The History of U.S. Expansion: The Example of Cuba

by Howard Zinn


Howard Zinn is the author of such important books as A People’s History of the United States and The Logic of Withdrawal, which advocated immediate U.S. withdrawal from the Vietnam war. The following is an edited version of his talk on October 4, 2000, at a meeting in Brunswick, Maine, in support of the Pastors for Peace Friendshipments to Cuba. For more on the fall 2000 Friendshipment, see the article “Solidarity at the Crossroads” by W.T. Whitney, Jr., elsewhere in this issue.

Readers might wish to compare Zinn’s account of U.S.-Cuban relations before and since the Spanish-American war with the one given by Dave Riehle in “The Great Cuba Pageant of 1898,” a description of how African Americans in Minnesota identified with the largely Afro-Cuban struggle against Spain. Many points in common will be found between the bits of history provided by Zinn in the present article and those presented by Riehle in the Spring 2000 issue of Labor Standard.

I am happy to respond to the request to come and speak on behalf of food and medicine for Cuba and help along this very brave effort to defy the U.S. government embargo against Cuba, and do the human thing. Any time we can defy officialdom and do something human to human we are doing something really important and really good.

I didn’t really come tonight to talk specifically about the situation in Cuba today. I haven’t been to Cuba since the 1970s, when the effects of the U.S. embargo were not really felt in a serious way, because at that time Cuba had the support of the Soviet Union and was getting things from the countries of Eastern Europe. In the 1970s the Cubans had that boost and were able to carry on and do what they wanted to do. When I was there in the 1970s, they had this wonderful, wonderful spirit pervading. While my wife and I were there, talking to people — we were wandering the streets of Havana — there was a great positive spirit in favor of the revolution.

There were people there who remembered what it was like before the revolution under Batista and talked about the difference. You know the racism that existed before the revolution and the role that Black people were now playing in the Cuban revolution; and the prostitution that existed before, and the whole difference in the kind of society; the lack of education and the illiteracy before, and now an educated public; the lack of medical care before, and now the best medical system in Latin America. And so all of that was very positive and ebullient. Later after coming back here and in the last ten years when the embargo took hold, my friends were coming back here from Cuba and telling me how things were getting tougher and tougher, that the embargo was holding back crucial things from the Cuban people and that they were just having a very hard time.

Then I saw that Pastors for Peace were defying the embargo and bringing food and medicine to Cuba, so I developed a tremendous admiration for these people. I didn’t know that there was a group up here in Maine. I should have known that in Maine there would be.

Talking About History

I will talk a little about the history of U.S. relations with Cuba, which some of you may know. What you very often do when you talk about history, sometimes you tell people things they didn’t know, sometimes you just remind them of things they once knew and had forgotten, and sometimes you tell them things they know. But that’s OK because if it’s true it cannot be repeated too often, and I think it’s important to know the history of the United States relations with Cuba, because if you didn’t know the history, that lack of knowledge would influence your attitude and your thinking — and this is of course true of such a large part of the American people, and certainly true of a large part even of the so-called educated population of America.

You can go to high school, to college, to graduate school, and you will learn nothing about the history of American relations with Cuba. You will learn about the Spanish-American war. You will learn about Theodore Roosevelt riding up San Juan Hill, and the Rough Riders, and Dewey sinking the fleet in Manila Bay, and a few glorious military stories like that. But you really won’t know the history of U.S. relations with Cuba.

You won’t know that we had just barely become a new country here, after the revolution, when Thomas Jefferson, presumably not an expansionist, but a liberal democrat, expressed a certain hungry interest in Cuba that was fairly common then in the U.S. Of course there were some very nice things about Thomas Jefferson; the Declaration of Independence: not a bad document. But when Jefferson became president (and this is a common story in history; people are always much better out of power than in it) he spoke about Cuba. He observed that it wasn’t far away, implying it should become a part of the U.S. He had already opened up this enormous expanse of the West by the Louisiana Purchase, but still people thought, “No, Jefferson is not an expansionist.” But he also sort of cast his eye lovingly on Cuba, and the United States all through the nineteenth century kept looking hungrily at Cuba.

The Monroe Doctrine

The Monroe Doctrine of 1823 established very clearly that this new nation was not going to be isolationist, not going to stay put. The new nation was saying something to the peoples of Europe. I remember when I was going to school the Monroe Doctrine was presented as one of our noble achievements. It was presented as something good and positive (aside from the fact that it appeared on multiple choice tests). The United States was telling European countries to stay out of the Western Hemisphere, and it was presented as if we were protecting the countries of the Western Hemisphere from European expansion. Well, of course what we were really saying was: yes, Europe stays away, we are here. The Yankees are going to protect (and dominate) the people and the countries of the Western Hemisphere.

And so the United States was interested in Cuba for a long time. Spain had controlled Cuba since Columbus. The year after Columbus’s arrival (we won’t say anything about Columbus’s cruel massacres of Native Americans in Cuba; no, we’ll leave that aside for now), the Pope divided the world in two, because he had that power, and Cuba fell within Spain’s half of the world. Cuba was Spanish from that point on. Spain ruled Cuba and dealt with a couple of slave insurrections in Cuba, but Spain maintained its control; a number of rebellions; there was a rebellion in the 1860s. Then in 1895 there was a really serious rebellion of Cubans against Spain to rid Cuba of Spanish control and establish an independent Cuba.

At this time the United States really began to get interested. And presumably its interest was for “humanitarian” reasons, because as you know the United States has always been interested in other countries for “humanitarian” reasons. That’s what I learned growing up in school. We all get this. There are all these other imperial countries in the world, British imperialism, German imperialism, Russian imperialism, and Dutch imperialism, but the United States — we’re different. We are the Boy Scouts of the world. We help countries across the street. We’re so humanitarian.

The Spanish are trying to crush this rebellion, but the rebellion is still going on, is growing, and the United States is watching this, and the reports are appearing in the press, and as we get closer to 1898, important people in the United States are talking about the usefulness of American expansion outside of the continental United States. This was around 1890, year of the last massacre, at Wounded Knee — the last of many, many massacres of Native Americans in this country. By 1890, the process had been pretty much completed; the so-called Indians had been pushed into a little corner of Oklahoma, which was called Indian Territory. Now, they were told, you can have this little piece of Oklahoma, that is, until oil was discovered in Oklahoma. They had part of Georgia in the early nineteenth century — until gold was discovered in Cherokee territory. You know, Indians don’t know what to do with gold, but we do, and so they had to get out of there. And the Indians didn’t know what to do with oil, so we were going to take Indian Territory. It became non-Indian territory. And then the Indians had no territory of their own.

Expanding Beyond the Continent

So by 1890, the territorial conquest of the continent had been completed, all the way to the Pacific, and now we were beginning to look overseas and look at the need for markets for our farm products, the need for markets for our oil, and you began to get statements like that of Henry Cabot Lodge, Senator from Massachusetts: “In the interests of our commerce we should build a Nicaragua canal.” You see, before they built a canal in Panama, they thought Nicaragua was the logical place to build a canal. Lodge went on: “for the protection of that canal, and for the sake of our commercial supremacy in the Pacific, we should control the Hawaiian Islands and maintain our influence in Samoa. And when the Nicaraguan canal is built, the island of Cuba will become a necessity.” I like that. It’s the domino theory. Once you pick up a little piece of territory here, you need another little piece of territory to secure that, and you need another piece of territory to secure that. Once you have the Caribbean, then you need Hawaii. Try to figure that one out. Once you have Hawaii, you need the Philippines. Once you have the Philippines, you need the coastal cities of China.

So it’s no wonder that not long ago, it was discovered that the United States was planning to explode a nuclear device on the moon. Did you know that? Sorry to spoil your evening, to spoil your thoughts when you look at the moon. They didn’t go through with it — you would have heard about it. And the moon would have heard about it. But that illustrates the psychology of greed and expansion.

And it’s tied up with racism: Lodge in that statement said that “the great nations are rapidly absorbing for their future expansion and their present defense all the empty and the waste places of the earth.” I like that. The “waste places” of the earth are places where other people live, just as the continent of the United States was a “waste place” until we got there. The Louisiana Territory was supposedly empty. I remember looking at the map as a kid in school. They told us proudly that we had doubled the size of the country by the Louisiana Purchase, and there I am thinking, Oh wow! Empty territory. You look at the map; you don’t see human beings on the map. I wasn’t told that the Louisiana Territory was not waste land, that there were hundreds and hundreds of Indian tribes living with their own culture and their own civilization in that vast territory. And in order for the United States to control that, the United States had to exterminate or marginalize these people. I wasn’t told that.

Lodge talks about the waste places of the earth. As he saw it, U.S. expansion was “a movement which makes for civilization and the advancement of the race.” Ah! On the eve of the Spanish-American War, 1898, the Washington Post wrote in an editorial, “We are face to face with a strange destiny. The taste of empire is in the mouth of the people even as the taste of blood in the jungle.” They were more eloquent in those days. I got my Ph.D. from Columbia University. I spent a lot of time there in the Burgess Library. I was interested that the Burgess Library was named after John Burgess. He was a political scientist at Columbia who wrote that “the Teutonic and Anglo-Saxon races are particularly endowed with a capacity to establishing national states. They were entrusted with the mission of conducting the political civilization of the modern world.” I just wanted to show you that academics did not lag behind in the cultural quest for this vision of empire.

The Spanish-American War

It was around that time that Theodore Roosevelt said to a friend just before the Spanish American war, “In strict confidence, I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one.” There are just times when you need a war, you know; you feel something is lacking. Yes, a war, yes.

So the rebellion was going on in Cuba, and the Spanish were treating the rebels very cruelly, and so the word went out; we care about what’s happening to these people, the rebels in Cuba. Just as the word went out just recently in 1990 that the people of Kuwait had been taken over by Saddam Hussein. President Bush was anguished over the people of Kuwait. Actually he had never heard of the people of Kuwait, you see, but suddenly…There is always a humanitarian impulse, at least the humanitarian story.

One of the things that was troubling on the eve of the Spanish-American war was that the rebels seemed to be on the move in Cuba. The rebels were advancing. The rebels were making progress. It looked as if they might defeat Spain on their own, and if they defeated Spain on their own with the United States out of it, well, that would not be a welcome thing.

There was an article in 1896, in the Saturday Review about one year after the revolt had started in Cuba. The article in the Saturday Review was written by a young writer whose mother was American and whose father was English. His name was Winston Churchill, and he wrote that while the rebels have the support of the people, and Spanish rule was bad, it would be better for Spain to keep control.

As he wrote: “A grave danger represents itself. Two fifths of the insurgents in the field are Negroes. These men would in the event of success demand the predominant share in the government of the country, the result being, after years of fighting, another black republic.” You see, there was already one Black republic in the Western Hemisphere, and that was Haiti, which very early in the 1800s, right after the American revolution, had declared its independence and set up a Black republic. Of course, you would have thought that the United States, having just won its own revolution against a foreign power, would have welcomed the Haitian revolution against foreign rule. But no, the United States did not, and in fact Jefferson opposed the Haitian revolution, and the United States did not recognize the new Haitian government.

The Battleship Maine

So as we approached 1898 the commercial interests were looking for more and more opportunities to expand, looking for markets. And then came the very fortuitous event in 1898 — and this is one thing we did get in school — the blowing up of the battleship Maine in Havana harbor. And I remember, and I don’t know if they are teaching it any differently, but when I learned about it in school, everyone was pretty sure that the Spanish had blown up the battleship Maine, and this was the occasion for us to go to war. And of course 250 sailors died in the explosion, and you find very often that wars — they may have been planned in advance — but they are triggered off by an event, and very often when you inspect that event, it is an event that has been fabricated, that is surrounded by lies, but which provides a wonderful excuse to go to war. Because no one ever proved the cause of the blowing up of the battleship Maine. In fact logic suggests that the Spanish would not want to bring the United States into the war to drive them from Cuba. It’s not likely that they would have provided a pretext by blowing up an American battleship in Havana harbor. And in fact, finally in the 1960s, a U.S. government committee was set up to investigate with the latest scientific instruments the possible cause of the explosion of the battleship Maine. Admiral Rickover was in charge of the investigation, and they concluded that the battleship Maine had blown up as the result of a defect in one of its engines. But of course it was a little late.

It’s always later that you find out these thing, when the word finally comes out.

You remember the Gulf of Tonkin incident, how the Vietnamese had supposedly fired upon U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin in the summer of 1964. Immediately President Lyndon Johnson rushed to the microphones, and Dean Rusk, Secretary of State, rushed to the microphones. You know, they said, Vietnamese torpedo boats have fired at American destroyers. Immediately the Senate and the House passed resolutions, unanimously in the House, with only two dissenting votes in the Senate, giving Lyndon Johnson full power to do whatever he wanted in that part of the world. That became the legal basis for a ten-year war in Vietnam, not really a constitutional basis because the Constitution requires a declaration of war, and there was none, but it provided some legal scaffolding, a cover-up for what the United States was doing. Only later did it turn out that what happened in the Gulf of Tonkin had been lied about, that there was no evidence of any attack , that there had been blips on the radar screen that had been misinterpreted.

I remember at the time some reporter at the press conference for Secretary Rusk asked him, “Well if they fired, did they do any damage?” “No.” Then they asked him, why would they do this, the North Vietnamese, this little country, why would they want to bring the United States in, to give the United States an excuse to escalate the war? And he said, “Well, you know it’s pretty hard to figure out the thinking of these people.” You know, the inscrutable Asiatic mind. Really, there was a lot of that. Well, in fact, I remember that one Congressmen, faced with the fact that there was no physical evidence, when asked about this, said, “You know how clever these Chinese are at concealing evidence.”

“A Splendid Little War”

But there are all these incidents, all these excuses for going to war when actually there are deep-seated reasons, and there was a deep-seated reason in the case of what the United States wanted in Cuba. We didn’t want the rebels to win this revolution in Cuba any more than we wanted the Vietnamese to throw out the French and run their own country. We wanted to be in on it. I always say “we,” always identify myself with the government of the United States. It gives me a sense of power. And so the United States went to war against Cuba. And, as John Hay, Secretary of State, said, “It was a splendid little war.” A short three-month war, very few casualties; does that sound familiar? Lot of casualties on the other side, very few casualties on our side, Theodore Roosevelt coming out a hero.

Roosevelt was really a lover of war. Every time they draw up these lists of great presidents, and Theodore Roosevelt is at the top, I lose my appetite, because he was a lover of war, a racist, an imperialist, and William James talked about Theodore Roosevelt as somebody who had this lust for violence, and it was true. I know that you could say six good things about Theodore Roosevelt, but you can six good things about a lot of people who ultimately are vicious people.

So if you look at the casualties in that “splendid little war,” it’s kind of interesting. The American casualties included 5,462 dead, which was much less than the Spanish dead in the Spanish-American war. But then, of these 5,462, only 379 had died as a result of battle. The rest had died of various sicknesses, and a large number of them had died as a result of eating poisoned beef that was sold to the army by Swift and Armour, and the meat packing companies of Chicago. Some of this was sold to the army in tins left over from the Civil War.

But you know, this kind of thing is a constant in the history of warfare. Sometimes it takes the form of “friendly fire.” Sometimes it takes the form of your own troops being subject to the gases that you release in the atmosphere. And what has happened to the troops that came back from the Gulf is part of this. When you wage war you wage war not only against other people, you wage war against your own people.

The Platt Amendment — U.S. Corporations Move into Cuba

So we win the war, but we make sure that the rebels don’t have any part of it. We keep them out of Havana. We don’t let the rebel armies come into Havana. And the United States government insists that the constitution for the new, so-called free Cuba must include a clause, the Platt Amendment, which gives the United States the right to intervene in Cuba anytime it deems necessary. And the Cuban Constitutional Convention at first rejects this, and there are demonstrations in the streets of Havana against this, and a general strike in Havana closing down the city against this, but the American troops arrest the leaders of the general strike. They put down the demonstrations, and they tell the Constitutional Convention, “If you don’t adopt the Platt Amendment, our troops will remain here indefinitely; you’ll never get control of Cuba.” So finally they passed the Platt Amendment. And so, at least technically, Cuba was now free of Spanish rule, but of course not free of American rule.

And at this point the American corporations move into Cuba. The railroads move into Cuba, the banks move into Cuba, and United Fruit moves into Cuba and buys up huge amounts of Cuban land for virtually nothing, and that is the beginning of a long period of American political and economic domination of Cuba. And it’s sort of a new form of imperialism. It’s not a downright colony. Puerto Rico becomes a downright colony. The Philippines becomes a downright colony, but, no, Cuba is free. It’s a new kind of colonialism.

War in the Phillipines

Of course shortly after the Cuban war, the United States moved into the Philippines. I have found that the war in the Philippines is one of the most absent events in American history teaching. The Cuban war, which was a very short war, dominates the scene. It has the military victories and so on. But the war in the Philippines somehow gets a muted treatment. Yet the war in the Philippines lasted much longer than the war in Cuba; it was on a much larger scale; many more people were killed in the war to suppress the Filipino independence movement; and in the Philippines we weren’t fighting against Spain. We were fighting against the Filipinos who wanted to run their own country, but who our leaders thought were unfit to run their own country. It was a war that lasted, officially, three to four years.

Actually it lasted beyond that, because after it was supposedly over in 1902–03, there were still rebellions. It was a war which in many ways was a forerunner of the Vietnam war, with free fire zones and atrocities, women, children, civilians killed in large numbers, all of them being considered enemies. Anybody over the age of ten was considered an enemy. But even after the war was supposed to be over, there was still rebellion in the southern islands of the Philippines, by Muslims on the southern islands, and so the war actually continued. In fact in 1906 there was a massacre of 600 “Moros,” who are Muslim Filipinos living in a very primitive state, but refusing to be taken over by the U.S. Army. Whereupon they were attacked with the most modern weapons that the U.S. Army had at its command, while the Moros had knives and daggers and stones, and they were assaulted by guns, rifles, machine guns, and 600 were wiped out, every single one of them, man, woman, and child. Did you learn about that in your history books? Was that on any of your multiple choice tests? One of the most ugly episodes of American expansionism.

Theodore Roosevelt sent a telegram of congratulations to the general who ordered that attack, congratulating him on this great military victory, whereupon Mark Twain spoke out in protest against this. Mark Twain was a hero of the anti-imperialist movement, and it’s interesting to me, these important figures who do show up in our classrooms and our reading lists and so on. Very often their political views are kept in the background. I knew about Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and all of that, but it wasn’t until much, much later, when reading on my own, that I discovered that Mark Twain was a politically involved person and a protester against American imperialism.

Expanding U.S. Intervention, a Bipartisan Policy

But all of this is sort of surrounding material and part of the American push into the rest of the world, into the Caribbean, and into the Pacific. We not only go into Cuba, but into all of the countries of the Caribbean, and all of the countries of Central America become the objects of invasion by U.S. Marines in the early part of the century, and it doesn’t matter whether Democrats or Republicans are in power. This whole business of bipartisan foreign policy, it goes way back. Imperial designs are the product of not just one party, but both parties.

And the Democrat Woodrow Wilson sent warships to bombard the Mexican coast in 1914 because the Mexicans at Tampico had arrested some American sailors, charging them with drunkenness. Which is very hard to believe. (Laughter.) Wilson sent them a note saying, You have to release these sailors and you have to deliver a twenty-one gun salute to the American flag. It was questionable whether they had twenty-one guns, but whatever the case may be, the Mexicans were not willing to do it. Whereupon Wilson sent a naval expedition down to bombard the city of Vera Cruz and to kill several hundred Mexicans just to teach them a lesson. It was also under the Democrat Wilson that occupation troops were sent into Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Marine diplomacy became just part of the American pattern all through the early part of the twentieth century, especially in the Caribbean and Central America. And Cuba being one of those places subject to U.S. intervention. We had a succession of governments in Cuba that were completely beholden to the United States — with the Platt Amendment allowing for American forays into Cuba whenever the U.S. government deemed it necessary.

The Batista Regime

Jumping ahead to the 1950s, a pro-U.S. military man, Fulgencio Batista, took power in a coup that eliminated the trappings of democratic government in Cuba. And it is important to know something about the Batista regime, so that you don’t think the Castro revolution overthrew a liberal, democratic, kindly republic. The Batista regime was one of the most ugly and vicious regimes in Latin America, of which there were many. Under Batista Cuba became a police state with enormous unemployment, 40–50 percent unemployment, and widespread prostitution. Cuba became a playground for the American wealthy classes, who would go down to Cuba and have a lot of fun, while Batista and his mafia were accumulating huge amounts of money, and corruption was rampant. And all of this time the United States was helping Batista’s government, supplying it, providing military aid and training, propping up the regime.

And so when the Cuban revolution took place in 1959, the United States was not happy, and so when the United States today says, we are maintaining this embargo against Cuba, because we don’t like the human rights record in Cuba, it’s hard to believe that the U.S. government is really heart-stricken over human rights in Cuba.

There may very well be human rights problems in Cuba, and I tell you this as I support the breaking of the embargo and the sending of food and medicine to Cuba. I feel basically in support of the Cuban revolution, which did tremendous things for the Cuban people. Suddenly you saw Black people in Cuba coming to the fore and taking part in the whole society. But through all of this, there have been human rights violations in Cuba, and Castro has had a nasty habit of putting opponents in jail and arresting people. But with all these violations of human rights, which I think need to be deplored and criticized, still it is a very, very far cry from the military dictatorships and brutality of the old Nicaragua, and Batista, and El Salvador where the majority of the population, by far, was living under military rule, and death squads roamed the streets. It’s on a different level.

But the point is that it is important when the United States gives the humanitarian reason for maintaining the embargo to understand that the U.S. record in acting on behalf of humanitarian concerns is a very, very poor record, a record indeed of enormous hypocrisy.

U.S. Anger at Loss of Control over Cuba

So all of this I suppose is simply historical background to an understanding of the deep anger of the U.S. government that Fidel Castro took that little island which is so close to us out of the American sphere of control. From the point of view of America’s rulers, that is intolerable.

After all Cuba does not really pose a military threat to the United States. The U.S. government is very fond of creating military threats where there aren’t any, and you would think from the size of our nuclear arsenal and from the size of our military budget that the United States was hemmed in by enemy powers that are about to move into Maine and San Francisco.

I remember Ronald Reagan saying — and I always listened closely to Ronald Reagan — and he was talking about the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, that they were only two hours from Texas. I was trying to imagine the problem. Apparently it was that the Sandinistas might hop a plane and fly to Texas and take over Texas and then march to Washington, D.C. But the American people have never had a great grasp of geography and so you can say lots of things to them which are absurd.

Imaginary Threats to Justify the War Budget

You need to create a threat. Here is the most protected country in the world, the least vulnerable country in the world, and yet we have a $300 billion military budget. We maintain sanctions against Iraq supposedly because Iraq conceivably at some point might have one nuclear weapon which they might possibly be able to deliver by UPS.

We have 20,000 nuclear weapons, so we have to maintain the sanctions against Iraq and have hundreds of thousands of their kids die, because there is this supposed military threat, these “weapons of mass destruction.” It’s amazing how in a so-called democratic, pluralistic country — freedom of speech, freedom of press, lots of information, education, and so on — it’s amazing how much misinformation can be fed to and absorbed by this apparently intelligent and educated American population.

Our Job: To Tell the Truth and Do What’s Right

And of course our job, all of us, is to try to overcome this and try to tell the truth about what is going on. And to act and to take direct action against those things which we think are unfair and inhuman, like the embargo on Cuba. And so the Pastors for Peace deserve an enormous amount of credit. Also, Voices in the Wilderness, which brings medical aid and food to Iraq, deserves a lot of credit for defying the law and doing what is right.

Somebody I met in Indiana years ago called me up not long ago and told me that he persuaded a hospital in Des Moines to take the medical equipment which it kept in the warehouse, which was still good, but was surplus medical equipment, which wasn’t being used, and persuaded them to donate this medical equipment. He was putting it in his truck, and he was getting his brother to get another truck. A fleet of trucks was going to go down with the Pastors for Peace to the Mexican border and bring all of that eventually to Cuba. There are people like this all over the country who are doing wonderful things and heroic things. I am glad you are here to support them, and I’m here to declare my support, and I thank you for inviting me.