Howard Zinn joins Bill Moyers to discuss the voices of today’s people and his new film The People Speak.
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Bill Moyers: The historian and teacher Howard Zinn grew upon the tough streets of Brooklyn where he worked as a teenager in the shipyards. He went on to earn his doctorate in history from Columbia University and while teaching college became an activist in the Civil Rights Movement and in the opposition to the Vietnam War. Among his many books is A People’s History of the United States, written from the point of view of men and women left out of the official records of the American epic. Since its publication in 1980 it’s become a touchstone of dissent thought in America.
Bill Moyers: When I met with Howard Zinn, I asked him about his latest book, Terrorism and War, and about the politically engaged life he has led since he came home from the Air Force after World War II. You were a part of the force of World War II. You enlisted in the Air Force, became a bombardier in combat over Europe. You dropped lethal weapons on military and civilian targets below you. What was going through your mind when you do something like that?
Howard Zinn: None of this. When you’re bombing, you bomb from 30,000 feet. And so that is six miles up.
You don’t see any people. You don’t hear screams. You don’t see blood. You don’t see limbs being torn from people. You just see a target, and you’re aiming for that target, and you’ve done this again and again. You’ve dropped bombs on targets where you never saw human beings.
This is the nature of modern warfare. And this is why huge numbers of people can be killed and they don’t register as human beings to you. You kill at a distance. I’m sure the men who dropped the bombs on Hiroshima did not see what was going on down below. They were just bombing a target. So yes, I looked through the bomb site. And I was just aiming for this target, which had been identified for me by the intelligence people before we went off.
And so, yeah, I developed a horror of modern warfare and the dehumanization of people. And I don’t know if dehumanization is the right word, that is in order to dehumanize people you have to sort of know that they’re human in the first place. And then you dehumanize them. But here you’re not aware that there are human beings involved.
Bill Moyers: Tell me what happened over Royan.
Howard Zinn: Oh. There’s this little town on the Atlantic coast of France. And that experience, I think, has something to do with that attitude toward war, even so-called good wars, that I developed after World War II. A little town on the Atlantic coast of France, and we thought — I with my bomb group in East Anglia in England — we were not going to fly any missions anymore. The war was about to be over. It was a few weeks from the end. Everybody knew that.
And then suddenly we were roused in the middle of the night, told we’re going to bomb this little town. And why? Well, they said there’s several thousand German soldiers there. They’re not doing anything. Talk about preemptive.
Bill Moyers: Wait a minute. By this time the Allies had rolled across France —
Howard Zinn: Absolutely.
Bill Moyers: — and these had been left behind a pocket.
Howard Zinn: Exactly. Those Allies will cross France into Germany. We’re surprised that here were these German soldiers. They’re just waiting there on the edge of the sea, waiting for the war to end. And we are going to bomb them.
And so we sent — And I didn’t know the number of bombers. It’s interesting when you’re in a military operation, you don’t see the larger picture. I knew our 12 bombers from our base were going over. But I didn’t know that 1,200 bombers were going over this tiny town.
Bill Moyers: 1,200?
Howard Zinn: 1,200 bombers, yes. 1,200 heavy bombers. 1,200 B-17s went over this town of several thousand French people with the several thousand German soldiers around it. And we dropped what they call — this is what they told us in the briefing room — you’re going to drop jellied gasoline instead of your usual demolition bombs, napalm. It was the first use of napalm in the European theater. And we did this. I didn’t even think about it twice.
To this day I can understand how atrocities are done by ordinary people, what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil. I understand how, because I didn’t even think about it. I was just trained to drop bombs. There’s the enemy. You make a decision at the beginning of the war there the bad guys, you’re the good guys, and therefore everything goes.
Howard Zinn: And so we just did this. And so we destroyed the town of Royan, killed Frenchmen, killed women and children, killed German soldiers. Victory. And it was only afterward, it was only after Hiroshima and Nagasaki that I thought about that. And then I thought about Dresden. And then I thought about the other killing of civilians in the war, unnecessary even from the point of view of winning the war. And I thought war brutalizes everybody involved in it.
Bill Moyers: When did you realize that you had dropped napalm?
Howard Zinn: Well I knew that we were dropping something called jellied gasoline. But I had no idea what it was.
Bill Moyers: When did you find that out?
Howard Zinn: Found that out later. No, actually, I hate to confess this, I really didn’t find out what it did until the Vietnam War when I began reading about napalm and realized that what they called jellied gasoline was this burning, burning stuff that stuck to the skin of victims and tormented them before they died. I didn’t really understand that until after the war.
Now this is true of a lot of things that happened in war. Soldiers do things, airmen do things, they don’t really know what they’re doing.
Bill Moyers: If you and others had not been willing to do what you did, if United States had been a more modest nation then, as you would have us be now, wouldn’t Hitler and Mussolini have established control over all of Europe?
Howard Zinn: Probably. Probably. World War II is a very first special, complex case. And, yes, I was an enthusiastic Bombardier. I enlisted. I was imbued with the idea of fighting fascism. And I dropped these bombs and so on.
And yet, by the end of the war, I should say maybe a little after the end of the war, I began to think about war in general. And maybe Hiroshima and Nagasaki had a powerful effect on me. And I began to see how war corrupts everybody who engages in it.
Howard Zinn: And yes, we defeated Hitler and Mussolini. That’s true. But at the end of all of that, with 50 million people dead, what was the world like? We’d gotten rid of these specific dictators, and now the world was dominated by two superpowers with enormous arsenals of nuclear weapons, and with tyranny not gone from the world, fascism not gone from the world, appearing in countries all over the world, and militarization not gone, racism not gone. And here was the war. Presumably this was the war to end all wars. It wasn’t.
And so what would have happened? It is very hard to go back over a scenario historically and try to imagine another scenario. And well, if there’d been bloody civil war in South Africa and apartheid were defeated, people would have said, now, can you imagine that it could’ve been defeated in some other way? You see? We can’t imagine another scenario for World War II. This is a scenario very hard to do it. And I struggle to do it. If you can imagine Hitler and Mussolini out of existence.
Bill Moyers: Well, you can’t. They were real. It was a real threat. You responded to it.
Howard Zinn: Oh, yes. They were real. They were real. And I don’t know what the alternative might have been, you see. I don’t know if there could have been a series of resistance movements inside Europe. Remember the further Hitler extended his reach in Europe, the weaker he became. So when he got to Norway, when he got to the Scandinavian countries, there were times when he had to yield to internal resistance.
And so there were times in history where powerful military machines ran out of steam. Napoleon in Russia. I don’t know what would have happened. It would’ve taken more time.
What about the argument that bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki shortened the war by many months and saved hundreds of thousands of lives?
Howard Zinn: The only basis for saying that Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved hundreds of thousands of lives was to assume that the United States would have had to invade Japan in order to bring the war to and end. I’ve really studied that situation. I’ve really looked into it. I’ve really read the documents.
I have read what is the most massive piece of research on it by Gar Alperovitz and others, the decision to drop the atomic bomb. And I’ve read Richard Rhodes’ books on it. I’ve read a lot of stuff on it and read the Japanese documents and so on.
No. There was no need to invade Japan. Lives were not saved. Japan was on the verge of surrender. They had an emissary in Moscow negotiating terms of surrender. The only thing that stood between the Japanese and surrender was the status of the emperor. The United States would not grant the status of the emperor, which was the only obstacle to the Japanese settling.
And that’s clear from telegrams which we intercepted. We had broken the Japanese code. So there were other motives. There are always other motives, always other motives in the war. This is an example of where the government says, oh, this is why we’re doing this. But there are other motives.
Bill Moyers: Did you ever go to Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
Howard Zinn: I did. I did. I went to Hiroshima in 1966. I was invited by this Japanese group that has a kind of — They put on something in Hiroshima every year, a kind of very solemn ceremony where everybody gathers just before 8 o’clock in the morning when the bomb was dropped. Everybody gathers in silence to commemorate the dropping of the bomb. And then in a very eerie moment, because you’re looking at the clock and it’s getting to that moment, you hear an enormous sound and it’s frightening in the silence because it sounds like bombs. It’s the sound of thousands of doves being released into the air at that moment. That was what the Japanese were doing to commemorate the event, release thousands of doves into the air.
But maybe the most troubling experience I had in Hiroshima was when I was invited along with other foreigners, Americans and others, to visit what was called the House of Arrest in Hiroshima, which was a community center where victims of the bombing, people who had survived, but people who were disfigured, or people who had lost arms or legs or were blinded, would gather to commune with one another. And we, as international visitors, were invited to talk to them.
Howard Zinn: And I got up before them because I was designated to be the American who would talk to them. And I got up and I had decided I must confess to them that I was a Bombardier in the Air Force. And as I started to say this, I looked out at these people sitting there so politely, blind people, people without limbs, and I couldn’t go on. I couldn’t speak. I just could not bring myself to say anything. And I just sat down.
But I think if Americans could see the human consequences of war, really, really see them, not as statistics, not as 1,000 people died or 2,000 people died, if they could see the human consequences of war, as we have seen the human consequences of Sept. 11 and felt enormous compassion and anger, which we deserve to feel, if we Americans could see the human consequences of war on Afghanistan, of war on Iraq, if they could see the sight of that 10-year-old kid in Afghanistan who lost his eyes and lost his arms because of a bombing, American people would not support war. I fully believe that it is this impersonal aspect of war that enables wars to go on.
Bill Moyers: But if the generation that fights a war like you fought against Hitler and the warlords of Japan developed too overwrought a conscience, will the next generation defend itself against the bullies of the world?
Defending itself is an expression that has to be looked upon very carefully. Because the word defense is being used to cover all sorts of aggressive activity which are not defense. And we are not defending ourselves against terrorism when we bomb Afghanistan. We are not defending ourselves against Iraq when we go to war against Iraq. Because defense means that somebody has attacked you or somebody’s in a process of attacking you and you are defending yourself. Defense cannot cover preemptive action.
Bill Moyers: But with all due respect, if you were George W. Bush, you would think after 9/11 that attacking the place from which the terrorists may well have come was self-defense. I’m not necessarily disagreeing with you. I’m only saying that when you are inside that —
Howard Zinn: Oh, I think he can persuade himself. I think the people in Washington —
Bill Moyers: We were attacked. So the president — You’re a student of the Constitution. Let’s talk about the common defense there.
Howard Zinn: Oh, sure. We were attacked. But then the question is, who attacked us? If we could locate the people who attacked us and get them, grab them, find them, OK. That’s self-defense. But if we are attacked and we don’t know who attacked us and we just select a country from which we think the attackers may have sprung and then just bomb that country, that is not defense. That is indiscriminate violence.
Bill Moyers: There was no doubt about where bin Laden was.
Howard Zinn: Yes, but it’s like there’s no doubt that this murderer is hiding out in South Boston so let’s bomb South Boston Because he probably has even friends in South Boston who are hiding him out. Let’s bomb South Boston. We may kill 1,000 people in South Boston, and by the way, we might not find the murderer. Will we call that defense? No, I don’t think so.
I think that word, defense, has to be looked at very carefully. The United Nations charter defines defense. And it’s not going after a country because somebody has attacked you. If that country attacks you and you are fighting back, that’s defense.
Bill Moyers: I would agree with you. But then I think back to the flames coming out of the Twin Towers on the 11th of September. And I think of those men who were willing to engage in the indiscriminate killing of civilian people.
Howard Zinn: Yes. There may be people like that around for a long time. And there have been. After all, that wasn’t the first act of terrorism the world. It was just the first act of terrorism in New York City.
Bill Moyers: In fact, I wanted to ask you about that. Because you could say that the terrorists declared war on the United States in 1979 when the Iranian extremists seized the American embassy and held hostages for over a year. Then there was the attack on the marine barracks in Lebanon that killed almost 300 American Marines. There were the bombings of the American embassy in Nairobi and Tanzania. There was Saddam Hussein’s effort to kill former President Bush in 1994 when he went to Kuwait. You could say that the terrorists have been carrying on a war against the United States for a long time now and that they have been encouraged by our ineffectual responses to them to believe that we’re paper tigers and that George W. Bush is at least saying to them, we’re no longer a paper tiger.
Howard Zinn: We didn’t always respond ineffectually, and we didn’t always respond nonviolently. President Clinton responded to the bombing of the embassies with bombings, with bombing the Sudan, bombing Afghanistan. He responded with bombings.
Bill Moyers: And hitting a pharmaceutical company instead of a terrorist nest.
Howard Zinn: Exactly. The point is that are terrorists going to be deterred? Are terrorists going to be scared if we react violently? No. They love it. That’s what they dote on. They dote on violence. They dote on having more reasons to commit more terrorism.
We solved the problem of the hostages in Iran by negotiations. And there are many situations where we engage in violence and in wars that could be solved by negotiations. And very often you think that the administration doesn’t want negotiations, that it prefer war. And well, I think of a Vietnam, you know, where we preferred war to having an election in Vietnam that would decide the fate of Vietnam.
Howard Zinn: Preferred victory. President Johnson voted to achieve a noncommunist South Vietnam.
That’s right. But I think of all of those instances in which the United States used force which could have been determined by negotiation. I just recently read in a book about the Korean War, a scholarly book about the Korean War, remember the Korean War — here was the typical situation. Somebody crosses a border. Somebody invades North Korea, invades South Korea. The only thing to do is go to war. That’s the mechanical automatic response.
We go to war in Korea for three years. Two million people get killed. At the end of it, where are we? At the end of it, we’re where we were at the beginning, a dictatorship in North Korea, a dictatorship in South Korea. One month — and this is what I get from Rosemary Foot’s very scholarly book on the Korean War — into the Korean War there was an opportunity to negotiate the North Korean withdrawal from South Korea with India taking the initiative in creating this negotiation. The United States turned it down, and then millions of people are killed.
Bill Moyers: How would you have us fight terrorism?
Howard Zinn: What I’m suggesting is something that’s more difficult, more difficult than finding this one person or these 10 people, even though we have found that, obviously, very difficult, finding Osama bin Laden. I’m suggesting something more fundamental and more difficult. And that is the changing of the posture of the United States in the world, to change us, change our policy from being an oppressive superpower with its forces everywhere in the world and with a record of using these forces which does not make a lot of people in the world look kindly upon us. So change our posture from that, from a military superpower to a humanitarian superpower.
We are enormously wealthy. Let’s use that wealth to send medicines to Africa. Let’s use that wealth to help change social and economic conditions around the world. We don’t need military bases around the world. Why do we need military bases everywhere?
Bill Moyers: Well, one argument would be Osama bin Laden has called on Muslims for one reason to attack the United States because he says Americans are stationed on Saudi Arabia soil near the holy shrines of Mecca and other places that are sacred to the Muslims. And the bases are there because Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and the Saudis asked us to come in and put those bases there. So again, what’s the chicken and what’s the egg here?
Howard Zinn: Well, I think that the American bases are there because the United States wants another toehold in the Middle East. After all, we’ve used the war on terrorism and the bombing Afghanistan as a reason to establish more military bases in places around Afghanistan, in central Asia, in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan. And then they have nothing to do with whether Saddam Hussein is going to invade Kuwait again.
After all, it’s a long historic experience of the United States for a long time, and especially since World War II, to establish military presence everywhere in the world that we can. And Saudi Arabia is just one of them. And sure, we always excuse it by saying, well, we’re doing it for good purposes, for preventive purposes. But I don’t really believe that.
Howard Zinn: Do you know, there’s a fundamental problem here. And that is the credibility of the United States government. It’s not just the United States government, the credibility of any government. And I remember I.F. Stone the great journalist, would say this to journalism classes, he’d say, one thing you should remember, governments lie. We’ve learned this about governments all over the world, dictatorial governments, so-called democratic governments.
Here is the United States our government has lied again and again, has deceived its people again and again about what it was doing in Vietnam, about what it was doing in Central America, about what it was doing in Indonesia. And so I don’t believe the United States government when it says, oh, we care about terrorism. Because the United States government is following policies that can only enhance terrorism and multiply terrorism, and it’s not solving the fundamental problems that underlie terrorism.
Bill Moyers: You know, Howard, I am sympathetic to your argument. Your work has had a great influence on me. A lot of people, however, say no matter what happens, even in the aftermath of Sept. 11 when 3,000 people were killed by terrorists, people like Howard Zinn are always blaming America for everything that goes wrong in the world. And they don’t listen.
Howard Zinn: Well, I don’t blame America for everything that’s gone wrong in the world. But I think I look at individual situations and decide whether America should be blamed. No, America can’t be blamed for Sept. 11. The terrorists did that terrible thing on Sept. 11. But the United States this can be blamed for the kinds of things it’s done in the world which do not arouse friendship but arouses enmity and which, therefore, lead to terrorism.
Bill Moyers: Such as?
Howard Zinn: Well, if you go before Sept. 11, if you go before the Gulf War and you look at the United States and its intervention in Vietnam, several million people die. You look at the United States’ intervention in Central America, and we support death squad governments that kill hundreds of thousands of people. And more immediately in the Middle East, it’s the problems that we spoke about. It’s the sanctions on Iraq and the support of Israel at a time when anybody who really knows anything about the situation knows that Israel must get out of the occupied territories. The United States is the one power that’s in a position to pressure Israel to get out of the occupied territories, and it doesn’t.
Think these are really serious grievances for the people in the Middle East. I’m not talking about grievances for terrorists, grievances for people who are not going to be terrorists. But out of those millions of people, a handful of terrorist will come. We have to deal with those grievances.
Bill Moyers: You’re a student of history and the history you’ve studied is the history of religion. Let me ask you, is it conceivable to you that there is something in the nature of, say, Islam that irrespective of American offenses and America activities, is there something in the nature of that strain of Islam that could hate us for just being who we are?
I don’t think so. There’s something in every religion that creates the possibilities for violence, including the Old Testament. You could look at the record of the Christian fascist countries of Germany and Italy and Spain and the United States, and you might ask, is there something inherent in Christianity? Is there something there? Yes, there could be.
Bill Moyers: So is there something in Islam?
Howard Zinn: But I don’t think so.
Bill Moyers: You don’t think so?
Howard Zinn: No, no. I don’t think so. Because you find these characteristics across the religious board. But religion is always a handy thing to pin the problem on. And also it makes the problem inoperable, unsolvable because religion is so —
Bill Moyers: If God told me, there’s no debating, right?
Howard Zinn: That’s right. But I don’t believe that.
Bill Moyers: But the Islamists, the bin Laden followers are always invoking Allah, always invoking their faith.
Howard Zinn: Sure. And we have Christian fundamentalists in the United States who are invoking their faith.
Bill Moyers: But they didn’t fly planes into the World Trade Center.
Howard Zinn: Oh, but they’ve done other things. They’ve supported our wars. We had priests and ministers blessing the wars that we fought overseas. I remember Cardinal Spellman in New York blessing the wars that we were fighting in Korea and Vietnam. So yes, it’s always helpful to people that make wars to find a religious support for it. But I don’t think that is crucial, because I think the evil in the world cuts across religious lines.
Bill Moyers: Back to something you said earlier. It’s impossible in fighting a war to avoid civilian casualties. Is your conclusion that we should not fight wars, then, because there will be civilian casualties?
Howard Zinn: Yes. Yes.
Bill Moyers: Does this make you a pacifist?
Howard Zinn: No. I avoid the word pacifist. And the reason I avoid it is that it suggests passivity, that is people think of pacifists as somebody who’s going to sit by and do nothing — maybe meditate — while terrible things go on in the world. No.
I believe that we cannot sit idly by while terrible things are going on, while tyrannies exist, while people are starving, while people are dying. I keep coming back to the fact that political tyrannies like Iraq have to be juxtaposed against other problems in the world which are very, very serious. More people die each day of hunger every day than were killed in that one day in the Twin Towers.
Howard Zinn: So I don’t believe in passivity. I believe we should do something about these problems, but we should not do war because war makes things worse than they were before. War has consequences which you cannot predict, you see, and unintended consequences and inevitable consequences.
And so I think we’ve reached that point in history, at least I like to think we reached that point in history, where we stop thinking we can solve problems with violence and when we look for other kinds of solutions. The other kinds of solutions are not being passive. The other kinds of solutions are what I would call nonviolent direct action. Action that you take, but action which is not at the level of wartime violence, war-making violence.
Bill Moyers: So if people agree with you, what can they do?
Howard Zinn: Well, what they can do is people everywhere, first of all, must build up resistance movements against their own governments when their governments are behaving tyrannically, when their governments are behaving aggressively, when their governments are making war. And people must look for nonviolent solutions to terrible things.
You know, I think of South Africa, and I think of how, at a certain point, the African National Congress had to make a decision. And the decision was shall we engage in bloody civil war, armed struggle in South Africa? What could be worse than apartheid? Talk about tyranny. Talk about evil. What could be worse than apartheid, semi-slavery for the majority black population of South Africa?
Howard Zinn: The African National Congress decided no that we must win this war if we engage in blood. We could get arms from the outside. We could get support. We might win this war against the apartheid regime. But in the course of it, a million black people will die. We don’t know how many people will die. And they decided to embark on a course. It wasn’t passivity. It was a series of tactics, of strikes and boycotts and bringing the international community to put economic pressure and to do all sorts of things, sabotage.
Violence was not eliminated. And Nelson Mandela went to prison for advocating not violence against people, interestingly enough. He went to prison for advocating sabotage, violence against property, which is tolerable for a good cause, whereas violence against people is not.
So what I’m suggesting is the human race has reached that point where it has to reject war, that is the indiscriminate killing of innocent people, as a way of solving problems. And it must use this ingenuity, which we presumably have, with which we can go to the moon, to figure out ways of solving the problems of the world without war.
Bill Moyers: This book, A People’s History of the United States, has sold a million or more copies, and it’s taught in colleges and universities around the country. What did you learn writing this?
Howard Zinn: I learned a lot.
Bill Moyers: About American history, though. You look at American history in this book as no one else had until then.
Howard Zinn: Yeah.
Bill Moyers: This book sent you down paths other historians have not travelled.
Howard Zinn: Yeah. Yeah, that’s true. And it was because I didn’t know what I would come up with. I did not know when I started out what I would come up with. I only know one thing and that is that I wanted to write a book about the United States which would tell the stories of people whose stories had not been told before.
And I wanted to tell about American history from viewpoints that had never been heard before. That is, I knew that I wanted to tell the story of wars from the standpoint of GIs and not generals and tell a story of economic progress, the great American economic miracle, from the standpoint of working people, from the standpoint of the Irish immigrants and Chinese immigrants who worked on the transcontinental railroad. I knew I wanted to tell the story of the United States from the point of view of dissenters, not from the point of view of the government, not from the point of view of the people in power. That I knew.
Howard Zinn: But I didn’t know what that would mean. And so it started right out with Columbus.
Bill Moyers: I remember that furor. You painted Columbus — You acknowledged his skills as a mariner, but you went on to point out that he was vicious in his treatment of the native people whom he enslaved, tortured, and murdered, all in the pursuit of wealth. There was an enormous furor over that.
Howard Zinn: Well, probably because it was the first chapter in the book. I didn’t like to think that people read the first chapter. But that did cause more consternation than anything else in the book. And I think that’s because all these people in the United States had the same experience I did, maybe all of us did.
Bill Moyers: I did.
Howard Zinn: Yeah. We all went to school, and we learned about the Columbus, the great man, the great navigator, the religious man, the great adventurer, et cetera, et cetera. And the truth is, I don’t like to admit this, when I started to write about Columbus I didn’t know the facts about Columbus. I knew that I wanted to look at Columbus from the standpoint of the Indians. But I didn’t know what that would mean.
Then I read Bartolome de las Casas, the Spanish priest who was there on Hispanola where Columbus was operating. And I read his history of the Indes, and I was astonished, taken a back. Columbus suddenly, yes, a navigator, but a murderer, a man who mutilated Indians, a man who kidnapped Indians, enslaved them, a man who was motivated, oh, not by religious conviction — although that’s what he talked about. There’s an early instance of people presenting one motive and having others — motivated by greed, gold, the search for gold. And that was a starting point.
And so I told the story of Columbus from the standpoint of the Arawaks Indians, these peaceable people whom Columbus then treated so savagely when he arrived here. And that then gave me the clue. I went on.
Howard Zinn: Oh, yeah, what about the American Revolution? Am I going to talk about Washington and Franklin and Jefferson? No. What about the working people? What about the people left out of the American Revolution? What about the slaves who were not freed by the American Revolution? What about the Native Americans who were going to lose out because the American colonists were going to drive the British away and then move into Indian lands? What about the soldiers who mutinied against Washington?
And I didn’t know about that until I looked into it. Oh, mutinies against Washington, conflict between soldiers and their officers, class conflict in a revolution. This became a theme throughout the book, class conflict always overlooked.
Bill Moyers: You kept reshuffling our heroes and our villains and describing the founding fathers, as you just said, as “rich white slave holders, merchants, bondholders, fearful of the lower classes.” You described our military heroes, like Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt as “racists, imperialists, war lovers.”
Howard Zinn: That sounds bad.
Bill Moyers: Well, you upset a lot of people.
Howard Zinn: Well, yeah. And sometimes people would say to me, what are you doing? You’re getting rid of our heroes. We need heroes. Kids. Our children, they need heroes to look up to. And I would agree. They need heroes to look up to, but not these heroes. They don’t need Theodore Roosevelt as a hero. They don’t need as a hero a man who was a war lover, a man who supported the invasion of the Philippines, who congratulated a general for committing a massacre in the Philippines. No, that’s not a hero.
Let these young people have as a hero Mark Twain, who denounced Theodore Roosevelt for what was going on in the Philippine War. Let them have as a hero not Woodrow Wilson who got us into World War I for reasons which people are still trying to figure out. Let them have as a hero Helen Keller, who protested against World War I. Instead of having Andrew Jackson as a hero, who killed Indians, was an Indian hater, really, and who use the Army to drive Indians out of their homes — talk about ethnic cleansing. That was it. Instead of him, let’s use the Cherokees who were driven out and who tried to resist you. Let’s use them as heroes.
Bill Moyers: What’s more important to a people, truth or mythology?
Howard Zinn: Well, I think truth is important.
Bill Moyers: But truth doesn’t inspire the way — but mythology inspires. Truth sometimes depresses.
Howard Zinn: Truth can be depressing. And of course a good part of the truth is depressing. But there is a part of the truth which is not mythology that is not made up. And it’s not depressing. It’s really ennobling. It’s really inspiring. Because sure you can tell the story of the Depression in a way that makes people feel bad. But you don’t have to invent myths to find really inspiring stories that come out of the Depression, of working people in the Ford plants and General Motors plants who were working under terrible conditions and who then went out on strike to change their conditions.
And they were arrayed against the most powerful industrialists in the country, and Ford and General Motors and arrayed against soldiers and police. And they went on strike and they persisted and they sat in on the plants. And they won, and they changed the conditions of their lives. Those aren’t myths. Those are real stories. The story of the Civil Rights Movement, you don’t need myths.
Bill Moyers: But what good does it do to tell people that their heroes who have inspired them have clay feet?
Howard Zinn: Well, it’s good because then it warns them about other people who are going to be set before them as heroes. And it warns them to scrutinize these people who are put up as heroes and ask, what did they really do. And what did other people do?
Bill Moyers: When A People’s History of the United States appeared, you would have been charged with assault with a deadly weapon, a book, if they could have. It really upended people’s conceptions. And yet at the same time, didn’t it liberate a lot of other people to start writing in the same vein and telling other stories that had been undiscovered or untold in American history?
Howard Zinn: I hope so. I don’t know how much to attribute it to my book. Of course, I’d love to attribute everything good to my book. But it’s true that after my book appeared we began to see more and more books about Native-American history, about women’s history, about the history of dissenters. I’d like to think not that that was the result of my book. Although my book encouraged people to do that. I think it did that.
But I think maybe it’s more accurate to say that all of this sudden new interest in black history and women’s history and the history of dissenters came out of the movements of the ’60s, of the anti-war movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the women’s movement, the gay and lesbian movement, the disabled people’s movement. I think all of those movements, they simulated me. They stimulated other writers. And so we have a new literature, fortunately.
Bill Moyers: If you were writing a history of America today, if you were going to revise A People’s History, what would be your focus, your theme?
Howard Zinn: I would, for instance, I suppose be looking at those people who are dissenting from both the Republican and Democratic parties in what seems to be their united determination or willingness — determination on one part, willingness on the other part — to go to war. I would be concentrating on the protesters.
Yes, I’d be talking about the terrorist act, terrible terrorist act of Sept. 11, but then I wouldn’t portray Bush as a hero responding to that. I would talk to Amber Amundson, a woman whose husband, a pilot, was killed in the Pentagon on Sept. 11 with the crash into the Pentagon and who wrote a letter to President Bush saying, my husband would not have wanted you to respond to this act of terrorism by waging war on other people and killing innocent people.
Howard Zinn: I would talk to those people who now call themselves Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, these families of victims — and I’ve met a number of them — families of people who are victims of the Twin Towers and who are saying, we don’t want war. That is not the proper response to terrorism. We are against terrorism, whether it comes from Osama bin Laden or whether it comes from the United States government. So I would talk to people like that.
I would also talk to people who are suffering as a result of the government spending enormous sums of money on war. $200 million for one F-22 fighter. Government spending enormous sums of money on war while there are people who are cold in this miserable winter that we are experiencing right now. I’m living in Boston, and now I’m in New York. And in both cities it is bitterly cold.
Howard Zinn: And there are people who either are out on the street, or they’re in their homes and they don’t have heating oil. They can’t afford to pay their oil bills, and the government is cutting back on the heating oil. I would talk to these people because they’re the overlooked ones.
Does it depress you to believe you’re right and know you’re marginalized, that the people in power don’t listen to that kind of petition?
It doesn’t depress me to know that the people in power don’t listen to me because I’m used to that. That is, people who are dissidents are accustomed to the people in power not listening. And the reason we are not discouraged is we feel that they will not listen and not listen and not listen, and movements will grow and grow and grow. And one day the movement will grow strong enough so that they will have to listen.
Bill Moyers: I’ve seen that happen. We’ve all seen it happen. We saw it happen in the civil rights movement. The government did not listen. Kennedy and Johnson, liberals, did not listen when the civil rights movement called for protection against violence in the South.
Howard Zinn: They did not listen. Congress did not listen. They did not pass new legislation until the movement grew to the point they could not ignore it. Same thing happened during the war in Vietnam. And so I’m not discouraged because I’m encouraged. When you talk about being marginalized, I don’t feel marginalized because the administration is not listening. Because I know there are very, very large numbers of people in the country who feel as I do.
Bill Moyers: Where do you see effective dissent today?
Howard Zinn: Today? Well, of course we don’t know yet the effects of dissent. It’s too early in the anti-war movement. Although you can point to small affects, but we’re not seeing any large effect of the anti-war movement. But I am seeing the movement growing. I am seeing anti-war meetings, teach-ins, rallies, and vigils taking place in cities and towns all over the country, little towns, four towns in Montana, five towns in Alaska, places where we never had an anti-war movement.
I see, yes, all these signs of movement growing, not yet reaching the point where it has affected policy. But when I say small signs, I feel that the rhetoric of the Bush administration, when it is not saying, oh, we’re going to go to war, when it is not saying that, it’s is saying, oh, we would like thereto be a peaceful solution. In other words, there are moments —
Bill Moyers: Yeah, but they went to the UN.
Howard Zinn: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. And I believe that going to the UN was in part a result of the feeling that there’s not enough support for the war.
Bill Moyers: You remind me of the poem the women in the Garment District used to recite to one another, “Rise like lions after slumber in unvanquishable number. Shake your chains to Earth, like dew which in sleep had fallen on you. You are many. They are few.” But that was another time. People don’t talk that way anymore.
Howard Zinn: Well, we’re not that eloquent. But the feeling is there. That feeling must exist among all these people who protest even though they know that their protest is not immediately being listened to.
I think it comes from a sense of history. It comes from a sense that this has happened before. It’s happened before the people have protested and apparently not been listened to, and yet at a certain point they had to be listened to. It comes from reading the poets and knowing that ultimately the poets will have the last word.
Bill Moyers: Does it strike you that the bad things that happen in history keep happening, war, violence? The good things that happen are unexpected.
Howard Zinn: That’s a very good point. That’s an important point, because it should give us some hope for the future that we get surprising, unexpected things that happened. A dictator suddenly whose power we thought was absolute — I think of Marcos in the Philippines, or I think of Trujillo in the Dominican Republic or Batista in Cuba, these people whose power seemed absolute over their people — you wake up one morning and there are 200,000 people in the streets of their capital city, and the dictator is fleeing quickly on a helicopter carrying his loot with him finding some country that will give him safe haven. Surprise.
Howard Zinn: We’ve been surprised so many times. I think that’s important for people to keep in mind who get discouraged. We’ve been surprised. We’ve been surprised by Franco’s Spain disappearing and a new kind of Spain —
Bill Moyers: The collapse of the Soviet Union.
Howard Zinn: The collapse of the Soviet Union.
Bill Moyers: Dissolving almost overnight.
Howard Zinn: Oh, yes. Different things happening in Eastern Europe. We’ve been surprised so many times. We were surprised in this country by the end of racial segregation when it looked impossible in the early1950s. Surprised by so many things.
And that’s why the historical perspective — while I said that as a historian I couldn’t predict, and it’s still true. But history is useful in giving you the kind of perspective which doesn’t allow you to get discouraged. Because you’ve seen too many times in the past when people were discouraged but something surprised them, something that was building up, building up, building up under the surface and then emerged and something happened. I’m still hopeful for America.
Bill Moyers: So this is what makes a historian, even a historian who’s at home with the brutalities, the wars, the violence, the depressions of the past, the ravages of the past, you remain optimistic.
Howard Zinn: Yeah, I do. Because of what I’ve seen as possible in history, what I’ve experienced myself being involved in social movements, and also because of the people I see. If you look on television only and all you see is the Secretary of Defense and the President and the experts, that’s very discouraging. But if you go out and talk to people, and you meet people all over the country who have some common sense and who are thinking for themselves and who are not accepting what is being told to them, and you run into people who are going on vigils and writing letters or even people who are not doing any of those things but merely beginning to think for themselves, that gives you some hope.
Bill Moyers: Thank you very much, Howard Zinn.
Howard Zinn: Thanks for having me.
This transcript was entered on June 25, 2015.