Empire or Humanity?

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

Howard Zinn | ZNet, April 3, 2008


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.

Continued . . .

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