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Friday, April 04, 2008

What the classroom doesn't teach US students?

adapted from Howard Zinn "Empire or Humanity?"



With an occupying army waging war in Iraq and Afghanistan, with military bases and corporate bullying in every part of the world, there is no question of the existence of an American Empire. The once fervent denials have turned into a boastful, unashamed embrace of the idea.

However, the very idea that the United States was and is an empire did not occur to US students and citizens - even those questioning the purity of the "Good War," even those horrified by Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even those rethinking the bombing of human dwellings across the world. Oh! They are conscious of the British Empire and other imperial powers of Europe, but the United States is not seen in the same way. Courses in U.S. history include a chapter called "The Age of Imperialism." It refers to the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the conquest of the Philippines that followed from which it seems that American imperialism lasted only a relatively few years. There is no overarching view of U.S. expansion that might lead to the idea of a more far-ranging empire – or period of "imperialism."

The classroom map (labeled "Western Expansion") presents the march across the continent as a natural, almost biological phenomenon. Huge acquisition of land called "The Louisiana Purchase" hints at nothing but vacant land acquired. There is no sense that this territory had been occupied by hundreds of Indian tribes which would have to be annihilated or forced from their homes – ethnic cleansing – so that whites could settle the land, and later railroads could crisscross it, presaging "civilization" and its brutal discontents.

Neither the discussions of "Jacksonian democracy" in history courses, nor the popular book by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., The Age of Jackson, tell 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 mentions the Sand Creek massacre of hundreds of Indian villagers in Colorado just as "emancipation" was proclaimed for black people by Lincoln's administration.

Classroom maps also have a section to the south and west labeled "Mexican Cession." - a handy euphemism for the aggressive war against Mexico in 1846 in which the United States seized half of that country's land, gaining 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 violence across the continent, and even the invasion of Cuba, are presented as being within a natural sphere of U.S. interest. After all, hadn't the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 declared the Western Hemisphere to be under US 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. This was not something you learn in a US university either.

Reading outside the classroom, however, you can began to fit the pieces of history into a larger mosaic. What at first seems like a purely passive foreign policy in the decade leading up to the First World War now fits 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 Gen. Smedley Butler, who participated in many of those interventions, wrote later: "I was an errand boy for Wall Street."

In 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."

When the war in Korea began in 1950, nothing in US classes showed the real reasons for American policy in Asia. I. F. Stone's was among the very few journalists who questioned the official justification for sending an army to Korea. 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 when 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 become clearer to the discerning student, maybe due to US body bags or the fear of being drafted.

In 1967, Zinn wrote a little book called Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal. When you read the hundreds of pages of the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg, what jumps out are 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."

Neither the desertions of soldiers in the Mexican War, nor the draft riots of the Civil War, nor 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 US reached the scale of the opposition to the war in Vietnam. 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 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. Hence the invasion of Grenada in 1982, the bombing assault on Panama in 1989, the first Gulf war of 1991. Was George Bush Sr. heartsick over Saddam Hussein's seizure of Kuwait, or was he using that event as an opportunity to move U.S. power firmly into the coveted oil region of the Middle East? Given the history of the United States, given its obsession with Middle Eastern oil dating from Franklin Roosevelt's 1945 deal with King Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia, and the CIA's overthrow of the democratic Mossadegh government in Iran in 1953, it is not hard to decide that question.


If you believe that 9/11 was conceived and perpetuated y Arabs, it follows (as per the official 9/11 Commission ), that this attack derived from fierce hatred of U.S. expansion in the Middle East and elsewhere. Even before that event, the Defense Department acknowledged, according to Chalmers Johnson's book The Sorrows of Empire, the existence of more than 700 American military bases outside of the United States.

Since that date, with the initiation of a "war on terrorism," many more bases have been established or expanded: in Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, the desert of Qatar, the Gulf of Oman, the Horn of Africa, and wherever else a compliant nation could be bribed or coerced.

When bombing cities in Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and France in the Second World War, the moral justification was so simple and clear as to be beyond discussion: The US was saving the world from the evil of fascism. In reality, though, it was an imperialist war. Both sides were motivated by ambitions of control and conquest.

In wars, there is always a difference between the motives of the soldiers and the motives of the political leaders who send them into battle. The motive, presented to the soldiers and the citizenry, is innocent of imperial ambition. It is to help defeat fascism and create a more decent world, free of aggression, militarism, and racism.

The motive of the U.S. establishment, is of a different nature. It was described early in 1941 by Henry Luce, multi-millionaire owner of Time, Life, and Fortune magazines, as the coming of "The American Century." The time had arrived, he said, for the United States "to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit, and by such means as we see fit."

You can hardly ask for a more candid, blunter declaration of imperial design. It has been echoed in recent years by the intellectual handmaidens of the Bush administration, but with assurances that the motive of this "influence" is benign, that the "purposes" – whether in Luce's formulation or more recent ones – are noble, that this is an "imperialism lite." As George Bush said in his second inaugural address: "Spreading liberty around the world… is the calling of our time." The New York Times called that speech "striking for its idealism."

The American Empire has always been a bipartisan project – Democrats and Republicans have taken turns extending it, extolling it, justifying it. President Woodrow Wilson told graduates of the Naval Academy in 1914 (the year he bombarded Mexico) that the U.S. used "her Navy and her Army … as the instruments of civilization, not as the instruments of aggression." And Bill Clinton, in 1992, told West Point graduates: "The values you learned here … will be able to spread throughout the country and throughout the world."

For people all over the world, those claims sooner or later are revealed to be false. The rhetoric, often persuasive on first hearing, soon becomes overwhelmed by horrors that can no longer be concealed: the bloody corpses of Iraq, the torn limbs of American GIs, the millions of families driven from their homes – in the Middle East and in the Mississippi Delta.

The justifications for empire, embedded in US culture, are that war is necessary for security, that expansion is fundamental to civilization, Can these false justifications begin to lose their hold on minds of US citizens? Is it possible that a point in history has been reached when the US is ready to embrace a new way of living in the world, expanding not military power, but humanity?

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 voice-over by Viggo Mortensen, as well as a section of the book on Zinn's early life, can be viewed by clicking here. Zinn's Web site is HowardZinn.org.

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