This book is inaptly title. It should be “Mythbusters, USA”. Reading it, you will find that practically everything you learned of United States history is wrong. That you were taught dogma. That the few facts you learned were cherry-picked to animate the American myth of its exceptionalism–of the US being the most remarkably successful experiment in egalitarian self-government the world has ever known—and of its innate goodness.
It is quite easy to reach adulthood in the US without once doubting the lies (mostly by omission) you were taught in school. Howard Zinn admits he did. He went to college and graduate school without questioning the majority narrative of American history. It took a job teaching history at a historically-black college for him to realize how blind he’d been to the reality.
America is not exceptional, except perhaps in its brutality toward and disregard for those in its midst without power. America is not exceptional, except perhaps for how cleverly it conjures rationalizations for exploiting peoples and lands, domestically and abroad. America is not exceptional, except perhaps for how swiftly and efficiently it developed its economic power and leveraged that power for military and political hegemony the world over.
Two hundred and fifty years ago, the United States of America did not yet exist. Yet today, it is the richest, most powerful Empire in the world. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it seems America was. Contrary to the assertions of its apologists, exceptional growth does not equate to exceptional goodness. In fact, the opposite is true. America owes its exceptional growth to the soulless manner with which it relentlessly expanded, disregarding the burdens it imposed on the land and people in its path. The American Empire could be likened to a bulldozer, or more aptly perhaps, a battle tank, soullessly expanding its power and influence, chewing up the land and grinding to shreds any who get in its way.
Reading Zinn’s book should not be something you do after a lifetime of slowly accreting disillusionment with America and all that it stands for (though, if you reached mature adulthood without questioning the premises of America’s history, Zinn’s book would be a good place to start). There is no need to learn firsthand, like I did, that America is nothing of what you were taught. Read Zinn’s book in your youth, so at least you’ll have the opportunity to develop the idea early on, while the dogma is still being shoveled down your throat, that what you’re getting instead of American history is nothing more than propaganda intended to glorify the past in order to bind and blind the people in the present, allowing for their continued exploitation and oppression in the future.
Margaret Thatcher said there is no such thing as society, only people. And that’s what Zinn’s history is about—people. It is an American history because Zinn focused on people who had some connection, usually as one of the nameless and faceless masses, to the abstraction that is the United States of America. He tells the story of America from the bottom up. His is not a Great Man history of America. His is a history of the Average Person, who, when asked his national affiliation, would answer, “American”.
Zinn’s history is not a geographical history—a story about the land itself—in the way that archaeologists tell a historical narrative by digging deeper and deeper into a parcel of dirt upon which people lived. America is too young for a geographical history to yield a coherent view, and many of the details about its earliest inhabitants are lost to history, as none of its indigenous peoples had yet developed writing before the Europeans arrived. Besides, America has been always moving too fast to pin it down to one place. Starting on the East Coast in the early 1600’s, over the span of almost four hundred years, its power and influence–if not outright active governance–spread West to the coast of Asia, East to Mesopotamia; North to the Pole; and South to the tip of South America. The US is everywhere. Geography does not tell the tale. Something else is afoot.
It has been said that America is an idea. But what idea? Is it the idea that all men are created equal in the eyes of their Creator, commonly endowed with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? It could not possibly be the idea that all men are created equal. Until only a half-century or so ago, blacks were treated rather less than equal. A century ago women did not have the right to vote. In context, the phrase meant that all men of Northern European ancestry who owned property were created equal—none could be favored before the law. Everyone else was less than equal, inferior to those without money, penises or fair skin. The phrase “all men” did not apply to them.
The United States is perhaps best characterized as a cooperative enterprise among wealthy Northern Europeans to exploit for profit the land and the people who lived in North America, or were brought to North America in chains or as indentured servants. The joint venture started along the East Coast, initially in the seventeenth century, but spread rapidly to wherever there were land and people that could be profitably exploited. The cooperative broke the shackles of the Judeo-Christian God and its many denominational divisions, and of loyalties to the many disparate tongues and nationalities of the European Continent and the British Isles, to worship the one true God, that twin-headed demon, Profit and Power. In that sense, America’s rapid spread can be likened to that of Islam after its founding in the Arabian desert early in the seventh century, which, though nominally religious in nature, also had as its animating value wealth and power. In less than a century, Islam infiltrated and conquered the whole of the Arabian Peninsula, much of Persia, and the Levant and Anatolia, as far west as modern-day Algeria and into parts of Spain; as far north as Turkey and the Italian Peninsula; and as far east as modern-day Pakistan. As rapid was its spread and ascendancy on the world stage, the spread of Islam makes America look a piker by comparison.
Zinn wrote a people’s history, caring less what the collusion of oligarchs that was and is America did than with how their actions affected the people pulled along in their wake. And he busts myth after myth after myth of America’s greatness in the process.
First, there is the myth that this Male European Collective (hereafter, “MEC”) landed at Plymouth Rock and in Virginia seeking only peaceful coexistence with the native populations, most ridiculously embodied in the myth of the first Thanksgiving. No. The first to sally forth sought first to survive, and as their numbers weren’t sufficient to subdue and conquer the natives, they attempted to cooperate with them. As soon as they gained a stronghold sufficient to divide and begin conquering and killing the Indians, that’s what they did. And not because the Indians had savagely turned on them, but the other way ‘round.
Incidentally, celebrating Columbus Day in the United States is both a slap in the face of the American Indian while being a bad metaphor for the event that started the US towards what it came to believe was its Manifest Destiny. There were no Spanish colonies that followed Columbus’ modern discovery of the North American landmass. It was over a hundred years after Columbus arrived on the shores of what would become Hispaniola until there would be any European colony established on the land that became the original thirteen colonies. The Spaniards were occupied with conquering lands and converting people to Christianity in areas well south and west of the British colonies. Columbus, except in discovering that there was a landmass west of Europe and east of Asia, had little to do with what the United States ultimately became. Surely someone else would have discovered the landmass before the time of the colonists had Columbus not done so.
The people of this new land—the settlers, yeoman farmers, etc.,–were most affected by the many wars waged by the MEC, both in the blood they sacrificed and the treasure they forfeited. So, let’s stick to Zinn’s mythbusting regarding them, with a few of my own observations and elaborations thrown in.
The Revolutionary War (1777-1783), and the Revolution itself, did not constitute a popular uprising among the American populace. Very few of the common men who were asked to fight the war understood its purpose, partly because its purpose was shrouded in myth (i.e., the MEC’s Declaration of Independence), partly because they simply didn’t care. The relationship the planters and nascent industrialists in America had with the King of England was hardly a matter of their concern. The Revolutionary War was like so many others in history—a war of elite against elite over who got to reap the profits of a land, fought by peasants who hadn’t any contemplation or inkling that they might get anything other than a miserly paycheck and some lousy grub out of service in the affair, at the cost of risking their lives.
The notion there was a groundswell of rebellious fervor in the British colonies is patently false. The notion that the Revolutionary War was fought to overthrow an oppressive and exploitative system is patently false. The Revolutionary War was a fight for the spoils of the bounteous new land. Once it was won by the colonists, things reverted to just as they had been before, except that the now-local bosses had to collect taxes to pay for their independence from the British, directly leading to the insurrection known as the Whiskey Rebellion, which was duly put down by newly-elected President Washington. The farmers who revolted against the imposition of a whiskey tax had apparently been hoodwinked into thinking that the recent War in which they’d fought had been about excessive and unrepresentative taxation, but were quickly disabused of the notion by the new republic’s Army, with President Washington at its head. It was about excessive and unrepresentative taxation by the British. The new republic could be as excessive and unrepresentative in its taxation regime as it pleased.
The Mexican War was the next empire-expanding military adventure (1846-1848), and the most nakedly obvious one. There was no pretext, no reason whatsoever, for the Mexican War, except that the United States wanted Mexican territories in the West. The War was not about the losing effort in the Battle of the Alamo, as casual historians might errantly believe. The Alamo was fought about a decade earlier than the Mexico War, by the newly-independent Republic of Texas against Mexico, of which it had previously been a part. The Mexico War had Texas as incentive, as the Republic had recently been accepted as a State in the Union, but the Alamo had nothing to do with it (easy mistake to make, though—the two were conflated in my mind for quite a long while). The War practically doubled the territory of the United States, bringing in all the land that would eventually become California, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Texas and most of Oklahoma. The American President at the time, James K Polk, made clear in his presidential campaign that he wished to expand US territory to the West, and accomplished as much through victory in the War. The US could probably have made modern-day Mexico itself a colony or satellite state had it so desired. It didn’t. It wanted Alta California and Texas more than anything, and to beat the British to the prize.
In a foreshadowing of the curious strategy employed in future US international relations, though it won the war, the US agreed to pay Mexico for the territory it annexed, and to pay war reparations. It is far more typical in history that the victor makes the vanquished pay reparations and takes whatever land it wishes as a natural consequence of war. But no country has been so cultishly devoted to its gods as has the US been to Profit and Power. Basically, the US made Mexico an offer it couldn’t refuse so that it could claim it legitimately and irrevocably acquired lands to exploit, which was not the first time nor would be the last where the US government conducted its international affairs like a Mafia capofamiglia.
It could be argued that the Civil War (1861-1865) represents the one and only existential crisis (i.e., threat to its existence) the US has faced since its inception. Aside from the British halfheartedly coming back in 1812 to reclaim what they had lost (unsuccessfully), there have been no foreign invasions, or even threats of foreign invasions, throughout the nation’s history. (Pearl Harbor was not an invasion, only an attack.) A nation without existential threats has at least the option of living in peaceable coexistence with its neighbors. The US has apparently preferred being the neighborhood bully. In any dispute where one of the options for its resolution is war, that’s the one it chooses, every time. The US hardly need a diplomatic corps. But the existential nature of the Civil War did not stem from invasion, only that about half the country wanted to cleave itself from the other half. The Union would still have existed had the South successfully withdrawn, just in a pared-down state.
The Civil War was not fought to end slavery or to free the slaves. As Lincoln repeatedly explained, it was fought to preserve the Union. Any history book that attempts to contort the factual record to make the war about freeing the slaves will twist the logic of the war into a pretzel. The South had slaves and wanted to keep them. The North originally had slaves, but the colder climate made plantation agriculture unfeasible there, and slavery thereby uneconomic, so abandoned the practice. By the time of the war, the North felt haughty and superior to the South for their high-minded morality regarding slavery (though still as racist regarding Blacks in their midst), while being jealous of the South for its fabulous wealth (all the wealthiest states in the Union were below the Mason-Dixon line at the War’s outset).
It was not entirely clear, when South Carolina started the secession parade shortly after Lincoln’s inauguration, whether states had the right to vote themselves out of the Union. They had, in most cases, voted themselves into the Union. Why couldn’t they vote themselves out? The answer is that the history of the Constitution’s ratification and the absence of provisions for secession in its text makes the notion highly doubtful. In the ratification of the Constitution that created the republic, each state’s legislature voted on its passage, with a three-fourths majority (9 of the 13) required for the document to be binding on all. So, even had four states voted against ratification, they presumably still would have been bound, which means that it was not necessarily the case that the various states had the ultimate say over their inclusion in the Union. By extension, it seems that neither was leaving the Union a matter of state self-determination.
On that basis alone, it is no surprise then that the Union fought to prevent them leaving, even as the notion of democratic self-determination—one of those values which today we proclaim to steadfastly believe in and routinely support abroad—was profoundly ignored in the commencement of hostilities. It could be argued that the South sought only the same self-determination that the colonies sought in their Declaration of Independence from England. No matter. The Union was by then an imperial power much as England had been in 1776. As such, it was an imperial power whose empire was threatened by the attempted separation of the South. There would be war.
The rank and file soldiers of the Civil War, particularly in the South, had little vested interest in its outcome. The Confederacy’s ranks weren’t filled with slave-owning planters. Wealth in the South—meaning cultivable land and the slaves to work it—was concentrated in what amounted to the day’s 1%’ers. Most of the rest of the people lived and worked at subsistence farming on marginal lands rejected as unprofitable by the plantation owners. The people’s history of the War in the South is of men of inferior station whose economy of life had little to do with plantation agriculture fighting and dying so their superiors could maintain their way of life that kept the people doing the fighting at society’s margins. In other words, by and large like all the other wars in US and world history, the poor people did the fighting and dying while the rich people reaped the spoils.
The War was not only about preserving the Union as it then existed, but was about which manner of economic organization would prevail as the country pushed westward. Had the American Empire not been racing to expand West, it’s doubtful the dispute over slavery would have prompted the South to secede. There was a sort of stasis prevailing after the Missouri Compromise (1820), where neither slave state nor free held ultimate sway in Washington. The Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 effectively superseded and abolished the Missouri Compromise by delegating the issue of whether a state would be admitted as slave or free to the new states being carved out of the vast Nebraska and Kansas Territories created by the Act. Southern lawmakers supported the Act and were heavily instrumental in securing its passage. Lincoln opposed it. Lincoln’s election signaled jeopardy for its continued enforcement. War was inevitable.
The Union was preserved. The South became something like a colonial possession of the American Empire while westward expansion continued apace.
Neither the rocky shoreline of the Pacific Ocean nor the sandy beaches of the Gulf of Mexico could contain the wildfire of American imperial expansion. In 1898, on the pretext of the USS Maine having blown up in Havana Harbor at a time when Cuba was agitating for freedom from Spanish influence, the US went to war with Spain. Ostensibly instigated to offer protection and support to Cuban freedom fighters, the US drooled at the prospect of gaining the Spanish Philippine Islands colony in the Pacific, so mobilized a war effort there to displace the Spaniards. After ten short weeks of fighting, Spain sued for peace, giving up all its colonial possessions outside of Africa to the US, including Cuba (which was nominally independent), the Philippine Islands, Guam and Puerto Rico. Shortly after the war with Spain concluded, the US brutally suppressed a rebellion in the Philippines.
Less than twenty years later, the US voluntarily and without provocation again went to war, this time in the European theater, to fight on the side of the British and French in World War One. The Empire could not have been eyeing territorial expansion as justification for its involvement. European powers were too strong and well-entrenched to make colonizing Europe feasible. Rather, the fledgling empire seemed most interested in announcing to the land of its ancestors its gathering power and presence on the world stage. Its limited and inconsequential involvement in WWI nonetheless opened the door to more substantial influence peddling in Europe later on, ultimately bringing Western Europe under its protective umbrella after World War Two.
The US involvement in WWI was so unpopular back home that the government was forced to pass legislation (The Espionage Act of 1917) prohibiting any denigration or criticizing of the war effort, or its leadership, or of any of the US’s allies (the latter via Supreme Court interpretation of the Act). The Act made it a criminal offense to dissuade or discourage people from supporting the War or the draft enacted to muster troops to fight it. Amended several times and partially superseded by a new Espionage Act passed during World War Two, the 1917 Act is nonetheless still on the books and ready for zealous enforcement at the government’s whim. It has never been found to violate the US Constitution’s freedom of speech and petition guarantees. Never. In the three cases that reached the Supreme Court shortly after its passage, it was upheld every time.
Then, of course, the Empire reached the apex of global power and profitability with its victories in the European and Pacific theaters in World War Two (1939-1945), a position from which it has yet to fall. In the European theater, WWII was as much a war of choice as WWI had been. Germany declared war on the US after the US declared war on Japan, but Germany presented no threat to the US’s existence. It presented a moderate threat to Great Britain’s existence, and of course, to those other countries it had already conquered, but it had no capacity to reach across the vast Atlantic Ocean to threaten America. But the logic of the American Empire meant that Germany had to be defeated, else its reign over the Continent would present a barrier (a competitor?) to American capitalists seeking to enrich themselves.
Neither was there any reason other than extending its hegemony that compelled the utter and complete annihilation of Japan. The attack on Pearl Harbor had to be answered, but answering the bell did not require the killing of several million Japanese in response to an attack that had only taken about 3,000 American lives. But the Profits and Power to be gained thereby made over-wrought vengeance all the sweeter.
Back home, coming off the heels of the Great Depression (and likely the ultimate cause of its resolution), the War put the unemployed back to work. But the workers were so inequitably treated that strikes were larger and more frequent during the War than in any time before or since.
Then came Korea (1950-1953), the first of the significant Cold War military misadventures (there were many smaller ones), intended to protect the vanguards of the Empire from encroachment by the freedom-hating Communist Soviet Union that had become an immediate adversary once the shooting war against Germany had ended. While the Cold War with the Soviet Union was always sold back home as arising from the threat to individual liberty that communism presented, the reality is that any time a politician claimed “freedom” was in peril, what he really meant was that the freedom to get rich by exploiting the world’s land and people was imperiled. Freedom was euphemism for “the conditions required for capitalist enterprises to flourish”. The communist menace was never a menace to individual liberty in the United States, except in so far as fighting it required suppressing liberties otherwise afforded by the Constitution. It was only a menace to capitalists’ freedom to find new places and people from which they might profit.
The Korean War was never declared as such by Congress, even as the draft was used to wage it, a precedent that served the Empire well when it decided that it could do in Vietnam what France had humiliatingly failed to do, viz, put down a Vietnamese independence movement not unlike the one upon which the American Empire was founded.
The Vietnam War (1955-1975) was the American Empire’s comeuppance. The US tried, like it had done in so many other areas the world over, to expand its imperial reach by filling a power vacuum left by retreating European empires. It failed miserably. Not because Vietnam was militarily superior to the US. But because the Vietnamese wanted to expel its colonial overlords (first the French and then the Americans) and gain its independence more desperately than the putative colonial overlords wished to stay.
The US dropped more tonnage of explosive power on Vietnam, a sliver of land less than fifty miles wide at its narrowest that runs along the southeast coast of Asia for roughly a thousand miles, than it dropped in all the Pacific and European theaters during World War Two. Over twice as much.
The US lost the Vietnam War at home. The support of the people, rarely very strong for any of the Empire’s myriad military adventures when it came time for the people to actually sacrifice sons and daughters, husbands and wife, fathers and mothers on the altar of Profits and Power, simply and utterly collapsed in a heap of recognition that the US had no business being in Vietnam, and what business it claimed to have had, it was executing poorly. The people finally seemed to realize that once the war machine got chugging in WWII, it fought, as often as not, just because. Without a fight, the Military Industrial Complex (hereafter, “MIC”) felt directionless, devoid of purpose. It needed to fight like a carpenter needed to build. Vietnam was the best it could conjure after Korea, and it was an unmitigated disaster.
In all these conflicts, the supposedly classless American society sent its poor and disadvantaged to do the fighting. Opposition to the disparate treatment was commonplace, not only in the Vietnam era. During the Civil War, potential draftees could pay their way out of serving the Union cause, perhaps explaining the several violent riots opposing the War and the draft that occurred. The necessity for the Espionage Act of 1917 says all you need to know of the general mood of potential draftees in WWI, and later, WWII. Opposition to the huge increase in draft numbers during the Korean War is not as evident, but it was never altogether clear that Korea would be a war, and if so, what would be its tenor. Its relatively short duration forestalled much organized opposition.
The chastened MIC stood down for a decade and a half after the debacle of Vietnam, eschewing exorbitant force projection for minor skirmishes in the Caribbean and Central America, yet built its arsenal to outlandish levels not seen of any military during peacetime, all on the threat that the Soviet Union might initiate a conquest of Western Europe by sweeping through the Fulda Gap in Germany. The Soviet Union couldn’t keep up and ultimately imploded. It was never going to take the offensive in Western Europe and the US fully well knew it, but the US needed a threat to justify bolstering its military spending on conventional arms so that it might replenish the losses from Vietnam.
Then came a gift from a former ally. Saddam Hussein, also running a petite empire, one that also required near constant warfare, in his case to keep its disparate peoples quiescent and pliable, turned Iraqi guns on the tiny oil sheikdom of Kuwait, shortly after its long, pointless slog with Iran dissipated. With the Soviet Union having disintegrated and the Berlin Wall having crumbled under the onslaught of the German people, the US needed a new war, a new conflict to keep the MIC humming along. Repelling Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait proved just the thing. It would give the MIC a chance to test its fancy new weaponry in a conflict that was so lopsided it was over practically before it started. It would give the MIC the chance to show it had learned its Vietnam lesson–that it could prosecute a war efficiently and effectively and with a minimum of US casualties. It could get the skeptical, gun-shy American public back on its side, with a quick and decisive victory fought by its all-volunteer military.
And it did all those things. But even better, it steeled the resolve of the Arabian society that was invaded and occupied, compelling it to strike back at the Empire in any way it could. So the World Trade Center was attacked, first with only a small bomb in its parking garage in 1993. Then, in a stroke of destructive brilliance, by turning jetliners into kamikaze bombs in 2001. The MIC now had an enemy that would sustain it for almost two decades and counting. The American Empire now had an excuse to extend its power and influence to any corner of the globe where there might be a tin-pot dictator harboring terrorists. The MIC and its civilian masters had a war so gloriously amorphous, against a tactic (terror) and not a foe, that it could justify nigh well any military action anywhere, and purchases and sales of armaments everywhere. The MIC capitalists could now turn a handsome profit by making the world safe for American capitalism the world over while creating and arming enemies to use as foils in retaining its preeminent position in the capitalist sphere.
And that’s about where things now stand.
Zinn didn’t live to see Donald Trump elected. If history is any guide, and it may well not be, as Trump’s election has all the markings of an ahistorical turn of events, but guide or no, the compulsion to war has afflicted nearly every leader of the American Empire over the last century. From Wilson to Roosevelt to Truman to Kennedy to Johnson to Nixon to Carter to Reagan to Bush to Clinton to Bush to Obama, being the so-called “leader of the free world” has meant deploying US forces for good reasons, for bad reasons and for no reason at all. Justification for killing and destroying things has never much mattered.
Does anyone think for a moment that Trump will be the exception? That he will venture to go where practically no President of the American Empire has gone, and explain to the American capitalists and the people they continually seek to dupe with contrived fear, that there are no existential threats to the United States requiring the continued deployment of military forces the world over? Will he explain that it is our bellicose belligerence and trigger-happy diplomacy that has created what few threats to security we now face?
Yeah, I won’t hold my breath.
Zinn’s book is only partially a screed against the American war machine. This review focused on that aspect of it because that was the part that most interested me. Read the book. It may reinforce what you already knew or suspected about America, like it did for me. Or, it may open your eyes to a more objective view of America than you ever would or could get through formal education or acculturation.