Review: The Global Interior

“Interior.” It is a moniker, argues Megan Black, that both describes and belies the historic purposes of the branch of the American government best known today for its management of the National Parks. But conservation has been only one part of a contradictory and hidden mission that has sent the Interior Department plunging into the world’s geologic interior even while it helped extend the American imperial project into the nation’s geographic exteriors.

In her perspective-bending The Global Interior: Mineral Frontiers and American Power, Black argues that Interior’s mission, in truth, has been nothing less than both the extension and obscuration of United States power in the world, from the settler colonialism of the 19th century through the end of the Cold War. Interior straddled the line between civilian and military, public and private, to first domesticate the North American continent, then to use the expertise it had gained there to secure mineral resources in ever-widening concentric circles—from American colonies to foreign countries and from the ocean floor to outer space. Even as it did so, it distanced the United States from more traditional forms of imperialism by pushing ideas of universalism, development, and conservation. In these ways, the Department of the Interior acted key, but largely invisible, machinery of American extractive imperialism as it “followed the north star of minerals,” bringing expropriated lands and resources into its fold across the globe and making them ready for settlement and exploitation, especially by white Americans.

Following the Mexican-American War, the United States government found itself encumbered under the administrative weight of the vast tracts of new land and new peoples. In response, the Department of the Interior was created in 1849. The new administration followed the U.S. military into America’s frontiers. Interior’s bureaucrats cut their teeth “surveying, parceling, codifying, and leasing” land and resources not “properly” utilized by native peoples. As the passive, administrative counter to hard military power, Interior worked to transform these lands, taken from indigenous peoples and Mexico, into place suitable for white settlement and private industry, while at the same time, portraying the westward expansion in the “benevolent light of a civilizing mission.”

By 1900, however, the American frontier, geographically at least, had closed. The Department of the Interior came under attack, especially by conservationists. Faced with these threats, Interior morphed, embracing conservationism of resources as its new charge. It accepted critic Gifford Pinchot’s logic that conservation should ensure the “greatest good for the greatest number in the long run,” and over the following decades, applied that logic across the globe under imperial, extractive regimes. Resources, needed to be conserved so they could later be exploited; “conservation was, in a sense, expansion slowed,” Black writes. Conservation also allowed the U.S. government to repurpose its settler-colonial administrations and project them outward. As American dominance over the continent reached its zenith, new frontiers opened up. The same experts who had gained their technical expertise surveying and administering the American West became “footsoldiers for exploration” in new overseas colonies. With the help of Interior’s technicians, the United States could make these once-inscrutable places fathomable, survey their resources, and ready them for investment and exploitation.

But the world was changing in the first half of the 20th century, and Interior would have to change with it. The old model of naked colonial domination that had built the European world order was losing political viability just as America came into its own as a colonial power. So much like it had in the American West, Interior played the soft, passive counter overseas to military power, deflecting charges of imperialism by supporting civilian rule in territorial affairs and building a “technical imperialism” to substitute for the old racial imperialism. By grounding its activities in American colonies in conservation and technocracy, Interior offered to help modernize the “backward” regions of the world, obscuring its imperial purposes. Those purposes increasingly intersected with mineral extraction, especially of what Interior officials dubbed “strategic minerals” necessary for the United States to control during times of crisis or war.  Under this purview, Interior’s scientists spread out across the world, bringing with them the technical knowledge and “neutral” assistance to “develop” nations—and the mineral resources America’s government desired.

The framing of “strategic minerals” gained even greater utility with the rise of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. By depicting those rising powers as giant, hungry octopuses, the United States portrayed global mineral resources as under threat. It suggested American expansion as a benevolent alternative to fascist domination, especially in Latin America. Interior acted as the hands a feet of this alternative imperialism, securing mineral investments for private American companies as a way to “protect” them from other external threats. This export of scientific and technical assistance continued in the post-war years under President Harry Truman’s Point Four program (eventually reorganized into USAID) to aid “developing countries.” Ostensibly for the benefit of underdeveloped countries, Interior officials worked to “identify, evaluate, and unearth minerals.” Key to this effort was the department’s recasting of resources as global, utilitarian endowments, aided by Interior’s conservationist pretensions. In doing so, Interior worked to keep new frontiers open by dissolving national boundaries. It exported these “universalist” values through a combination of propaganda films and surveys of national resources, the bills for which were footed by the American taxpayer while private corporations and the national security apparatus reaped the benefits. By the 1970s, however, nationalist sovereignty movements accurately identified these efforts for what they were—a Trojana horse for American strategic and economic interests.

Frontiers were once again closing, so Interior transformed again and redirected its expertise to new places: first the ocean floor, then outer space. In a radical redefinition of national borders, Interior pushed the United States to annex the continental shelf with a view toward oil exploration. Interior applied its hard-won technical expertise to survey the shelf and assisted in leasing drilling rights to oil companies. It also pioneered the Landsat satellite survey project to “point the way to minerals … for the world” and help those “developing countries” better manage their resources. The reality, however, was different, if not surprising: The U.S. government collected global, boundary-erasing data on the mineral resources of the world. Then America sold it, largely to the benefit of pro-American dictators and private companies. Landsat was the culmination of a century of Interior work to open up new frontiers, one that was uniquely prepared to circumvent growing political resistance. And rather than aiding the poor and the world as it purported to do, the project helped extract minerals for the benefit of elites.

Alongside its satellite project, Interior returned to where it began: native lands, where activists and lawyers tried to fend off federal attempts to abrogate treaties and get at the vast mineral and oil wealth beneath reservation lands. The Council of Energy Resource Tribes mimicked Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and even consulted with its members, a strategy that brought the contradictions inherent to Interior’s mission into view. CERT at last “melded what had been previously conceived as two starkly different things: America’s settler-colonial legacy and its foreign policy.” Native activists also welcomed Ronald Reagan’s war on government as a chance to free themselves from domination by the state, often with tragic consequences. In the process, the Reagan administration destroyed the Department of the Interior as an arm of U.S. foreign policy. Into the gap stepped the U.S. military.

There is little to criticize in Black’s masterful book. Her decision to examine a an otherwise innocuous-seeming, minor branch of the American federal government is a stroke of brilliance. There is, perhaps, no better lens through which to better see the true nature of America’s unique brand of imperialism. Tracing the ups and downs of Interior by following the projects of its various leaders and backers, Black shows the contradictions in department’s mission for what they were: not bugs but features. She does so by making able use of quotes from her subjects and of carefully selected, supporting data points. She convincingly connects Interior’s well-known conservationism to a long history of racial, gendered, and economic exploitation, and she does it with light and funny prose that is always a pleasure to read. Above all The Global Interior serves as a lively reminder that some of the most enlightening subjects, much like American imperialism, are often hidden in plain sight.

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