‘Repeat After Me: The United States Is Not an Imperialist Country—Oh, and Don’t Get Emotional About War’

By Bill Bigelow

You may have seen that an administrative law judge in Arizona, Lewis Kowal, just upheld the decree by the State Superintendent of Public Instruction that Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program violates state law. Judge Kowal found that the Tucson program was teaching Latino history and culture “in a biased, political, and emotionally charged manner.” According to CNN, one lesson that the judge objected to taught that the historic treatment of Mexican Americans was “marked by the use of force, fraud and exploitation.

Try this “history detective” experiment. Ask the next person you encounter to tell you what they know about the U.S. war with Mexico. More than likely, this will be a short conversation, because that war (1846-48) merits barely a footnote in U.S. history textbooks. The most recent textbook I was assigned when I taught high school history in Portland, Ore. was American Odyssey. In 250 pages devoted to pre-20th century U.S. history, the book includes exactly two paragraphs on this war. (The district’s new adoption, History Alive! Pursuing American Ideals, doubles the coverage to a whopping four paragraphs.)

(Download Teaching Activity PDF from the Zinn Education Project: “U.S. Mexico War: ‘We Take Nothing by Conquest, Thank God’“)

And yet this is the war that “gave”—in the words of American Odyssey—California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and part of Colorado to the United States of America. And the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, formally ending the war, ratified the annexation of Texas, which had broken away from Mexico largely because of Mexico’s policies against slavery.

Most Mexicans know that the war against Mexico was another chapter in U.S. imperialism—a “North American invasion,” as it’s commemorated in a huge memorial in Mexico City’s Chapultepec Park. But don’t take Mexicans’ word for it. Here’s what Col. Ethan Allan Hitchcock, aide to the commander of U.S. forces Gen. Zachary Taylor, wrote at the time in his journal about the war’s origins:

“I have said from the first that the United States are the aggressors. … We have not one particle of right to be here … It looks as if the government sent a small force on purpose to bring on a war, so as to have a pretext for taking California and as much of this country as it chooses.”

Exactly. President James K. Polk, himself a slave-owner, had ordered U.S. troops into an area claimed by Mexico and inhabited by Mexicans and waited for them to be attacked. And when they were, Polk claimed aggression and the U.S. had its war. The invading U.S. Army actually called itself the Army of Occupation.

The abolition movement regarded the war as a land grab to expand slavery. The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass denounced the Mexican invasion as “a murderous war—as a war against the free states—as a war against freedom, against the Negro, and against the interests of workingmen of this country—and as a means of extending that great evil and damning curse, negro slavery.”

Henry David Thoreau coined the term “civil disobedience” in defense of his position that people should not pay taxes to support the war against Mexico. Thoreau argued that a minority can act against an unjust system only when it “clogs by its whole weight.”

Students enrolled in Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program would likely have known this history, because, after all, this is the story of how people living in Tucson no longer live in Mexico. But according to Judge Kowal, the program violates state law. That law bans curriculum that might “promote resentment toward a race or class of people.” And, as mentioned, Kowal complained that the material in Mexican American Studies was presented in “an emotionally charged manner…

I have not seen the full Mexican American Studies curriculum, although I know it includes important texts like Rudolfo Acuña’s classic Occupied America and Paulo Freire’s A Pedagogy of the Oppressed—a book studied in every teacher education program worthy of the name.

But I’m wondering how one can teach about the history of the U.S. relationship with Mexico in a manner that is not “emotionally charged.” You want to talk about “bias”? What about the bias of a textbook that can “cover” a war like that waged against Mexico in two paragraphs, or four paragraphs, and fail to so much as quote a Mexican, an abolitionist, a soldier, a woman, an African American, or a Native American—or fail to describe the death or injury of a single human being? What about the bias of a textbook or an entire curriculum that can discuss invasion and war in a manner that is not “emotionally charged”?

Here’s a U.S. infantry lieutenant who wrote his parents after a U.S. officer named Walker was killed in battle, quoted in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States:

“Gen. Lane … told us to ‘avenge the death of the gallant Walker’ … Grog shops were broken open first and then, maddened with liquor, every species of outrage was committed. Old women and girls were stripped of their clothing—many suffered still greater outrages. Men were shot by dozens … their property, churches, stores, and dwelling houses ransacked … It made me for the first time ashamed of my country.”

In his memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant wrote that this was “one of the most unjust [wars] ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation …”

The problem with the school curriculum in this country is that it is not emotionally charged enough. Poverty rates are skyrocketing—especially for children of color. People are losing their homes because of the criminal behavior of huge financial institutions—and race has a lot to do with who profits and who suffers. This country’s military is still being sent to invade and occupy—and murder people with silent, invisible drones. The rich and powerful poison our atmosphere, our water, our food, and our children.

So, yes, let’s have a curriculum that gets emotional—and that tells a fuller truth than is offered in our textbooks. And let’s stand in solidarity with the teachers and students in Tucson who are demanding to teach and learn about things that matter.

Bill Bigelow is Curriculum Editor of Rethinking Schools magazine, and co-directs the Zinn Education Project. He is author of The Line Between Us: Teaching About the Border and Mexican Immigration.

Related Resources:

The Line Between Us The Line Between Us explores the history of U.S-Mexican relations and the roots of Mexican immigration, all in the context of the global economy. And it shows how teachers can help students understand the immigrant experience and the drama of border life. Using role plays, stories, poetry, improvisations, simulations and video, veteran teacher Bill Bigelow demonstrates how to combine lively teaching with critical analysis.
A People's History for the Classroom A People’s History for the Classroom helps teachers introduce students to a more accurate, complex, and engaging understanding of U.S. history than is found in traditional textbooks and curricula. Teaching articles and lesson plans — drawn from an assortment of Rethinking Schools publications — emphasize the role of working people, women, people of color, and organized social movements in shaping history, and raise important questions about patterns of wealth and power throughout U.S. history.

If you value our blog content, magazine and books, please consider supporting Rethinking Schools by:

7 thoughts on “‘Repeat After Me: The United States Is Not an Imperialist Country—Oh, and Don’t Get Emotional About War’

  1. The unfortunate reality of modern historical writing still focuses on the experiences of the wealthy, the politically powerful, and the “great man theory” (not my choice of name by the way) in historiography. We do love our biographies after all. According to Churchill (not the first to say it), “history is written by the victors.” Just quoting a politically and militarily powerful man, Ive already displayed the pervasive nature of this approach to our world and our story/history.

    From my stodgy memory, I recall that Polk campaigned strongly in support of the annexation Texas, while Clay was just as firmly opposed to it and he set out to achieve this goal in one term from the outset. Shall we assume that neither became terribly emotional about the issue? The nastiness of that election to me displays an emotional response, one that gets me warmed up. Shall we assume that during the two wars engaged in during the past decade that neither struck an emotional chord on either side of the argument? Shall we assume that the Iraqi’s calmly accepted the war and chaos of battle and destruction? The concept that war or politics or history is an unemotional affair is disingenuous and the individual or group of individuals who pretend that it is even vaguely possible is quite ludicrous. History is not science. It is an argument, and one that brings emotions.

    The law bans curriculum that could lead to racial or class resentment. I belong to no racial minority (or not enough of one that I identify as such) but I certainly do not come from a privileged social class. I see emotion flaring as we slog through this economic crisis. I see the wealthy holding in their position, I see the recovery of Wall Street, and yet in my world, I see the state of Washington preparing the cut Battle Ground Schools for the third time in a year and a half. I see angry protests in Occupy Everywhere. I see Democrats fighting for economic fairness (bias and emotion!) and I see Republicans fighting to maintain the privilege of the wealthy (oops more bias…) and when we look back at these times through the lens of history, we would be lying to think there will arise no emotion from the reader.

    I am a student of history, and I see argumentation as a necessary part of the process. I try to see both sides of issues. I try very hard. It isn’t easy. I do know one thing regardless of my caution.

    I know I am angry.

  2. Education is the consideration of ideas you might not readily agree with.
    Rafe Esquith for President !!!! Consider Richard Mitchell’s “the Graves of Academe” and this quote:
    “It is possible, of course, to keep educated people unfree in a state of civilization, but it’s much easier to keep ignorant people unfree in a state of civilization. And it is easiest of all if you can convince the ignorant that they are educated, for you can thus make them collaborators in your disposition of their liberty and property. That is the institutionally assigned task, for all that it may be invisible to those who perform it, of American public education. “

  3. Pingback: Rethinking Columbus Banned in Tucson « Rethinking Schools Blog

  4. Pingback: Treaty Of Gaudalupe Hidalgo | Pearltrees

  5. Pingback: Behind the Curtain in Tucson: A letter from Curtis Acosta « Rethinking Schools Blog

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