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
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 Peril...is 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
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
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
...like 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
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
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
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
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
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.
Zinn On War