America's Use of Terror

From Colonial Times to the A-bomb

Stephen Huggins

From the first, America has considered itself a “shining city on a hill”—uniquely lighting the right way for the world. But it is hard to reconcile this picture, the very image of American exceptionalism, with what America’s Use of Terror shows us: that the United States has frequently resorted to acts of terror to solve its most challenging problems. Any “war on terror,” Stephen Huggins suggests, will fail unless we take a long, hard look at ourselves—and it is this discerning, informed perspective that his book provides.

Terrorism, as Huggins defines it, is an act of violence against noncombatants intended to change their political will or support. The United States government adds a qualifier to this definition: only if the instigator is a “subnational group.” On the contrary, Huggins tells us, terrorism is indeed used by the state—a politically organized body of people occupying a definite territory—in this case, the government of the United States, as well as by such predecessors as the Continental Congress and early European colonists in America. In this light, America’s Use of Terror re-examines key historical moments and processes, many of them events praised in American history but actually acts of terror directed at noncombatants. The targeting of women and children in Native American villages, for instance, was a use of terror, as were the means used to sustain slavery and then to further subjugate freed slaves under Jim Crow laws and practices. The placing of Philippine peasants in concentration camps during the Philippine-American War; the firebombing of families in Dresden and Tokyo; the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—all are last resort measures to conclude wars, and these too are among the instances of American terrorism that Huggins explores.

“Stephen Huggins presents a compelling case that the United States has relied extensively on terror tactics throughout its history. Huggins offers a comprehensive account of the dark underside of American power both at home and abroad. This is an unsettling read, but America’s Use of Terror should be required reading for all fair-minded, conscientious citizens. This book should appeal to a wide audience of open-minded general readers, along with scholars and students of American history writ large.”

—Stephen F. Knott, author of Rush to Judgment: George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and His Critics

America’s Use of Terror powerfully confronts the trope that terrorism is only the tool of individual perpetrators or nonstate actors. Stephen Huggins mines our nation’s history to show how state terror, terror masked as prejudice, and terror in its military applications have shaped the nature and even the borders of our land. This book will move tongues and even raise eyebrows.”

—John Prados, author of Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945–1975

Terrorism, in short, is not only terrorism when they do it to us, as many Americans like to think. And only when we recognize this, and thus the dissonance between the ideal and the real America, will we be able to truly understand and confront modern terrorism.

About the Author

Stephen Huggins holds five university degrees, including a PhD in history. He is a retired aerospace executive who has taught history at the University of Georgia and Georgia Military College.