Aggressive Liberalism

by Howard Zinn

excerpted from the book

Howard Zinn on War

Seven Stories Press, 2000, paper


For me, as for many others, the Vietnam war became an occasion for examining larger questions about the historical role of the United States in the world, particularly its record of expansion, both on the continent and overseas. As part of such an examination I wrote this essay, which appeared in The Politics of History (Beacon Press, 1970; Illinois University Press, 1990).


The concept of paradox is useful to our innocence. We keep it as a last defense, first erecting two other barriers. The first is not to look for, or not to see, those facts that challenge our deepest beliefs. The second is (when the world will not tolerate our ignorance) to keep separate in our consciousness those elements which, brought together, would explode the myths of our culture. When both those restraining walls collapse, we fall back, as an emergency measure, on the explanation: It's one of those paradoxes-an incredible but true combination.

With this triple defense, the liberal democracy of the Western world, bedecked with universal suffrage, parliamentary representation, technological progress, mass education, Bills of Rights, social welfare, has managed to maintain its reputation for beneficence-despite its record of imperialism, war, racism, and exploitation. The unpleasant facts are first ignored (or made pallid by judicious juxtaposition with the more blatant sins of others). Then they are kept in a different compartment of the brain. Then, when the brain is so jostled that separation becomes impossible, the essential goodness of what we call Western Civilization is kept intact by the concept of paradox. Thus, liberalism can remain unscratched by the most prurient of juxtapositions, and the entire social system for which it is the shorthand symbol-the bad as well as the good-can remain unquestioned.

It is the first line of defense(that this essay will deal with the forgetting of discomfiting facts. The myth that refuses to be discomfited is that the United States, as might be expected from its behavior at home, is a peculiarly decent nation abroad.

Perhaps we took the myth, along with mother's milk, from British liberalism. A British historian, Geoffrey Barraclough, writing of German expansionism at the time of the First World War, says: "Easy though it is to criticize the imperialism of the French and British in Africa or China, their worst enormities simply do not compare. For all its faults, British imperialism had a genuine idealistic component, a sense of service and mission expressed in India by Curzon and in Egypt by Cromer."

"Idealistic components" have always been handy in aggressive international behavior. The chastity of Helen in the Trojan Wars, the sanctity of Christ's birthplace in the Crusades-and one can multiply the components indefinitely-no more altered the basic fact of conquest, murder exploitation than did the more sophisticated rationale of the British liberals in the Boer War. As D.A.N. Jones has written about Winston Churchill's role at the time:

Churchill lent an air of nobility to ugly realities. He had come to Parliament in 1901 as the war correspondent from South Africa, able to present the Boer War as a grand duel between blood-brothers. Some, he said, in his maiden speech, were prepared to "stigmatize this as a war of greed... This war from beginning to end has only been a war of duty."

Churchill praised the white enemy for not arming the black population: "The Black the one bond of union between the European races." In a letter to his wife in 1907, Churchill, a junior Minister in the Liberal Government, talks of "... 150,000 more natives under our direct control.... There will not, I think, be any bloodshed.... Thus the Empire grows under Radical Administration!"

Was this a "paradox" of British liberalism? Only if one ignores parallel features of liberalism at home which cast doubt on the total appraisal traditionally made of liberal democracy in the West. For instance, Churchill is "all for government intervention to assist the poor, to take the trailways and canals into public ownership, to establish a national minimum wage. It was all talk." He was also saying: "As for tramps and wastrels, there ought to be proper Labour Colonies where they could be... made to realise their duty to the State." And in 1911, as Home Secretary, he accompanied the police who were after some foreign-born burglars alleged to be anarchists. The suspects' house was burned down; two corpses were found, and Churchill wrote to the Prime Minister.

I thought it better to let the house burn down rather than spend good British lives in rescuing those ferocious rascals. I think I shall have to stiffen the administration of the Aliens Act a little....

To reply to the claim of "paradox" in American liberalism, we would have to place its external conduct alongside the facts of its domestic policies. But first, the external conduct itself requires a more scrupulous examination than is usually given: whether in the elementary school textbooks which glorify America's wars, or in the more sophisticated academic circles where benign motives and other "idealistic components are thought to make American foreign policy notably more admirable than that of other nations.

A quick survey of American foreign policy shows that aggressiveness, violence, and deception accompanied, from our first years as a nation, the development of those domestic attributes which (seen in isolation from other domestic traits) made us the prototype of Western liberal democracy. This survey is of course a selective one, but for purposes of taking a hard look at our nation in a time of social crisis, it is a useful corrective to more orthodox-selection. I suspect there is an important difference between individuals and nations which supports the idea of a critical selection. For a person, the overlooking of past miscreancy may have a positive effect on future conduct, as a psychological spur to change. For nations, there is not that sensitivity. A hardened, mindless mechanism requires not psychological encouragement but a taking apart and reassembling by its citizens-a task so arduous as to be spurred only by a sense of great peril, reinforced by a concentrated recollection of the number of times the mechanism has failed.

It was in our first diplomatic efforts as a new nation-the making of the peace treaty with England-that, despite the nobility of sentiment that accompanied a war for independence and the goals of the Declaration of Independence, we began to show the cupidity of our elders. Bradford Perkins, in his review of Richard B. Morris' The Peacemakers, makes the point as precisely as one could make it: most American historians, Richard Morris seems to assume that because the envoys served a noble people, their cynical and even dishonest efforts are to be excused, whereas their European counterparts are to be condemned because they served less enlightened states. In fact Jay Franklin, and Adams triumphed precisely because they adopted the brutal morality of their contemporaries. They betrayed their instructions and the spirit of the alliance with France to obtain great benefits for their country They cannot, as Morris seems to imply, be defended on moral grounds They Initiated, their contemporaries echoed, and their countrymen since have reaffirmed the false claim that Americans normally act with a morality superior to that of statesmen of other nations.

The peace that followed the Revolutionary War was a nervous one, accompanied by the first waves of post-independence nationalist passion. The British were holding on to their military and trading posts on the northern frontier, the Spanish were in the Floridas to the south, the French soon in possession of New Orleans and the vast Louisiana territory to the north, and the Indians everywhere. War fever rose and fell in those years, against the British under Washington, against the French under Adams (intensified by the French Revolution), against also (ironically-but irony is normal in international affairs) those Irish revolutionaries who came to this country with the same fierce anti-British feeling that we held in our Revolution.

From the first, aggressive expansion was a constant of national ideology and policy, whether the administration was "liberal" or "conservative"-that is, Federalist or Republican, Whig or Democrat, Democrat or Republican. The first and greatest act of territorial expansion was taken by Jefferson, in a legally dubious purchase, the President conveniently overlooking the fact that he was receiving, in effect, stolen goods (for Napoleon was violating a treaty with Spain by selling Louisiana).

Expansionism was given a moral justification; the nation had a "natural right" to security in the West, it was said. This was the customary jump in modern history, from an idealistic nationalism invoked to justify independence from colonial rule, to the stretching out over others' territory by a new nation. "The very peoples who had drunk most deeply of the new humanitarian nationalism succumbed most rapidly to the expansionist intoxication which led into the age of imperialism," writes Arthur K. Weinberg, in his classic study, Manifest Destiny.

France had leaped from Rousseau to Napoleon, and the United States from the Declaration of Independence to (as Weinberg puts it) "the extension of its rule over an alien people-Indians-without their consent." And it was the author of the phrase "consent of the governed," Jefferson himself, who sent troops into the Louisiana Territory to guard against Indian outbreaks at the time of purchase. He had written in 1787 that "it may be taken for a certainty that not a foot of land will ever be taken from the Indians without their own consent." The argument now used to justify taking this land from the Indians was that they were not cultivating it. But a score of years later, when the Indians began to settle down in the South and to cultivate the land, they were driven out (by Andrew Jackson, Jefferson's descendant in the "liberal" tradition).

Expansionism, with its accompanying excuses, seems to be a constant characteristic of the nation-state, whether liberal or conservative, socialist or capitalist. I am not trying to argue that the liberal-democratic state ~s especially culpable, only that it is not less so than other nations Russian expansionism into Eastern Europe, the Chinese moving into Tibet and battling with India over border territories-seem as belligerent as the pushings of that earlier revolutionary upstart, the United States And in these cases, the initial revolution followed by others, led to a paranoid fear of revolution beyond the real potential.

Thus, six years after the American Revolution, France was convulsed ~n hers. After the turn of the century, Latin America caught fire: Haiti the first, suspiciously close to the American shore, then Venezuela Argentina, Chile, and the rest. Europe's despots pointed accusingly at the United States, much as we now point to Soviet Russia (or more lately to China or Cuba) whenever there are rumblings of change anywhere in the world. The philosophy of Manifest Destiny in America was not far from the Soviet rationale today, that (in Weinberg's words) "one nation has a preeminent social worth, a distinctively lofty mission, and consequently unique rights in the application of moral principles." Socialism and liberalism both have advantages over feudal monarchies in their ability to throw a benign light over vicious actions.

On the eve of the war of 1812, the Madison administration, by a combination of subversive agitation and deception, took from under the nose of Spain the territory of West Florida, a strip of land along the Gulf of Mexico reaching as far west as Baton Rouge. Expansionist elements in the Southern states, encouraged and perhaps helped materially by the Madison administration, revolted against Spanish authority, set up a Lone Star Republic, and asked to join the United States. It was a preview in certain respects of the later annexation of Texas. According to Thomas A. Bailey, Secretary of State James Monroe "went so far as to falsify the dates of certain important documents" to show that the territory belonged to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase. Spain was too heavily involved in war with Napoleon to do much about it, but several years later, the London Times said: "Mr. Madison's dirty, swindling manoeuvres in respect to Louisiana and the Floridas remain to be punished."

A century and a half of historical research have not solved the question of exactly why the United States went to war with England in 1812. The grievance concerning British impressment of American seamen seems hopelessly knotted with expansionist aims. But, whatever the complex of actual reasons, there is no doubt about the powerful generation of expansionist sentiment at this point in American history. Congressman John Randolph of Virginia, suspicious of the imperial designs of John Calhoun and Henry Clay, told the House of Representatives that the impressment issue was false. "Agrarian cupidity, not maritime right, urges the war," he said. "Ever since the report of the Committee...we have heard but one word-like a whip-poor-will, but one eternal monotonous tone-Canada! Canada! Canada!"

As if to corroborate this accusation, the Nashville Clarion asked: "Where is it written in the book of fate that the American Republic shall not stretch her limits from the Capes of the Chesapeake to Noorka Sound, from the isthmus of Panama to Hudson Bay?" The entire North American continent lay waiting.

The war of 1812 ended too indecisively for the United States to extend her territorial possessions at the expense of Britain. But there was Spain, controlling Florida. In 1817, Andrew Jackson went into action. Given the right by the American Government to cross the Florida border in pursuit of pillagers-Seminole Indians, runaway slaves, white renegades-he did just that, and then more. He seized most of the important Florida posts, confiscated the royal Spanish archives, replaced the Spanish governor with an American, executed two Englishmen, and declared that United States tax laws would operate in Florida. For this, he became a national hero.

This led to what appears benignly in our textbook charts as "The Florida Purchase." Secretary of State John Quincy Adams insisted that Spain cede Florida, and promised to take care of American citizens' claims against Spain, amounting to five million dollars, but not a cent went to Spain for the Florida territory. As Bailey sums up:

However much we may applaud the masterly diplomacy of Adams, there are features of the negotiation that are not altogether savory. Spain, to be sure, was shuffling, dilatory, and irresponsible; the United States was rough, highhanded and arrogant. Some writers have called the acquisition of Florida a case of international bullying. Others have called it Manifest Destiny-the falling of ripe fruit.

The Monroe Doctrine has been vested with a good deal of patriotic sentiment, accompanied by only a vague sense of what it was all about. In the 1 920s, Christian Science leader Mary Baker Eddy took a full-page ad in The New York Times, heading it: "I believe strictly in the Monroe Doctrine, in our Constitution, and in the laws of God."

As we look into it, the Monroe Doctrine begins to look like the common tendency of all new nations to build a cordon sanitaire around themselves, and indeed to stretch that far beyond the needs of self-defense. Russia in Eastern Europe, China in South Asia, Egypt in the Middle East, have all showed the same behavior. And in August of 1960, the prime Minister of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, told his National Assembly that he "would not be so presumptuous as to put forward a Monroe Doctrine for Africa" but that he thought African problems should be settled by African states. His statement had just the tone of righteousness and just the tone of paternal supervision that marked the United States in 1823, when James Monroe's presidential message to Congress promised that the United States would not interfere in the internal concerns of European countries, but also warned that "we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety."

There is considerable doubt that the Monroe Doctrine saved either independence or democracy in Latin America, but there is little doubt that it served as a justification, by President Polk and later by Theodore Roosevelt, for the expansion of American influence in Latin America. Interestingly, Metternich in central Europe saw this commonplace action of modern nationalism with the same ideological phobia that the United States sees the Soviet Union and other Communist nations. He responded to the Monroe Doctrine as follows: "These United States of America..lend new strength to the apostles of sedition and reanimate the courage of every conspirator. If this flood of evil doctrines and pernicious examples should extend over the whole of America, what would become of our religious and political institutions..."

The spirit of Manifest Destiny was strong in those very decades of the early nineteenth century when the nation was creating institutions marking it as liberal and democratic: the extension of suffrage, the popular election of the President, the spread of public education, the flowering of literature. One of the nation's leading orators, Edward Everett, in an oration commemorating the battle of Bunker Hill in 1836, told his audience:

...wherever there are men living, laboring, suffering, enjoying-there are our brothers. Look then still further abroad, honored friends and patriots! Behold in distant countries, in other quarters of the globe, the influence of your example and achievements in stimulating the progress of social improvement. Behold the mighty spirit of Reform striding like a giant through the civilized world and trampling down established abuses at every step!... Behold him working out his miracles in France, knocking off the shackles of neighboring nations in Spanish America, pursuing his course, sometimes triumphant, sometimes temporarily trodden under foot, betrayed by false friends, overwhelmed by superior force, but still in the main, forward and onward over Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany, Greece!

The liberal West, now fat, rich, and spread-eagled over the world, points with alarm at the upstart righteousness of the Communist states, the messianic fervor of the new nationalism in Asia and Africa. But liberalism, at a similar state in its development, showed the same character Tocqueville wrote in the 1830s: "Nothing is more embarrassing in the ordinary intercourse of life, than this irritable patriotism of the Americans."

In the same period the most popular American historian was George Bancroft, who saw American democracy as God's special gift to the universe. His historical study of the United States, Bancroft said, aimed "to follow the steps by which a favoring Providence, calling our institutions into being, has conducted the nation to its present happiness and glory." Shall we rest on the explanation of "paradox" when we recall that at this same time, the nation was putting people in prison for debt, herding free men into labor gangs, under the most brutal conditions, and enslaving that one-sixth of its population which was black?

The administration of Andrew Jackson, who is seen sometimes as an early New Dealer, a conveyer of the liberal Jeffersonian tradition, was a particularly truculent one. The Cherokees were established in the South as a separate nation, by treaty after treaty which they signed with the United States. They were industrious, progressive, and peaceful. Their government was more democratic and their educational system more advanced than those of Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, in whose mountain fastnesses the Cherokees maintained their society When Georgia in 1832 defied a Supreme Court ruling that only the national government had jurisdiction over Cherokee territory, Andrew Jackson supported Georgia with his famous statement: "John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it."

Jackson, after all, was an old Indian fighter, and he pushed through Congress an Indian Removal Act to force the Cherokees out. A few years later, General Winfield Scott invaded with 7000 troops. The Cherokees were put in concentration camps, their homes burned, and 14,000 of them herded onto the long trek westward, the "Trail of Tears," during which 4000 men, women and children died.

Any confidence in the special benignity of a "democratic" nation's foreign policy is shaken, at the least, by this episode. Four years after the crushing of the Hungarian revolt, Premier Khrushchev of the Soviet Union declared that the Hungarian situation was now settled to everyone's satisfaction. Andrew Jackson's handpicked successor, President Martin Van Buren, said about the Cherokee removal operation: "The measures authorized by Congress at its last session have had the happiest effects... The Cherokees have emigrated without any apparent reluctance."

It was an aggressive war against Mexico that extended the nation's boundaries to the Pacific. In the 1819 treaty with Spain the United States had given up any claim to Texas. But this did not stop it from trying to bribe Mexican officials to sell Texas, as by United States Minister Anthony Butler in Jackson's administration. This failing, it gave active support to the revolution which separated Texas from Mexico and made it, for ten years, the Lone Star State. The United States had its eye not only on Texas, but on California and all the land between-about half of what was then Mexico. After Texas was annexed in 1845, President Polk sent secret instructions to his confidential agent in California, Thomas O. Larkin, to work for annexation.

Polk first tried to buy California and New Mexico, but Mexico refused, whereupon he sent troops into the disputed territory between the Nucces River and the Rio Grande, which both Texas and Mexico claimed. When Polk took the question of war to his cabinet, the suggestion was made that it would be better for Mexico to start the war. By some remarkable coincidence, a dispatch that same night reported Mexicans coming into the disputed area, and a battle ensued, with sixteen American casualties. Polk asked Congress to declare war, saying that Mexico "has invaded territory and shed American blood upon the American soil." Polk's claim to be protecting Texas was rather weak, m view of the fact that in nine years Mexico had made no effort to retake Texas.

The war was won without difficulty, and the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo gave the United States what it wanted: New Mexico, California, and the disputed territory in Texas-altogether, half of Mexico. The States could even point to its restraint in not taking all of Mexico. During the war, that thought had been widespread. At a Jackson Day dinner, Senator Dickinson of New York had offered a toast to "a more perfect Union, embracing the whole of the North American continent." The liberal New York Evening Post urged America not to withdraw from Mexico, saying:

Now we ask, whether any man can coolly contemplate the idea of recalling our troops from the territory we at present occupy and.. resign this beautiful country to the custody of the ignorant cowards and profligate ruffians who have ruled it for the last 25 years? Why, humanity cries out against it. Civilization and Christianity protest.

Expansionism was neither liberal nor conservative, Southern or Northern. It was a trait of the American nation, as of other nations, as of any unit bursting with power and privilege in a competitive, lawless world. The sentiment of the New York Post was not much different from that of Jefferson Davis, the Senator from Mississippi, who wrote just before the Civil War:

We may expand so as to include the whole world. Mexico, Central America, South America, Cuba, the West India Islands, and even England and France we might annex without inconvenience...allowing them with their local legislatures to regulate their local affairs in their own way. And this sir, is the mission of this Republic and its ultimate destiny.

It was, indeed, in the direction of worldwide power, that the United States Government moved. It expanded, in the years between the Revolution and the Civil War, from a thin strip along the Atlantic to a huge continental power fronting the oceans. It did this by purchase and by pressure, by aggression, by deceit, and by war. It used these varied weapons against Spaniards, Frenchmen, Indians, Mexicans-and all with an air of arrogant righteousness, with the idea that to spread the American flag far and wide was to confer on other peoples the greatest gift in the world.

After 1890, we moved out into the Caribbean and the Pacific, as far as the coastal waters of China. That story is too well known to recount in detail: the "splendid little war" with Spain; the annexation of Hawaii, and the Philippines and the ugly war of extermination against the Filipino rebels; the taking of Puerto Rico and the establishment of a protectorate over Cuba; the shrewd creation of a Republic of Panama, pulling the site for a canal from under Colombia; the waves of marines into the Caribbean-Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua; the bombardment and occupation of Vera Cruz; in the meantime the concern with profit and influence in China and Japan by the judicious use of gunboats, dollars, and diplomacy. With World War I we became a banker of the world; with World War II we spread military bases onto every land mass, every ocean in the world, intervened openly or stealthily in Greece, Lebanon, Guatemala, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Korea, Vietnam. By 1969, the Japanese had to protest the use of their former island, Okinawa, to store deadly nerve gas for American military use.

These, in terse summary, are the facts we tend either to ignore or to so mix into the rich potpourri of American history as to obscure them. Extricated, they force us to deal with them alongside the kindly view of our society as a summit of liberal, democratic achievement in world history. Refusing to simply separate "liberalism" at home from aggression abroad, refusing also to end the discussion by speaking of "paradox," we can attempt a reconciliation from one or another direction.

That is, we can find that our behavior abroad is not as bad as it seems on first look, that it is indeed invested with some of the saving characteristics we find in domestic liberalism. For instance, Frederick Merk, in Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History, a Reinterpretation, is unhappy with the idea that manifest destiny and imperialism represent the actual American spirit. He finds they are exceptions, and that the true American mood was that of "mission," of liberating other peoples, that the United States has been, in the main, "idealistic, self-denying, hopeful of divine favor for national aspirations, though not sure of it."

I would suggest another way of looking at the facts: that there is a similar principle, operating in domestic affairs and foreign affairs-for presumably liberal states as for other kinds of states: that in a world which has not yet developed either the mind or the mechanism for humane cooperation, power and privilege tend to be as rapacious as the degree of resistance by the victims will permit. That aggression at home is more disguised, more sporadic, more controlled than aggression abroad, comes from the development of countervailing forces at home, while those abroad have usually been helpless before the marauding foreign power. Where internal groups have been similarly helpless they have been treated as ruthlessly as enemies in wartime: the blacks, the Indians, the workingmen before they organized, the students when they dared to challenge authority.

All this suggests that we need to stop looking with special fondness on that group of Western states which represent, in those millions of textbooks distributed in high schools and colleges "Western civilization." Their external behavior is not an unfortunate departure from character It is what their internal behavior would be if undeterred by a population whose greater literacy and greater activity (a necessity of modern industrial development) enabled them to at least partially resist.

The idealist rhetoric surrounding the foreign policies of liberal states is only a variant on the historic use of rhetoric by aggressive civilizations in the past: the Greeks had their noble excuses for destroying the people of Melos: the Popes drove Christian armies forward with words of holy purity; the socialist states invent socialist excuses for their assaults. A bit of historical perspective may help us to deal, in our own time, with the missionary-soldiers of other nations and of ours.

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