In 2008, seven years into an unending war on terrorism, historian Howard Zinn raised the question of whether the time had come not only to acknowledge America’s imperial past and present, but also to break the habit of militarism.
Have not the justifications for empire, embedded in our culture, assaulting our good sense — that war is necessary for security, that expansion is fundamental to civilization — begun to lose their hold on our minds? Have we reached a point in history where we are ready to embrace a new way of living in the world, expanding not our military power, but our humanity?
Zinn’s question signals a moment of transition or, at least the possibility thereof, which implies an alternative vision of how to live in the world.
The present vision of how to live in the world—by defending civilization from evil savagery—is a rationalization for self-serving imperial warfare, not a path to peacemaking. Even before 9/11, the Clinton Doctrine expressed the attitude of American exceptionalism by affirming the US’s right to unilateral use of military power to ensure access to markets, energy supplies and other strategic resources, not just to address humanitarian concerns or to meet perceived threats to national security.
The US—not Iran, China, Russia, North Korea or any other country—is perceived internationally as the gravest threat to world peace, argues Noam Chomsky, citing polling data from WINN/Gallup International. As Chomsky notes, Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington warned fifteen years ago that the US was “becoming the rogue superpower” in the opinion of much of the world and, according to Robert Jervis, president of the American Political Science Association, “In the eyes of much of the world, in fact, the prime rogue state today is the United States.”
The default reaction within the US is to reject immediately such perceptions as absurd. Everyone knows America is a force for good, unlike its adversaries. But the act of denial, the projection of evil, and the righteous jingoism reflect an unexamined anxiety over contradictions between what the nation professes and what it does.
America proclaims a commitment to democracy, but fighting imperial wars under democracy’s banner obscures a cultural resource for expanding the nation’s commitment to humanity. To reflect upon the meaning and practices of democratic diversity at home—to retrieve projected anxieties and integrate otherness into an enlarged democratic self—may well be a key to envisioning a new and humane way of living more peacefully, justly, and securely in the larger, interconnected world. Without such a vision, the transition from empire likely will prove to be vicious and demoralizing.
A People’s History of the United States, such as the one written by Professor Zinn, enriches the story of the country’s democratic aspirations, achievements, and shortcomings, including its wars of empire. It confronts what otherwise is elided or suppressed, including the seldom taught history of America’s long war in the Philippines at the beginning of the bloody 20th century.
Zinn, a WWII veteran, learned how to think of American empire by studying such wars of conquest. With “the invasion of the Philippines, half way around the world,” he wrote of his emerging awareness, the “word ‘imperialism’ now seemed a fitting one for U.S. actions. Indeed, that long, cruel war—treated quickly and superficially in the history books—gave rise to an Anti-Imperialist League, in which William James and Mark Twain were leading figures. But this was not something I learned in university either” (“Empire or Humanity? What the Classroom Didn’t Teach Me About the American Empire”).