In Iraq, in Afghanistan, and at home, the position
of the globe's "sole superpower" is visibly fraying. The country that was once
proclaimed an "empire lite" has proven increasingly
lightheaded. The country once hailed as a power greater than that of imperial
Rome or imperial Britain, a dominating force beyond anything ever seen on
the planet, now can't seem to make a move in its own interest that isn't a disaster.
The Iraq government's recent offensive in Basra is but the
latest example with – we can be sure – more to come.
In the meantime, the fate of that empire, lite or otherwise, is the subject
of Howard Zinn today at TomDispatch, and of a new addition to his famed People's
History of the United States. The new book represents a surprise breakthrough
into cartoon format. It's a rollicking graphic history, illustrated by cartoonist
Mike Konopacki, that takes us from the Indian Wars to the Iraqi "frontier" (with
some striking autobiographical asides from Zinn's own life). It's called A
People's History of American Empire. It's a gem and it has just been
In honor of publication day, TomDispatch offers the equivalent of a little
online extravaganza. Below, you can read Zinn's essay on how he first learned
about the American Empire; and you can also click
here for two special treats. You can view an animated video, using some
of the book's art, with voice-over by none other than Viggo Mortensen. (Think
of it as Lord of the Rings, Part IV: The American Mordor Chronicles.)
Finally, if you look below the video on that same page, you'll see an autobiographical
section of the new book, focusing on Zinn's early years. (Click on each illustration
to view a single page of text.) Have fun. Tom
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."
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 Gen. 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
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, 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 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
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 Mossadegh government in Iran in 1953, it
is not hard to decide that question.
The ruthless attacks of Sept. 11 (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
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 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."
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?
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.
Copyright 2008 Howard Zinn