Watch an Illustrated Video of Howard Zinn’s “What the Classroom Didn’t Teach Me About the American Empire”

“Throughout U.S. history, our military has been used not for moral purposes but to expand economic, political, and military power,” says a cartoon Howard Zinn in Mike Konopacki’s 273-page comic book A People’s History of American Empire. Written with Zinn and historian Paul Buhle, the book adapts Zinn’s pathbreaking history from below, A People’s History of the United States, and his autobiography You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train in a direct examination of the U.S. Imperium. Konopacki calls the book his “answer” to the textbooks of “the power structure.” (Explore highlights from the comic history here.)

Above, you can see a short video adaptation of some key text from A People’s History of American Empire. Narrated by Viggo Mortensen, the video gives us a nutshell version of Zinn’s cultural, political, and moral education—what the Germans used to call bildung—as he grows from a somewhat naive WWII bomber pilot, to a college student on the G.I. Bill, to a graduate student, then professor, of history. Along the way he notices that the map in every textbook labeled “Western Expansion” shows “the march across the continent as a natural, almost biological phenomenon”:

That huge acquisition of land called the Louisiana Purchase gave no hint of anything but vacant land acquired, no sense that this territory was occupied by hundreds of Indian tribes that would have to be annihilated or forced out of their homes in what we now call ethnic cleansing.

Zinn goes on to chart the rise of U.S. Imperialism into the twentieth century as the increasingly militarized nation seizes Mexican territory and invades Cuba and the Philippines. Then we come to the ostensibly anti-communist “police actions” in Korea and Vietnam, and Zinn’s highly influential 1967 book Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal. When entrusted by Daniel Ellsberg with hundreds of pages of the Pentagon Papers, Zinn learns that the war in Vietnam is largely waged for the same reasons as our other imperialist moves abroad: the papers “spoke bluntly of the U.S. motives as a quest for tin, rubber, oil.”

But what of the war Zinn begins with, the war in which he fought? Near the end of the short film, he returns to his days as a WWII bomber, when he heard a fellow pilot argue that the U.S. was as “motivated by ambitions of control and conquest” as its enemies. He disagreed at the time, but in the intervening years came to see his fellow airman’s point. What we get with our idealism about any war, Zinn says, is a seeming “Imperialism lite,” whose motives are benign. Soft power, we’re told, wins the day now. But peel back the curtain on our actions in the world, and we will see the same atrocities, the same cruelties, and the same basic motivations as every other act of imperialist aggression.

Related Content:

Howard Zinn Dies at 87

Welcome to the Plutocracy! Bill Moyers Presents the First Howard Zinn Lecture

Pulitzer Prize Winner Picks Essential US History Books

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness



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  1. Hanoch says . . . | December 9, 2013 / 11:11 am

    Zinn was an extreme left-wing kook whose primary goal was to twist the minds of gullible kids into accepting his incessant anti-American propaganda as truth. That parents and students paid thousands of dollars for exposure to such tripe is one of the wonders of our times.

  2. Dave Noonan says . . . | December 9, 2013 / 12:03 pm

    I don’t know anything about Zinn except what I got out of the video. I may disagree somewhat with his characterizations but there’s no doubt that in it’s history America has done a lot of f’d up things. Per Hanlon’s Razor many of them weren’t malicious so much as misguided but if you’re an American fanboy who thinks we do know wrong then you are doing us, and our children, a grave disservice. It’s only by reflecting on our mistakes that we can avoid making them again.

  3. Hanoch says . . . | December 9, 2013 / 5:06 pm

    There is no such thing as a country, or a person for that matter, that does no wrong. But that does not detract from the reality that the U.S. has been an overall force for good in the world. Zinn, among other absurdities, expressly denied that fact. The inability to be self-reflective is dangerous, but a citizen’s inability to discern what is great about the U.S. is equally, if not more, so.

  4. Nate MacHardy says . . . | December 9, 2013 / 8:29 pm

    I always wondered why academic moralists like Zinn and Chomsky are included in the cultural cannon of the US…They seem brilliant in hindsight but, who isn’t? nnI guess the courage of the clever contrarian is irresistible to the unassigned.

  5. stevelaudig says . . . | December 10, 2013 / 4:41 pm

    If you do a ‘body count’ since 1946 of the deaths and casualties of foreign civilians caused by governments, the USG leads the way putting the lie to it being a force for good in the world unless you adhere to the notion of ‘good’ attributed to Philip Sheridan in the quote ” “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.” per wiki. That’s US General Sheridan. Hitler and Japan hold the title pre 1945 for foreign deaths. The US after.

  6. AGK says . . . | March 21, 2014 / 1:58 pm

    Zinn observation and analysis prove much about the US imperialism. All the enlightened people can see its double standards; bending the international law to it so-called interest; Destroying nations that does not agree with its political motives; Making it own rules to suit its imperialist intentions to control and conquer strategy. One day it will all end in tears.

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