Guenter Lewy, who for many years taught political science at the University of Massachusetts, has been a contributor to Commentary since 1964. His books include The Catholic Church & Nazi Germany, Religion & Revolution, America in Vietnam, and The Cause that Failed: Communism in American Political Life.
On September 21, the National Museum of the American Indian will open its doors. In an interview early this year, the museum’s founding director, W. Richard West, declared that the new institution would not shy away from such difficult subjects as the effort to eradicate American Indian culture in the 19th and 20th centuries. It is a safe bet that someone will also, inevitably, raise the issue of genocide.
The story of the encounter between European settlers and America’s native population does not make for pleasant reading. Among early accounts, perhaps the most famous is Helen Hunt Jackson’s A Century of Dishonor (1888), a doleful recitation of forced removals, killings, and callous disregard. Jackson’s book, which clearly captured some essential elements of what happened, also set a pattern of exaggeration and one-sided indictment that has persisted to this day.
Thus, according to Ward Churchill, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado, the reduction of the North American Indian population from an estimated 12 million in 1500 to barely 237,000 in 1900 represents a”vast genocide . . . , the most sustained on record.”
By the end of the 19th century, writes David E. Stannard, a historian at the University of Hawaii, native Americans had undergone the”worst human holocaust the world had ever witnessed, roaring across two continents non-stop for four centuries and consuming the lives of countless tens of millions of people.” In the judgment of Lenore A. Stiffarm and Phil Lane, Jr.,”there can be no more monumental example of sustained genocide—certainly none involving a ‘race’ of people as broad and complex as this—anywhere in the annals of human history.”
The sweeping charge of genocide against the Indians became especially popular during the Vietnam war, when historians opposed to that conflict began drawing parallels between our actions in Southeast Asia and earlier examples of a supposedly ingrained American viciousness toward non-white peoples.
The historian Richard Drinnon, referring to the troops under the command of the Indian scout Kit Carson, called them”forerunners of the Burning Fifth Marines” who set fire to Vietnamese villages, while in The American Indian: The First Victim (1972), Jay David urged contemporary readers to recall how America’s civilization had originated in”theft and murder” and”efforts toward . . . genocide.”
Further accusations of genocide marked the run-up to the 1992 quincentenary of the landing of Columbus. The National Council of Churches adopted a resolution branding this event”an invasion” that resulted in the”slavery and genocide of native people.” In a widely read book, The Conquest of Paradise (1990), Kirkpatrick Sale charged the English and their American successors with pursuing a policy of extermination that had continued unabated for four centuries.
Later works have followed suit. In the 1999 Encyclopedia of Genocide, edited by the scholar Israel Charny, an article by Ward Churchill argues that extermination was the”express objective” of the U.S. government. To the Cambodia expert Ben Kiernan, similarly, genocide is the”only appropriate way” to describe how white settlers treated the Indians. And so forth.
That American Indians suffered horribly is indisputable. But whether their suffering amounted to a”holocaust,” or to genocide, is another matter.
It is a firmly established fact that a mere 250,000 native Americans were still alive in the territory of the United States at the end of the 19th century. Still in scholarly contention, however, is the number of Indians alive at the time of first contact with Europeans. Some students of the subject speak of an inflated”numbers game”; others charge that the size of the aboriginal population has been deliberately minimized in order to make the decline seem less severe than it was.
The disparity in estimates is enormous. In 1928, the ethnologist James Mooney proposed a total count of 1,152,950 Indians in all tribal areas north of Mexico at the time of the European arrival. By 1987, in American Indian Holocaust and Survival, Russell Thornton was giving a figure of well over 5 million, nearly five times as high as Mooney’s, while Lenore Stiffarm and Phil Lane, Jr. suggested a total of 12 million. That figure rested in turn on the work of the anthropologist Henry Dobyns, who in 1983 had estimated the aboriginal population of North America as a whole at 18 million and of the present territory of the United States at about 10 million.
From one perspective, these differences, however startling, may seem beside the point: there is ample evidence, after all, that the arrival of the white man triggered a drastic reduction in the number of native Americans. Nevertheless, even if the higher figures are credited, they alone do not prove the occurrence of genocide.
To address this issue properly we must begin with the most important reason for the Indians’ catastrophic decline—namely, the spread of highly contagious diseases to which they had no immunity. This phenomenon is known by scholars as a”virgin-soil epidemic”; in North America, it was the norm.
The most lethal of the pathogens introduced by the Europeans was smallpox, which sometimes incapacitated so many adults at once that deaths from hunger and starvation ran as high as deaths from disease; in several cases, entire tribes were rendered extinct. Other killers included measles, influenza, whooping cough, diphtheria, typhus, bubonic plague, cholera, and scarlet fever. Although syphilis was apparently native to parts of the Western hemisphere, it, too, was probably introduced into North America by Europeans.
About all this there is no essential disagreement. The most hideous enemy of native Americans was not the white man and his weaponry, concludes Alfred Crosby,”but the invisible killers which those men brought in their blood and breath.” It is thought that between 75 to 90 percent of all Indian deaths resulted from these killers.
To some, however, this is enough in itself to warrant the term genocide. David Stannard, for instance, states that just as Jews who died of disease and starvation in the ghettos are counted among the victims of the Holocaust, Indians who died of introduced diseases”were as much the victims of the Euro-American genocidal war as were those burned or stabbed or hacked or shot to death, or devoured by hungry dogs.” As an example of actual genocidal conditions, Stannard points to Franciscan missions in California as”furnaces of death.”
But right away we are in highly debatable territory. It is true that the cramped quarters of the missions, with their poor ventilation and bad sanitation, encouraged the spread of disease. But it is demonstrably untrue that, like the Nazis, the missionaries were unconcerned with the welfare of their native converts. No matter how difficult the conditions under which the Indians labored—obligatory work, often inadequate food and medical care, corporal punishment—their experience bore no comparison with the fate of the Jews in the ghettos.
The missionaries had a poor understanding of the causes of the diseases that afflicted their charges, and medically there was little they could do for them. By contrast, the Nazis knew exactly what was happening in the ghettos, and quite deliberately deprived the inmates of both food and medicine; unlike in Stannard’s”furnaces of death,” the deaths that occurred there were meant to occur.
The larger picture also does not conform to Stannard’s idea of disease as an expression of”genocidal war.” True, the forced relocations of Indian tribes were often accompanied by great hardship and harsh treatment; the removal of the Cherokee from their homelands to territories west of the Mississippi in 1838 took the lives of thousands and has entered history as the Trail of Tears.
But the largest loss of life occurred well before this time, and sometimes after only minimal contact with European traders. True, too, some colonists later welcomed the high mortality among Indians, seeing it as a sign of divine providence; that, however, does not alter the basic fact that Europeans did not come to the New World in order to infect the natives with deadly diseases.
Or did they? Ward Churchill, taking the argument a step further than Stannard, asserts that there was nothing unwitting or unintentional about the way the great bulk of North America’s native population disappeared:”it was precisely malice, not nature, that did the deed.” In brief, the Europeans were engaged in biological warfare.
Unfortunately for this thesis, we know of but a single instance of such warfare, and the documentary evidence is inconclusive. In 1763, a particularly serious uprising threatened the British garrisons west of the Allegheny mountains. Worried about his limited resources, and disgusted by what he saw as the Indians’ treacherous and savage modes of warfare, Sir Jeffrey Amherst, commander-in-chief of British forces in North America, wrote as follows to Colonel Henry Bouquet at Fort Pitt:”You will do well to try to inoculate the Indians [with smallpox] by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method, that can serve to extirpate this execrable race.”
Bouquet clearly approved of Amherst’s suggestion, but whether he himself carried it out is uncertain. On or around June 24, two traders at Fort Pitt did give blankets and a handkerchief from the fort’s quarantined hospital to two visiting Delaware Indians, and one of the traders noted in his journal:”I hope it will have the desired effect.” Smallpox was already present among the tribes of Ohio; at some point after this episode, there was another outbreak in which hundreds died.
A second, even less substantiated instance of alleged biological warfare concerns an incident that occurred on June 20, 1837. On that day, Churchill writes, the U.S. Army began to dispense”‘trade blankets’ to Mandans and other Indians gathered at Fort Clark on the Missouri River in present-day North Dakota.”
He continues: Far from being trade goods, the blankets had been taken from a military infirmary in St. Louis quarantined for smallpox, and brought upriver aboard the steamboat St. Peter’s. When the first Indians showed symptoms of the disease on July 14, the post surgeon advised those camped near the post to scatter and seek”sanctuary” in the villages of healthy relatives.
In this way the disease was spread, the Mandans were”virtually exterminated,” and other tribes suffered similarly devastating losses. Citing a figure of”100,000 or more fatalities” caused by the U.S. Army in the 1836-40 smallpox pandemic (elsewhere he speaks of a toll”several times that number”), Churchill refers the reader to Thornton’s American Indian Holocaust and Survival.
Supporting Churchill here are Stiffarm and Lane, who write that”the distribution of smallpox- infected blankets by the U.S. Army to Mandans at Fort Clark . . . was the causative factor in the pandemic of 1836-40.” In evidence, they cite the journal of a contemporary at Fort Clark, Francis A. Chardon.
But Chardon’s journal manifestly does not suggest that the U.S. Army distributed infected blankets, instead blaming the epidemic on the inadvertent spread of disease by a ship’s passenger. And as for the”100,000 fatalities,” not only does Thornton fail to allege such obviously absurd numbers, but he too points to infected passengers on the steamboat St. Peter’s as the cause. Another scholar, drawing on newly discovered source material, has also refuted the idea of a conspiracy to harm the Indians.
Similarly at odds with any such idea is the effort of the United States government at this time to vaccinate the native population. Smallpox vaccination, a procedure developed by the English country doctor Edward Jenner in 1796, was first ordered in 1801 by President Jefferson; the program continued in force for three decades, though its implementation was slowed both by the resistance of the Indians, who suspected a trick, and by lack of interest on the part of some officials. Still, as Thornton writes:”Vaccination of American Indians did eventually succeed in reducing mortality from smallpox.”
To sum up, European settlers came to the New World for a variety of reasons, but the thought of infecting the Indians with deadly pathogens was not one of them. As for the charge that the U.S. government should itself be held responsible for the demographic disaster that overtook the American-Indian population, it is unsupported by evidence or legitimate argument. The United States did not wage biological warfare against the Indians; neither can the large number of deaths as a result of disease be considered the result of a genocidal design.