Was There an Indian Genocide?
Posted on: 2008-05-08 01:27:45

The American Indians knew no law of war.

By Ian Jobling

Roger Cohen’s proposal for a museum dedicated to slavery and segregation led me to read the comments on Cohen’s article at his blog. Not a single commenter pointed out the absurdity of Cohen’s belief that whites had not sufficiently recognized their historical mistreatment of blacks. However, a number of them did say that another monument to white guilt was needed: a museum memorializing the “genocide” of American Indians. This alleged genocide is a mainstay of leukophobic anti-Americanism. Fortunately, Guenter Lewy, the historian who also debunked false stories of Vietnam War atrocities, examined the question in a 2004 Commentary article, and found claims of genocide to be groundless.

That the Indian population of the United States was almost wiped out after European settlement is an established fact. At the end of the 1800s, there were 250,000 Indians in America. Anthropologists have estimated that between one and 12 million Indians lived in the territory north of Mexico before Europeans arrived.

Does this loss of life constitute genocide? The contemporary definition of genocide is acts of war undertaken with the purpose of eradicating a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. By this standard, Lewy concludes, although there were isolated acts of genocide against the Indians, genocide was never the policy of the United States government or army.

Seventy-five to 90 percent of Indian deaths were the result of disease, mostly smallpox, not warfare. While “scholars” like the notorious Ward Churchill have claimed that whites deliberately spread diseases like smallpox among Indians, there is only one instance in which plausible documentation of deliberate infection exists. In 1763, Sir Jeffrey Amherst, after whom my alma mater Amherst College is named, advised one of his officers to give blankets infected with smallpox to Indians, and the officer seems to have acted on the idea. Other allegations of biological warfare do not stand up to scrutiny.

Since the Amherst atrocity occurred during in the colonial period, it cannot be blamed on the American government, of course. Indeed, it was American policy starting in 1796 to vaccinate Indians against small pox. It would be odd if Ameicans tried to kill off Indians by means of a disease they were trying to prevent!

Genocide of the Indians was never the policy of the US army or government. The army was under orders to spare women, children, and men who surrendered or were too severely wounded to fight. Although some non-combatants were killed during army attacks, any deliberate killing of a non-combatant was punishable by law.

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