"Increasingly, Americans are a people without
history, with only memory, which means a people poorly prepared
for what is inevitable about life – tragedy,
sadness, moral ambiguity – and therefore a people reluctant to engage difficult
ethical issues." – Elliot Gorn, “Professing History: Distinguishing
Memory and Past,” Chronicle of Higher Education (April 28, 2000).
This article was originally published in the Hartford
In August 2002, President George Bush began to drum up a war fever in
America with a view to toppling Iraqi Dictator Saddam Hussein, alleged
to be the possessor
of weapons of mass destruction. Bush did so without providing the evidence,
the costs, the "why now" explanation, or long-term implications of
such a war.
And by October 2002, The United States Congress not only
granted the president a virtual declaration of war for an historically unprecedented "pre-emptive
war," but did so without raising any questions about the whys, the evidence,
the costs, or long term implications for the nation – and for the world – of
such an unprovoked invasion.
Only a democratic society accustomed to war – and predisposed to the use of
war and violence – would accept war so quickly, without asking any questions
or demanding any answers from its leaders about the war.
And only the opposition of the French, Germans, Russians, and Chinese finally
forced some Americans to raise questions about what was actually being planned.
This, coupled with the anti-war demonstrations on February 15th, 2003 by millions
of people in 350 cities around the globe, delayed President Bush from actually
launching this war against Iraq by mid-February 2003.
The reality, not taught in American schools and textbooks,
is that war – whether
on a large or small scale – and domestic violence have been ever-present features
of American life and culture from this country's earliest days almost 400 years
ago. Violence, in varying forms, according to the leading historian of the
subject, Richard Maxwell Brown, "has accompanied virtually every stage
and aspect of our national experience," and is "part of our unacknowledged
(underground) value structure." Indeed, "repeated episodes of violence
going far back into our colonial past, have imprinted upon our citizens a propensity
Thus, America demonstrated a national predilection for
war and domestic violence long before the 9/11 attacks, but its leaders and
intellectuals through most
of the last century cultivated the national self-image, a myth, of America
as a moral, "peace-loving" nation which the American population seems
unquestioningly to have embraced.
Despite the national, peace-loving self-image, American patriotism has usually
been expressed in military and even militaristic terms. No less than seven
presidents owed their election chiefly to their military careers (George Washington,
1789, Andrew Jackson,1828, William Henry Harrison, 1840, Zachary Taylor,1848,
Ulysses S. Grant,1868, Theodore Roosevelt,1898, and Dwight David Eisenhower,
1952) while others, Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, for example, capitalized
upon their military records to become presidents, and countless others at both
federal and state levels made a great deal of their war or military records.
Starting with President Woodrow Wilson early in the 20th century, national
leaders began to use moralistic rhetoric when they took the nation to war:
Assuring Americans that the nation's singular mission in the world required
the nation to go to war, but that when it went to war, America only did what
was morally right.
Secretary of State John Hay, in 1898, lauded the Spanish-American War as
little war." Commentators have touted World War II as the good war and
those who fought in it, "The Best American Generation," and President
George Bush, as he was about to launch a War against Iraq on January 29, 1991,
asserted: "We are Americans; we have a unique responsibility to do the
hard work of freedom. And when we do, freedom works."
This is not to suggest that all American wars have been fought for base motives,
cloaked by self-serving moralistic rhetoric, but rather that Americans have
little genuine understanding of the major role played by war throughout the
Historians, however, are well aware that war taught Americans how to fight,
helped unite the diverse American population, and helped stimulate the national
economy, among other significant things. But this is not the message that they
have presented to the American people, concerned perhaps they might undermine
Just how frequent war has been, and how central wars have been to the evolution
of the United States, only becomes clear when you start to make a list. American
wars begin with the first Indian attack in 1622 in Jamestown, Virginia, followed
by the Pequot War in New England in 1635-36, and King Philips' War, in 1675-76,
which resulted in the destruction of almost half the towns in Massachusetts.
Other wars and skirmishes with Native American Indians would follow until 1900.
There were four major imperial wars between 1689 and 1763 involving England
and its North American colonies and the French (and their Native American Indian
allies), Spanish, and Dutch empires. During roughly the same years, 1641 to
1759, there were 18 settler outbreaks, five rising to the level of major insurrections
(such as Bacon's Rebellion in Virginia, 1676-1677, Leisler's Rebellion in New
York, 1689-1692, and Coode's Rebellion in Maryland, 1689-1692), and 40 riots.
Americans gained their independence from England and boundaries out to the
Mississippi River, as a consequence of the Revolutionary War.
The second war against England, 1812-1815, reinforced our independence, while
40 wars with the Native American Indians between the 1622 and 1900 resulted
in millions upon millions of acres of land being added to the national domain.
In 1848, the entire southwest, including California, Arizona, New Mexico, and
parts of Utah and Wyoming, was obtained through war with Mexico.
The Civil War between 1861 and 1865 was simply the bloodiest war in American
America's overseas empire began with the Spanish-American War and Philippine
Insurrection (1898-1902) by which the U.S. gained control of the Philippines,
Cuba and Puerto Rico.
Then, there were World Wars I and II, the Korean Police Action (1949 - 1952),
and the longest – and most expensive war – in American history, the Vietnam
War between 1959 and 1975.
Meanwhile, between 1789 and 1945, there were at least 200 presidentially
directed military actions all over the globe. Among other places, these
kinds of military
actions involved the shelling of Indochina in 1849 and the U.S. military
occupation of virtually every Caribbean and Central-American country
between 1904 and
1934. Indeed, in his effort to justify U.S. military intervention in Cuba
against Fidel Castro, on September 17, 1962, Secretary of State Dean
a list to a U.S. Senate Hearing of all of these 200 plus "precedents" (now
called "low intensity conflicts") from 1789 to 1960.
During the Cold War between 1945 and 1989, the U.S. waged war, directly
or through surrogates, openly and covertly, from military bases all over
After the Cold War ended in 1989, other important military actions have been
undertaken, such as the Gulf War (January and February 1991 in Iraq), in
the former Yugoslavia (in 1999), and the 2001 war against the Taliban government
and international terrorists in Afghanistan and the Philippines in 2003.
this roster, we may soon add a 2003 war against Iraq, to be followed, perhaps,
by one with North Korea, which has lately brandished its nuclear weapons
American historians have avidly studied war, especially the Civil War and
World War II, but their focus has almost always been on war causation,
battlefield tactics and strategy, and so on.
Overlooked, for the most part, are the general and specific effects of war
upon American cultural life; the possible connections between war and civilian
violence is still largely unexplored territory. Has war directly or indirectly
encouraged an American predisposition toward aggressiveness and the use of
violence or was it the reverse?
This question has never been satisfactorily investigated
by American historians or other scholars. Yet, the overwhelming majority
of historians have always
known that America was – and is – a violent country. But they have said very
little about it, depriving the population of a realistic understanding about
this important aspect of their national culture.
This omission is most clearly observable in U.S. history textbooks used in
high schools, colleges and universities, on the one hand, and popular histories
derived from these texts, on the other, which have never devoted serious attention
to the topic of the violence in America, let alone sought to explain it. Consequently,
there seems little genuine understanding about the centrality of violence in
American life and history.
The overwhelming majority of American historians have not studied, written
about, or discussed America's "high violence" environment, not
because of a lack of hard information or knowledge about the frequent and
use of violence, but because of an unwillingness to confront the reality
that violence and American culture are inextricably intertwined.
Many prominent historians recognized this years ago. In
the introduction to his 1970 collection of primary documents, titled, American
Violence: A Documentary
History, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Richard Hofstadter wrote: "what
is impressive to one who begins to learn about American violence is its extraordinary
frequency, its sheer commonplaceness in our history, its persistence into very
recent and contemporary times, and its rather abrupt contrast with our pretensions
to singular national virtue." Indeed, Hofstadter wrote the "legacy" of
the violent 1960s would be a commitment by historians systematically to study
But most American historians have studiously avoided the topic or somehow
clouded the issue. In 1993, in his magisterial study, The History of Crime
in America, for example, Stanford University Historian Lawrence Friedman devoted
a chapter to the many forms of American violence. Then, in a very revealing
chapter conclusion, Friedman wrote: "American violence must come from
somewhere deep in the American personality ... [it] cannot be accidental; nor
can it be genetic. The specific facts of American life made it what it is ...
crime has been perhaps a part of the price of liberty ... [but] American violence
is still a historical puzzle." Precisely what is it that historians are
unwilling to discuss? Basically, there are three forms of American violence:
mob violence, interpersonal violence, and war.
What is the extent of mob violence?
Indiana University Historian Paul Gilje, in his 1997 book titled, Rioting
in America, stated there were at least 4,000 riots between the early 1600s
1992. Gilje asserted that "without an understanding of the impact of rioting
we cannot fully comprehend the history of the American people."
This is a position that director Martin Scorsese just made his own in the
film, Gangs of New York, which focused on the July 1863 Draft Act Riots in
New York City as the historical pivot around which America's urban experience
revolved. However, occasional gory movie depictions of violent riots, or Civil
War battles, as in Gods and Generals, provide little real understanding of
a nation's history.
M.I.T. Historian Robert Fogelson, in his 1971 book, Violence as Protest:
a Study of Riots and Ghettos, concluded that "for three and a half
centuries Americans have resorted to violence in order to reach goals
... indeed, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that the native white majority
has rioted in some way and at some time against every minority group in
America and yet Americans regard rioting not only as illegitimate but,
even more significant,
Part of the fascination with group violence is the spectacle
of mob rampages. But for historians there is more; group violence is viewed
as a "response" to
changing economic, political, social, cultural, demographic or religious conditions.
Thus, however violent the episodes were, historians could see larger "reasons" for
these group behaviors; somehow, these actions reflected a "cause."
(This might be likened to the way many American historians
still view the southern secession movementand Civil War. Seeking to maintain
of human slavery, southerners started the bloodiest war in American history
which almost destroyed the union. But because they claimed to be fighting for
their "freedom," historians have treated their action as a legitimate
cause, whereas in other nations such action is ordinarily viewed as treason).
Now, to the nitty-gritty, how many victims did riots and collective violence
claim over the 400-year American historical experience?
This can never accurately be known, considering it includes official and unofficial
violence against Native American Indians, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans,
Asians and untold riots, vigilante actions and lynchings, among other things.
But a conservative guesstimate of, perhaps, about 2,000,000 deaths and serious
injuries between 1607 and 2001 (or about 5,063 each and every year for 395
years) seems a reasonable – and quite conservative – number for analytical
purposes, until more precise statistics are available.
At least 753,000 Native American Indians were the intended victims of warfare
and genocide between 1622 and 1900 in what is now the United States of America,
according to one scholar. The number for African-Americans might equal or exceed
the estimate for the Indians, 750,000.
The total number of deaths for all other forms of collective violence seems
well under 20,000. The greatest American riot, the New York City Draft Act
riots of July 1863, resulted in between 105 and 150 deaths, while the major
1960s riots (Watts, Los Angeles, Newark, N.J., and Detroit, Mich., accounted
for a total of 103 deaths, and the 1992 Los Angeles riot claimed 60 lives.
The estimate of deaths from the 326 vigilante episodes is between 750 and 1,000.
Approximately 5,000 individuals were known to have been lynched between 1882
and 1968, and about 2,000 more killed in labor-management violence.
Horrendous as this sounds – and it is horrendous – this
2,000,000 figure pales when compared to the major form of American violence
which historians have
routinely ignored until very recently.
Historians of violence have largely ignored individual
interpersonal violence, which, in sharp contrast to group violence, is very
frequent, sometimes very
personal – and far deadlier than group violence.
In 1997, two distinguished legal scholars, Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins,
compared crime rates in the G-7 countries (Canada, England, France, Germany,
Italy, Japan, and the United States) between the 1960s and 1990s in their book, Crime
Is Not The Problem: Lethal Violence In America Is. Bluntly, they stated
their conclusion: "what is striking about the quantity of lethal violence
in the United States is that it is a third-world phenomenon occurring in a
Instances of personal violence include but are not limited to barroom brawls,
quarrels between acquaintances, business associates, lovers or sexual rivals,
family members, or during the commission of a robbery, mugging, or other crime.
How does the carnage in this category contrast with the 2,000,000 victims of
group violence between 1607 and 2001?
During the 20th century alone, well over 10 million Americans were victims
of violent crimes -- and 10 percent of them – or 1,089,616 – were murdered
between 1900 and 1997. The "total" number of "officially reported" homicides,
aggravated assaults, robberies and rapes between 1937 and 1970 was 9,816,646,
but these were undercounts! Every year during the 20th century at least 10
percent of the crimes committed have been violent crimes – homicides, aggravated
assaults, forcible rapes and robberies. Between 1900 and 1997, there were 1,089,616
homicides. How were they murdered? 375,350 by firearms and 221,634 by all other
means, including beating, strangling, stabbing and cutting, drowning, poisoning,
burning and axing.
Between 1900 and 1971, 596,984 Americans were murdered. Between 1971 and
1997, there were another 592,616 killed in similar ways.
More Americans were killed by other Americans during the 20th century
than died in the Spanish-American war (11,000 "deaths in service"), World
War I (116,000 "deaths in service"), World War II (406,000 "deaths
in service"), the Korean police action (55,000 "deaths in service"),
and the Vietnam War (109,000 "deaths in service") combined. ("Deaths
in Service" statistics are greater than combat deaths and were used
here to make the contrast between war and civilian interpersonal violence
So, what accounts for the American ability to overlook collective violence,
interpersonal violence, and war?
The explanation lies, first, with historians' abdication
of responsibility systematically to deal with the issue of violence in America
and, second, with
the American population's refusal directly to confront any very ugly reality – which
came first I do not know. This is what historians refer to as " mutual
There are, of course, several factors that have enabled Americans to overlook
their violent past. Many of these were actually defined by Richard Hofstadter
in his 1970 introduction to American Violence: A Documentary History.
First, Americans have been told by historians that they
are a "latter-day
chosen people" with a providential exemption from the woes that plagued
all other human societies. Historians of the 1950s had not denied that America's
past was replete with violence; they just preferred during the Cold War to
emphasize a more positive vision of America. Historians refer to this as the "myth
of innocence" or the "myth of the new world Eden."
In an open, free, democratic society, graced with an abundance of natural
resources, and without the residue of repressive European institutions, virtually
white person who worked hard had the opportunity to achieve the "American
Dream" of material success and respectability.
Violence, especially political violence when it erupted,
was dismissed out of hand as somehow "un-American," an unfortunate
by-product of temporary racial, ethnic, religious and industrial conflicts.
Second, American violence
had not been a major issue for federal, state or local officials because it
was rarely directed against them; it was rarely revolutionary violence.
Rather, American violence has almost always been citizen-against-citizen,
white against black, white against Indian, Protestant against Catholic or Mormon,
Catholic against Protestant, white against Asian or Hispanic.
The lack of a violent revolutionary tradition in America is the principal
reason why Americans have never been disarmed, while in every European nation
the reverse is true.
So, for the most part, Americans, laymen and historians alike, have been
able to practice what some historians have termed "selective" recollection
or "historical amnesia" about the violence in their past and present.
Since the 1960s, historians' works, cumulatively, have
demonstrated a causal connection between American culture and the American
predisposition to use
violence. We might now be experiencing yet another by-product of this national
penchant for violence – a willingness to engage in a major war without asking
very many hard questions. It's the American Way.
Historians of violence seem to agree that no single factor
shaped Americans’ national
penchant for violence more than the obsession with race. The “institutionalization” of
racial violence began with the slavery system in 1619 and after the first Indian
war in 1622. Violence, by individual masters, groups, and the colonial and
state governments, was essential to maintain racial slavery between 1619 – 1865,
especially in the southern part of the country, and violence was essential
to maintain the state-enforced racial caste system called “Jim Crow” Segregation
between 1865 and 1965. Slavery, life servitude passed on to one’s children,
was maintained on a daily basis by the constant use of brute force and violence,
which included family separations, whippings, beatings, rapes, mutilation and
even amputations to prevent or punish runaways. For some southern whites the
color line was a license for barbarity, overriding the restraints of common
humanity and Christianity. The great fear underlying southern life during the
300 years of slavery was that vast numbers of slaves might rise to exact murderous
revenge; after slavery ended, in 1865, the fear was replaced by a determination
not to relinguish white racial control over five million African Americans.
Ira M. Leonard, New York University Ph.D 1965, has been a professor of
history at Southern Connecticut State University for over 35 years. He can
be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.