Jonathan M. Hansen

Jonathan M. Hansen

Jonathan M. Hansen, a historian at Harvard University, is the author of The Lost Promise of Patriotism: Debating American Identity, 1890–1920 and Guantánamo: An American History.

Q & A

10 Questions for Jonathan Hansen
1. How did you come to write this book? 
This book grew out of a fairly discrete political intervention. You may remember back in the spring of 2004, when the Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib scandals erupted over the global media, the Bush administration defended its denial of habeas corpus and due process to the Guantánamo detainees on the grounds that Guantánamo was sovereign territory of Cuba and hence outside US Constitutional jurisdiction.
Now, as a historian who knew something about the Spanish-American War and the subsequent US occupation of Cuba, this argument made me suspicious. I decided to take a closer look.
What I discovered refutes the Bush policy emphatically.
Let me be clear here: de jure, i.e., according to the terms of the treaty by which the US occupies Guantánamo Bay, Cuba retains sovereignty at the naval base. But practically—HISTORICALLY—speaking this is not now nor has ever been the case. The United States seized the bay from Spain in one of the opening salvos of the so-called Spanish American War. We retained the bay during the subsequent US occupation of Cuba. And we forced Cuba to lease the bay to the United States as part of the notorious Platt Amendment, which brought formal US occupation of Cuba to an end in May 1902.
Cuban law has never applied at the Guantánamo naval base. It’s US law or nothing there.
Now, this revelation only made me more curious about earlier US activity at Guantánamo. The more I looked, the more intriguing things I found. To make a long story short: US interest in Guantánamo Bay dates back before the US was even a country, to the time when our founders’ forefathers were contemplating expanding into the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys. Guantánamo figures crucially in the transformation of a fledgling republic into the imperial juggernaut we know today. 
2. How so? Tell us the highlights of that deeper history. 
I’ll tell you the highlights, but first let me say a few more things about how this book contributes to our understanding of the debacle of post 9/11 Guantánamo.
Besides insisting that Cuba is not now and has never been sovereign at Guantánamo Bay, the book pushes back against recent attempts by Bush administration officials to justify calamitous policies at Guantánamo and elsewhere on the grounds 1) that the terrorist attacks were so heinous and unprecedented that no other policies could be imagined, 2) that the US public endorsed such a response, 3) that US officials were unanimous in support for the path the administration adopted, and, finally, 4) that the torture of prisoners was all that stood between the US and another terrorist attack.
None of which is true. Criticism of Bush administration policy at Guantánamo and elsewhere has not emerged only recently; nor has it emanated largely from outsiders and liberals. Internal opposition to policies unfolding in Washington was immediate and unequivocal. The fact that many high-ranking Bush administration officials, many of them new to the challenge of national security, chose to ignore the counsel of seasoned military and intelligence officials cannot make that advice go away. 
3. Well, if a unanimous call to protect Americans at any cost did not drive US detention and interrogation policies at Guantánamo and elsewhere, what did?
Right, this takes me to my third point about how the book illuminates recent history.
There are several ways to explain the debacle, all of which coalesce around the politicization of national security policy at the expense of expertise. A leading authority on torture insists that democracies succumb to torture when military influence overwhelms civilian political institutions. But in the case of Guantánamo, the reverse is true: the torture and abuse that occurred there is attributable to the transfer of national security policy out of the hands of seasoned military and national security experts into the clutches of an intimate group of political ideologues—think Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, David Addington, Douglass Feith, and John Yoo, among others.
Finally, torture does not work (though it is possible to find a few ex-Bush administration officials who insist otherwise). 
4. OK, so let’s move on to that deeper history. What are the most significant things you’ve uncovered.
When I took up this project, I expected to focus on America’s century-long occupation of the bay. What I discovered instead was a little-known but essential piece of American history that dates back centuries. 
In discovering historical Guantanamo, I feel like I’ve come across a sunken ship, now dredged really for the first time. The history of Guantanamo is full of unexplored treasures and ignored insights that illuminate the American past. 
Let me give you some examples:
First of all, the history of Guantánamo exposes a fundamental paradox at the heart of American national identity between liberty and coercion. The American Revolution was not a war against empire. Rather it was the announcement of the arrival of a new empire on America’s shores. This was to be an “empire for liberty,” in Thomas Jefferson’s words, a notion fraught with contradiction and paradox that haunts us to this day.
The paradox is inherent in America’s liberal political economy. On the one hand, our liberalism makes us generous: anybody can be a member of the great liberal project, at least theoretically; on the other hand, our liberalism is potentially coercive: what’s good for us is good for you, whether you realize it or not.
This tension is visible in America’s recent wars in the Middle East, it’s there in our historical interaction with Latin American states, it’s there in conquest of the N. American continent, it’s there in our historical interaction with Cuba, it’s there in our occupation of Guantánamo Bay.
Geographic expansion has been a fundamental tenet of liberalism. With its emphasis on individual wealth and well-being—the very things that make it so appealing—liberalism has an unslakable appetite for land, resources, and labor. From colonial times, America’s founding fathers (and mothers) understood the country as extending hemispherically—into the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Commerce was essential to the growth of the American colonies and later the new nation. Cuba and Guantanamo were, in turn, essential to American commerce.
5. The book begins with a detailed description of geology and geography. Why?
Why? Because you can’t understand Guantánamo’s significance without understanding how it fits into the greater Caribbean and Atlantic worlds.
As early as the early eighteenth century, when individuals like Lawrence Washington, George’s half brother, Benjamin Franklin, and Peter Jefferson, Thomas’s father, began to train their sites on land lying over the Appalachian Mountains, on the Ohio, Mississippi, and later Missouri River valleys, they understood that those who hoped to harvest the resources of what would become the American breadbasket would have to control the Mississippi River, and that if you wanted to control the Mississippi River, you had to control the Port of New Orleans. If you wanted to control the New Orleans, in turn, you had to control the Gulf of Mexico. Now current in the Gulf of Mexico flows clockwise: it enters through the Yucatan Passage and exits through the Florida Straits; to access the Gulf of Mexico, you had to control the Caribbean Sea, and that to control the Caribbean, in turn, you had to command the Windward Passage, on which sits Guantanamo Bay. 
More than merely essential to US interests, this circulation system is the heart, indeed the filter, of the Atlantic World and the Atlantic Trade. Admiral Mahan called the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico the “nerve center” of European commerce.
It is no exaggeration to say that Guantanamo Bay is the geographical and commercial epicenter of the Western Hemisphere—take a look at a map—and an essential nodal point of Atlantic trade.
6. In the last five years or so, a slew of books have examined the history of post 9/11 Guantánamo. What does your book add to these accounts of Guantánamo?
This book reveals post 9/11 Guantanamo in a new light. Like people the world over, I came to this project seeking an answer to the question: how in the world could this have happened at Guantanamo? How can we explain this place?  
I discovered that we cannot fully explain recent developments at Guantanamo by looking only at the legal and military policies of the last decade. The Bush administration exploited a place where historically US law, Cuban law, and international did not apply. That took a long time to develop. I provide an account of that.
To put it another way, I’m often asked whether recent events at Guantanamo Bay represent an historical anomaly. This is a near-universal assumption: post 9/11 Guantanamo constitutes an unprecedented fall from grace. Does it indeed?
Well, the answer is both yes and no, depending on one’s historical perspective. Examined up close, the attempt of the Bush administration to write torture into law, apparently for the first time in US history, does indeed seem unprecedented, at least so far as we historians now know.
But examined through the lens of history, patterns emerge that connect contemporary Guantanamo to historical Guantanamo. This is not the first time, for example, that the American government has detained people behind barbed wire at Guantanamo Bay, denying detainees access to lawyers on the grounds that the US Constitution—hence due process—does not apply there. 
In the 1990s under both Presidents Bush and Clinton, as many as 85,000 Haitian and Cuban refugees were detained at Guantanamo Bay, some for up to a year and half long in two separate episodes at Guantanamo Bay.
In the late 1970s, US immigration officials considered using Guantanamo Bay as a holding facility for Haitian boat people unwanted in Florida on the same grounds: with no due process, the US could speed the refugees back to Haiti with no opposition from prying lawyers.
Nor does the notion of post 9/11 Guantanamo as precipitous fall from grace jibe with the history of the Bay.
After centuries, literally, of salivating over Cuba and Guantanamo Bay, we took the bay from newly independent Cuba, forcing the initial lease down Cuba’s throat. We exploited the bay to promote US commercial interests in Cuba over the interest of, especially black Cubans, settled in southeast Cuba; during the Cold War, we contemplated and sometimes launched secret and illegal operations against the Cuban government from Guantanamo Bay.
In short, the history of Guantanamo Bay reveals the complexity, the ambiguity of American history and refutes the idea that America had any grace to fall from. Grace has never been what nation-making is about, not American nation-making, not anybody else’s, notwithstanding the nation’s many acts of generosity and its noble founding principles.
I want to be crystal clear about this: those principles were, from the very beginning, shot through with paradox and contradiction, and Guantanamo’s history enables us to see this paradox in stark relief. Focus solely on recent political and legal decisions taken at or about Guantanamo does not begin to get at that complexity.
From the vantage point of history, in other words, post 9/11 Guantanamo is not a freakish departure from American history. Guantanamo out Americas America, in sociological, cultural, political, and legal ways. Guantanamo is part of who we are.
7. You’ve been down to the base several times. What has surprised you the most on these visits?
First, its physical size—sheer scale, depth, suitability for a naval base, its beauty even. The navy likes to refer to the base as a modern Mayberry and a as nature preserve, and though the first is largely mythical, the last is at least partly true. The wildlife down there is eye-popping.
Let me say a little more about this so-called “modern Mayberry.” The Guantánamo naval base is an American colony, a gated community with pristine lawns, SUVs, boat trailers, and so on. This, too, has a history, starting with the World War II expansion of the base and the subsequent recognition on the part of military and civilian personnel assigned there that Guantánamo offered cheap and ready access to comforts and privileges associated with the American Dream, but which was safe from the cultural revolution—civil rights, feminist, student agitation—back home. 
Another thing that caught my attention was how adamantly the naval community clings to the myth of Mayberry in the face of recent developments at the bay. The prison camp lies along the Cuban coastline, separated from the hub of naval activity by a range of hills. The Navy likes to think of its side of the hills as the “real Guantánamo” (sometimes the “good Guantánamo”), leaving the visitor to conclude what he or she may about the prison.
But the prison wouldn’t be there without the Navy; the Navy wouldn’t be there without the nation’s fateful decision to retain the bay at the end of the war with Spain; finally, none of that would be there today without the consent of the American people whose standard of living the U.S. government and military is sworn to uphold.
Up close, a chasm seems to divide Americans who, apparently for the first time in the nation’s history, tried to write torture into U.S. law from those who reject torture unconditionally. But through the lens of history, the differences blur, and Americans become one people, just as Guantánamo becomes one bay.
8. Tell us about some of the most interesting figures who people your book.
Ah, there are so many!—Lawerence Washington, George’s half brother; Frank Keeler, a young marine who helped seize Guantánamo in the first pitched battle of the Spanish-American War; the “Anonymous Navy Wife,” who criticized the carnival atmosphere—the drinking and womanizing—at the bay during Prohibition; Chuck Ryan, the young officer’s son who took off from the Bay in the company of two friends and joined Fidel Castro’s revolutionaries in their hideout in the Sierra Maestra mountains; Jeff Johnson, until recently, the public works officer at the base, who probably knows it better than anyone else. As I say, there are so many!! Who am I leaving out? Admiral Vernon! Thomas Jefferson, I could go on an on.
I realize our time is short. Let me say one more thing.
One of the great treats of writing this book was meeting so many new people, both historical and extant. Research for this book enabled me to cut through the erroneous notion that post 9/11 Guantánamo is the story of good democrats/liberals/civilians versus bad republicans/conservatives/military personnel. Though principal blame for the recent fiasco at Guantánamo belongs to the Bush administration, there is plenty of blame to go around—the feckless Democratically-led Congress, comes to mind.
On the other hand, perhaps more importantly, the heroes of this book are by no means simply liberals, but often conservatives—many of them career military officials—who helped introduce a modicum of habeas corpus and due process and transparency to what has always been an obscure place.
9. Why is President Obama having such difficulty closing Guantanamo Bay?
Simply put, the Guantánamo prison enjoys more public and political support today than at any time in its nearly ten-year history, notwithstanding the President’s campaign pledge and inaugural promise to shut it down.
In poll after poll taken over the course of the two years since Obama took office, the American public has overwhelmingly rejected the idea of closing the prison and transferring its population stateside, most recently in December 2010.
That same month, a Democratic Congress dealt a near fatal blow to the administration’s effort to close the prison by prohibiting the President from transferring detainees to the United States, from buying or constructing a prison on US soil for the Guantánamo detainees, and from repatriating detainees without the signature of the Secretary of Defense—provisions enacted without parliamentary debate and virtually without public notice.
10. Finally, and at the risk of repeating yourself, what is the one thing you want readers to take away from this book?
The one thing I want readers to take away from this book is a sense of how critical Guantánamo has been to the United States and to US history not just in the last decade, but going back before the founding of this country.
American interest in Guantanamo dates back to the early 18th century when American colonists began to contemplate settling the trans-Appalachian territory, establishing overseas colonies, and protecting important sea-lanes. These were all part of the same project, and Cuba and Guantanamo were crucial means to that end.
The deep history of Guantanamo Bay is a critical and much neglected part of US history. Guantanamo figured centrally in the making of modern America. The story of Guantanamo is the story of who we are. 



Jonathan M. Hansen

An on-the-ground history of American empire Say the word “Guantánamo” and orange jumpsuits, chain-link fences, torture, and indefinite detention...