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Empire as a Way of Life, Part 2

Chris | 15.03.2007 11:48 | Analysis | History | Terror War | Sheffield | World

The current imperial slaughter in the Middle East, justified by the "Global War on Terror", that has resulted in at least 600,000 deaths in Iraq, is nothing new — the U.S. Empire has a long and sordid history of genocidal mass murder.

The history of the US imperialism and Empire is the subject of a series of ten monthly seminars from Dr John Marciano, "Empire as a Way of Life". Attached is a recording of the second of these seminars and the text upon which it was based. The first 6 of these seminars have taken place and the intention is to have the whole series published on this site; the last 4 will take place between now and June.

This seminar, recorded on 17th October 2006 by the L.A. Sound Posse, runs for 35 minutes and includes the discussion following. It has been made available under a Creative Commons license. If this recording is broadcast please let the L.A. Sound Posse know. This recording was originally made available on the A-Infos Radio Project site.

The following text has been reproduced here with the kind permission of Dr John Marciano and he can be contacted at He introduced this series of seminars in the following way:

A fundamental purpose of our meetings is to understand the systemic nature of the U.S. Empire and the economic and military imperialism that is its lifeblood. The historian William Appleman Williams argues that empire became "a way of life" in the U.S., a "combination of patterns of thought and action that, as it becomes habitual and institutionalized, defines the thrust and character of a culture and society." This "way of life" has convinced many U.S. "Americans" they have a right or "manifest destiny" to impose their political and economic policies upon others.

Dr John Marciano is Professor Emeritus, State University of New York at Cortland, where he taught courses on social and historical foundations of education and class, gender and race.

Previous parts of this series:

Empire Course: Second Lecture: “Empire as a Way of Life”

EMPIRE COURSE, 10/17: Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, “The Grid of History: Cowboys and Indians,” Monthly Review, July-August 2003

Those of you in the People’s History group may recall that we discussed Dunbar-Ortiz’s arguments. However, the presence of new members here and her critical arguments on US imperialism compel us to revisit her reasoning. I will focus my comments on the first century of US history.

Dunbar-Ortiz makes it clear that she has no patience with Senator Byrd and others who lament about the state of our country because of the invasion of Iraq – those who ignore the long history of US aggression that actually began with the founding of the nation in 1776. She is even critical of “anti-imperialists have been making the same point as Byrd” who somehow erase US history in their “critiques of [Bush’s] foreign policies. Continuity is hidden, and a small departure is exaggerated” that allows this present regime to be seen as dramatically different than others in its conduct of US foreign policy.

She argues that an accurate understanding of US history must confront “the origins of white supremacy” as it has been “experienced and institutionalized – and denied” – a force that is rooted in “prior colonizing ventures of Christian crusades into Muslim-controlled areas, and to the Calvinist-Protestant colonization of Ireland. These two historical events are the Colonial “models for … the Western hemisphere, and are the two strands that merge in the makeup of the US”; they serve as the “foundations for an understanding of the virulent racism that is the basis for the genocidal assault on the original Americans by Europeans.”

I will stress one aspect of her critique of US imperialism and discuss it in light of other supporting scholarship – emphasizing the colonial and US crusade to destroy the First Americans. Dunbar-Ortiz claims it is the “origin story” of the Ulster-Scots Calvinists who settled and colonized Northern Ireland and were the majority of those who settled the western lands beyond the Appalachian and Alleghany Mountains that “became the origin story of the US.” This story is essentially about “Pilgrims/settlers doing God’s will and forging the Promised Land while being surrounded by savages, first the Irish in Ulster and then the Native Americans in North America.”

It is “their sacrifice and blood shed” that make them the “true inheritors of the land” – not the First Americans, African slaves, or immigrants from other regions of the world. This “sacrifice and blood shed” is essential to understanding what Dunbar-Ortiz calls the “ideology of white supremacy” – an ideology that helped to neutralize and undermine “the class antagonisms of landless here against the landed….”

She asks us to understand the intimate and essential link between the English conquest of Northern Ireland in the early 1600s and similar policies aimed at “exterminating Indians here in North America [that] was foreshadowed by this English colonization of Northern Ireland.” The Calvinist Protestants “were assured by [religious leaders] that they had been chosen by God for salvation and the title to the Irish lands. The native and Papist Irish were clearly not destined for salvation. This process was repeated in the US against Native Americans.”

According to Dunbar-Ortiz, therefore, “the founding of the US is intimately tied to this [white supremacist] … settler-colonialist and imperialist-aggressor state.” Thomas Jefferson spoke about the US as an “‘empire for liberty’ and Andrew Jackson coined the phrase ‘extending the area of freedom’ to describe the process by which slavery was introduced into Texas in violation of Mexican laws, to be quickly followed by a slaveholder’s rebellion and US annexation.” The term “freedom” was a code word or euphemism “for the continental and worldwide expansion of the world’s leading slave power.”

Before becoming president in 1828, Jackson gained his early fame as a fearless military leader who led wars against Indians in the southeastern US. As president, he later was responsible for the forced-march expulsion of First Americans from east of the Mississippi to the Oklahoma territory – the infamous “Trail of Tears” that led to the deaths of thousands.

Dunbar-Ortiz names “white supremacy [as] the working rationalization and ideology of English theft of Native American lands, and especially the justification for slavery.” She also unsettles us with her claim that this white supremacist US origin myth “is itself closely tied to the parallel Afrikaner origin myth in South Africa and Apartheid.” When one considers the moral and political lessons we learned about the glorious “founding” of the United States, how many here can point to even one that compared our history to South Africa’s?

White supremacy is not only the core premise of US foreign policies “from the origins to the present”; this supremacy and imperialism are also “inseparable from the content of this origin story and the definition of patriotism today. It began before the official founding of the nation, and was not an accident or aberration in the progression of democracy.” Her thesis is that “the US was fundamentally imperialist and racist from the beginning, and imperialism was not a divergence from a well-intentioned path.” We didn’t just stray from wonderful premises and values: those premises and values were profoundly flawed from the beginning.

Many citizens here seem to be shocked when they discover that the US has had an imperial past from the founding and has “shown expansionist tendencies since colonial days.” Dunbar-Ortiz even argues that our “War for Independence was itself a war for expansion and Thomas Jefferson nursed even grander plans for empire.” If we are to understand the recent history of the US Empire, therefore, we must understand its earliest roots and confront its most fundamental conflict: the 250-year war against First Americans by Europeans and Euro-Americans.

It was during the era of Jackson’s presidency that that the unique US origin myth was created, with James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans as the official story. Cooper was “the great hero of Walt Whitman who sang the song of manhood and the American super-race through empire.” Many who love Whitman’s poetry do not know that he enthusiastically supported the war against Mexico, a conflict that “followed the already established US origin myth that had frontier settlers replacing the native peoples … with a white supremacist ideology that formed the core of US policies from its origins to the present.”

These colonial and US polices were the one long conflict between Europeans and Indians that began with the Pequod War in 1637 in what is now Massachusetts and Connecticut (both named after First American nations) and ended some 250 years later in 1890 at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, when hundreds of unarmed Lakota Sioux, mostly women, children and old men, were massacred.

Among the prominent citizens supporting and even advocating genocide against First Americans in the US was none other than L. Frank Baum, the author of the much-beloved Wizard of Oz, who was editor of the Aberdeen Pioneer in South Dakota at the time of Wounded Knee. Before the massacre, he stated that “the nobility of the redskin is extinguished and what few are left are a pack of whining curs who lick the hand that smites them. The whites, by law of conquest, by civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians.”

After the massacre, Baum wrote that “we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up … and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth.” Where was Dorothy when the Lakota Sioux needed her?

When we examine actual – as opposed to fantastical – US history, we are compelled to agree with historian Howard Zinn that its record of “expansion is so long and odious that if you knew it you could not possibly talk about kindly motives. Only a lack of that history would allow people to believe that American power is going to be used for good. That history goes back to the extermination of Indian tribes” (Quoted in Howard Zinn, Original Zinn: Conversations with David Barsamian).

On October 12, 1992, the 500th commemoration of Columbus’s invasion of the hemisphere, Russell Means of the American Indian Movement seconded Zinn’s and Dunbar-Ortiz’s assessment of US-First American history. “All my life, I’ve had to listen to rhetoric about the US being a model of freedom and democracy, the most unique enlightened and humanitarian country in history, a ‘nation of laws’ [that], unlike others, has never pursued policies of conquerors and aggressors…. It’s the official ‘truth’…. taught to schoolchildren, and it’s the line peddled to the general public….”

The whole thing’s a lie, and it always has been. Leaving aside the obvious points which could be raised to dispute it by blacks and Chicanos and Asian immigrants right here in North America – not to mention … Mexicans, … Puerto Ricans, Hawaiians, Filipinos, … Vietnamese, Cubans, [and] Iraqis – there’s a little matter of genocide that’s got to be taken into account right here at home. I’m talking about the genocide [that] has been perpetrated against American Indians … that began the instant the first of Europe’s boat people washed up on the beach of Turtle Island…. Against Indians, there’s not a law the US hasn’t broken, not a crime against humanity it’s hasn’t committed, and it’s still going on” (quoted in Ward Churchill, A Little Matter of Genocide).

Other scholars have documented Dunbar-Ortiz’s argument about empire and white supremacy. Nathan Huggins, for example, suggests that his American historian colleagues “have conspired with the founding fathers to create nationalist history … bound to the founders’ ideals rather than their reality.” The end result is that “[the] holy nation thus acquired a holy history. A conspiracy of myth, history, and chauvinism served to create an ideology as the dominant history motif against which all history would emanate.”

Huggins asserts that the essential American story “has been based on a belief in the fulfillment, over time, of the enduring principles of the founding fathers. Events or institutions that seemed to contradict these principles (slavery or imperialism, for example) have been understood as aberrations, as historical accidents….” The story we learned is that the US has been good from the beginning, despite the contradictions that have not been allowed to undermine the basic fine intentions of our origins (Quoted in Marilyn Young, “Dangerous History: Vietnam and the ‘Good War,’” in Edward Linenthal and Tom Englehardt, History Wars).

In Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-hating and Empire-building, Richard Drinnon develops his “theme of ‘Indian-hating,’” – the actual history of “white hostility that for four centuries had exterminated ‘savages’ who stood in the path of Anglo-American expansion.” He asserts that the “massacres in Vietnam’s ‘Indian country’ in the 1960s [were] consistent with those of Filipinos … at the turn of the century and those with Indians on the continent earlier” – such as at Wounded Knee.

“But the massacres at My Lai and all the forgotten My Khes in Vietnam had a basic continuity with those of … Filipinos … at the turn of [20th] century, and of Native Americans on the mainland earlier – all the Wounded Knees [and] Sand Creeks. That linkage of atrocities over time and space reveals underlying themes and fundamental patterns of the national history that lawmakers, generals, and so many of their compatriots were eager to forget.”

Drinnon asserts that dispossession of First Americans was “the defining and enabling experience of the republic…. On one side were the children of light, order, progress, philanthropy, freedom, Americanization, modernization, forced urbanization…. On the other side were the children of darkness, ‘savages’ who stood in the way of the redemption and rationalization of the west….”

V.G. Kiernan (America The New Imperialism: From White Settlement to World Hegemony) argues that the US was “never an Eden of primal innocence.” During the Colonial period, rich merchants and ship owners protected by the British flag imported molasses from the West Indies that was made into rum; the profits were then used to purchase slaves in Africa. “This triangular relationship linked New as well as Old England with West Indian slavery from the 1640s” and was deeply entrenched by the time the US was founded in 1776 – an historical event that was built upon exploitation and slaving.

Expansion was on the US menu from the founding, and some even wanted to expand into South America. One political figure wrote in 1828, for example, that “the emancipation of Spanish America would form … a new era in our political existence, would elevate us from the rank of a second to that of a first-rate power, and would place us at the head of one of the great divisions into which the Christian world would be thrown by the effect of this immense revolution.”

At the time of the War of Independence in the 1770s, expansion in the North was blocked by the “Six Nations” of the Iroquois Confederacy – whom the 19th century US anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan called “a vigorous and intelligent people…. they have illustrated some of the highest virtues of mankind in their relations with each other” (Morgan, Ancient Society). Some nations within that Confederacy sided with the British during the War of Independence and reprisals followed against the Cayuga, for example, who made their home in and around what was my former home of Ithaca in Central New York.

At that time General Washington ordered General Sullivan to destroy all the Iroquois villages in what is now the Finger Lakes region of New York State. These “search and destroy” missions were brutally carried out, devastating what Morgan called “the North American Indian’s finest civilization north of Mexico.”

The search and destroy campaign of the 1770s and 1780s was continued by the greatest Indian killer in US history, Andrew Jackson, who became president in 1828. Woodrow Wilson, himself an imperialist and racist of the first rank, stated that Jackson’s notion of Indians was “frankly that of the frontier soldier. They had no right, in his eyes, to stand in the way of the white man.” Despite loud protests from missionaries who worked and lived among the “Civilized Tribes” (the Cherokee, for example), in 1830 Jackson pushed through the Indian Removal Bill that authorized him to transport any Indians beyond the Mississippi. Kiernan calls this “one of the blackest chapters in American history,” marked by suffering akin to those of the “Middle Passage” for slaves.

In a provocative thesis that lends support to Dunbar-Ortiz’s assertion that white supremacy and genocide were essential to the founding of the US, Joel Kovel argues that the assault on First Americans came because they were the “object of the first ‘red scare’ and the primal communist of American history.” In US history to the present, “Millions of innocents lie dead, whole societies have been laid to waste, a vigorous labor movement has been castrated, and the political culture of the US has been frozen in a retrograde position – all for the sake of overcoming Communism.” Thus, attacks on “reds” or “communists” with a small “c” are critical elements in the rise of empire here over the past 230 years, and “anti-communism” has been essential to consolidate this development.

Kovel reminds us that when English colonists arrived, First Americans were already here. “This land was their land. Everything – the beaches where Euro-Americans now vacation, the eastern forests, the southern swamps, the endless plains, the high mounts, the blazing desert, and the green Pacific coastlands – every inch was theirs.”

In order to take that land and destroy their base, “the trail of repression that ended as anti-communism began as Indian hating: the first Red Scare” targeted the first communists, and the anti-communist wars against First Americans were ultimately about “about suppressing opposition to capitalist rule” – starting in 1637 with the Pequod War in what is now Connecticut.

The English colonists who came had a philosophical and religious commitment to private property and ownership; they found themselves in conflict with First Americans, whose “notions of ownership were radically different from European notions.” They had “a different mode of production, one involving collective ownership rather than individual ownership of productive property. The Indians rejected the conception that an individual could grow rich by exploiting the forced labor of others, and the idea of treating things as commodities that could be exchanged for money was profoundly alien to them….”

Kovel, along with scholars Ward Churchill, Richard Drinnon and Richard Slotkin, asserts that we cannot understand the fundamental historical genesis and unfolding of US history, especially the nature of empire and violence, without confronting, in the words of Herman Melville, the “Indian hating [that] became so enduring a feature of the American cultural landscape….” (Melville, Confidence Man). “The harsh truth is this: that to build the city upon the hill (and later extend this into liberal society) the native had to be kept locked into [the historical position] of bestiality” and ultimately assaulted and destroyed (Red Hunting in the Promised Land: Anticommunism and the Making of America).

Slotkin writes that for [Cotton] Mather and other influential Puritan ministers of the Colonial period, “the Indian wars are one phase of the control war between Satan and Christ. In the strategy of that war Indian attacks, the ‘visitation’ of specters, devils, and witches in 1692, and the growth of ‘heretical’ sects on the frontier are related phenomena, are pieces in Satan’s grand design of conquest.”

Although the Founding Fathers were not caught up with the devil as the Puritans of a century before, they still held similarly ethnocentric and white supremacist views of First Americans. In a letter, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “The [English] have seduced the greater part of the tribes within our neighbor, to take up the hatchet against us, and the cruel massacres they have committed on the women and children of our frontiers taken by surprise, will oblige us now to pursue them to extermination, or drive them to new seats beyond our reach.”

It is a shocking but profound realization, Slotkin writes, “that this frankly genocidal proposition comes from the greatest and most humane mind of early America…. Between Indian hunting and empire building, a whole society had to grow capable of being directed to the hunt.” Regardless of the “individual merits of any white or Indian,” all here “were all caught up in” a fundamentally unjust relationship: “… the settlers were there to expropriate the indigenous people and build white society on the ruins of Indian society.” From this foundational relationship and injustice have been built all subsequent US history and imperialism, renewed generation after generation in Mexico, Cuba, the Philippines, Central and South America, and Vietnam. Unless we understand the genesis and ground rules of this history, therefore, we cannot make sense of the contemporary US Empire.

According to Kovel, Herman Melville brilliantly represented this “Indian-hating” society in his novel Moby Dick – as the ship Pequod. “It is quite impossible to imagine its narrative – a mad sea captain leading a motley crew on a doomed chase of vengeance across the world’s oceans – coming from another nation…. Moby Dick’s excesses are the excesses of America; and the peculiar gesture of American anticommunism is prefigured in Melville’s portrayal of the persecutory mind of Ahab.”

“Indian hating” in US history through the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890 was taught in our schools as Indian “removal,” not what it truly was: a genocidal attack on indigenous people with a sacred connection to nature who were destroyed by Christians who claimed to speak for God and noble spiritual values. The fundamental beliefs of Christianity, therefore, not just their more militant Puritan expression, are central to this tragedy and to the subsequent development of US imperialism, and must be a part of any critical understanding of US history.

The white supremacist views of Indians were put forth by eminent American historians, who referred to native territories as “empty space,” “wilderness,” “vast chaos,” “unopened land,” and “virgin land.” Samuel Eliot Morison of Harvard, arguably the most famous US historian of the first half of the 20th century, dismissed them as “pagans expecting short and brutish lives, void of any hope for the future”; they were “stone age savages.”

The imperial assault came despite a social life among Eastern Indians that attracted admiration of European and US observers. Scholars point out that the Iroquois Confederacy in what is now upstate New York and Canada was directly or indirectly responsible for the public meeting tradition, free speech, democracy, and “all those things which got attached to the Bill of Rights.” The League influenced the founding fathers and the US Constitution, e.g., in the Articles of Confederation, but Iroquois social life was too radical even for the most advanced framers of the Constitution. We did not have women suffrage until 1920, though it was fundamental to Iroquois government; we still have the capital punishment that the Iroquois abolished; and concern for child welfare prominent among the Iroquois did not truly arise until 20th century in the US. When one looks honestly and objectively at US history and imperialism, therefore, it becomes clear that the age-old assertions about who is barbaric and who is civilized must be stood on their head.

As Howard Zinn reminds us, the Eurocentric view of history that we learned in our schools is quite simply the colonizer’s model of the world.” This model is built upon the foundation of white supremacy that has formed the core of US foreign relations from the founding to the present, beginning with First American nations. White supremacy and imperialism, therefore, are inseparable from this origin story and the definition of patriotism. They are the very lifeblood of the US state.

In Zinn’s People’s History we learned that the US-Mexican war was also an example of manifest destiny and imperialism. Many believed the war was for democracy and racial superiority, even though at the time we were a slave society and Texas would end up as a slave state – which can’t be reconciled with “democracy.” Political leaders believed we were following God’s designs, and used religious ideas to justify this imperialist and racist war of aggression, that the white Anglo-Saxon race was destined to govern the inferior. Many white Americans still see themselves as the chosen people, but can’t use same blatant language as in 1848.

The abolitionists protested the war because it was “waged solely for the … horrible purpose of extending and perpetuating … slavery throughout … Mexico” which of course was the real reason, but as with all wars it had to be given a patriotic God-like gloss to appeal to the masses. One of the foremost abolitionists, Henry David Thoreau, bitterly opposed the war, as reflected in his “Essay on Civil Disobedience.” Another leading abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, argued that this was a war of “aggression, of invasion, of conquest….” and urged the defeat of US forces in the war. Can one imagine any major US figure arguing such a position today about Iraq? The war also opposed by Frederick Douglass, the great African-American abolitionist, who called it a “disgraceful, cruel and iniquitous” conflict.

The “manifest destiny” ideology that shaped the war with Mexico would emerge again some 60 years later during the imperial assault on the Filipino people, when senators stated that the US should “not renounce our part in the mission of our race, trustee, under God, of the civilizing of the world.” Public officials today articulate a similar imperial arrogance, arguing that as with the Mexican war, God is on our side.

During the debate over Hawaii in the late 19th century, one senator challenged the basis of manifest destiny in forceful terms – a manifest destiny that had shaped colonial and US imperial actions toward other people since the Pequod War: “Throughout all recorded time manifest destiny has been the murderer of men. It has committed more crimes, done more to oppress and wrong the inhabitants of the world than any other tribute…. Manifest destiny has caused the strong to rob the weak and has reduced the weak to slavery…. Manifest destiny is simply the cry of the strong in justification of their plunder of the weak.”

During all your years of schooling, did a single teacher dare to raise such a critique of US actions in the world? Do you recall a single mass media commentator stating such a view? In order to move toward such a critique, therefore, we must engage in a mental cleansing process that will afford us the opportunity of challenging the Orwellian conditioning we received from education and the mass media.

In this “de-conditioning” process, we might embrace the insights of social theorist and writer Harry Magdoff, who is quoted at the end of Dunbar-Ortiz’s article: “… citizens of an imperialist country who wish to understand imperialism must first emancipate themselves from the seemingly endless web of threads that bind them emotionally and intellectually to the imperialist condition.”




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