History Howard Zinn

What the Classroom Didn’t Teach Me About the American Empire

Perhaps even more relevant today than it was in 2008, when it was first published, is the remarkable Howard Zinn's writing on how, from his childhood in school to his years as a bombardier with the Eighth Air Force in the Second World War and beyond, he had to discover for himself that his country was an imperial power of the first order, another empire in a long history of them.
The late, great Howard Zinn. [dalioPhoto / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

By HOWARD ZINN / TomDispatch

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.

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.

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.”

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.”

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. 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 Mossadeq government in Iran in 1953, it is not hard to decide that question.

Justifying Empire

The ruthless attacks of September 11th (as the official 9/11 Commission acknowledged) 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 I was 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: We were saving the world from the evil of fascism. I was therefore startled to hear from a gunner on another crew — what we had in common was that we both read books — that he considered this “an imperialist war.” Both sides, he said, were motivated by ambitions of control and conquest. We argued without resolving the issue. Ironically, tragically, not long after our discussion, this fellow was shot down and killed on a mission.

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. My motive, like that of so many, was innocent of imperial ambition. It was to help defeat fascism and create a more decent world, free of aggression, militarism, and racism.

The motive of the U.S. establishment, understood by the aerial gunner I knew, was of a different nature. It was described early in 1941 by Henry Luce, multi-millionaire owner of TimeLife, 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.”

We 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 the people of the United States, and indeed 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.

Have not the justifications for empire, embedded in our culture, assaulting our good sense — that war is necessary for security, that expansion is fundamental to civilization — begun to lose their hold on our minds? Have we reached a point in history where we are ready to embrace a new way of living in the world, expanding not our military power, but our humanity?

Copyright Howard Zinn 2021

Howard Zinn was the author with Anthony Arnove of Voices of a People’s History of the United States (Seven Stories Press) and of the international best-selling A People’s History of the United States.

16 comments

  1. Zinn’s “People’s History of the US” should be THE history book taught in school. (Oliver Stone’s and Danny Sjursen’s are in the same vein).

    Unfortunately, I remember college history professors noting that history can be taught from the perspective of events (usually wars) and what caused them; the perspective of nations’ leaders, most of them sociopaths; or far less often, from the perspective of effects on the common people of the time.

    As Orwell noted, history must be constantly revised, as totalitarian (Imperialist) societies are based partly on revisionist history.

  2. Imperialism Is Dead and Good Riddance, Afghanistan Killed British Imperialism in 1840’s, Today Afghans Killed the Anachronous Anomaly US/NATO StepChild and Its Regime Change Wars By Lies On Terror Pretenses, When and if the Countless (Can’t-Won’t) Think-Tanks across the Nation and the Countless “Humanitarian Interventionist” Killers Realize this, The World will be Better!

  3. From grade to grad schools, ruling class institutions prepare the next generation of cogs in the machinery of production by means of both indoctrination (orthodoxy) and, more significantly (given how thought follows behavior), conditioning (orthopraxis). Becoming a degreed professional, with managerial responsibilities in the chain of command over labor power, means advanced learning in the arts and sciences of ideological deception. A successful career in a chosen field depends on how proficient one proves to be in lying.

    Zinn was a refreshing renegade, an unprofessional professional who proved himself genuine by constantly coming under fire, and getting fired, for the heresy of teaching how our problem is civil obedience (to recall another memorable essay by him) to this empire of deceit. His example is lost among many present-day professionals who are slavishly promoting plandemic propaganda for the latest new world order of the Great Reset, far beyond Luce’s Amerikaner Century revising fascist rule after WWII.

    1. absolutely love what you wrote –

      …our problem is civil obedience to this empire of deceit.

    2. Yep! A scheme made manageable when the Dem 20%ers ( the professional/managerial upper middle class) decided to ditch the New Deal entirely. They marketed themselves as RealPolitik, becoming the managers of political, economic, and media neoliberalism, their own lives quite comfortable as enablers of the 1%ers. Whatever problems arise are dismissed as the fault of the ignorant lower classes and/or the impractical left.

      Like Zinn’s comrade and my Wobbly grandfather, I’m one of those labor types who reads. And who pays attention to what is happening politically. I fought the neolib unfriendly takeover of the D party in the late 70s-early 80s. Ever since I’ve been doing what I can to give voice to the invisible majority working class, ignored since the Rust Belt formed, that area now epicenter for deaths of despair.

      The enablers of economic empire and its political extensions are still at it. Even though they proved themselves incapable since as Ivy educated elite, they never go outside of their own reflexive assumptions. As Halberstam’s “The Best and the Brightest” about Vietnam revealed in detail.

      The same produced propaganda for the wars on terror, that lovely amorphism conveniently taking the shape of the next enemy du jour. Iraq; oil. Afghanistan? No outsider has ever won there, but the current set of arrogant “best and brightest” knew they could. Anyway, it was about 1%er profits. And why would 20%ers care about failing domestic infrastructure, inadequate public education, injured veterans, or dead-end working class jobs when none of that affects their world?

      Look at the current headline news. All about the horror of abandoning Afghanistan; not one word about the grave mistake of being there in the first place. For sure deserving a chapter in Barbara Tuchman’s “The March of Folly.” I’d also bet the empire apologists are searching for a new way to drain our money and our futures. As half the planet burns while the other half floods.

  4. The national security state is a product of imperialism, but Gore Vidal was right to emphasize that the creation of the CIA and NSA around 1950 was an existential inflection point when the US ran off the rails. These and other unaccountable alphabet soup agencies have completely undermined any hope for democracy. For over half a century elections have meant practically nothing, while the natl security state assassinated a president and got away with it, among countless other despicable crimes against humanity. The national security state does whatever it wants and we the people have no control over its actions. Eisenhower warned us about this, Truman called for the dismantling of the CIA after Kennedy was assassinated, etc. This necessary task of ridding ourselves of the national security state is all the more difficult today, but it’s something we owe the world since we have allowed it to cause far more death and destruction than the Nazis were ever capable of, and ultimately its gargantuan carbon footprint will destroy the ability for humans to live on the planet. If we dont rid ourselves of the national security state it will kill us all.

  5. I will always have eternal gratitude to Howard Zinn for his work The People’s History of the United States and how as a young man, it along with other literature (Catch 22 and Dr. Strangelove) for teaching me the nature of power and the madmen and psychopaths that nearly universally control it.

    He was a great man. He will be missed.

    1. I recall that it took the paper of record three days to acknowledge Zinn’s passing. Says all one needs to know about their values. In spite of it all, Howard Zinn was light hearted and kind.

  6. Thanks for this reflection. Having recently re-read Slaughterhouse 5, by Kurt Vonnegut Jr, and now reading the book the Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan, the words and actions of empire-building are even more deeply embedded in my psyche. Someone once said not to listen to what they say, just watch what they DO. And having to face the reality of 2 trillion wasted in the terrible war in Afghanistan, over petroleum and opium and power, watching people clutching at the last planes leaving, just like Saigon, is a nightmare. Having the long view here (or an even longer one) is a big help.
    Thank you very much.

  7. Zinn is a truly kind and inteeligent force. Like Hedges and Chomsky, he uncovers what lies right before our eyes.

  8. With you all the way Howard Zinn.
    I will read your book, meantime can I recommend this published just a few months ago by Daniel Sjursen

    “A True History of the United States: Indigenous Genocide, Racialized Slavery, Hyper-Capitalism, Militarist Imperialism and Other Overlooked Aspects of American Exceptionalism”

  9. The “American class room” is not a place one can learn the true history of this nation. If and when a teacher tries to teach “real history” they are likely to lose their job. A few years ago I asked myself “how did we (this country) get to this point” with a majority not knowing and / or not even interested in learning what happened in our past, in the past of those around us.

    Why are African Americans so angry ? Why are native people’s so maligned and ignored in lands they once occupied ? The short answer is they’d had quite enough suppression and injustice — they wanted their real stories told – they want to go beyond their painful histories .

    So, I went out and found some of the important books, all by myself – imagine that. I’d already read Howard Zinn’s classic and dug for more. I learned from – James Baldwin, Isabel Wilkerson, Eddie Glaude, Bryan Stevenson, Chalmers Johnson, John Pilger, Eduardo Galeano, Chris Hedges and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, to name a few. Ah, now I can see, now I can begin to understand.

    I made a conscious choice to understand the stories of those on and beyond the margins of accepted white / polite society. As I continue my quest it does not surprise me how the ignorant cling to their hatred, prejudice and ignorance. That’s how we got here and where we seem to want to be.

  10. What is happening with your comments section (so valuable to this site and for me) ? I left a comment on this piece as did several of my other friends – I am concerned as it is a valuable part of the equation.

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