“Ah, Mr. Powers,” says Dr. Evil, “welcome to my hollowed-out volcano.” The setting, an elaborate underground base on a tropical island from Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, is instantly recognizable. The deranged supervillain, his island lair, the threat of world domination—it’s so familiar you forget how bizarre it is.
Of all the potentially menacing locales, why do our most ambitious evildoers, the ones bent on world domination, seek out remote specks of land in the middle of seas and oceans? You’d think the qualities of islands that make them desirable vacation spots—their distance from population centers, their relaxed pace of life—would ill suit them as launchpads for global conquest. After all, Napoleon’s adversaries sent him to Elba to neutralize him, not to encourage him to have another go.
For the rest of the nineteenth century, that’s how islands were seen. Lawless and perhaps even dangerous, but not powerful places. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that the notion of planetary domination from an island started cropping up in literature. As far as I can tell, it started with Bond.
Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, knew something about islands. During the Second World War, he’d served as the assistant to Britain’s director of naval intelligence. In 1943, he traveled to Kingston, Jamaica for a high-level intelligence conference with the United States. The Caribbean was then in dire straits, tormented by German submarines that evaded the Allied navies. Rumors floated that the boats were finding safe berth at a secret harbor built by Dr. Axel Wenner-Gren, a mysterious Swedish multimillionaire with Nazi ties who had established himself on an island in the Bahamas.
The accusations that Wenner-Gren was using his island as a secret Nazi base proved false. But Fleming nevertheless found it all irresistible. He bought an estate in Jamaica (named Goldeneye, after one of the intelligence operations he’d help run) and began writing his Bond novels from there. One of them, Live and Let Die, used the bit about a secret island submarine base. Another, Doctor No, took the idea further. Its titular villain, a cosmopolitan multimillionaire with a private Caribbean island, bore an undeniable resemblance to Dr. Wenner-Gren.
From his secluded base, Doctor No tells James Bond in the novel, he can use radio to monitor, jam, and redirect U.S. missiles. The secrecy of his location is essential to this. “Mister Bond, power is sovereignty,” he explains. “And how do I possess that power, that sovereignty? Through privacy. Through the fact that nobody knows. Through the fact that I have to account to no one.”
The films took that notion and ran with it. The private island looms large in the movie of Doctor No, but similar locales can be found in other Bond films: Thunderball (filmed on Wenner-Gren’s island), You Only Live Twice (rocket base under a Japanese volcanic island), Diamonds Are Forever (offshore oil rig), Live and Let Die (small Caribbean island dictatorship), The Man with the Golden Gun (private Thai island), The Spy Who Loved Me (giant sea base), and Skyfall (abandoned island). There is a sequence in the 2006 Casino Royale shot, as was Thunderball, on Wenner-Gren’s island.
The world of James Bond contains many absurdities. The exploding pens, shark tanks, and endless procession of round-heeled female helpmeets seem more the fruits of Fleming’s rum-soaked imagination than insights into actual espionage. Yet with the island thing, Fleming was onto something.
Just as he saw, islands and secret bases are instruments of world domination.
James Bond was fiction, but not as far from fact as it might seem. Starting in the Second World War, the United States had begun seriously acquiring overseas bases around the planet. Some were, like Doctor No’s base, on remote islands. Others were walled-off enclaves inside of other countries. In the 1950s, Washington claimed hundreds of overseas bases. It has, according to David Vine, some 800 today. For contrast, consider that all other countries in the world hold around thirty foreign bases combined.
Known U.S. bases beyond the contiguous United States today.
Physically, the United States’ overseas holdings aren’t vast. Mash together all U.S. island territories (such as Puerto Rico and Guam) and all of its bases and you’d still have an area smaller than Connecticut. But those tiny specks of land are spread all over the globe, perforating the sovereignty of dozens of countries. A lot, as it turns out, has happened on or around them.
What, specifically, could the United States do with a base? A fine example is the Swan Islands, a small cluster of three islands in an isolated part of the Caribbean, not far from the fictional location of Doctor No’s island. In the 1950s, the CIA secretly built a landing strip and a fifty-thousand-watt radio transmitter on Great Swan. That single transmitter could reach South America, allowing the United States to cover with its radio beams territory inaccessible by ground.
Soon after the CIA built that radio station, a delegation of Honduran students carrying arms came to Great Swan to “liberate” the islands and claim them for Honduras. They had no idea of the CIA’s presence, and the agency was determined to keep them in the dark. give them plenty of beer and protect the family jewels read the frantic cable from Washington (i.e., don’t let them discover the broadcasting equipment). Marines sped to the island to repel the invasion.
What happened next can be best appreciated by reading the cable traffic from Swan to Washington:
Swan to HQ: honduran ship on horizon. beer on ice. talked to students. they confabing [sic]. have accepted beer.
Swan to HQ: students mixing cement in which they intend to write “this island belongs to honduras.” one group malingering, listening to eartha kitt records and drinking fifth beer.
Swan to HQ: students have just raised honduran flag. i saluted.
Swan to HQ: beer supplies are running low. now breaking out the rum. these kids are great.
Swan to HQ: students have embarked for honduras. liquor supply exhausted. family jewels intact.
In the end, the students were permitted to sing the Honduran anthem, take a census, and raise their flag. They left, never realizing who their drinking buddies were. Or that a contingent of marines had been waiting, ready to start shooting if the beer didn’t work.
The family jewels were worth protecting. In 1954, the CIA had used radio to spread fake news during a coup it helped stage to overthrow Guatemala’s elected government. With a transmitter on Great Swan, it could run an even more extensive operation, this time directed at Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Through “Radio Swan,” which posed as a privately run station, the United States promulgated false news reports and trolled the Cuban government. Castro and his lieutenants were “pigs with beards.” Raúl Castro was “a queer with effeminate friends.” The power and location of its transmitter allowed Radio Swan to boast fifty million listeners throughout the Caribbean and Central and South America.
In 1961, the United States sent seven ships of paramilitaries to invade Cuba, an attempt to repeat its success in Guatemala. Radio Swan played a key role, sowing confusion with cryptic messages designed to confound Castro. (“Look well at the rainbow.” “Chico is in the house. Visit him.”) During the invasion, Radio Swan broadcast orders to nonexistent battalions to encourage the rebels and spread fear among the authorities.
The Bay of Pigs invasion, as it was called, ended in failure. Radio Swan’s cover was blown, and journalists snickered over the resemblance between the operation and the plot of Doctor No. But that wasn’t the end of the Swan Islands. In the 1980s, the CIA outfitted Great Swan with a port to offload cargo intended for its political allies. Munitions, uniforms, parachutes, and other materiel flowed from the island to rebels in Nicaragua who sought to bring down the leftist government there. The Swans were where right-wing paramilitaries trained, where mercenary pilots from southern Africa took off for their airdrops over Nicaragua. The illicit streams of aid at the heart of the Iran-Contra scandal flowed straight through the Swan Islands.
In the 1958 novel Doctor No, the villain’s lair is on a “guano island,” beset by thickly flocking birds whose droppings were in the nineteenth century a valued sort of fertilizer. At the end of the novel, Bond defeats Doctor No by burying him in a guano pit.
But in the film version, made four years later, there is no trace of guano. Instead, Doctor No’s island is the site of a nuclear reactor, and Bond triumphs by triggering a meltdown, drowning Doctor No in the pool containing the overheating reactor. (That Bond’s action would very likely have turned Jamaica and its environs into a Chernobyl-style fallout zone goes narratively unexplored.)
The nuclear theme wasn’t a random choice. There is a special connection between nuclear weapons and bases. The very remoteness of military bases from the homeland, and often from large populations, makes them ideal sites to test and store nuclear devices.
The United States found one such site at Bikini Atoll and the next-door atoll of Enewetak, a lightly inhabited part of the Marshall Islands in Micronesia. The navy ushered the Marshallese off their homeland and began using the atolls for nuclear tests. Between 1946 and 1958, the U.S. military detonated sixty-seven nuclear weapons on or near Bikini and Enewetak. To the proverbial Martian looking on from space, it must have appeared that humanity was for some indiscernible reason waging furious, unrelenting war against a string of sandbars in the middle of the Pacific.
One test at Bikini, the “Bravo Shot,” involved exploding a hydrogen bomb with a fifteen-megaton yield. The explosion was twice as powerful as expected, and unusually strong winds carried the fallout far beyond the cordoned-off blast zone. Had it detonated over Washington, D.C., it could have killed 90 percent of the populations of Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York within three days.
On Rongelap, more than a hundred miles from the Bravo Shot, islanders watched radioactive white ash fall from the sky like snow. Dozens of them suffered from radiation poisoning, and the whole island had to be evacuated for three years. A Japanese tuna fishing boat, the Lucky Dragon, also outside the blast zone, was engulfed in the fallout. All twenty-three of its crew members got radiation poisoning, and one of them died.
These were small numbers, easy to ignore from Washington. “There are only 90,000 people out there,” Henry Kissinger said of Micronesia. “Who gives a damn?” Yet when the Lucky Dragon limped back to port carrying its catch of irradiated tuna, it encountered a country that very much gave a damn. Japan had firsthand experience with radioactive fallout. The return of the Lucky Dragon set off a media frenzy. Rumors that the irradiated fish had made their way onto the market briefly triggered the collapse of the tuna industry. The emperor himself began traveling with a Geiger counter.
Among those swept up in the spirit was a young film producer, Tomoyuki Tanaka. He’d later go on to produce such high-end classics of Japanese cinema as Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. But in 1954, the year of the Bravo Shot, he had something else in mind. He hired a director, Ishirō Honda, who had traveled through Hiroshima in 1945 and seen the destruction firsthand.
Their film, Gojira, told the story of an ancient dinosaur awakened by U.S. hydrogen bomb testing. Gojira first destroys a Japanese fishing boat—a thinly veiled Lucky Dragon—before attacking and irradiating a Bikini-like island called Odo. Gojira, said to be “emitting high levels of H-bomb radiation,” then turns on Tokyo, breathing fire and laying waste to the city.
As films go, Gojira isn’t subtle. It’s full of talk of bombs and radiation. “If nuclear testing continues, then someday, somewhere in the world, another Gojira may appear,” are its somber final words.
That message, however, got lost in translation. Gojira, phenomenally popular in Japan, was remixed for a U.S. audience. The Hollywood version used much of the original footage but spliced in a white, English-speaking protagonist played by Raymond Burr. What got cut out was the antinuclear politics. The Hollywood version contains only two muted references to radiation. And it ends on a much happier note. “The menace was gone,” the narrator concludes. “The world could wake up and live again.”
The Japanese Gojira was a protest film, hammering away at the dangers of U.S. bases in the Pacific. The English-language Godzilla, by contrast, was just another monster flick.
The Japanese weren’t the only ones to object. The United States has maintained bases in every region in the world, and wherever the bases have opened, protest has followed. The French complained of U.S. “occupiers” and forced the military to abandon its base sites. Thousands of Panamanians, marching with signs reading down with yankee imperialism and not one more inch of panamanian territory, also forced the bases out.
For the British, the main issue was nuclear weapons. In the 1950s, the United States stored its bombs on British bases and flew B-47s regularly over England. Were those planes carrying nuclear bombs? “Well, we did not build those bombers to carry crushed rose petals,” the U.S. general in charge told the press. He was bluffing, slightly—the bombs were unarmed. But the terrified British public had no way of knowing that.
The British had reason to be afraid. The United States, we now know, did fly armed bombs over its allies’ territory, and doing so was terrifically dangerous. In the 1960s, a B-52 carrying four Mark 28 hydrogen bombs near a U.S. base in Greenland crashed into the ice at more than 500 miles an hour, leaving flaming debris. The conventional explosives in all four bombs blew up. The bombs were ostensibly “one-point safe,” meaning that those explosives around the core could go off without detonating the bomb, so long as they didn’t go off simultaneously (which would violently compress the core and trigger nuclear fission). Yet some bombs in the arsenal had proved not to be one-point safe, and a lot could go wrong in a crash.
The Greenland accident didn’t set off a nuclear explosion. It did, however, spew plutonium all over the crash site. In this, it resembled the time when another B-52 also carrying four armed hydrogen bombs crashed over a village in Spain. Part of the plane landed eighty yards from an elementary school, another chunk hit the earth 150 yards from a chapel. The conventional explosives in two of the bombs went off, sowing plutonium dust into the tomato fields for miles. A third bomb landed intact. A fourth dropped out of sight and took the military a hair-raising three months to find (all while the box office was dominated by Thunderball, a James Bond thriller about nuclear weapons gone missing).
And so the British had cause for alarm about U.S. bases on their soil. Within months of the U.S. general’s announcement about the bomber overflights, more than 5,000 well-dressed protesters gathered in the rain at Trafalgar Square. From there, they marched for four days to a nuclear weapons facility in Aldermaston. By the time they reached it, their numbers had grown to around 10,000. nuclear disarmament and no missile bases here, their banners read in sober black and white.
An artist named Gerald Holtom designed a symbol for the Aldermaston march. “I was in despair,” he remembered. He sketched himself with his arms outstretched and downward, “in the manner of Goya’s peasant before the firing squad. I formalized the drawing into a line and put a circle around it.”
The lone individual standing helpless in the face of world-annihilating military might—it was “such a puny thing,” thought Holtom. But it captured vividly the feeling of vulnerability, the combination of impotence and fear that living in the shadow of the U.S. bases engendered. Others felt it, too, it seemed. Holtom’s creation, the peace symbol, resonated and quickly traveled around the world.
Operating bases in a foreign country is a delicate operation. It’s not hard to imagine the public reaction to a Chinese base in, say, Texas. In fact, it’s not even necessary to imagine. In the eighteenth century, the stationing of British soldiers in North America was so repellent to the colonists that it fueled their revolution. The Declaration of Independence denounced the king for “quartering large bodies of armed troops among us.”
So it wasn’t a surprise to Washington that it was met with some caginess after the Second World War when it asked to open a base in Saudi Arabia. The site was ideal, like an “immense aircraft carrier” right in the middle of the major air traffic lanes of the planet, a State Department cable noted. Yet the Saudi royals worried how it would look to let the United States fly its flag over the land of Mecca and Medina. So nervous was the king that, though he granted the military the right to open a base at Dhahran, he forbade it from physically planting a flag. Instead, the Stars and Stripes had to be attached to the U.S. consulate, to prevent it from touching Saudi soil. And the site was to be called an “airfield,” never a base.
Just as the king feared, many Muslims blanched. The Dhahran complex brought Christians and Jews to the Holy Land, making the Saudi monarchy complicit in the kingdom’s desecration. The Voice of the Arabs, an Egyptian radio station critical of the Saudi government, invoked Dhahran as its prime example of U.S. imperialism. Eventually, the Saudi government relented and ended the lease, forcing the U.S. military out in 1962.
But it didn’t stay out. In 1990, Saddam Hussein, the dictator of Iraq, invaded Kuwait. It was a bold and sudden attack, giving Hussein control of two-fifths of the world’s oil supply. And it looked very much as if he might invade Saudi Arabia next.
Dick Cheney, General Norman Schwarzkopf, and the Pentagon’s Paul Wolfowitz flew to Jeddah the next day.
Cheney proposed reopening Dhahran to the U.S. military. “After the danger is over, our forces will go home,” he promised. King Fadh acquiesced. “Come with all you can bring,” he told Cheney. “Come as fast as you can.”
They did. The first planes landed at Dhahran within twenty-four hours, and they kept coming. The Pentagon put “everything aloft that could fly,” wrote Colin Powell. “You could have walked across the Mediterranean on the wings of C-5s, C-141s, and commercial aircraft moving across the region,” one pilot marveled. Saudi Arabia became the basis for Operation Desert Storm, the U.S.-led campaign against Iraq.
But hosting U.S. forces at Dhahran was no less of a touchy subject in the 1990s than it had been before. Saudis near the base were unnerved by seeing female service members driving vehicles and wearing T-shirts. Radio broadcasts from Baghdad charged U.S. forces with defiling Islam’s holiest sites.
Saudi clerics complained. For one vexed Saudi, Osama bin Laden, the bases weren’t only an affront to religion, they were also a maddening capitulation to empire. “It is unconscionable to let the country become an American colony with American soldiers—their filthy feet roaming everywhere,” he fumed. The United States, he charged, was “turning the Arabian Peninsula into the biggest air, land, and sea base in the region.”
Major coalition bases used in the Gulf War
At the urging of the nervous Saudi government, Bin Laden left the country, making his way eventually to Afghanistan. But he did not drop the issue. That the U.S. troops stayed in Saudi Arabia after defeating Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War, in breach of Cheney’s promise, only added fuel to Bin Laden’s fire.
In 1996, a bomb went off at a housing facility at Dhahran. Nineteen U.S. Air Force personnel died, and 372 people were wounded. Bin Laden claimed responsibility. It’s genuinely unclear if he was involved, but someone hated the base enough to bomb it.
Shortly after the Dhahran bombing, Bin Laden issued his “Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places.” On the face of it, this seemed an absurdly imbalanced war: an exile living in a cave complex in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, taking on the most powerful military in existence. Yet Bin Laden, equipped with the latest satellite technology in his mountain base, calculated that he could, like some sort of Central Asian Doctor No, order strikes from afar.
Those calculations were right. On the eighth anniversary of the arrival of U.S. troops at Dhahran, Bin Laden used satellite communications to coordinate simultaneous bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. More than 200 people died, and several thousand were wounded.
The climax of Bin Laden’s campaign came three years later, in what al-Qaeda referred to as its “planes operation.” Nineteen hijackers, fifteen of them from Saudi Arabia, commandeered four commercial aircraft. One hit the Pentagon (“a military base,” Bin Laden explained). Two more struck the World Trade Center (“It wasn’t a children’s school!”). The fourth, en route to the U.S. Capitol, crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.
The attacks baffled many in the United States. “To us, Afghanistan seemed very far away,” wrote the members of the 9/11 Commission. So why was a Saudi man there attacking Washington and New York?
The answer is that, for Bin Laden, the United States was not “very far away.” “Your forces occupy our countries,” he wrote in his message to the U.S. populace. “You spread your military bases throughout them.” Bin Laden’s list of grievances against the United States was long, ranging from its support of Israel to Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. (“Is there a worse kind of event for which your name will go down in history?” he asked.) But his chief objection, voiced consistently throughout his career, was the stationing of troops in Saudi Arabia.
This is worth emphasizing. After the 9/11 attacks, “Why do they hate us?” was the constant question. Yet Bin Laden’s motives were neither unknowable nor obscure. September 11 was, in large part, retaliation against the United States for its empire of bases.
The war on terror was, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the press after 9/11, a “very new type of conflict.” Previous wars had been against countries. Now the United States was fighting terrorism writ large. The old area-based military concepts of front, rear, and flank no longer made as much sense. “We’ll have to deal with networks,” Rumsfeld explained.
Having identified the adversary as a series of connected points, Rumsfeld adhered to a new approach to fighting. It was less a game of Risk than one of Hide and Seek. Eyes in the sky, not boots on the ground, would be the key. Rumsfeld favored a military that specialized in finding targets and zapping them from above with pinpoint aerial strikes. The enemy in this style of warfare wasn’t a country. It was a GPS coordinate.
But if large occupying armies weren’t central to this new conception of war, bases were. Even drones need launchpads, and the war on terror relied on a string of bases running from North America to the hot spots and war zones. Such bases, Rumsfeld confessed, “grate on local populations.” But even as the U.S. military has been kicked out of place after place—Vieques in Puerto Rico, Dhahran (again) in Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan—it has held tight to the sites it can control, often islands. Anti-base resistance in Okinawa has led the military to plan a major expansion on Guam. As a U.S. territory, Guam has no voting power in Congress and no power to vote for the president. It is a possession, and the United States can do with it what it pleases.
Guam isn’t the only spot of land that has proved crucial in the ongoing war on terror. Soon after 9/11, the Bush administration fastened on Guantánamo Bay in Cuba as a place to detain suspected terrorists. A century-old lease gave the United States complete jurisdiction over it. It had a McDonald’s, a Baskin-Robbins, a Boy Scout contingent, and a Star Trek fan club. But because the land remained technically Cuban, it was, White House lawyers argued, “foreign territory” where U.S. laws and treaties regarding the treatment of prisoners wouldn’t apply.
Guam and Guantánamo Bay are a fitting pair, both U.S. outposts far from the fighting that have nevertheless become central to the war on terror. Small dots on the map like this might seem unimportant. But they are the foundation of the U.S. Empire today. They and hundreds of other sites around the globe are where the military can store its weapons, station its troops, detain suspects, launch its drones, and monitor global affairs. They are so valuable because they are outposts of the United States where, in the words of Doctor No, Washington has to “account to no one.”
Daniel Immerwahr teaches history at Northwestern University. He’s the author of How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019) and Thinking Small (Harvard, 2015).
This excerpt, printed with permission from the publisher, is from How to Hide An Empire: A History of the Greater United States, out February 2019.
This article is a teaser from our Spring issue, which comes out April 1. To get your copy, subscribe now.