Empire or Humanity?
What the Classroom Didn't Teach Me About the American Empire
By Howard Zinn
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."