A People's History of the United States: 1492-Present

"Science," the Greek word for knowledge, when appended to the word "political," creates what seems like an oxymoron. For who could claim to know politics? More complicated than any game, most people who play it become addicts and die without understanding what they were addicted to. The rest of us suffer under their malpractice as our "leaders." A truer case of the blind leading the blind could not be found. Plumb the depths of confusion here.

Re: A People's History of the United States: 1492-Present

Postby admin » Thu Oct 17, 2013 5:18 pm

A Discussion with Howard Zinn

Is it true that you'd have preferred to write romance novels?

[laughs] Where did you get that? It's true that I'd rather write plays, which I have done. It's more fun to write for the theater because it's not as isolated an occupation.

A People's History of the United States has found its way into many places. Describe its proliferation among various languages, along with its curious development into a cartoon.

It's been translated by now into a dozen languages -- into Spanish, French, Italian, German, Turkish, Arabic, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Swedish, Norwegian. Czech, Portuguese, and it's being translated into Russian, Greek, and Hebrew. I don't know if it will happen, but there's a group in Canada that wants to do an animated version of A People's History. And there's a group in New York that is planning a documentary series for television and schools. This would be a series of films based on A People's History, maybe six to eight hours.

A March 1999 article in The Nation opened: "The contracts are signed, the treatment is being written, and Fox Television plans to fast-track production on a ten- to twelve-hour miniseries based on lefty historian Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, scheduled to run early next year." Br, what happened, Howard?

That was something of an exaggeration. Maybe the writer was anticipating too much. [laughs] There was a contract with Fox Television, and Fox was at one point planning a series of films based on A People's History, and then after a few years of back and forth. they dropped the idea, after which it was taken up by HBO. We were under contract with HBO for a couple years and they actually hired a number of writers to write movie scripts -- John Sayles wrote one, Howard Fast did another, several other scripts were written -- then HBO decided against going ahead.

Do you think Fox and HBO were influenced by cultural transformations in the wake of 9/11?

It's hard to tell. When people in the film industry drop things, they don't give you explanations. And so, in the case of Fox we don't know. After all, Fox is owned by Rupert Murdoch [laughs]. Well, come to think of it, Murdoch owns HarperCollins too, and that hasn't interfered with HarperCollins's handling of the book. But did political considerations enter into it? Fox dropped it before 9/11. No, 1don't think 9/11 1had anything to do with it. They may have found that it was too difficult and complicated a project. When John Sayles's script was turned down by HBO, he said, "Well, I think HBO probably doesn't consider it sexy enough." It may be that the television medium is a very difficult form for transforming history into feature films.
In 2003, A People's History sold its one millionth copy. Dick Cheney threw you a big shindig, right?

Yes it was. I recall that it took place in Dunkin' Donuts [laughs].

Seriously, though, there was a celebration at the 92nd Street YMHA, right?

Yes. We had a great cast of actors who agreed to read. We had James Earl Jones and Danny Glover and Marisa Tomei and Harris Yulin and Alfre Woodard. A number of the things they read were from the book, and a number of things were connected with the spirit of A People's History. A little book called The People Speak came out of that. We didn't just have actors reading; we had other people in the arts as well. We had Kurt Vonnegut reading Eugene Debs, Alice Walker reading a poem by Langston Hughes, and we had my son, Jeff, reading the voice of an IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) organizer and poet, Arturo Giovannitti. I can tell you that as soon as they announced the event, it was sold out almost immediately.

It's a mite unsettling to reread your account of the first Gulf War. You argue, in this account, that the United States acted in order to revive Bush Sr.'s approval ratings, and to achieve greater sway over OPEC. "But those motives," you conclude, "were not presented to the American public. It was told that the United States wanted to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi control." So, too, do you argue: "The justification for war that seemed most compelling was that Iraq was on its way to building a nuclear bomb, but the evidence for this was very weak." Care to reflect on this?

Our own intelligence agency, the CIA, had no clear evidence that Iraq could build a bomb for several years. So the evidence indeed was weak. Can you really believe that Bush Sr. was anguished over the takeover of Kuwait by Iraq? Other countries have occupied parts of other countries, and we didn't go to war over that. We didn't go to war over the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. So Bush's rationale for the war against Iraq was very hard to believe, given the long history of the United States's interest in Middle Eastern oil, especially since the end of World War II. For instance, the covert action to overthrow the government of Iran in 1953 came about because Iran was nationalizing oil. Iraq is the second largest possessor of oil reserves in the world. The oil motive is a far, far more likely one than the motive of liberating Kuwait.

What comparison. then, would you make between Gulf Wars I and II?

The comparison is very strong in that in both cases false reasons were given for the invasion. In the case of Gulf War I, the false reason was the takeover of Kuwait. In the case of Gulf War II, the false reason was weapons of mass destruction. Neither argument is believable. With weapons of mass destruction, it's already been shown that it was simply a deception practiced on the American people. The Bush administration was determined to go to war, and again. behind it all was oil, and the control of oil.

You don't cotton to ''just war" theories. This very likely represents your most controversial posture, and it's a real hot potato. How, though, has the present war in Iraq failed or satisfied the traditional "just war" theory?

Michael Walzer, who wrote the standard modern book on just war theory, [Just and Unjust Wars], has supported some wars. But even he says the current war doesn't meet the requirement of just cause, doesn't meet the requirement of a war for defense, doesn't meet the requirement of proportionality -- because the killing of huge numbers of Iraqi civilians, and the destruction of cities is far, far out of proportion to any possible gain in human rights that has come out of this war.

How would you critique the moral ''justification'' for, say, the war in Korea? You don't seem all that affectionate toward Truman's decision to intervene there.

Well, Korea is an example of a situation that I have described as pointing to an important difference between just cause and just war. A cause may be just -- in other words, the defense of South Korea against an invasion by North Korea may be a just cause -- but a just cause is not necessarily corrected by war. And so it maybe wrong for North Korea to invade South Korea, but it's pretty hard to justify the killing of several million people in order to prevent one half of a divided country's military action to unify that country, even though that action maybe unjust. So I think it was a misguided, immoral decision to go to war in Korea. We spent three years at war -- where were we at the end of it, with three million people dead? We still had dictatorial regimes in both North Korea and South Korea.

You persistently focus on the impact of war upon civilians. In the U.S. invasion of Panama, for instance, you note that "hundreds, perhaps thousands of civilians were killed" and upward of fourteen thousand were left homeless. How well do you think the media have reported the effects of war upon the people of Iraq?

Well, the media have been shamefully negligent in reporting the effect of the war on the civilian population of Iraq. I'm sure that if you took a poll of Americans to see how much they knew about civilian death in Iraq, you would get a blank. The British medical journal The Lancet published a report saying that up to one hundred thousand civilians in Iraq have died as a result of this war. This was in some of the newspapers for a day and then disappeared. It was not reported on any major television station. And certainly while the numbers are given of American dead, there are no numbers given of Iraqi dead. In fact, the Pentagon says it doesn't keep such records. Aside from the neglect of the reporting of Iraqi dead, the American press doesn't even give an adequate report of terrible injuries done to Americans. Maybe ten thousand to fifteen thousand Americans have been badly wounded in the war. Thousands have lost limbs or been blinded, and there has been no adequate coverage of this in the American press.

The 9/11 Commission Report was a finalist for the National Book Award. What are your thoughts about its vaguely bizarre nomination? And what, in your view, is the dominant lesson contained in this report?

Well, I think the report misses the crucial issues connected with 9/11. I think the report mostly focuses on intelligence failures, failures to anticipate 9/11, the bureaucratic inefficiency -- the FBI and the CIA and the lack of sufficient communication between them. It seems the main proposals that came out of this report were proposals for reorganizing intelligence agencies. Now all of this is very superficial. All of this ignores fundamental questions about 9/11. The most fundamental questions being: What were the motives behind those attacks, and to what extent were those motives connected with American foreign policy? The 9/11 Commission dodges the issue of relationships between American foreign policy and the creation of enormous anger in the Middle East -- an anger which is felt by millions of people in the Middle East, which then leads to a small number of fanatics engaging in terrorist attacks. To point to the way in which American foreign policy has inflamed people against us and therefore led to terrorist attacks is not therefore to justify, of course, the terrorist attack; it's simply to say we need to look for more profound causes of 9/11 than intelligence failures.

President Clinton -- what do you consider his greatest achievement and his biggest disappointment?

His greatest achievement ... well, the truth is, I don't believe that Bill Clinton had any great achievements in office. If you can begin to talk about a greatest achievement, you can say it was a negative one. It was a negative one meaning he did not plunge his country into war the way his successor did. On the other hand, his foreign policy was an aggressive one. His maintenance of sanctions against Iraq was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, according to United Nations officials. He was the first to raise the specter of weapons of mass destruction, and used that in order to bomb Iraq again and again while not engaging in major war. He continued what Reagan had started, and that is the attempt to dismantle FDR's social reform program by doing away with aid to families with dependent children. So I think his administration only did good in relation to the administration that followed him. At one point, Clinton's secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, was questioned about the deaths of all the people in Iraq as the result of sanctions, and she said, "It was worth it, we had to pay that price." Well, of course, we didn't pay that price; the children of Iraq paid that price. One of the first things Clinton did when he came into office was to bomb Baghdad -- supposedly because Baghdad was responsible for a failed assassination attempt on George Bush, Sr., but there was no proof for that. He was obviously trying to show that he was a tough guy. a tough president who would be willing to use military means to boost his standing with the public. So Bill Clinton is to my mind one of the most overrated presidents of the last several decades.

What do you admire most about the United States?

Let me make it clear that when I say "admire the United States, " the United States is not the government. There is very little in the government that I admire -- certainly not in the present, and certainly not in recent years -- but there is much that I admire in the United States, and what I admire is the spirit of independence and thought, which has allowed so many Americans to protest against policies they disagreed with. What I admire most in the United States is the spirit of those people who have protested against the war in Iraq, those black people in the South who demonstrated and protested and risked so much to do away with racial segregation. That is what is most admirable about this country. Working people who have been trying in every possible way against great odds to improve conditions in their lives. I read about hotel workers going out on strike, or the United Parcel workers going out on strike to better their conditions that is part of the noble tradition in America of working people getting together and doing what the government will not do for them, trying to create a modicum of economic justice.

You are frequently called a "radical" historian. Do you accept this label?

I like it. I accept it. Because I believe radical solutions are needed. "Radical" means getting to the roots, means going to fundamental things. and I believe we need fundamental changes in our society, fundamental changes in ending policies of war and expansion, fundamental changes in our economic system. fundamental changes in dealing with the environment -- all of those are radical, you might say.

How might this term, radical, correspond to your actions off the page throughout your lifetime?

Well, I suppose the civil rights movement was considered a radical movement in the South until it sparked the national movement of support. The young people in the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, pronounced "snick"), mostly young black people in the South, were considered the radical part of the civil rights movement, and I was involved with them. I was on their executive committee. They did what were considered radical things: sit-ins and demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience.

And you participated in sit-ins?

That's right. I was teaching in the South, and living with my family in Atlanta, Georgia, teaching at Spelman College, a black women's college, and became involved with the SNCC, and went around the South from Atlanta to Albany, Georgia. and Selma, Alabama, and various towns in Mississippi, and participated in what the movement was doing.

How did being there, at that time, influence your approach to writing and communicating history?

Being involved in the southern movement, and being aware that what was happening at the grass roots in the South was not being recorded, made me very conscious of the idea of a people's history. Most history skims the surface and records things from the top; tells us what presidents did, or Congress, or the Supreme Court. What was happening below, in the South -- the church meetings, the things that ordinary black people were doing to struggle against segregation -- these things were not being recorded. So what that experience of being involved in the southern movement did for me was to give me a different idea of what democracy is. Because in junior high school, and in our schools in general, democracy is presented as the structure of government: the Constitution. the three branches of government. What I realized is that democracy does not come through these institutions. These institutions are very often obstacles to democracy. and democracy comes alive when ordinary people get together and create a social movement for change, as they did in the civil rights movement and the antiwar movement and the women's movement. That was probably the most important thing I learned while teaching and being active in the South for seven years.

Have you ever broken down and posted a copy of your book to, say, a reactionary president or senator?

I've never done anything like that. Other people have. When I wrote a book during the early years of the Vietnam War, a book called Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal, there was a businessman in Ohio who bought up five hundred copies and sent one to every congressman, and to President Johnson.

Did you ever learn whether this approach achieved an impact?

Well, let's put it this way, the war continued. The last chapter in the book was a speech I'd written for Johnson -- not ordered by him [laughs] -- announcing our withdrawal from Vietnam. Of course Johnson never delivered that speech, although the following year he did refuse to run again, and began peace negotiations. I don't want to claim that my book led to that. I don't think my book had a direct effect on people in office. That book went through seven or eight printings, and I think it had its effect mostly on people who joined the peace movement.

More and more, the Left seems hell-bent on reclaiming the religious high ground. This effort commenced before the installation of George W. Bush, but the effort spiked somewhat after his reelection. How do you view this trend?

I think it's a good thing for the Right-wing capture of the Bible to be challenged, and for people who are progressive and religious -- like Jim Wallis, like Harvey Cox, like Daniel Berrigan -- to point out statements in the Bible that support the idea of peace and equality, and serving the poor rather than the rich. Theological doctrines and the Bible are susceptible to all sorts of interpretations, and therefore it is wrong to allow one political group to monopolize the interpretation of the Bible, and it is right to offer a challenge that will cause Christians to think about whether Jesus would approve of war, would approve of siphoning off the wealth of the country for the rich.

Is there anything you would like to add, Howard?

I think that it's extremely important for young people to learn a different history that will make them skeptical of what they hear from authority. I think if young people knew, for instance, the history of lies and violence that have accompanied American foreign policy, they would not be enticed into joining the armed forces.
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