Interviewed by David Barsamian
Cambridge, MA 3 December 2004
Howard Zinn, professor emeritus at Boston University, is perhaps this country’s premier radical historian. He was born in Brooklyn in 1922. His parents were poor immigrants. During World War II, he saw combat duty as an air force bombardier. After the war, he went to Columbia University on the GI Bill. He was an active figure in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. Today, he speaks all over the country before large and enthusiastic audiences. His masterpiece, “A People’s History of the U.S.” continues to sell in huge numbers. His latest book is “Voices of a People’s History of the U.S.”
I went there because one of the students, who is quite political and progressive, 16 years old, wrote me a remarkably eloquent letter inviting me. I realized after I got there why she invited me. Because her classmates are, as she put it, the sons and daughters of the elite. The parents are Republicans. These are rich kids, and conservative. She wanted me to talk to them about the war, which I did. I spoke to an assembly of about 200. And because I only had a short time with them, I just spoke for about five minutes. I compressed my entire world philosophy and life into five minutes, just to give them an idea of where I stood. And then I threw it open and we had a very lively back and forth. These kids were not shy, maybe because they come from families that give them confidence. Does money give you confidence? Maybe. In any case, it was lively because so many of them obviously disagreed with my position on the war, at least had questions about it.
But it was a good discussion, because they asked the kinds of questions that you might say ordinary Americans who have swallowed the Bush line on the war would ask. But shouldn't we have gotten rid of Saddam Hussein? Isn't it better that we got rid of Saddam Hussein? Isn't Iraq better off without Saddam Hussein? And besides, what should we have done about 9/11? Should we have stood by? Should we have just sat and done nothing about 9/11? And don't you believe in war, and don't you believe that war can solve problems and settle things? And don't you think we need to serve our country?
These are the kinds of questions I wanted. I love to talk about those things. And at the end of it, a lot of the students came up to me and expressed their support for what I was saying. When you give a talk like that, you don't know how much is going to sink in, you don't know what effect you're going to have, you don't know if the students will leave exactly as they entered. But my experience has been that very often you drop thoughts into the minds of young people, and they sort of germinate and something happens, not to all of them but to some of them. So, all in all, it was a useful experience.
Years ago, you gave me tapes of a debate you had with William F. Buckley at Tufts in January of 1971. I was listening to those tapes the other day. I was interested to hear you say then, that “The main thrust of American foreign policy is towards war, towards armaments, towards at this moment Vietnam, and tomorrow more adventures elsewhere in the world.”
It wasn't very hard for me to predict that. For anybody who knew anything about the history of American foreign policy, that person would not expect that Vietnam would be the last imperial adventure of the U.S. Vietnam was just one in a very long succession of expansionist moves by the U.S., starting with the conquest of the continent, the destruction of Indian tribes, and then moving into the Caribbean, and then moving across the Pacific at the turn of the century. So Vietnam was part of that long train of events. It wasn't hard for me or anybody else who knew American history to understand that what happened in Vietnam was likely to happen again.
There has been an arc of militarism, intervention, and imperialism. Talk about what is often described as the Age of Imperialism, the few short years during which the U.S. invaded the Philippines, Cuba, Guam, and other territories, and the uses of God in justifying the actions. In A People's History chapter on this, “The Empire and the People,” McKinley says, “I walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight; and I'm not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night late it came to me this way....” And then he goes on to list four reasons why the U.S. needed to invade the Philippines.
McKinley invoked God to justify his decision to move the American army and navy into the Philippines. And one of the reasons he gave is we must civilize and Christianize the Filipinos, which was an interesting concept, considering that most Filipinos were Christian. But they apparently had a different view of what God's will was than McKinley did. They didn't think it was God's will for them to be conquered by the U.S., so they fought back for a number of years.
Your pointing out that there was something called “The Age of Imperialism” in American textbooks. Maybe it still is. And it usually refers to just a few years of American history during which we took Cuba, the Philippines, Hawaii, Guam, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. And that takes care of the imperial history of the United States, according to most textbooks. But, of course, it had gone on for a long time before then and clearly has gone on for a long time since then.
Six decades after that burst of imperial violence, the U.S. was in Indochina, and today it is in Iraq. Is it all part of that same trajectory?
I have no doubt about it. It's interesting, the way that propaganda works. It depends on amnesia. Amnesia suggests forgetting, but in the case often of the American people, it isn't that they have forgotten, it's that they never learned. So it's possible for an administration to give reasons for going into Iraq which are reasons of immediacy; that is, it's because there are weapons of mass destruction, it's because they're ruled by a tyrant, because they present a threat. And without any history, it's possible for people to believe that. But with some history it is not, then, hard to see the invasion of Iraq as part of that long chain of imperial adventures.
Edward Said said, “Part of the main plan of imperialism...is that we will give you your history, we will write it for you, we will reorder the past....What's more truly frightening is the defacement, the mutilation, and ultimately the eradication of history in order to create...an order that is favorable to the United States.”
The eradication of history… Certainly the history of the U.S. in relation to the Middle East has been eradicated as far as American culture is concerned. That is, very few Americans understand that this present war in Iraq goes back in its history to the very end of World War II; that is, it goes back for 60 years, goes back to that moment when in effect the U.S. was taking over control and domination of the Middle East from the British and French, who had taken control at the time of the First World War. At the end of World War II, Franklin Roosevelt met with Ibn Saud, father of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and made a deal with him in effect to make the U.S. the protector of the Saudi rule. And, in return, for the U.S. to become the dominant controller of the oil of the Middle East, of course with Saudi Arabia being the number one repository of oil in the world. And that moment, the end of World War II, was the beginning of that keen American interest in the Middle East, always based on oil.
And you could see it then recurring. You see that interest leaping into the forefront in 1953 in Iran. Mossadeq, a popular, elected, nationalist leader, nationalizes the oil fields. And that pronounces his doom, because, that cannot be tolerated by the U.S. or other Western powers that are interested in oil. So the U.S. engineers a coup in Iran in 1953, a covert action, which now is quite well known, to overthrow Mossadeq and install the shah. Talk about the U.S. in favor of regime change or the U.S. in favor of democracy. It was a regime change, but not in favor of democracy, because the shah was the cruel tyrant who ruled over Iran for a long time. Steven Kinzer has written a book All the Shah's Men. He was a journalist in the Middle East. His book is a dramatic and interesting account of what happened in that coup.
Let me read you something. “The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Baghdad communiqués are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are to-day not far from a disaster....our unfortunate troops, Indian and British, under hard conditions of climate and supply are policing an immense area, paying dearly every day in lives for the willfully wrong policy of the civil administration in Baghdad but the responsibility, in this case, is not on the army which has acted only upon the request of the civil authorities.” That was written by T. E. Lawrence, the fabled Lawrence of Arabia, in the Sunday Times of London August 22, 1920. So if you just changed a couple of those words around today, it could sound like a dispatch coming from Bob Fisk or John Pilger.
They should show Lawrence of Arabia, again and again, because although its main intention was not to make a political and historical point, the point is vividly made in that film. And Peter O'Toole, playing Lawrence, expresses the sentiment, actually doesn't express it as strongly and as clearly as in that quotation that you read from him. But certainly the film makes quite clear that he was dismayed by the betrayal of the Arabs, with the British, of course, claiming, as the Americans are now claiming in Iraq, that they will enter into the Middle East and that they will do the mayhem that they're doing for the benefit of the Arab people. T. E. Lawrence understood that.
Eqbal Ahmad says of that imperial settlement at the end of World War I, when the Ottoman Empire was picked apart by the British and by the French, that “tribes were given flags” and were kind of turned into imperial petrol pumps.
That process goes on. It's a classic imperial story of people being used against their own interests and against their own people. Because an imperial power can never succeed in conquering a people only with its resources. It always needs internal allies. It always needs people in the conquered country that it can bribe or coerce into being what came to be known in World War II as Quislings, people who would betray their own people. Vidkun Quisling, a Norwegian, was the Nazi puppet ruler of Norway. We see this operating in every imperial situation. The British used Indians against Indians in maintaining control of India. The U.S. in Vietnam used the South Vietnamese army in trying to defeat the revolutionary movement in Vietnam.
But generally, historically, and this would be instructive for people looking at the situation today in Iraq, a point is reached when those domestic allies of the imperial power are no longer reliable, when they will not do the job. They do not come to it with the same enthusiasm that the imperial power comes to it, and so you find that they defect, they desert. And this is, in fact, what is happening now with the Iraqi soldiers that the U.S. has enlisted to help control Iraq.
Peter Balakian has written a book called The Burning Tigris. It's about the Armenian genocide, and the U.S. response to it in particular. He says, “Memory is a moral act.” To remember, to recall history is an act of affirmation.
That's an interesting way of putting it, that remembering, yes, is a moral act because without remembering, you are subject to somebody else's remembering or somebody else's forgetting. Without remembering, you are subject to the immorality of the people who control information and who control history. And so memory, then, when you insist on your own memory rather than the memory of the people in power, then it becomes a moral act.
Milan Kundera, the Czech writer, wrote The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. It opens with Communist Party leaders “...on the balcony of a Baroque palace in Prague....The Party propaganda section put out hundreds of thousands of copies...” of that photo. A few years later, one of those leaders had fallen from grace and was removed from power. And he was air-brushed out of that particular photograph. An interesting concept, air-brushing history. And then Kundera says, “...the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
Absolutely true. Laughter is the enemy of tyranny. I remember that in Kundera's ‘The Joke,” he has somebody in Czechoslovakia just send a postcard to somebody else with a joke on it, and that is enough to land that person in jail. You don't joke in a totalitarian state. Kundera, I think, does a service by reminding us of the importance of memory. And yes, those in power want us to forget, because without memory we were born yesterday and thus have no way of checking up on what is told to us by the government and the corporate media. Memory, history, is a reminder of past lies, deceits, and also a reminder that seemingly powerless people can defeat those who rule them, if they persist.
You might not be even able to joke in the U.S. Did you hear what happened in Boulder, Colorado, with a high school rock band?
A group originally called The Taliband later became The Coalition of the Willing. They were performing Bob Dylan's ”Masters of War,” a song you include in Voices of A People's History of the United States. The band performed it in rehearsals. And apparently someone took offense to it and called in to Denver radio talk shows saying that the kids in Boulder are threatening George Bush's life. The next day the Secret Service visited the band members and interrogated them.
That is one of those bizarre incidents that are happening more and more in the U.S. Now that you remind me of it, I did read about that. “Masters of War” is a very powerful statement. Let's not pretend that it is a gentle and innocent statement about war, because Dylan says, in effect, to the masters of war, When you die, I will celebrate. And that, in association with Bush being president, of course, is enough to suggest to the FBI and the Justice Department, “Oh, we mustn't talk about our leaders in that way. We mustn't talk about masters of war in that raw, bold way that Dylan talked about it.” I was at a concert not long ago here in Boston where Eddie Vedder sang “Masters of War” to 15,000 young people and got tremendous, tremendous applause for singing it. Here are some verses:
Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good?
Will it buy you forgiveness?
Do you think that it could?
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul
And I hope that you die
And your death'll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I'll watch while you're lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I'll stand o'er your grave
'Til I'm sure that you're dead
History is a battleground. It's extremely contentious. There have been fierce arguments about the Enola Gay exhibit and the atomic bombing of Japan. But particularly Vietnam has been a lightning rod for not just debate but extreme rancor, vitriol and recrimination. What is it about the Vietnam War that so riles people's sensitivities?
Vietnam was an especially dramatic and searing event in American history, one reason being that it was the first time that a war fought by the U.S. was met by a national movement of protest, which grew so powerful and had such an effect on the administration that it was forced to reckon with it. And that antiwar movement played an important part in bringing the war to an end, so much so that after the war ended, after the U.S. withdrew its troops from Vietnam, the administration of the U.S. was determined to, as they put it, get rid of the Vietnam syndrome.
“Syndrome” is a term that very often is associated with sickness. And what was sick about the Vietnam situation, in the eyes of the establishment, was that it brought forth a huge movement against war and militarism and against the establishment, a huge disaffection from the government. All the polls taken right after the end of the war showed that the public had lost faith in Congress, the president. the FBI. the CIA, and in the military. This was threatening and horrifying to the administration. They determined from that point on to do something about this Vietnam syndrome. And since then they have been trying very hard to destroy the memory of Vietnam, because the memory of Vietnam is a memory of the U.S. killing several million people in Vietnam for reasons that after a while people understood were false. And the memory of that, and the memory of the movement against the war, the memory of soldiers refusing to fight, the memory of B52 pilots refusing to fly anymore, they don't want that memory to exist, they don't want that memory to have an effect.
So Vietnam is an instance of American history that they are trying to either remove from the American consciousness or to give it a different kind of history, where we forget about what we really did to Vietnam and we think of it as a heroic thing. And I must say that John Kerry himself played into that, unfortunately, in the presidential campaign, because instead of emphasizing his true heroism in the war, that is, after the war, when he spoke out against the war, he put that aside and ignored that and instead talked about his military heroism in the war, thus doing what the establishment wanted, and that is, to keep the memory of the Vietnam war as a memory of military heroism rather than a memory of national disgrace.
Kerry said that he was proud to have defended the U.S. in Vietnam. I don't remember Vietnam attacking the U.S. that it needed that kind of defense.
What you said just reminded me of something that happened when I was speaking to that prep school in Tampa. You were saying that John Kerry said he was defending the U.S., and you pointed out that you weren't aware that Vietnam had attacked the U.S. And one of the questions put to me by a student at Tampa Prep was explaining our going into Iraq, saying, “Well, they attacked us, so we had to attack them.” And, of course, I just had to explain gently that, no, they did not attack us.
But the word “defense” is one of those words that is used again and again in an Orwellian way, and that is, you go into a country and you call it defense. You send troops halfway around the world to invade another country, and you call it defense. It's interesting that at the end of World War II we changed the name of the Department of War to the Department of Defense. In fact, just at that point when we were going to inaugurate a series of aggressive wars, from 1945 on, that is, in Korea, in Vietnam, in Panama and Grenada and Iraq and so on, just at the point when we truly became a war-making nation in a large sense, we changed the name from war to defense.
During the 2004 presidential campaign, Kerry's military record, and particularly what he did in terms of testifying as to war crimes before J. William Fulbright's senate foreign relations committee, of course became the focus of much attention. The infamous Swift boat ads were generously funded and appeared not only many, many times as commercials, but also as news items. So they got double play: you not only were subjected to them as commercials, but then the evening news would report on them and they would show them again and there would be a discussion about them. I just want to show you something that I picked up on the campaign trail, a Vietnamese currency note with a picture of John Kerry, calling him “The great war hero of the Viet Cong.”
This is a very common propaganda tool, to take anybody who criticizes a war that the U.S. is engaged in and to say therefore that person is in league with the enemy. Of course, that then becomes a basis not only for maligning the person, as was done in the case of John Kerry in the election campaign, but, more seriously, it becomes the case for putting people in jail, for claiming that people are serving the purpose of the enemy simply by criticizing the U.S. That's what happened in World War I, where people like Eugene Debs, but many other people, a thousand other people who criticized American entrance into the war, were then indicted under the Espionage Act. And interestingly, when people heard that they were indicted under the Espionage Act, they assumed they were guilty of espionage, which means you are serving the interests of another country. But what they were simply doing was criticizing American entrance into the war. But that was seen as tantamount to espionage, to treason, and therefore deserving of putting these people away. We are right now in the U.S. creating that kind of atmosphere, where anybody who is critical of American war is going to be in danger.
People like the actor Danny Glover, the writer Terry Tempest Williams have lost speaking engagements because of their position on Iraq.
I pay tribute to people like Danny Glover, who has not been intimidated, or Terry Tempest Williams or so many of the other people in the arts who have spoken out against the war. I remember Jessica Lange, who was speaking in Spain at a film festival shortly after the war began in Afghanistan. Somebody asked this Academy-Award-winning actress, what she thought of the Bush administration. And she said, “I despise the Bush administration and everything it stands for.” It caused a flurry, of course, but she continues to work and speak out. And I notice now that her husband, Sam Shepard, has a play on Broadway, “The God of Hell,” which is his first overtly political play of the 50 plays that he's written. And in one of his interviews he attributes the political nature of his play to the influence of his wife, Jessica Lange.
When you look at the American political landscape, the paradoxes and contradictions are also particularly acute. And I'm thinking of something you said in one of your talks. You said Nixon broke into an office building and he was impeached. Three decades later, Bush breaks into a country and nothing happens. Yet, at the same time, there is an enormous peace movement, there are huge demonstrations. What's happened between those two events?
It's interesting, this use of language for criminals breaking and entering. Yes, breaking and entering into a house, you go to jail. Breaking and entering into a country, you get elected. And what's happening now is that Bush, winning 51% of the vote, has taken 100% of control of the country, of all of its branches, of every aspect of government. This is a very dangerous situation for American democracy.
As you think back to that period of the 1960s and 1970s, maybe one could say that the caliber of the leaders in the Senate was significantly different, better, higher, than what we have today. At that time there was J. William Fulbright, Frank Church, Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening and people like that. Even some Republicans were against the intervention in Vietnam, or at least asked pointed questions.
It's true that we today in the Senate and in the House do not have the voices that we had at that time. I think it's fair to say that the voices at that time were not as courageous as they might have been. Fulbright was bold enough to hold hearings on the war and to give a platform to people who spoke out against the war. And Gruening and Morse voted against the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. Congress responded late. It took a strong antiwar movement in the country to finally move Congress, just towards the end of the war, to pass the War Powers Act, which albeit in not a very strong way attempted to limit the powers of the president and began to cut off funds for the war, which was coming to an end at that point. Today, we have very few powerful voices in Congress or the Senate.
I was happy to see that Cynthia McKinney, the African American woman in Georgia, regained her seat after being pushed out by a coalition of powerful moneyed interests, because she is one of the people who has been absolutely unyielding in her criticism of American foreign policy. I remember that in the first Gulf War, in 1991, Cynthia McKinney was one of the few people in Congress who spoke out against the war in Iraq at that time. So there are a few people like her. But we still lack in Congress real opposition. The Democratic Party itself has been pitifully weak. It has not been a true opposition party. And I think this suggests the need in the U.S. for a political movement which will do what the Democratic Party seems incapable of doing, and that is, to create a real political opposition to the policies of the administration.
Your 1967 book, Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal was recently reissued by South End Press. I was reading some of the exchanges in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that you reproduce there. And although there are no such hearings going on now, it almost replicates a lot of the media commentary about how we cannot just quit and run from Iraq, that our prestige would suffer, we would lose credibility. What do these things mean? What is prestige, what is credibility?
That's an interesting point, because those statements are made again and again, from war to war to war, that we must continue doing this because if we don't continue doing this, we will lose standing, lose prestige, that other countries in the world will lose respect for us. I think what they really mean is that other countries will stop fearing us. The truth is that the U.S. in general does not get the respect of other countries in the world but it instills fear in other countries, fear that they will lose economic benefits given to them by the U.S. And as a result, some of them go along. But, of course, those words “prestige” and “fear” need to be examined to see what they mean, because if you looked at them in moral terms, you would ask, What prestige adheres to a government that conducts an immoral war? What respect does the U.S. get from the rest of the world when it engages in such a war?
What's interesting in this case, and I think this is really unprecedented in the case of Iraq, is that on the eve of the war the world as a whole rose up and everywhere and protested against the U.S. entrance into the war, making it clear that by going into the war the U.S. was losing the respect, losing whatever prestige it had in the world. So these can become words just thrown out. Unfortunately, people in the media, journalists, use these words again and again to excuse what the U.S. is doing. And those words become substitutes for discussing the realities of the war. Instead of explaining why morally the U.S. needs to wage war, they are saying it needs to wage war to maintain its prestige, suggesting that even if the war is wrong, the important thing is to continue doing it so that people won't look on the U.S. as a country that ran, cut and run, as they put it.
Talk more about this mystical word “prestige.” France occupied Algeria for 132 years. For the last eight years of that occupation, it waged a brutal and vicious counterinsurgency war resulting in the death of perhaps a million Algerians. France under de Gaulle in 1962 left Algeria. Did France's prestige collapse?
I think you do something very important there, and that is you use history to demolish this notion that if an imperial power releases its hold on a colonized country, therefore it loses prestige. And, of course, the answer to your question is no. No, France did not lose prestige. Did the Soviet Union lose prestige when it left Afghanistan? I don't think so. And as far as the U.S. in Vietnam, the U.S. did not lose prestige because it left Vietnam. It lost prestige when it was bombing Vietnam.
There is a brilliant film made by Gillo Pontecorvo called The Battle of Algiers. It's a classic example of cinema verite, with hand-held cameras. In some sequences you think you're actually watching a documentary about the Algerian resistance to the French. It seems that there are some similarities between what the French were doing in Algeria and what the Americans are doing in Iraq: the Americans will win all the battles, they have overwhelming force, they use torture, as the French did, and is depicted in that film. But ultimately the resistance is able to overcome that kind of adversity.
The film has gotten more attention recently because a lot of people have recognized the similarities between the French war against the Algerians and what is happening today in Iraq. And as you pointed out, and I've seen this point made in the discussion of torture in Iraq, the French justified their torture the way the American military justifies their torture, and the way, you might say, that some people have justified Israeli torture. I think of Alan Dershowitz, who came out and defended the use of torture under certain circumstances.
And what's happened in Iraq, and what happened in Algeria, should be a lesson to the American establishment that they cannot win this war in Iraq. They may win battles, and they will kill a lot of people, as they are doing, but ultimately the U.S. is going to have to get out of Iraq, just as ultimately the French had to get out of Algeria. But they are not going to recognize it by themselves. They are not going to recognize it unless they reach a point when the resistance clearly is not going to stop, and also, when the American people demand that the U.S. stop the war. That's what it will take.
If you were to write The Logic of Withdrawal today in terms of Iraq, what would you write?
As I did then, in 1967. I must say, mine was the first book on the Vietnam War that called for American withdrawal. There had been a number of books critical of American intervention in Vietnam, but none of them called for withdrawal. Withdrawal was considered a radical step. And if I were talking about the situation in Iraq today, I would deal with the same kinds of arguments that were raised at that time, because at that time also it was said, just as you indicated before, that American prestige was involved, credibility, and also - and this is an important point that has to be made - if we leave Vietnam, they said, there will be a bloodbath, terrible things will happen.
To me, that's the argument that you see again and again. Whenever something atrocious is done, it is excused on the ground that it is preventing an even more atrocious act. The bombing of Hiroshima, one of the great atrocities of history, was justified by the fact that if they did not bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a greater calamity would occur, and that is, a million people would die, and these figures were ridiculously thrown out into the air, because then we would have to invade Japan. So the American people then, and, unfortunately, most Americans today, still accept the justification for the bombing of Hiroshima on the ground that it prevented an even greater number of deaths.
A lot of truth is lost in this. But one of the things that is lost in this is a simple concept. And that is, when you commit an atrocity in the immediate in order to prevent something in the future, the atrocity you commit is certain, the future is uncertain. Nobody knew what would happen in Vietnam after we left. Nobody knew what would happen if we didn't drop the bomb on Hiroshima. And nobody really knows what will happen in Iraq. What we do know is what is happening in Iraq right now is a catastrophe. We cannot justify continuing the catastrophe by saying something more catastrophic will happen.
You see the yellow ribbons with the words “Support Our Troops.” What do you think of that?
Everyone cares about young people sent to war. "Support our Troops," therefore, does not have any meaning until you give it some. To some people it means, "support the war." That's what it means to Bush and company. But supporting the war means keeping those troops in danger of losing their lives or arms or legs or eyesight. But the best way to support the troops is to save their lives, to get them out of the war. Therefore the U.S. government is certainly not supporting the troops. Exactly the opposite. It is dooming them to death or disfigurement or mental anguish. The only real way to support the troops is to bring them home. And then take care of them, physically, mentally, morally. Which is what governments don't do when the soldiers come home. Not how the latest Bush budget short-changes funds for veterans. And note how they refuse to accept (as with Agent Orange in Vietnam or depleted uranium in the first Gulf War) that our military activities have had terrible consequences for our soldiers and their families.
“Stay the course” is another empty slogan that is mindlessly repeated. Iraq is a disaster. It reminds me of the definition of fanaticism: when you discover you are going in the wrong direction, you double your speed.
In your essay “The Problem is Civil Disobedience,” reprinted in Voices of A People's History, you write, “...our topic is topsy-turvy: civil disobedience. As soon as you say the topic is civil disobedience, you are saying our problem is civil disobedience. That is not our problem.... Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is the numbers of people all over the world who have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their governments and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience.”
This was, of course, in the midst of the Vietnam War when I was engaged in this debate, interestingly enough, at Johns Hopkins, where I am going next week to speak again. And maybe I will remind them again at Johns Hopkins of the need for civil disobedience and of the dangers of obedience. But it struck me at that time, speaking during the Vietnam War, how people who committed civil disobedience in protesting the war were going to jail. And people who committed civil obedience, and that is by obeying the dictates of the government and going to war and killing people, of course that was the patriotic thing to do. But I remember some wise person talking about Adam and Eve in biting the apple, saying the human race came into being by an act of disobedience, and the human race will go out of existence by an act of obedience.
In New York I picked up a postcard with a bust of Comrade Lenin. It says, “No Empire Lasts Forever.” Actually it's a promo for a cable company that says, “Especially one that Keeps You Waiting 5 Hours for a Repairman.” So no empire lasts forever. I was thinking about that in relation to one of your columns in The Progressive, called “Humpty Dumpty Will Fall.” It's about empires in the past that were full of hubris, self-importance and a sense of infallibility. To illustrate your point, as you sometimes do, you bring in something from the world of art, in this case Aeschylus's play Persians.
I was inspired to do that because at that time in New York they were putting on Persians by Aeschylus. Written in the late 5th century BC, it may be the earliest surviving play in Western literature. It’s an elegy to a passing empire, Persia, and a warning to a new one, Greece. Of course, the Greeks have so much to say about war, having engaged in it so much themselves. And the Greek playwrights played the kind of role during the Greek wars that we, I think, hope our own artists and our own playwrights would play today. Euripides, Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Aristophanes were bitter opponents of war. In Persians, we see the fall of another seemingly invincible empire. The chorus recognizes the new reality:
All those years we spent jubilant,
seeing the trifling, cowering
world from the height of our
shining saddles, brawling our might
across the earth as we forged an
empire, I never questioned.
Surely were doing the right thing....
It seemed so clear - our fate was to rule.
That's what I thought at the time.
But perhaps we were merely
deafened for years by the din
of our own empire-building,
the shouts of battle,
the clanging of swords,
the cries of victory.
I thought it was so true that we here in the U.S. can be deafened by all the stories every day in the newspapers, the battles that we're fighting, and the heroism of our marines fighting their way into the streets of Falluja, and forgetting, then, what war is really like. I concluded that essay with the following:
Those of us who become momentarily disheartened by "the cries of victory" should remind ourselves of that long history in which seemingly insurmountable power fell not only of its own unbearable weight, but also because of the resistance of those who refused finally to bear that weight, and would not give up.
Your new book is Voices of A People's History of the United States. In what way is it different from or a companion to A People's History of the United States?
Voices of A People's History, originated with sort of a collective idea that came to me, Anthony Arnove, and Daniel Simon of Seven Stories Press. And that is that my book, A People's History, which has been read by an awful lot of people, has in it a lot of quotes and snatches of commentary by various people from fugitive slaves and angry women to antiwar protesters and striking workers. Our idea was that what people found most interesting in A People’s History were other people's words and not my own words. So we decided to take these little bits, these snatches that were in my book, of which there were many, and expand on them. Voices has a minimum of words from me and from Anthony, just introducing the selections to more full presentation of the words of Las Casas, Thoreau, Debs, Helen Keller, going right up to the present day with the Rodriguez family saying they’d lost their son in the explosions in the Twin Towers. And they did not want the government to retaliate for their son's death by killing other people.
One of the other voices you feature is Paul Robeson. A postage stamp was recently issued in his honor by the U.S. Post Office. On the back of the stamp you get a little biography. It says of him: “A world-renowned actor, singer, activist, and, athlete. Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was a man ahead of his time. Whether performing spirituals and folk songs or interpreting Shakespeare's Othello, Robeson infused his life and work with his principled stand against racism and his outspoken commitment to social justice.” All of which is true, but maybe space didn't allow for a little more elaboration on some of the things that happened to this remarkable actor, singer, and activist.
I was surprised that the Post Office department went as far as it did in issuing a stamp in his honor because, after all, Robeson was condemned by the U.S. government, Robeson was denied a passport, Robeson was threatened with prison, Robeson basically was blacklisted in the U.S. This famous actor and singer was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and questioned about his political beliefs. He was treated shamefully.
Earlier, you talked about the expunging of certain things from history, about people and events left out of history. Here’s an example of that. Paul Robeson was an all-American football player, The annual book that carried the pictures of all the all-American football teams, the year that he was on the all-American team carried a photo of the members of the all-American team, but Robeson's picture had been removed from that picture. I tell you that only to show how bizarre and how absolutely ridiculous are the lengths to which a kind of hysterical society will go.
In Voices you include his unread statement before the House Committee on Un-American Activities on June 12, 1956.
You said unread statement, because the House Committee on Un-American Activities would not allow him to read the statement he wanted to read. They wanted to question him, they wanted to interrogate him, they wanted to ask him about his political beliefs or his connections with Communists and so on, but they would not allow him to make a statement. Such a perfect illustration. A committee which calls itself a Committee on Un-American Activities yet engages in the most un-American activity of all, suppressing somebody's freedom of speech.
You include two songs from Woody Guthrie, “Ludlow Massacre” and “This Land Is Your Land,” the latter being widely known. “Ludlow Massacre” had a big impact on you when you first heard it.
It startled me, because I had never learned anything about the Ludlow massacre. I had never learned anything about the Colorado coal strike of 1913, 1914, which culminated in the Ludlow massacre, that is, the massacre of miners and killing of women and children, the burning of a tent colony by the National Guard in Colorado. I had not learned anything. I had a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University, and nothing like that had ever been mentioned in any of my courses or in any of my books. But that led me to investigate further and to do research on the Ludlow massacre and led me to write about it, as I have done.
Did you hear it on the radio?
I heard it on an old 78-rpm record. I'm sort of dubious that it would have been played on the radio. I'm not sure if it ever was.
And this was about when?
It was in the early 1950s.
In recent months, I visited Trinidad, Colorado, the site of the Ludlow Massacre, and there are some things to report. One is that the actual monument built by the United Mine Workers where you see the names of the 18 slain, including those of a three-month-old baby and a six-month-old baby, has been vandalized. That monument is just off I-25. Then I went to the nearby highway rest stop. There is a permanent photographic exhibit. And I'm reading the Colorado Historical Society text of what happened at Ludlow. It says, On April 20, 1914, this year is the 90th anniversary, “shots rang out” and “fire swept the camp.” There was no mention that Rockefeller, who owned the mine, paid to put down the strike by force. So, there again, the classic use of the passive voice, “shots rang out,” and ”fire swept the camp,” people were killed, a tragedy.
That's so often a way of covering up the responsibility for these tragedies, acting as if they came out of nowhere and removing these events from the context of class struggle and the context of state power and the link between state power and corporate power. Because that's exactly what we saw in Colorado: the link between the Colorado Fuel and Iron Corporation, Rockefeller's company, and the government of the state of Colorado, which called out the National Guard at the behest of Rockefeller. He then paid the National Guard because the state government couldn't afford to. So we had this collaboration between the state and the corporate entity. This kind of revelation about how American society works, about how the state works in collaboration with corporate power, is something they do not want to publicize.
The other Woody Guthrie song is “This Land is Your Land.” It was written in 1940 and was supposedly a socialist response to “God Bless America.” In your remarks you comment “in many cases” a couple of the song's stanzas, “which speak to Guthrie's sense of social justice, have been suppressed.”
This is something common that happens with songs, with poems. And that is, when a song becomes popular, they use the words that are relatively harmless and they leave out the most striking and rebellious passages, the ones that might incite more people to criticism of the system.
I heard Steve Earle in Santa Fe, New Mexico, sing those stanzas. Before he began he said, “These are the lines you don’t normally hear.” Here they are:
Was a high wall there that tried to stop me
A sign was painted said: Private Property
But on the back side it didn't say nothing-
That side was made for you and me.
One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the Relief Office I saw my people-
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
This land was made for you and me.
Another musician featured in Voices, someone in the tradition of Guthrie and Dylan, is Bruce Springsteen and his 1995 album “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” Tom Joad being the protagonist in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.
“The Ghost of Tom Joad.” I think it is important that Bruce Springsteen should write songs about that, because we need to recall The Grapes of Wrath. We need to recall what was important about The Grapes of Wrath. We need to recall that there are millions and millions of people in this country who live in poverty, are homeless, who live in ghettos, who live in places that are really unfit for human habitation, or people who have to migrate from one part of the country to another in search of work. These facts about American society are hidden, especially in time of war, when the headlines are all about what is happening in the war, and at the same time, nobody is understanding that Americans are suffering and that the money that goes for the war might be used to alleviate some of that suffering. So I think the kind of class consciousness that is represented in Springsteen's songs, and, of course, in Steinbeck's novel, needs to be revived in the U.S. today.
(Due to time constraints portions of this interview were not included in the national broadcast.Those portions are included in this transcript)