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Violence is the American Way
By Ira Leonard
"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 Between Memory and Past," Chronicle of
Higher Education (April 28, 2000).
04/23/03 -- -- 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
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.
Nothing, however, seemed to stop the bush administration's drive
for war. Nor did the failure of American diplomatic efforts to
get authorization from the United Nations' security council seem
to bother the members of the congress, virtually all of whom
remained silent or in support of war. The incessant polls showed
that a majority of the american population continued to support
a preemptive war even as -- or perhaps because of --
increasingly angry objections were voiced by important longterm
allies and antiwar demonstrators all over the world.
The reality untaught in American schools and textbooks is that
war -- whether on a large or small scale -- and domestic
violence have been pervasive in 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 to
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
Starting with President Woodrow Wilson early in the 20th
century, national leaders began to use moralistic rhetoric when
they took the nation to war. They assured 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
Secretary of State John Hay, in 1898, lauded the
Spanish-American War as a "splendid 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,
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 American experience.
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
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
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 history.
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 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 Rusk presented 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 the world.
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. To this
roster, we must add the 2003 war against Iraq, to be followed,
perhaps, by one with North Korea, which has lately brandished
its nuclear weapons and missiles.
American historians have avidly studied war, especially the
Civil War and World War II, but their focus has almost always
been on war causation, battles, generalship, 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 widespread 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,
"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 American violence.
But most American historians have studiously avoided the topic
or somehow clouded the issue. In 1993, in his magisterial study,
"The History of Crime and Punishment 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,
"Rioting in America," stated there were at least 4,000 riots
between the early 1600s and 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 focuses 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 otherwise unattainable ... 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, as aberrant."
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 movement and Civil War. Seeking to
maintain their institution 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
Now, to the nitty-gritty: How many victims did riots and
collective violence claim over the 400-year American historical
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 first-world nation."
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 the rest were due to 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
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 rates
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 "
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 any 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
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
Ira M. Leonard has been a professor of history at Southern
Connecticut State University for over 30 years. This article is
adapted from a speech presented to the Connecticut Academy of
Arts and Sciences in January 2003.
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