The Myth of American Exceptionalism

Howard Zinn, Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Boston University

Description: Americans have long embraced a notion of superiority, claims Howard Zinn. Governor Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony described establishing "a city on a hill," to serve the world as a beacon of liberty. So far, so good. But driving this sense of destiny, says Zinn, was an assumption of divine agency "an association between what the government does and what God approves of." And too frequently, continues Zinn, Americans have invoked God to expand "into someone else's territory, occupying and dealing harshly with people who resist occupation." Zinn offers numerous examples of how the American government has used "divine ordination" and rationales of spreading civilization and freedom to justify its most dastardly actions: the extermination of Native Americans and takeover of their land; the annexation of Texas and war with Mexico; war against the Philippines; U.S. involvement in coups in Latin America; bloody efforts to expand U.S. influence in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. The battle against Communism, often bolstered by arguments of America's divine mission in the world, was merely a convenient excuse to maintain U.S. economic and military interests in key regions. Today, says Zinn, we have a president, who more than any before him, claims a special relationship with God. Zinn worries about an administration that deploys Christian zealotry to justify a war against terrorism, a war that in reality seems more about establishing a new beachhead in the oil-rich Middle East. He also sees great danger in Bush's doctrines of unilateralism and pre-emptive war, which mark a great leap away from international standards of morality.

About the Speaker(s): Howard Zinn, a decorated war veteran, was brought up in a blue-collar immigrant family in Brooklyn, and flew bombing missions in Europe during World War II, an experience that shaped his opposition to war. He attended New York University on the GI bill, graduating with a B.A. in 1951, and Columbia University, where he earned an M.A. (1952) and Ph.D. (1958) in political science.

In 1956, he became chair of history and social science at Spelman College in Atlanta, a school for black women, where he soon became involved in the Civil Rights movement, advising the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) — chronicled, in his book SNCC: The New Abolitionists. When he was fired in 1963 for insubordination related to his protest work, he moved to Boston University, where he became a leading critic of the Vietnam War.

Zinn is best known for A People's History of the United States, a detailed work which presents American history through the eyes of ordinary people outside of the political and economic establishment: workers, Native Americans, slaves, women, blacks, Populists, and other minorities. Since its publication in 1980, the book has been assigned reading as a high school and college textbook and has sold over a million copies.

Host(s): School of Architecture and Planning, Special Program in Urban and Regional Studies

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