The Authors@Google program welcomed Howard Zinn to Google’s Cambridge office on November 11, 2008. Professor Howard Zinn discusses the role of U.S. Empire and how militarism and U.S. interventionism comes at a cost of harming the people in the U.S., as well as the harm done to other countries.
EDITORS NOTE: This transcription has been reviewed and edited to capture and match sentence structures to the best of our ability. Please check the actual audio before quoting passages.
Howard Zinn is an American historian, political scientist, social critic, and author. In his introduction to the book, Voices of A People’s History of the United States, Zinn writes, “When I decided to write A People’s History of the United States, I decided I wanted to tell the story of the nation’s wars, not through the eyes of the generals and the political leaders, but from the viewpoints of the working class youngsters who became G.I.s or the parents or wives who received the blackboard and telegrams.” He goes on to say, “Every American school child learns about the Boston Massacre: Five colonialists were killed by British troops in 1770. But how many school children learned about the massacre of 600 men, women, and children of the Pequot tribe in New England in 1637?”
Paraphrasing what Dale McCartney, editor of the Canadian online magazine Seven Oaks, once wrote, “Zinn favors an openly political stance that reclaims the history of oppressed peoples, regardless of race or gender. His work is an important corrective to the academic tradition of objectivity that has played a key role in marginalizing oppressed peoples and derailing social movements.” Zinn comes to us today, a scholar of American history, former Air Force bombardier, a child of working class immigrants, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a citizen of the world. Please join me in welcoming Howard Zinn. [Audience applause]
Howard Zinn 01:31
Thank you, Ann. Should I say a few things before I listen to your questions? Maybe I will. Okay. Maybe I’ll start with the election. Because everybody seems to be interested, right? It just happened. People are excited. And I was excited, too. I was — yes — I felt great when Obama won, and it was very moving to see the faces on television. Especially — well, both Black and white people — but especially Black people. It meant so much to them and reminded me — because they also showed pictures of students at Spelman College — young Black women at Spelman College in Atlanta. That’s where I taught for seven years. And you looked at their faces — and their exaltation. It was very, very heartwarming. So yes. Enormous good feeling about the first African American to be president. Of course, we wouldn’t celebrate for every African American.
There are African Americans and there are African Americans, right? I mean, if Clarence Thomas were to run for president of the United States, would we be running out and supporting him because he’s African American? No, absolutely not. So there’s, it’s more than that. It’s part of what it means after the long heritage of slavery and segregation — and as part of what Obama seems to represent: Something new. So very articulate and intelligent. Well read. And apparently open to — well, that word that he uses in the campaign again and again, right? — change. Well, that remains to be seen. That is, now that he’s been elected — now that he’s president — now that he’s capable of bringing about change — the question is, will he?
Or to put it another way: How much change will he bring about? Will he be satisfied with the minuscule changes, which show some separation from the Bush administration and some move forward, but not enough to really make important changes in American policy? Or will he be bold and will he make the kind of changes which are absolutely necessary today in this country, and the world? That’s an open question. I’m, frankly, not heartened by the campaign itself, and by the caution of Obama in the course of the campaign. Not heartened by the fact that the war was sort of put into the background — and we are at war. Wars are hard to put into the background. But yet the war was put into the background and not given a huge amount of attention. And why? Because his opponent was a supposed war hero?
I say a “supposed’ war hero because I don’t consider McCain a war hero. He’s a man who suffered torture, so not a war hero. A war hero? No, that’s something else. He’s a man who bombed Vietnamese villages — killed a lot of people — and then he suffered torture — underwent terrible conditions as a prisoner. But a war hero is something else. It was because McCain had this military record that Obama was hesitant about dealing with the war, and dealing in general, you know, with issues of foreign policy in a way that he might be afraid would portray him as not strong enough — like a person who had been in the military. Maybe that had something to do with it. But he concentrated on domestic issues.
Both candidates did, you know: Health and taxes and so on. And there I felt that Obama was not bold enough. His health plan was like other health plans that have been presented — a little better. But they didn’t really get to the heart of the problem, you know? They presented another kind of health planning which would still involve insurance companies, and still involve middle people, and still not give the American people what they need — which is what some other countries have — what people in other countries have, and which wouldn’t leave 40 million Americans without health insurance — what is called a single-payer system, or what I would call health security. And that is where everybody in the population can get free health care without filling out forms; without co-payments; without going through a whole rigmarole of bureaucracy; without going through insurance companies. In other words, have the kind of healthcare that people in the military get. People in the military don’t have to fill out forms, they don’t have to go through insurance companies. You’re in the military, you get sick, you’re taken care of. You don’t think about it, the government pays for it. I was in the military, I had pneumonia. I was taken care of. And so why not? Why not for everybody?
Well, I think there are two reasons why Obama — maybe there are seven, but I can’t, I can’t think of more than two at a time. And most of the time, I can’t keep more than two things in my head at a time. So, when somebody gets up to the board and says, “I will now list the five factors…” Well, very often that same person stops after two. But yeah, I think the two reasons why Obama was cautious on health and cautious on taxation — even though he proposed: “Yes, I’m gonna tax the rich more — and for the poor and middle class, less.” Good. Good direction, but didn’t go far enough. Because we need really a more drastic change in the taxation system, in order to really accumulate the amount of money that is needed to pay for the kind of social programs that health and education and environmental programs that the country needs. So he’s cautious on these things.
And as I said, there are two reasons, I think, one is that there are powerful economic interests that stand in the way of bold changes in domestic policy. Powerful interests connected with the health system. Insurance companies and CEOs of health systems and so on. Powerful interests arrayed against really high progressive taxes on the wealthy. After all, a lot of wealthy people supported the Obama campaign. Corporations supported it. Sure, he had a lot of — and this was very democratic and very healthy — a lot of grassroots small donations to his campaign. But also, he — well, in keeping with the history of the Democratic Party — has always gotten corporations and lobbyists to contribute money.
So these are powerful economic interests to stand in the way of bold economic changes. And the other reason for the caution in domestic policy is that if he were really going to do what I am suggesting (he obviously is not listening to me) but if he really wanted to make these bold changes in domestic policy and healthcare and in taxation — and well, let’s say, creating jobs for millions of people, which is what Roosevelt did, what the New Deal did — that was bold.
You don’t leave it to private enterprise if people are unemployed. You don’t wait for money to trickle down. So, no, if people are unemployed, you give them jobs. That costs money. So all these programs, if they were to be boldly initiated, would cost money. Where’s that money gonna come from? Well, one, yes, it would come from a truly progressive tax system in which you’re taxed not only by income — not only the incomes of the super rich — but you tax the wealth of the super rich. That is the accumulated income. Because they have accumulated trillions of dollars as a result of a tax system which favored them year after year after year. And which led to accumulated wealth. Yeah, tax the wealth, too.
So you need a lot of money to pay for all these programs. You get it, one, from a truly progressive tax system, and then you get it from cutting down seriously on the military expenditures of the government. Which this year is costing at least $600 billion, at least $600 billion. You know that? There’s a lot of invisible military money in the budget, but at least $600 billion. Yeah, there’s a lot of money there. Well, what you would have to do is go in the direction that was just reported in the papers, where the official body in the Pentagon decided that they don’t need these weapons systems, which are incredibly expensive.
I mean, when you think about it, what do you need all these aircraft carriers for? What do you need all these new jet plane systems for? First you build the F-16, then you build the F-23, then you build the F-35, because by this time, you’ve sold the F-16 and the F-23 to other countries, so you have to build another F. And then when you sell this F to them, you’ll build another F. You’ll call for more money for another F — you see? Fighter planes. Yes. And huge sums of money expended on these things.
In fact, I was just listening to the radio today and they just — this is a very petty expenditure — the sum of hundreds of millions of dollars to refurbish an aircraft carrier, the Intrepid. Why? What for? It’s very interesting about building this enormous military — Why? To defend ourselves? Are they really defending us? Defending us against what? It’s very interesting. I was on some radio interview a week or so ago — Google is not the only place that interviews me, just want you to know that there’s at least one other place — and there’s some call-ins and this person called in. And because I had said something about us dismantling our military bases abroad, you know, because we have military bases in over 100 countries. And so I talked about dismantling our military bases, save a lot of money, among other things, among other advantages.
She said, “Well, if you dismantle our military bases, how will you protect ourselves against terrorism?” I said — I like to quote myself — I said, “At the time that 9/11 took place, we had 10,000 nuclear weapons; we had aircraft carriers all over the world; we had ships on every sea. And 9/11 happened. In what way are aircraft carriers, nuclear weapons, and this enormous, enormous panoplay of military hardware. In what way is that going to protect us from terrorism?” In fact, is it possible that the possession of these weapons and the possession of these military bases in other countries is something that provokes terrorism? If you look at the official report of the Commission, the Commission was set up at 9/11 — look into this big 600 page report — which hardly anyone reads, right? But somewhere in the report, that I claim that I read (Noam Chomsky undoubtedly read it. Read it twice.). [Audience laughter]
No. Somewhere in there, they say — just like in passing, “Looking at the motives of the hijackers,” it says,”’they were furious at U.S. foreign policy.” Well, the U.S. foreign policy includes having these military bases all over the world. People who live in those areas actually don’t like those military bases. The governments may like them, but the people don’t like them. You bother people in other countries and you will create terrorists. You will bother millions and will annoy, irritate, anger, infuriate millions and millions of people. Out of those millions of people, a very tiny number will become fanatically violent, irrational, and terrorist. And so, you know, my answer to this person who called obviously was “no.” Just the opposite of what you think.
We’re not being protected by these weapons. We are being endangered by these weapons. Well, Obama did not want to touch this issue of the military. In fact, he’s spoken in his campaign about increasing the size of the Armed Forces — talked about sending more troops to Afghanistan. Well, this is not something that makes me optimistic about the future of the Obama administration. I want to be optimistic. I want to be hopeful. I want the enthusiasm that accompanied his election to continue as he pursues his policies in his administration.
But I’m troubled by that caution — that lack of boldness — that traditional approach to both domestic and foreign policy. During his campaign, Obama said something at one point about how — and this was one of the — he said a number of wise things during the course of his campaign and said them so well. And one of the things he said was, “We not only have to get out of Iraq, we have to get away from the mindset that brought us into Iraq.” Some of you may remember that: The mindset that brought us into Iraq. Well, that’s very important. And if Obama followed his own suggestion about getting rid of the mindset that got us into Iraq, then he would have to re-examine that mindset which follows traditional paths in economic policy — like giving $700 billion to the financial institutions that showed how inefficient and corrupt they were.
And you’d have to get out of the mindset in domestic policy that has proved inadequate to solve our domestic problems. And get out of the mindset that accepts war and military action as a way of solving problems in the world. And it’s this second thing — this mindset about militarism and war — which is crucial. Because if you don’t do anything about that, you can’t solve your social and economic problems, no matter how lovely your social and economic plans are, you are not going to be able to pursue them in any serious way unless you reverse the policies of the United States on becoming a military superpower.
And you have to decide — and it should be a refreshing thing for Obama to do. And tell the American people — and I believe the American people would actually accept this. (There’s so much underestimation of the American people.) Say, “We’re not going to be an aggressive power anymore. We’re not going to be a war making power. We are not going to follow the Bush Doctrine of preventive war.” No. And we become a peaceful nation.
There are countries that won’t worry about terrorism, by the way, aren’t there? How come? They don’t bother anybody. We bother people around the world. And we create terrorists. Obama, I think, has a possibility because he’s articulate and he’s got a mandate — he’s president. He can speak straight to the American people and in a way that they will accept. And he can even educate the American people. Very often, you know, presidents and leaders look upon public opinion as static. This is where the public is, period. Public opinion is not static. Public opinion is volatile. Public opinion changes. The President has a capacity — he has the platform, the forum, the wherewithal — to change public opinion. As Roosevelt changed public opinion. And so yes, I think you could say these things to the American public, and I think they would accept it. And that would be, yeah — that would make Obama’s election truly a revolutionary moment in American history. I’ll stop there. I must have irritated somebody. [Audience laughter]
Audience Member 22:17
So, I just had two comments. One was the Intrepid — the 100 million, or whatever they spent on that — was to turn it into a museum or refurbish the museum. So, perhaps that’s going to lead the American public to worship the military, if that’s the purpose of the museum, but it certainly wasn’t out to protect the United States. The other question I had is your stance on a single-payer system, where the government pays for healthcare. When you were in the military, I assume they also fed you. So, I’ve kind of got a question: Why should healthcare be free if food isn’t free?
Howard Zinn 22:57
Well, that’s a good question. I think food should be free. [Audience laughter] Why shouldn’t food be free? Certainly there’s lots of lots of food to go around. There’s no shortage of food. There’s no reason why food should be determined by the market. No reason why rich people should eat better than poor people. Really, I mean, it’s so basic. Sure. I’m glad you said that. [Audience laughter]
Speaker 1 23:31
So, we have a question from Bart Locanthi, in the Mountain View office. His question is: The U.S. mainstream media’s narrative on the Georgia South Ossetia conflict seems finally to be changing with new evidence of Georgian aggression. Do you find this suspiciously coincidental with the end of the campaign season?
Howard Zinn 23:49
Oh, you mean like an October surprise?
Speaker 1 23:52
Howard Zinn 23:53
I don’t know. Who knows? I don’t know. It’s suspicious, yeah. No, I’m going to follow the line — the traditional line of people up at podiums: No comment. [Audience laughter] There’s things I don’t know about. I don’t like to admit it. There’s some things I really can’t answer. That’s one. I hope we don’t find another. Okay.
Audience Member 24:32
Two specific things that you mentioned you hope the Obama campaign would do, were taxing the wealth of the super rich and cutting back military spending. Folk singer and social activist Utah Phillips has a saying, “Never delude yourself into thinking that the rich and powerful will let you vote away their wealth and power.”
Howard Zinn 24:58
Audience Member 24:58
Do you agree with that? If so, what other way do you suggest to get the wealth and power distributed differently?
Howard Zinn 25:06
That’s interesting. Utah Phillips! Do you realize you’re quoting a member of the IWW — of the Industrial Workers of the World — a wobbly, a radical, a revolutionary?
Audience Member 25:17
Howard Zinn 25:18
You are. [Laughter] So, he’s saying it’s naive to think, “Oh, you can do this.” Here I am blindly saying, “Let’s do this — let’s do that,” and he’s saying, “You think these forces are going to let you do that?” No!
Audience Member[indistinct comment] Will they let you vote away?
Oh, no, “Vote away.” No votes alone don’t change society in any significant way. No, it takes — and this is where you go back to the IWW and Utah Phillips — it takes direct action. Yeah. Now the president, of course, has a certain amount of power, and there are things he can do, you see, when you say they won’t let him do it?
If he and Congress and the interests that will be affected, will lose wealth as a result, such a program will fight it very, very hard. They always have. But then there are times when they have to submit. During the Roosevelt years, during the New Deal years, there were powerful interests that were arrayed against his policies. And Roosevelt just took them on. At one point, in running in his second campaign for president, he said, (I think it was a speech at Madison Square Garden), he said, “The wealthy interests of this country hate me. And I welcome their hatred.”
Well, that’s a very bold statement. There are limits that they will try. But we’re not going to take away all their money. That is, the super rich will still be rich. And they will, at a certain point, face the question of what do we do? And how do we stop this? Votes themselves and elections themselves have never been sufficient. It has always taken citizen action. It has always taken direct action — taken strikes and boycotts.
At a certain point, when powerful interests stand in the way of progress, people have gone out on strike and people have boycotted these powerful corporations. And I think it is possible to move ahead and enact bold measures. Sure, if you cut down on the military industrial complex, their corporations, which are getting fat military contracts, which will do their best to lobby against it and fight against it and campaign against it. But in the end, if the president and Congress and the American people and public opinion stand behind a policy — well, they will give in. They have at certain points in history. And you have to go ahead and do it and see what happens.
Audience Member 27:30
Vote. I think the relative term was “vote.” Will they let you vote away their power?
Speaker 1 28:46
Okay, so we have another question from Troy. To many interested in ending the war, the election of Obama has brought hope. Yet, waiting more than five years for the chance to end it seems extremely long. Have we limited ourselves too much in waiting for elections versus seeking change through public protest?
Howard Zinn 29:06
Well, of course, if you don’t have public action and public protests, and you just wait for the president of the United States to stop a war, you will wait a long time. And we waited a long time in Vietnam. Waited a long time for that war to end. And what was needed in the case of Vietnam — and what was, I think, a very important factor in finally bringing the war to an end — was that there was enormous public protest. There was a powerful national anti-war movement. And it was an anti-war movement that didn’t just have rallies in Washington. It was an anti-war movement, which made it difficult for the President and Congress to carry on the war.
By that I mean that young people refused to sign up for the draft. People evaded the draft. ROTC chapters couldn’t recruit enough people, so they shut down. The soldiers in Vietnam became less and less enthusiastic. They never were — but they became less and less enthusiastic about participating in a war which they couldn’t understand. The military became an obstacle to carrying on the war. You can’t carry on a war if the military doesn’t go along with you. You know that there’s been a lot of writing — maybe not enough writing — about the dissidents in the military.
There’s a man named David Courtwright, who wrote a book about the military resistance to the war. And he did a lot of research on it. He came to the conclusion that this really was the key factor in leading the Nixon administration to decide to finally sign a peace treaty and bring an end to the war. So, it takes more than elections. It takes what Utah Philips would call direct action — people refusing to cooperate. Ultimately, the people who have power find that their power rests on the consent of the people. And when people withdraw that consent, they lose their power.
This is very important for ordinary people to understand: That you seem powerless — you feel powerless — they have all the military might and wealth on their side. But the fact is their power rests upon your obedience. When you start disobeying, then they lose their power. When workers disobey — when workers go out on strike — corporations lose their power. When consumers disobey — when consumers have a boycott of goods, the people who produce those goods lose their power.
When soldiers will no longer serve in a war or they create turmoil in the military ranks, the government cannot carry on the war. Well, we’re not yet in that position in Iraq. We have some Iraq veterans against the war — like we had Vietnam veterans against the war. But we do not yet have a really powerful military, anti-war movement — or even a powerful enough domestic movement in the United States — to say to Obama “Now, look: Don’t wait 16 months — don’t wait two years — don’t wait three years. We should really get out of Iraq as fast as ships and planes can carry us.”
Audience Member 32:59
I really liked — I was thinking about Roosevelt, as you were talking, and then you mentioned him, like, three times. So I completely agree that a president’s — your statement about the president having the responsibility to change public opinion. I think Roosevelt did with the New Deal. He had a mandate from the public to do the economic changes that he did in the early 30s.
But he actually held off — despite being in office for like, eight years — he held off getting into World War II until after Pearl Harbor, despite over, I don’t know, 12 or 18 months of truly believing it was the right thing to do personally. But he didn’t really have public opinion behind him to do it. And I think Obama needed to get elected before he can change anything. And to get elected, he’s got to say certain things. I think the question is — I have for you is: When are you given a mandate to make hard changes, given that people only want hard changes to occur during a crisis, not during a normal year? And I think right now we have that economic crisis, but we don’t have it in other areas right now. And that’s my concern about our little change.
Howard Zinn 34:18
You don’t think we have a war crisis?
Audience Member 34:21
We did until we had the economic crisis, then that seemed less.
Howard Zinn 34:24
I mean, not enough of a war crisis? I mean, we don’t have a Pearl Harbor? No, but it’s just that we’ve been at war for a long time. And the American people recognize it as critical — as a crisis — because the American people have turned against the war. And the war is high up on people’s concerns.
But as you pointed out, we have an economic crisis. And this economic crisis is an opportunity for this mandate that you talk about. And Obama, I think, in this economic crisis — because of the economic crisis — has the ability to do something bold. Instead of giving $700 billion to the financial institutions, Obama could have said — maybe we can still say, I don’t know — “We’re not going to do it that way. We’re going to give money directly to people who need it.” Instead of the trickle down theory: Give $700 billion to the super rich and hope it will trickle down to people who have to pay their mortgages, we’re going to help the people who have to pay their mortgages. Instead of hoping that $700 billion will trickle down to people who are jobless, we’re going to give jobs to people.
So, the crisis is there. And the American people’s reaction immediately to the bailout, if you noticed — public opinion was immediately, overwhelmingly against the bailout. So you can’t have an argument and say, “Well, the American people won’t go along with this.” I think, because we’re in this financial crisis, I think the American people are ready for bold moves, and ready for bold moves there and for bold moves with regard to the war.
Audience Member 36:20
So, I really liked your point about other countries not bothering anybody, and, therefore, they don’t have to fear terrorism, like for instance, we have to. But I would like to hear more maybe about how you would reconcile that with the idea — and I think it’s true — that we have, you know, great resources and a whole lot of great minds in this country, and, therefore, we should be helping other countries who are less fortunate and need the help. So how do we reconcile the fact that we shouldn’t be bothering anybody with the idea that we need to kind of be a world leader and help others?
Howard Zinn 36:51
Oh, you bother people when you have military bases and troops in a country. Just as the British bothered people here when they had their troops here, right? Patrolling the streets and so on, yeah, that bothers people. I don’t think you bother people when you bring them food and medicine. I know there are people who think that if you say you want to withdraw from military bases around the world, and you want to become a peaceful nation and not wage aggressive war, that people very often say, “Oh, you want us to be isolationist?” No, no. Of course, give aid to other people. In fact, when you dismantle your military budget, you will then have much more to give to people who need it, to create clean water in Africa. Relatively small percentages of our military budget would save the lives of millions of people in the world. And so, no, I don’t think there’s any conflict between those two. You know, you’re no longer a military superpower, you become a humanitarian superpower.
Speaker 1 38:15
So Brian, from this office, had a question. He said, “The Mexican-American War was similar to our current Iraq War, in that it provided false pretenses and rhetoric.” He wanted to know if there are any lessons for getting out of these situations?
Howard Zinn 38:32
He’s talking about the Mexican War?
Speaker 1 38:33
He’s comparing the Mexican War to the Iraq War.
Howard Zinn 38:37
Well, you could, yes, of course, because in both cases, there was a pretense of doing something for other people. We’re going to civilize the Mexicans. How will we do it? By taking half of their territory. [Audience laughter]
You know, but we’re doing it for — well, all of our imperial ventures have been to help other people. We went into Cuba in 1898 to liberate the Cubans from Spain. Well, there was some truth to that: Spain was occupying Cuba and we got rid of Spain, but we didn’t get rid of ourselves. We then became the imperial power in Cuba. But the pretense again in Vietnam: We’re gonna save the Vietnamese from world communism — communist aggression. Because, you know, there are all these pretenses. And same thing with Iraq: We can bring democracy to the Middle East or whatever.
I mean, they’re all cover ups for real motives. What are the real motives? Well, the real motives are usually economic. There’s more land, more raw materials, more resources. They’re not only economic, you know, they’re political. There’s political capital to be gained by a president who gets into a war. We’ve seen this again and again: President gets into a war — his ratings go up. Of course, until the war goes on for a while, and then his ratings go down again. But there’s political capital in war.
And then there’s psychological capital. There’s a certain — and this gets more vague, right? But I think it’s real — that there’s the psychology of Empire. The psychology of acquire as much as you can, establish military bases wherever you can, send your corporations wherever you can — more, more. It’s not quite rational. Because now, what are you going to do with all of this? And does it do any good? And doesn’t it eventually bounce back at you, as empires have found in the past? And does it then lead you to the point where you collapse because you’ve overestimated what you can do and where you can go?
But it’s the same sort of psychology that goes along with the accumulation of endless wealth. Because you look for a rational reason why a billionaire would want another billion. There’s a psychological element to imperial expansion. But the economic motive is usually the key motive behind the pretense, whether in the Iraq or in the Mexican War, the Spanish American War, the Philippines, or, you know, Vietnam. The economic motive is usually crucial.
Audience Member 41:53
Hi, this is going to be a much lighter-hearted question. In the film, Goodwill Hunting, Matt Damon references you and your work. I understand he grew up as a neighbor of yours. Can you tell us a little bit of the story behind how it ended up being referenced?
Howard Zinn 42:08
Yeah, there’s a very important political issue. [Audience laughter] I have to explain this very often. So what’s the connection? Why did they mention you — your book — in Goodwill Hunting? They didn’t have to. Really had nothing to do with the story. Totally thrown in arbitrarily. Really, you know, he wanted to do me a favor. Matt Damon and his brother and his mother — his mother was a single mother taking care of two boys. They were our neighbors for a number of years, and so we’ve known Matt since he was five years old. He used to come around for cookies.
And when he started going to high school, we went to his high school plays, and so on. So yeah, I’ve known him a long time. And then when he went to high school, his high school teacher at Cambridge Ridge and Latin, used the People’s History of the United States. And he and Ben Affleck, both were students of this teacher. They were the screenwriters for Goodwill Hunting. So when they made the movie, I guess they decided that they wanted to give a little plug to the book, as irrelevant as it was to the movie. And that, does that answer your question?
Audience Member 43:44
Many European countries are moving toward a secular public sphere. So religious signs are banished from schools and stuff like that. While in the U.S., every president salutes the crowd, blessing them and stuff like that. And also religion was used as justification, for whatever reason, behind all that happened in Iraq and Afghanistan and so on. Do you see a problem with this? And why isn’t the U.S. moving toward a more secular government or secular public sphere?
Howard Zinn 44:16
Yeah, an interesting question. Because here’s the U.S. — and you hear this all the time — here in the U.S., we believe in the separation of church and state. Now, that’s nonsense. We never did. Never had the separation between church and state, and we still don’t. And as you pointed out, you know, presidents always invoke God. If you’ve been elected, why do you need God? You know? [Audience laughter] McKinley, right? There’s somebody you know that — you know, McKinley. Deciding whether to take the Philippines. Tough decision. Turns to God. (He tells this to a group of visiting ministers). He got down on his knees and prayed and asked God what he should do with the Philippines. (God actually had a better mastery of geography than McKinley did, because he had no idea where the Philippines were.)
But God told him to take the Philippines and to civilize and Christianize the Filipinos. Woodrow Wilson invoked God all the time. Woodrow Wilson — you would think — he’s a PhD, he’s a rational person, he understands about separation of church and state — no, he was invoking God all the time. And you’re right, you know, rest your hand on the Bible and swear; and In God We Trust. God is everywhere, in this supposedly separate — God-and-state place. So, I mean, it would be healthy if we stopped doing that. I mean, what right do we have to assume? You know, when we sing “God Bless America” Why us? Why pick on us? Right? God bless everybody. If there’s a God. nd if there’s no God, you know, let everybody be happy with or without God. No. It’s time we grew up. And, and yes, became a country that didn’t sort of rest on its favors from God. Yeah.
Audience Member 46:32
You quoted several times — you referred several times to FDR and the New Deal.
Howard Zinn 46:36
Audience Member 46:36
As a model for a way forward from today.
Howard Zinn 46:39
Audience Member 46:39
There’s a powerful strain of political thought that says all of FDR’s reforms did nothing for the economic crisis, and what really got us out of the Depression was World War II. How do you view that thought?
Howard Zinn 46:52
Well, that’s half true. Almost everything that everybody says was half true. Right? Half true. That is: No, FDR’s economic reforms did not end the economic crisis. Well, put it this way: They ended the crisis, but not the depression. They put half of the unemployed people to work. They helped a lot of people. They ameliorated the worst effects of the depression.
But yes, it was the war that created full employment. The war that stimulated the economy to the point where the economic problems that came out of the depression were solved. So even Roosevelt’s measures were only, you might say, halfway measures. The New Deal measures helped a lot of people. There are other people they didn’t help. Among the people they didn’t help so much were people in the lower economic ranks. Sharecroppers not getting the benefit of the farm programs of FDR. ervice workers not getting the benefit of the minimum wage because they were not covered by minimum wage laws. They were not covered by Social Security. And so there were a lot of gaps in the New Deal program as far as helping people. A lot of Black people — because they were, of course, disproportionately poor — felt very critical of Roosevelt because his programs were helping them somewhat, but not enough to really solve their problem.
Langston Hughes wrote a poem — I think you may find it in the Voices book. Yeah. Look up Langston Hughes’ poem in the Voices book. In his poem addressed to Franklin Roosevelt, he’s saying, “Look, we’re in trouble.” There’s a very poor rendition of the poem. [Audience laughter] But it says something like, “Hey, Roosevelt. We got problems here. Where are you?” I think it’s called “Waiting For Roosevelt.” And in the documentary that we are now making based on People’s History — I can’t lose the opportunity to publicize. I didn’t think this would come up. But here’s a perfect opportunity for me to publicize it. So, take advantage of it. In this documentary that we are now making based on A People’s History — where we have actors reading important documents — we have Danny Glover reading this poem by Langston Hughes. And so it’s a really nice moment in the documentary. Look for it, as they say in all the commercials. [Audience laughter]
Audience Member 49:53
I’m actually curious to hear your thoughts on how you think Hurricane Katrina will be perceived, you know, 20 years down the road or something like that. You know, we talk a lot about the untold stories of people in history. What do you think America is going to look like 20 years from now, as discussed in the history books?
Howard Zinn 50:10
Well, you know the problem is, of course, that it’s hard to predict what the perception will be 20 years from now. It will depend on who’s doing the perceiving. So often people ask, “Well, how will history look upon what has just happened?” Well, it depends on who the historian is. And they will look differently upon it. So, my hope is that the perception 20 years from now, will be a very clear-eyed understanding that the American system was a failure — that the capitalist system was a failure — when it came to taking care of people.
That the idea of depending on private enterprise — at the same time going to war, which is not a private enterprise, but a public enterprise using public enterprise for war and private enterprise at home — that this was disastrous for people. And it became manifest vividly when you had natural disasters, which then the government was not capable of dealing with because it had left things to private enterprise and because it was engaged in war. So my hope is that the perception 20 years from now will be a very intelligent perception of a country that was on its way down because of its dependence on militarism and war, and its dependence on a failed system of capitalism. Is that cautious enough? You know, I’m looking for votes. [Audience laughter]
Speaker 1 51:57
Well, thank you, Professor Zinn, for coming to Google and talking to us. Just on behalf of everyone here, we’d like to thank you for that. [Applause]
Howard Zinn 52:05
Thank you. Thank you.