHR: So here's something kind of amazing - if you look at all public speech of sitting presidents from George Washington up until McKinley, who was the president during the war with Spain, it is really hard to find a president who refers to their country as America. It's not that it never happens, but it really, surprisingly, rarely happens. So I counted it all up, and I found 11 instances where presidents unambiguously refer to their country as America. And that's - you know, that's about one per decade. That's really rare. And it's because they're usually saying the United States, the Republic or the Union or something like that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

IMMERWAHR: Teddy Roosevelt takes over. And immediately, you know, his first message to Congress, he refers to it as America. And he's gone. Like, I found a two-week period where he uses the word America to refer to the country - just in that two-week period, more than every past president combined had. And once Roosevelt takes office, that's it, you know, and now it's entirely normal to refer to the United States as America.

People like Roosevelt don't find as much sense and comfort in the United States as their predecessors did because they're actually aware that the political character of the United States is changing and that it might make sense to have a different kind of way to refer to it that doesn't involve describing it as a union of states because they're forthrightly imagining their country to be an empire.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: How does this happen? How do you think it leaks into the language and culture? Is it just, like, a million small decisions people make that add up to this cultural change?

IMMERWAHR: Yeah, sure. At the end of the 19th century, that act of really just forthrightly taking far distant and populous colonies, that seems to be a new step in the eyes of a lot of people and a kind of moment to either admit the thing that the United States has always been or it seems to others like a transition or possibly a deformation, possibly a maturation, like growing up. OK, the United States is now - like Britain, like France - has overseas colonies. It's joined the adults' table. And this is how you know it.

KING: That was an excerpt from the most recent episode of the history podcast Throughline. It's hosted by Ramtin Arablouei and Rund Abdelfatah, and Rund has been here with me. Rund, thanks so much for explaining all this.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks for having me on.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAMTIN ARABLOUEI'S "UNTITLED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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