On July 15, 1960, in Los Angeles, John F. Kennedy accepted the Democratic nomination for president. He said:
I stand tonight facing west on what was once the last frontier. From the lands that stretch three thousand miles behind me, the pioneers of old gave up their safety, their comfort and sometimes their lives to build a new world here in the West.… They were determined to make that new world strong and free…to conquer the enemies that threatened from without and within. Today some would say that those struggles are all over…that there is no longer an American frontier.… But I trust that no one in this vast assemblage will agree with those sentiments. For the problems are not all solved and the battles are not all won—and we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier.1
Across the United States, children drew and colored with Crayola crayons. The box of sixty-four crayons had one named “flesh.” It was a sort of peach color, and has since been renamed peach.2 In school, children studied from the officially prescribed books that endorsed the narrative of settler colonialism and its assertedly redemptive and progressive aspect, rooted in claims that the settler seizure of Indigenous people’s lands was ordained by God.
The United States was not “on the edge” of a “new” frontier. Military and paramilitary forces had been engaged in conflict outside its borders for decades. It was true that the pace and intensity of these foreign conflicts had dramatically increased since the end of the Second World War, as the United States took on the military burdens of empire in regions where French, British, Belgian, Dutch, German, and Japanese had previously been dominant. France had lost its hold on Indochina in the spring of 1954. In September 1954, the United States organized the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, claiming it was a “regional” alliance permitted by Chapter VIII of the UN Charter, although one would need a creative cartographer to make the United States appear to be in the Southeast Asia region.
As Kennedy spoke, the United States was working to overthrow the government of the newly independent Congo and to assassinate prime minister Patrice Lumumba. Within months after Kennedy’s inauguration in January 1961, he had authorized the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.
Here are two excellent books, each offering insight into the formation and maintenance of the U.S. empire: Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, and David Vine’s The United States of War: A Global History of America’s Endless Conflicts, from Columbus to the Islamic State.3 These books derive interpretive power from their methodology: this is history from the “bottom up”—starting with people’s life experiences, rather than with the decisions of policy makers. When we are offered a book of “history,” we should ask, “Whose story?” Bertolt Brecht wrote: “Babylon, so many times destroyed; who built the city up each time?”
We who are engaged in the struggle for change might also ask: “Through what lens of refraction is the evidence of events recalled and related?” If we are to resist the genocidal use of military force, and to oppose the environmental depredation that follows in its wake, we need to see the roots and laws of motion of colonialism and empire. These books respond to those concerns with passion and eloquence.
It should not have happened that the great civilizations of the Western Hemisphere, the very evidence of the Western Hemisphere, were wantonly destroyed, the gradual progress of humanity interrupted and set upon a path of greed and destruction. Choices were made that forged that path toward destruction of life itself—the moment in which we now live and die as our planet shrivels, over-heated. To learn and know this history is both a necessity and a responsibility to the ancestors and descendants of all parties.4
She busts the myth that Indigenous societies were backward savages, waiting for European “civilization”:
By the time of the European invasions, Indigenous peoples had occupied and shaped every part of the Americas, established extensive trade routes and roads, and were sustaining their populations by adapting to specific natural environments, but they also adapted nature to suit human ends.… Rather than domesticating animals for hides and meat, Indigenous communities created havens to attract elk, deer, bear and other game.5
The Indigenous population of the Americas in 1600 was between fifty million and one hundred million. The ensuing death toll of disease and extermination was in the tens of millions.
Vine’s book addresses the same set of issues, over a longer period of time and on a global scale. Indeed, I have found it helpful to read the two books together. Vine writes:
Since independence the U.S. government has built the largest collection of military bases occupying foreign lands in world history. Today the military controls around eight hundred military bases in some eighty-five countries outside the fifty states and Washington, D.C. At other times, the total has been higher.… From the United States’ earliest days, bases abroad have played key roles in launching and maintaining U.S. wars and other military actions.6
We have learned to question the qualifications and backgrounds of those who write history. History? Whose story? Dunbar-Ortiz answers: “As a student of history, having completed a master’s degree and PhD in the discipline, I am grateful for all I learned from my professors and from the thousands of texts I studied. But I did not gain the perspective presented in this book from those professors or studies. This came from outside the academy.”7
She tells us of her Native American lineage, her growing up in a marginalized community, her activism in the Native American movement, and her providing expert testimony in litigation involving the injustices done to Indigenous people.
Vine, a cultural anthropologist, began his work in this field in 2001 with a pathbreaking study of the Chagossian/Ilois people, forced from their island home to make way for the Diego Garcia military base in the Indian Ocean. He studied and documented the human and environmental toll wrought on this Indigenous community. His first book, Island of Shame, set him on the path toward The United States of War, and along the way assisted the multinational lawyer team seeking justice for the Chagossians.
Where Did All These Racists Come From?
Today, we see the effects and expressions of racism all around us. We may be tempted to see its origins and basis only in the slave trade. The roots are deeper and their tendrils more extensive. Dunbar-Ortiz’s book exposes the longer and more complex origins of racism. In 1994, a college-level U.S. history book, Out of Many: A History of the American People, featured a title page photograph of a Navajo woman in traditional garb weaving a rug—with a design featuring the stars and stripes of the U.S. flag. In 1630, the Massachusetts Bay Colony settlers brought the design of their official seal from London. The seal depicted a “near-naked native holding a harmless, flimsy-looking bow and arrow and inscribed with the plea, ‘Come over and help us.’”8 The Native Americans were seen from the outset as subjected peoples, excluded from the settler colonialists’ compacts with God to form civil societies.
In 1776, the Declaration of Independence envisioned a continuing expansion of European settlers, and conflict with the Native Americans who lived on the land to be “settled.” It states:
He has endeavoured to prevent the Population of these States; for that Purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their Migrations hither, and raising the Conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has excited domestic Insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the Inhabitants of our Frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction, of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions.
For the next century, the United States sponsored and encouraged European settlers to seize land and “extirpate” or “exterminate”—both words appeared in official documents of the inhabitants. This process was documented by mechanisms of legality that had become familiar in the formation of European nation-states: the imposition of the property norm. For example, in 1803, the Thomas Jefferson administration “purchased” from France 800,000 square miles of land from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. The land was inhabited by dozens of Indigenous communities, who farmed and hunted, and managed forests and fields with responsible and sustainable practices. When the U.S. government opened this land for settlement, it established a system whereby settlers would have legal “title” to particular surveyed parcels. This had been the device used in the Northwest Territory beginning in 1787.
The legal title ignored and obliterated Indigenous people’s claims of sovereignty and customary use rights, as well as land management practices. The process, as Dunbar-Ortiz pointed out in a recent lecture, replicated the internal colonial history of Western Europe. In England, peasants were forced from the land and their commune-use rights extinguished by a series of laws beginning in the mid–1600s, as land was also brought under the regime of property rights. The settlers’ westward push was fostered and protected by the construction of 60 major forts and 138 army posts in the settled territories. A munitions manufacturing industry grew up to supply the military and help the settlers “keep and bear Arms.”9
Vine begins the major portion of his account with the U.S. Declaration of Independence in 1776. With the aid of a map, he documents the military forts that housed the soldiers who seized the lands and killed the populations of Indigenous civilization: at least ninety places named Fort, from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast. After addressing the same period that is at the heart of Dunbar-Ortiz’s book, Vine picks up the story with the colonial/imperial military actions that began in the 1890s with the U.S. seizures of Hawai’i and the Spanish possessions. He then traces the path of killing and conquest that led to the present network of U.S. military installations. It is a compelling and well-told story.
The Point, However, Is…
We recall Karl Marx’s words: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” We see the rising death tolls from military conflict, the police violence that takes thousands of Black lives, and the environmental depredation that has accompanied and been fostered by U.S. expansion and conquest. We may then want to add a first step: before we interpret, we should “understand” the world. That is, before the philosophers get to work, the historians should take the stage and teach us.
If we do not give the brilliant historians—like Dunbar-Ortiz and Vine—the first chance to speak, we risk making mistakes in our decisions to seek change in the world. We might fail to deepen our understanding, and thus confuse symptoms with root causes. We see the marginalization of people of color and may be tempted to believe that various social programs are a sufficient as well as necessary response. We may view the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and be tempted to focus only on the “antiwar” and “antidraft” movements of that time, and the actions undertaken by the government to deter and repress them. Many in that movement failed to see that behind the apparatus of death and repression was the structure of imperialism and the instruments of state power designed and deployed to preserve it.
To make this point is to acknowledge, perhaps to insist, that not all historians have something useful to say. The books our teachers gave us to read, back when our crayon collection had the one called flesh, clouded our understanding rather than illuminated it. The history in these two books repays our careful attention.
- ↩ “Acceptance of Democratic Nomination for President,” John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, accessed April 27, 2021.
- ↩ “Why Does the Color ‘Flesh’ Not Appear in the 1958 Limited Edition Box of 64?,” Crayola, FAQ, accessed April 27, 2021.
- ↩ Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s new book, Not “A Nation of Immigrants”: Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy, and a History of Erasure and Exclusion (Boston: Beacon, 2021), continues the narrative of Indigenous people’s history.
- ↩ Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 2015), 1.
- ↩ Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, 26–27.
- ↩ David Vine, The United States of War: A Global History of America’s Endless Conflicts, from Columbus to the Islamic State (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2021), 2.
- ↩ Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, xi.
- ↩ Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, 49.
- ↩ Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, 80.