The Scourge of Nationalism
by Howard Zinn
The Progressive magazine, June
I cannot get out of my mind the recent
news photos of ordinary Americans sitting on chairs, guns on laps,
standing unofficial guard on the Arizona border, to make sure
no Mexicans cross over into the United States. There was something
horrifying in the realization that, in this twenty-first century
of what we call "civilization," we have carved up what
we claim is one world into 200 artificially created entities we
call "nations" and armed to apprehend or kill anyone
who crosses a boundary.
Is not nationalism-that devotion to a
flag, an anthem, a boundary so fierce it engenders mass murder-one
of the great evils of our time, along with racism, along with
religious hatred? These ways of thinking-cultivated, nurtured,
indoctrinated from childhood on-have been useful to those in power,
and deadly for those out of power.
National spirit can be benign in a country
that is small and lacking both in military power and a hunger
for expansion (Switzerland, Norway, Costa Rica, and many more).
But in a nation like ours-huge, possessing thousands of weapons
of mass destruction-what might have been harmless pride becomes
an arrogant nationalism dangerous to others and to ourselves.
Our citizenry has been brought up to see
our nation as different from others, an exception in the world,
uniquely moral, expanding into other lands in order to bring civilization,
That self-deception started early. When
the first English settlers moved into Indian land in Massachusetts
Bay and were resisted, the violence escalated into war with the
Pequot Indians. The killing of Indians was seen as approved by
God, the taking of land as commanded by the Bible. The Puritans
cited one of the Psalms, which says: "Ask of me, and I shall
give thee, the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost
parts of the Earth for thy possession."
When the English set fire to a Pequot
village and massacred men, women, and children, the Puritan theologian
Cotton Mather said: "It was supposed that no less than 600
Pequot souls were brought down to hell that day."
It was our "Manifest Destiny to overspread
the continent allotted by Providence," an American journalist
declared on the eve of the Mexican War. After the invasion of
Mexico began, the New York Herald announced: "We believe
it is a part of our destiny to civilize that beautiful country."
It was always supposedly for benign purposes
that our country went to war. We invaded Cuba in 1898 to liberate
the Cubans, and went to war in the Philippines shortly after,
as President McKinley put it, "to civilize and Christianize"
the Filipino people.
As our armies were committing massacres
in the Philippines (at least 600,000 Filipinos died in a few years
of conflict), Elihu Root, our Secretary of War, was saying: "The
American soldier is different from all other soldiers of all other
countries since the war began. He is the advance guard of liberty
and justice, of law and order, and of peace and happiness."
Nationalism is given a special virulence
when it is blessed by Providence. Today we have a President, invading
two countries in four years, who believes he gets messages from
God. Our culture is permeated by a Christian fundamentalism as
poisonous as that of Cotton Mather. It permits the mass murder
of "the other" with the same confidence as it accepts
the death penalty for individuals convicted of crimes. A Supreme
Court justice, Antonin Scalia, told an audience at the University
of Chicago Divinity School, speaking of capital punishment: "For
the believing Christian, death is no big deal."
How many times have we heard Bush and
Rumsfeld talk to the troops in Iraq, victims themselves, but also
perpetrators of the deaths of thousands of Iraqis, telling them
that if they die, if they return without arms or legs, or blinded,
it is for "liberty," for "democracy"?
Nationalist super-patriotism is not confined
to Republicans. When Richard Hofstadter analyzed American presidents
in his book The American Political Tradition, he found that Democratic
leaders as well as Republicans, liberals as well as conservatives,
invaded other countries, sought to expand U.S. power across the
Liberal imperialists have been among the
most fervent of expansionists, more effective in their claim to
moral rectitude precisely because they are liberal on issues other
than foreign policy. Theodore Roosevelt, a lover of war, and an
enthusiastic supporter of the war in Spain and the conquest of
the Philippines, is still seen as a Progressive because he supported
certain domestic reforms and was concerned with the national environment.
Indeed, he ran as President on the Progressive ticket in 1912.
Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, was the epitome
of the liberal apologist for violent actions abroad. In April
of 1914, he ordered the bombardment of the Mexican coast, and
the occupation of the city of Vera Cruz, in retaliation for the
arrest of several U.S. sailors. He sent Marines into Haiti in
1915, killing thousands of Haitians who resisted, beginning a
long military occupation of that tiny country. He sent Marines
to occupy the Dominican Republic in 1916. And, after running in
1916 on a platform of peace, he brought the nation into the slaughter
that was taking place in Europe in World War I, saying it was
a war to "make the world safe for democracy."
In our time, it was the liberal Bill Clinton
who sent bombers over Baghdad as soon as he came into office,
who first raised the specter of "weapons of mass destruction"
as a justification for a series of bombing attacks on Iraq. Liberals
today criticize George Bush's unilateralism. But it was Clinton's
Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, who told the United Nations
Security Council that the U.S. would act "multilaterally
when we can, unilaterally when we must."
One of the effects of nationalist thinking
is a loss of a sense of proportion. The killing of 2,300 people
at Pearl Harbor becomes the justification for killing 240,000
in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The killing of 3,000 people on September
11 becomes the justification for killing tens of thousands of
people in Afghanistan and Iraq.
What makes our nation immune from the
normal standards of human decency?
Surely, we must renounce nationalism and
all its symbols: its flags, its pledges of allegiance, its anthems,
its insistence in song that God must single out America to be
We need to assert our allegiance to the
human race, and not to any one nation. We need to refute the idea
that our nation is different from, morally superior to, the other
imperial powers of world history.
The poets and artists among us seem to
have a clearer understanding of the limits of nationalism.
Langston Hughes (no wonder he was called
before the Committee on Un-American Activities) addressed his
country as follows:
You really haven't been a virgin for so
It's ludicrous to keep up the pretext
You've slept with all the big powers
In military uniforms
And you've taken the sweet life
Of all the little brown fellows.
Being one of the world's big vampires
Why don't you come out and say so
Like Japan, and England, and France
And all the other nymphomaniacs of power.
Henry David Thoreau, provoked by the war
in Mexico and the nationalist fervor it produced, wrote: "Nations!
What are nations? ... Like insects, they swarm. The historian
strives in vain to make them memorable." In our time, Kurt
Vonnegut (Cat's Cradle) places nations among those unnatural abstractions
he calls granfalloons, which he defines as "a proud and meaningless
association of human beings."
There have always been men and women in
this country who have insisted that universal standards of decent
human conduct apply to our nation as to others. That insistence
continues today and reaches out to people all over the world.
It lets them know, like the balloons sent over the countryside
by the Paris Commune in 1871, that "our interests are the
Howard Zinn's latest work (with Anthony
Arnove) is "Voices of a People's History of the United States."
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