From 1492 onwards, conquest has been one of the key themes of American history. The New World was founded on Christopher Columbus’s military conquest of Haiti and, in the centuries that followed, Spanish and English explorers’ bloodthirsty conquest of the Native American tribes who’d lived in the Americas for thousands of years. Throughout his book, Zinn shows how militarism—both the literal act of conquering other people with military force, and the more abstract ideology that celebrates fighting and conquering—has strengthened the American Establishment and weakened the American people.
Zinn offers a few different senses in which militarism strengthens the Establishment. On the most literal level, militarism has brought new wealth to the Establishment. Much of the land that America acquired during the Mexican-American War of the 1840s, for instance, ended up under the control of powerful railway companies. Even the land that went to poor farmers was often repossessed by large industrialized agricultural businesses, since many 19th century farmers struggled to pay their debts. In more recent years, however, militarism has strengthened the Establishment by bringing it into contact with new markets, plentiful resources, and cheap labor. Zinn argues that, during most of the Cold War, corporate interests encouraged the American government to conduct wars in countries where Socialist uprisings threatened corporations’ ability to trade freely. In Vietnam, Chile, Iraq, and dozens of other countries, a major factor in the government’s decision to go to war was the plentitude of resources. As Zinn sees it, the federal government wanted to ensure that American businesses would be able to access those resources. While the government offers many reasons for going to war—including, throughout the Cold War, the deadly threat of a worldwide Communist takeover—its real reasons are often much simpler: it wants to protect business.
Militarism doesn’t merely strengthen the Establishment; it also weakens the American people. By focusing the people’s attention on external threats (such as a global Communist takeover), the Establishment mitigates popular resistance to its own unjust policies. During World War Two, for example, labor unions pledged not to go on strike out of support for America’s war with Germany and Japan. Similarly, war ensures that many young, energetic people are abroad, fighting for their country, rather than back at home, fighting against their government. Finally, militarism weakens the American people by bolstering patriotism, making citizens more loyal to their country and, therefore, to their government.
It’s important to recognize that Zinn isn’t saying that the American government intentionally starts wars to strengthen itself. (Indeed, Zinn spends several pages refuting one of the most beloved left-wing conspiracy theories, that Franklin Roosevelt provoked the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in order to enter World War Two). Zinn fully acknowledges that many elites sincerely believe they’re taking their country to war to protect their own people. Nevertheless, Zinn argues that, whatever people’s motives for war, the overall effect of war is to strengthen the Establishment and weaken the American people. Furthermore, Zinn argues that at least some elites in American history have supported war with the intention of benefitting themselves.
Militarism and Conquest ThemeTracker
Militarism and Conquest Quotes in A People’s History of the United States
These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the mainland, who were remarkable (European observers were to say again and again) for their hospitality, their belief in sharing. These traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance, dominated as it was by the religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas, Christopher Columbus.
"War is the health of the state," the radical writer Randolph Bourne said, in the midst of the First World War. Indeed, as the nations of Europe went to war in 1914, the governments flourished, patriotism bloomed, class struggle was stilled, and young men died in frightful numbers on the battlefields—often for a hundred yards of land, a line of trenches.
Would the behavior of the United States during the war—in military action abroad, in treatment of minorities at home—be in keeping with a "people's war?" Would the country's wartime policies respect the rights of ordinary people everywhere to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? And would postwar America, in its policies at home and overseas, exemplify the values for which the war was supposed to have been fought?
Truman had said, "The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians." It was a preposterous statement. Those 100,000 killed in Hiroshima were almost all civilians. The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey said in its official report: "Hiroshima and Nagasaki were chosen as targets because of their concentration of activities and population."
After the bombing of Iraq began along with the bombardment of public opinion, the polls showed overwhelming support for Bush's action, and this continued through the six weeks of the war. But was it an accurate reflection of the citizenry's long-term feelings about war? The split vote in the polls just before the war reflected a public still thinking its opinion might have an effect. Once the war was on, and clearly irreversible, in an atmosphere charged with patriotic fervor … it was not surprising that a great majority of the country would declare its support.