This introductory sentence from Paul Atwood's War and Empire: The American Way of Life explodes the hypocritical nonsense of U.S. triumphalism that pervades conventional American history texts. How I wish I could have assigned Atwood's stirring and provocative book to my students when I was teaching. I retired in 2007, after forty-two years of teaching history in progressive, alternative public high school programs. I began my last three decades teaching Howard Zinn's Peoples' History of the United States. I used Zinn as a counterpoint to Daniel Boorstin's classic high school history text, A History of the United States. Boorstin's book was one of the least offensive and more inclusive history textbooks available. Radical teacher that I was, I taught American historiography, the history of history writing. I insisted that my students not just learn to memorize basic facts, master geography and chronologies, but also that they learn to read, write, question, research, and debate history like "professional" historians. I wanted all my students to understand that all history [End Page 69] texts are inescapably biased and conceived and argued from the editors' specific historical context of time and place. All good, solid history writing is by its very nature a revisionist argument based upon proscribed protocols using "rules of historical evidence."
Atwood's revisionist history, steeped in the long-established historiographic traditions of William A. Williams and Howard Zinn, likewise argues that all historical narrative is unavoidably ideological and thus requires not just open and honest examination, but also a debate of the facts. As Atwood depicts them, conventional narratives posit that "we the people" are somehow chosen by God or Destiny to redeem all humankind from the evil forces of tyranny, and defend all peoples' inalienable rights against all imperialist regimes opposing democratic self-determination and representative self-rule. Atwood argues that actually the very opposite is true. The American Way of Life has from its very inception been one of the greatest historical ironies, rooted in expansionism and conquest. All American regimes, pre- and post colonial, have consistently chosen to grab all the booty from the most vulnerable peoples, beginning with the earliest foreign wars against aboriginal nations, from the Iroquois and the Cherokee to the Sioux and Apache, through the U.S-Mexico War and beyond to the shores of the Caribbean and the islands of the Pacific realm. Furthermore, Atwood's book shows that the historical record demonstrates that America has only picked wars with "foreign enemies" that could never strike back with direct collateral damage. Citing the two intriguing exceptions, The War of Independence and the War of 1812, when British forces physically attacked, seized, but never strategically defeated American seaboard cities, the U.S. government has always chosen to send expeditionary forces to fight other people's wars on their lands.
Some of Atwood's most insightful and poignant arguments are developed in his first four chapters, analyzing how much of American imperialism both originated in and developed out of the systematic usurpations of land and resources from the original inhabitants. The book documents the intricacies of how all this was driven by the insatiable greed of American capitalism, regulated and enforced by the deceit of a liberal government emboldened by a rapacious racism and classism. Far worse, Atwood illustrates how and why this horrific history has been obfuscated in the classic history texts, buried deep in government archives and denied in the popular narratives.
The last six chapters describe the arc of American Imperialism running upward from wars against Mexico (for all the rich lands beyond the Louisiana Territories) and Spain (for control of the Caribbean and Pacific oceans) through the two World Wars, the Cold War, and now the "War on Terror." Atwood documents how WWI consolidated imperialists' holdings of the two prior transnational wars and was waged "to make the world safe for American Capital investment" and never democracy. Undoubtedly the most provocative, but not original, argument that Atwood documents is that U.S. business interests stealthily entered WWII not to preserve...