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Empire or Humanity? What the Classroom Didn’t Teach Me About the American Empire

April 1, 2008

Howard Zinn (Tomdispatch.com)

With an occupying army waging war in Iraq and Afghanistan, with military bases and corporate bullying in every part of the world, there is hardly a question any more of the existence of an American Empire. Indeed, the once fervent denials have turned into a boastful, unashamed embrace of the idea.

even after rethinking my own bombing of towns in Europe, I still did not put all that together in the context of an American “Empire.”

However, the very idea that the United States was an empire did not occur to me until after I finished my work as a bombardier with the Eighth Air Force in the Second World War, and came home. Even as I began to have second thoughts about the purity of the “Good War,” even after being horrified by Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even after rethinking my own bombing of towns in Europe, I still did not put all that together in the context of an American “Empire.”

I was conscious, like everyone, of the British Empire and the other imperial powers of Europe, but the United States was not seen in the same way. When, after the war, I went to college under the G.I. Bill of Rights and took courses in U.S. history, I usually found a chapter in the history texts called “The Age of Imperialism.” It invariably referred to the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the conquest of the Philippines that followed. It seemed that American imperialism lasted only a relatively few years. There was no overarching view of U.S. expansion that might lead to the idea of a more far-ranging empire — or period of “imperialism.”

I recall the classroom map (labeled “Western Expansion”) which presented the march across the continent as a natural, almost biological phenomenon. That huge acquisition of land called “The Louisiana Purchase” hinted at nothing but vacant land acquired. There was no sense that this territory had been occupied by hundreds of Indian tribes which would have to be annihilated or forced from their homes — what we now call “ethnic cleansing” — so that whites could settle the land, and later railroads could crisscross it, presaging “civilization” and its brutal discontents.

No treatment of the Civil War mentioned the Sand Creek massacre of hundreds of Indian villagers in Colorado just as “emancipation” was proclaimed for black people by Lincoln’s administration.

Neither the discussions of “Jacksonian democracy” in history courses, nor the popular book by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., The Age of Jackson, told me about the “Trail of Tears,” the deadly forced march of “the five civilized tribes” westward from Georgia and Alabama across the Mississippi, leaving 4,000 dead in their wake. No treatment of the Civil War mentioned the Sand Creek massacre of hundreds of Indian villagers in Colorado just as “emancipation” was proclaimed for black people by Lincoln’s administration.

That classroom map also had a section to the south and west labeled “Mexican Cession.” This was a handy euphemism for the aggressive war against Mexico in 1846 in which the United States seized half of that country’s land, giving us California and the great Southwest. The term “Manifest Destiny,” used at that time, soon of course became more universal. On the eve of the Spanish-American War in 1898, the Washington Post saw beyond Cuba: “We are face to face with a strange destiny. The taste of Empire is in the mouth of the people even as the taste of blood in the jungle.”

The violent march across the continent, and even the invasion of Cuba, appeared to be within a natural sphere of U.S. interest. After all, hadn’t the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 declared the Western Hemisphere to be under our protection? But with hardly a pause after Cuba came the invasion of the Philippines, halfway around the world. The word “imperialism” now seemed a fitting one for U.S. actions. Indeed, that long, cruel war — treated quickly and superficially in the history books — gave rise to an Anti-Imperialist League, in which William James and Mark Twain were leading figures. But this was not something I learned in university either.

The “Sole Superpower” Comes into View

Reading outside the classroom, however, I began to fit the pieces of history into a larger mosaic. What at first had seemed like a purely passive foreign policy in the decade leading up to the First World War now appeared as a succession of violent interventions: the seizure of the Panama Canal zone from Colombia, a naval bombardment of the Mexican coast, the dispatch of the Marines to almost every country in Central America, occupying armies sent to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. As the much-decorated General Smedley Butler, who participated in many of those interventions, wrote later: “I was an errand boy for Wall Street.”

Determined to maintain and expand its monopoly on nuclear weapons, it was taking over remote islands in the Pacific

At the very time I was learning this history — the years after World War II — the United States was becoming not just another imperial power, but the world’s leading superpower. Determined to maintain and expand its monopoly on nuclear weapons, it was taking over remote islands in the Pacific, forcing the inhabitants to leave, and turning the islands into deadly playgrounds for more atomic tests.

In his memoir, No Place to Hide, Dr. David Bradley, who monitored radiation in those tests, described what was left behind as the testing teams went home: “[R]adioactivity, contamination, the wrecked island of Bikini and its sad-eyed patient exiles.” The tests in the Pacific were followed, over the years, by more tests in the deserts of Utah and Nevada, more than a thousand tests in all.

When the war in Korea began in 1950, I was still studying history as a graduate student at Columbia University. Nothing in my classes prepared me to understand American policy in Asia. But I was reading I. F. Stone’s Weekly. Stone was among the very few journalists who questioned the official justification for sending an army to Korea. It seemed clear to me then that it was not the invasion of South Korea by the North that prompted U.S. intervention, but the desire of the United States to have a firm foothold on the continent of Asia, especially now that the Communists were in power in China.

Years later, as the covert intervention in Vietnam grew into a massive and brutal military operation, the imperial designs of the United States became yet clearer to me. In 1967, I wrote a little book called Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal. By that time I was heavily involved in the movement against the war.

When I read the hundreds of pages of the Pentagon Papers entrusted to me by Daniel Ellsberg, what jumped out at me were the secret memos from the National Security Council. Explaining the U.S. interest in Southeast Asia, they spoke bluntly of the country’s motives as a quest for “tin, rubber, oil.”

At least part of that opposition [to the war in Vietnam] rested on an understanding that more than Vietnam was at stake, that the brutal war in that tiny country was part of a grander imperial design.

Neither the desertions of soldiers in the Mexican War, nor the draft riots of the Civil War, not the anti-imperialist groups at the turn of the century, nor the strong opposition to World War I — indeed no antiwar movement in the history of the nation reached the scale of the opposition to the war in Vietnam. At least part of that opposition rested on an understanding that more than Vietnam was at stake, that the brutal war in that tiny country was part of a grander imperial design.

Various interventions following the U.S. defeat in Vietnam seemed to reflect the desperate need of the still-reigning superpower — even after the fall of its powerful rival, the Soviet Union — to establish its dominance everywhere…

READ MORE AT TOMDISPATCH.COM. The animated video adapted from this essay (below) with visuals from Howard Zinn’s new graphic history, A People’s History of American Empire, and voiceover by Viggo Mortensen, was also provided by Tomdispatch.com. To read “Growing Up Class-Conscious,” an autobiographical section of A People’s History of American Empire, click here.

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Howard Zinn is the author of A People’s History of the United States and Voices of a People’s History of the United States, now being filmed for a major television documentary. His newest book is A People’s History of American Empire, the story of America in the world, told in comics form, with Mike Konopacki and Paul Buhle in the American Empire Project book series. An animated video adapted from this essay with visuals from the comic book and voiceover by Viggo Mortensen, as well as a section of the book on Zinn’s early life, can be viewed by clicking here. Zinn’s website is HowardZinn.org.

Copyright 2008 Howard Zinn

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