Howard Zinn’s “What the Classroom Didn’t Teach Me About the American Empire”: An Illustrated Video Narrated by Viggo Mortensen

“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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Comments (9)
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  • Hanoch says:

    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.

    • Dave Noonan says:

      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.

      • Hanoch says:

        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.

  • Nate MacHardy says:

    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.

  • stevelaudig says:

    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.

  • AGK says:

    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.

  • Cunt Destroyer says:

    the U.S. has been an over­all force for good?
    That is prob­a­bly the most retard­ed thing to ever have been put into words.

  • paul edwards says:

    To the igno­rant posters (espe­cial­ly #1). No such thing as a left wing kook, so you reveal your igno­rance. Howard Zinn is irre­proach­able as a his­to­ri­an. Just because you nev­er saw him on Fox news don’t mean jack. How many his­to­ri­ans can you name, any­way? That thought you just had? Kill it. Any left-winger had that thought when he was five and saw its men­dac­i­ty. Con­ser­v­a­tives stick to bri­et­bart, you’re too weak to con­tem­plate real­i­ty.

  • Glenn Whitehead says:

    Why is it impos­si­ble that Empire increas­ing “eco­nom­ic, polit­i­cal, and mil­i­tary pow­er” is not itself moral? This is some­thing i nev­er see answered by Left­ists. Ask the vic­tims of Pawnee or Sioux expan­sion or aggres­sion. Why is Amer­i­can Pow­er as bad as a Nazi regime. The ker­nel is that sav­ages are noble and it’s bet­ter to grov­el in mud huts than cure Can­cer. My opin­ion is that the Roman and British and espe­cial­ly Amer­i­can Empires are pro­gres­sive and for­ward look­ing and moral. War and death can hap­pen all by itself with­out Empire. Is it more moral to nev­er achieve any­thing?~!

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