Book TV: A People’s History of the United States
Howard Zinn • October 16, 1999 • Bay Area Book Festival • C-SPAN Book TV
EDITOR'S 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.
BookTV Announcer 00:00
Every weekend here on C-SPAN to this best seller by Howard Zinn offers a historical look at the U.S. through the stories of people not usually covered in traditional histories. Next, Mr. Zinn discusses his approach and his views on how lessons from the past to make a difference to the future. He spoke at the San Francisco Bay Area Book Festival, and he’s introduced by board director Cheryl Fullerton.
Cheryl Fullerton 00:29
Okay, it is my great pleasure to introduce Howard Zinn, a respected professor, historian and author of the landmark A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to the Present, is taught at Boston University and Spelman College. Would you all please join me in welcoming Howard Zinn. [Applause]
Howard Zinn 01:04
Thank you. I’m putting my watch down, to pretend that I care. But I don’t know how much you know about my book, or what’s in the book. Maybe you know, everything I have to say to you. But I will talk about my book because I don’t know what else to talk about. I’ll tell you how I came to write it, and why I came to write it in this funny way.
Howard Zinn 01:43
I wrote the book in the late 1970s. I guess when I had some breathing space, after the anti-war movement. You know, during the anti-war movement, we’re all doing all these furious things, you know, many of you know this: the war was the center of our lives. And we were running around the country and doing this and that and, and there’s no time, certainly no time to read a 700-page book. So I was putting out little things, you know, 125 page book called Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal, and 100 page book called Disobedience and Democracy, you know, no more time. So but now I had time. So I decided to write what people had been looking for, or at least people would approach me and say, “You know, you’ve been teaching American history and so on, can you recommend a good one volume History of the United States from a radical point of view?” No. Well not really. I don’t want to go into bibliographical detail about what there is, and what there isn’t, but not exactly, you know. But these were the demands that came out of the movements of the 60s, because of the movements of the 60s, people were looking for something different, people were remembering kind of history they had learned in high school and college and were thinking this doesn’t fit what I see in the world today. And so they were looking for something, and just so I decided to write something to, to fill that need. Now, clearly, those of you know, the book came, I know that I came to that history from a very definite point of view. And I guess this is because when I began to study history, when I began to, when I decided I would, that’s what I would do, I would write history, and I would teach history, I already knew that I was not going to be a neutral teacher. I was not going to be a neutral historian. I have a memoir called — notice how I’m advertising all my books? Business of book festival, you know, yeah, I have many more, you’ll hear many more things like that, and I’ll just try not to mention other people’s books.
Howard Zinn 04:08
But, the but I wrote a memoir called You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train. And then the the idea of is it came from things I would say to my classes at the beginning of the class, I would say, “Now look, you know, this is not going to be a neutral class. There’s not going to be one of those classes in where you spend a semester a year with a teacher and the other semester, the end of the year, you have no idea where this teacher stands on the important issues of the day. We all have teachers like that, right? There are a lot of them. No, I wasn’t going to be neutral. I had a point of view, and a strong point of view. And I wasn’t going to hold back on it, because I didn’t believe the, well, you might say I had a very modest desire in going into history: I just wanted to change the world, and I figured you can’t change the world if you’re neutral. And besides, to be neutral…no. Well, the world is already moving in certain directions, there’s no such, there’s no real thing. Neutrality, it doesn’t exist. The world is already moving in certain directions, wars are going on, children are going hungry, terrible things are being done. To be neutral in such a world is to collaborate with what is going on. And so , no, I wasn’t gonna be neutral as a historian.
Howard Zinn 05:33
And, and yes, I kind of knew, as I started to write this book, what my point of view was going to be, and it came out of my background. It came out of my life experience, it came out of the fact that at the age of 18, I didn’t go to college. I went to work in a shipyard stayed in the shipyard for three years. I didn’t do it as a sociological experiment. “Ah, let’s go interview the shipyard workers, and do an oral history of shipyard workers.” Yeah, no, that wasn’t it. You know, I just came from that kind of background, that kind of family, that kind of neighborhood, and working class parents and so on, struggling, no thought of going to college, when you’ve got 18, everybody around me, that went to work at the age of 18. So I worked in a shipyard for three years and helped organize the young shipyard workers who are excluded from the AFL Unions. Black people were excluded from the unions, women were excluded from the unions, unskilled workers who were…and so we formed the kind of industrial union an IWW almost. That’s what we like to think, you know, whenever we do something good, we like to compare ourselves to the IWW, you see, and we were…
Howard Zinn 06:52
So you might say, I grew up class conscious, a phrase you don’t hear much in the United States, you know, that it’s not supposed to, we’re not supposed to have classes in the United States. We’re all one big happy family, you see. All of our interests are the same. You know, Exxon and me, you know. And, you know, the Founding Fathers and all of us, you know. The, I mean, the very name Founding Fathers. “We’re related by blood to those slave owners who sat in on the making of the Constitution.” No, we’re, no, we’re not one big family, despite the attempts on the part of the establishment to draw us all in to this net, and say our interests are one. You hear them talking about, “Is this is this in our national interest? Is this in the interest of national security?” Actually, it may be in the interest of somebody’s securities, but not in the interest of national security, you see. But all these words, all these phrases is supposed to envelop us all in one common bond of interest, instead, and thus hiding the fact that we are society of many different interests, of people who are rich, and people who are poor, and a lot of people in between who are nervous.
Howard Zinn 08:19
And so we, you know, black and white, and men and women, and immigrants. No, it’s, it’s, it’s a society of people in stressful relationship with one another. And so I wanted to write a history, which would be from a class conscious point of view. I wasn’t going to write about the Founding Fathers and the making of the Constitution and, you know, and glorify the Constitution, which was written by 55 rich, white men in Philadelphia. I wasn’t gonna do that even though, you know, I was taken aback for a moment when Ronald Reagan during Bicentennial year of the Constitution, your 1987, Ronald Reagan wrote an essay. Can you believe that? Ronald Reagan wrote an essay for us, you know, some scholarly magazine, Parade Magazine, in which he talked about the Constitution, and said, you know, that the Constitution could only have been created with a guiding hand of God. You know, well, I thought this was really an insult to God. When you consider, you know, the Constitution was written to perpetuate the wealth, to perpetuate slavery, to perpetuate things as they were, to replace the British ruling class with a local ruling class. That’s what the constitution was written for. I’m sorry to be so harsh on the Founding Fathers, they’re nice guys. They look good. They dress well. You know, they’re very eloquent. But no, I wasn’t gonna write about history from from I, I didn’t want to write about American industrial progress as it was presented to me in high school. It’s presented to me in high school. I remember sitting there in class, and “this is the period of the great American Industrial Revolution when America became a great economic power, you know, that period between the Civil War and World War I.” When, when, you know, and I remember, sitting there transfixed, as the figures were put up on the board, how many more steel ingots was being produced each year, you know, how many miles of railroad track and the Transcontinental Railroad. Wow, how romantic and how beautiful. And we were so proud.
Howard Zinn 10:48
Nothing was said in those classes, and nothing was said in my textbooks, about who worked on those railroads, about the Irish immigrants and the Chinese immigrants who worked on those railroads, and died in great numbers in the sickness in the heat and those railroads. I wasn’t going to tell about the great industrial miracle of the United States that, leaving out the girls who went to work in the textile mills of New England at the age of 12, and died at the age of 25. And I wasn’t going to look at the state of the country from the standpoint of the Dow Jones average. No, I mean this if you look historically, you know, and I was sort of prepared for this by, by some of my work in history, I was prepared looking back at eras which had been triumphantly proclaimed as wonderful eras. You know, remember the era of goodwill? Do they still have that in the textbooks? But they certainly have, you know, the, the Roaring 20s, the Jazz Age, the Age of Prosperity. I mean, history is very simple. The 20s were prosperous, everybody was prosperous in the 20s. And everybody was depressed in the 30s. So what I did, I was doing a study of Fiorello LaGuardia, my first book, I mentioned another book, yes. Never missed an opportunity. First…My my doctoral dissertation actually was on Fiorello LaGuardia. And a lot of you know who Fiorello LaGuardia? Some people, yes, me some people, you know, think, you know, he’s an airport. But he was, you know, a lot of people know, he was mayor of New York, very colorful character. But before that a lot of people don’t know this, and I didn’t know this until I started working, he was a congressman in the 1920s, representing East Harlem, representing a poor district, East Harlem. An interesting Congressman, the most radical member of Congress. He was a Republican and a socialist. Don’t ask, don’t ask, don’t ask me to explain that, you see? But, but I was reading the letters that LaGuardia’s constituents were writing to him from East Harlem in the 1920s, in the Age of Prosperity, the Jazz Age, and he’s the letters from his constituents, were saying, “Help me. My husband is out of work, my kids don’t have enough to eat, they’ve turned off the gas.” Now…and I know it’s true all over the country, but nobody noticed it because the headlines were about the Wall Street and the stock market, and how well it was doing. And you, I mean, you learn about today, when you read about history, if you don’t learn about today, if you don’t learn about today, when you’re learning about history, then there’s no, not much point, you know, to fun. Oh, yeah, you can have fun, but I never wanted to be a historian who went into the past and got lost. You know, there are, you know, going, the past is interesting. You go in and you read those letters, and documents, and it’s detective work, and it’s fun, you know, but you can get lost there. And I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to see what I could find and come out and apply it to what was going on in the world.
Howard Zinn 14:08
I left the shipyard to enlist in the Air Force. And, you can tell I’m a kind of military person. And, but it was, it was, there was a war on. No, not the Spanish American War. No World War II the war against fascism, and I was imbued as a lot of young, young radicals were imbued and young everybody. Yes, the war against fascism. Let’s you know, and so I became a Bombardier in the Air Force and flew, bombing, and dropped bombs and in were…Dropped bombs were dropped, meaning not where they’re intended to go, or sometimes where they are intended to go which sometimes is worse. But in any case, I became a Bombardier and and but I came out of this this is the Good War, as you know. Right, this is the the best of wars. I wrote a book. I wrote a book once called Postwar America and had a chapter in it about World War II, and the chapter was called the “Best of Wars” and Studs Terkel, you know, wrote the Good War later. And, and but wonderful book. If you notice if you look at the book closely, the phrase the Good War in Studs Terkel’s book is surrounded by quotation marks. Yeah, because it’s not that simple. It’s not that clear. It’s not that unambiguous. It’s very complicated.
Howard Zinn 15:45
And I came out of that good war in which I had been an eager bombadier, came out of the war convinced that war solves nothing. War doesn’t solve fundamental human problems. And even when it seems to do so, even when it starts off looking that way, even when the enemy is vicious, and you, because the enemy is vicious, you look good. This is a common mistake. Mistake is, that if the enemy is evil, you must be good. Well, it was…I came out of the war persuaded that war… Yeah. Well, it didn’t take long. There were those promises made in World War II. Those promises, you know, this would be, we’re gonna defeat fascism, and we’re gonna have a wonderful new world, right? We’re gonna have a world you know, we’re not gonna have racism anymore, because we’re gonna defeat Hitler. Hitler represents racism. We’re gonna have war anymore, we’re not going to have militarism anymore. No. We’re going to have the UN, we’re gonna have, yeah. Well, it doesn’t take much observation of the years that followed World War II, to begin to ask the question, “If 50 million people died in World War II, what did they die for? For this kind of world with a perpetuation of war and militarism and racism? And yes, and fascism in nooks and crannies all over the world, including our own country. Fascism is not confined to national boundaries. Fascism exists in every prison in this country. Really. Yeah. And there exists in the military. There. Yeah. Yeah. So anyway, the point is, that from this point on, if I was going to deal in history with war, and writing history and teaching history, I had a very strong point of view, and the point of view is anti-war. And my personal experience, like dropping napalm on a little village in France toward the end of the war, and killing German, Frenchmen, whoever happened to be there, basically, to test out napalm. That’s the only reason I could figure out for doing it. It was the first use of napalm. It’s, and then watching the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and all and then reading John Hersey, and hand having the stories of the people and children caught in that. No, I was, I wasn’t going to be neutral on a question of war, and I was going to look at war from the standpoint of the statesman, and the decision makers or the generals.
Howard Zinn 18:27
I was going to look at war from the standpoint of the GIs and the soldiers and the young men that are cajoled and coerced into going to war. I also wanted to look at war from the standpoint of the other side. Yeah. And this is something you don’t think about. Let’s look at war from the standpoint of the enemy. The other people, right. Let’s look at the Mexican War from the standpoint of the Mexicans. Well, when you look at the Mexican War from the standpoint of the Mexicans, well, here we are. We’re in Mexican territory, right? This is this was part of Mexico, and we stole. There’s no other word for it. We, we provoke the war with Mexico so we could take half of Mexico. Some people thought we were being moderate, we should have taken all of Mexico. But no, no, I wanted to tell a story of Mexico, of that war, yeah, from the standpoint of the GIs who woke up one day, American immigrant kids who would just out of, for the same reason that most young people joined wars, joined out of desperation, and need and desire to, to get ahead or whatever, you know, and then find themselves in a bloody mess, which they didn’t ant any part of, and so they began deserting from the American army in the Mexican War. Yeah, from their point of view and from point of view of Mexicans. And so, you know, so it was my experience and it was history. Also, when I looked at the history of wars and the history of America’s wars, you know. I know, there are good wars and bad wars. Good wars and bad. We have these lists, right? Good wars and bad wars. I had a student once who wrote, “You know, they treat wars like wines. This is a good year, this is a bad year. But war is not like wine. War is like cyanide: one drop, and you’re dead. And, and all the experience of you know, in all the other wars, since the war to end all wars. Since World War II, sort of confirmed what I felt about war. And you know, and of course, right up to this very day.
Howard Zinn 20:52
I wanted to, one of the things I wanted to get across to students is to lose their subservience to power, lose their subservience to authority, lose their subservience to the so called experts. And there was no more vivid lesson during the Vietnam War, then, lesson about experts. Now remember, people at the beginning of the anti war movement saying, “Oh, wait a while, you know. These people in Washington, I mean, why do you think they’re there? They know what they’re doing.” Really? Really? I mean, just look at the history what people in Washington have done and ask, “They know what they’re doing?” I mean, they, they can be Phi Beta Kappa, and they were in the Kennedy and Johnson Administration, they were the the best and the brightest, they were the smart, right. And, and, and they engage in the most stupid and most immoral set of actions that we’ve had in the history of our country for a long time. So I want my students to learn to think for themselves and to to, to learn and seek out information for themselves. Not to depend, you know, on what the president says, what the media say, oh, what the textbook said, not even what my book said, but to look things up for themselves and make up make up their own minds.
Howard Zinn 22:15
So, and then after I…I’m continuing my little autobiographical romp, you see, year by year, only take a few hours. And the… so I, I went to college under the GI Bill. I love it when people say the er, you know, “We mustn’t have big government. We must not have government do things to people,” right? “Government is doing too much for mothers taking care of kids who are collecting $350 a month.” Really? You know, “The government’s not good. It creates dependency.” O really, when we give billions of dollars to the corporations, does that create dependency? No, no big government, and… it was different during the New Deal, when people began to realize government, although government has mostly been on the side of the rich and powerful, it is possible, sometimes the government to do something for the poor, as it did in the 1930s when it passed Social Security. Of course, under the impetus of social movements, and the impotus of the labor movement, and so on. And the evidence of strikes all over the country and tenant strikes and so on. But good things were done by government in that time, and people have forgotten about that, and some people deliberately want to forget about that and they say. “Gig government is no good.” But the GI Bill was big government. It was the government giving four years of free education to everybody who served in World War II. And so I went through my entire educational thing right up through the PhD, never paid a dollar in tuition. I know the young people looking at me rather enviously at this point.
Howard Zinn 24:12
Yeah, so I studied history at NYU, Columbia. My first teaching job, Spelman College, Atlanta, Georgia. Black women’s college, and…has Marian [Wright Edelman] arrived yet? She may never, no, she’ll arrive. Yes, she’ll arrive. But seven years at Spelman College, my wife and kids got into our old Chevy and went down to Atlanta and spent the next seven years, 1956 to 63. A very special time to be in the South and to be living in the Black community, and to see the first, you know, the tremors under the surface begin to develop and then see things burst out in 1960, you know, with the sit-ins in 61, with the Freedom Rides in 62 and 63 in Albany, Georgia, and Birmingham, and the mass demonstrations, and thousands and tens of thousands, and hundreds of thousands of people being involved. An amazing, amazing episode in our history, out of which I learned an enormous amount. I certainly learned more from my years at Spelman than my students learned from me. I learned a lot about politics, I learned about education, I learned a lot about democracy. I learned about, well, one thing I learned about education, the business of…you see history, from a different point of view. When you look at history, from a Black point of view, it looks different. You know, look at history from a woman’s point of view, it looks different from a, yeah, and from a Native American point of view…From a Native American point of view, take the Revolutionary War, as we know, that was a good war. Right? How can you beat the Revolutionary War? It’s, it’s, you know, there are the statues all over the… I mean, here I come from Boston. Boston, would die if not for the Revolutionary War, and the statues that it can have in its public square. But Boston needs the, you know, all of that. But in the Revolutionary War, yes, it freed us from England. From point of view of the Indians, it was a disaster. The British had set a line beyond which the colonists could move west into Indian Territory, Proclamation 1763: “We win the war against England, we abolish the line, and then we move into Indian Territory and all across the country,” and then follows 100 years of massacres. Right. Another so very neglected set of episodes in American history. Well, I learned about was Sitting Bull at Custer’s Last Stand.
Howard Zinn 26:58
But from history from the Black point of view looks certainly different. The heroes look different. The all traditional heroes look different. The eras and their names look different. You know, everybody learns about the progressive, everybody takes American history learns about the Progressive Era in American history. Right? They still they might still have that in the books. Always a Progressive Era, the first 20 years of the 20th century, when it’s called a Progressive Era because various reforms were passed, you know, the railroad regulation, and the meat inspection act. Notice how good our meat is as a result of that. And the, you know, Federal Reserve System, the Federal Trade Commission, direct election of senators, etc. Graduated income tax. Notice how graduated our income taxes these days? Yeah, well, anyway, but reform, so it’s the Progressive Era, those are exactly the years those that in that Progressive Era, when more Black people were lynched in this country than any other period of American history.
Howard Zinn 28:03
So, you know, I began to read the Black historians who were not on my reading list in Columbia. Really, they were not. And then, of course, I learned, you know, well, just by becoming involved in the movement, just becoming involved in that movement that, you know, that my students initiated. They always think that faculty, you know, whenever students revolt, you notice that, during the Vietnam War, the faculty must have, some faculty person must have instigated it. It’s never that way. The students start it. The faculty people come in, you know, some. But you learn about, learned a lot about education. Learned that education is not simply what you get in the classroom, it’s what you learn out in the midst of a social struggle. I remember when my students, when Marian and a whole bunch of other students of Spelman and Morehouse, etc., were getting arrested in downtown Atlanta for sitting in. One of my colleagues, a political scientist, PhD from Johns Hopkins, I want to give him his full due before I…Wrote a letter to the Atlantic Constitution deploring that his students were missing class and going downtown to participate in these demonstrations. Their education, “they’re losing out on their education.” Well, obviously this man was losing out on his education. He didn’t understand what education was, and didn’t understand that people learn more in the heat of social struggle than they can simply by books in classrooms. Sure books in classrooms are good. And you come back from the picket line, and come back to the classroom and you want to read more and learn more. You want to read more history of what it is you were involved with.
Howard Zinn 29:50
So yeah, I learned a lot. I learned, I learned from my students. I learned well, I learned never to mistake silence for agreement, you know? No, because, you look, at you looked at the surface, looks, came to Spelman College in 1956, things that look quiet. Everybody’s well behaved, people are going, you know, they’re doing their lessons, they’re going to do the right things to become successful, do what their parents want them to do and, and become, you know, people of some substance and use in the Black segregated community. Right? Well, that’s the way it looked. And you could, looking at that surface of quiet and silent, you would say, as some people, so many people say about students today or about people today, “Where are they? They’re not doing anything.” You know, never look at the surface of things. This is what I learned, and always assume that if something is wrong, there’s a, under the surface there’s a kind of common sense understanding that something is wrong. I believe in this country there a common sense understanding that there’s something wrong with spending $270 billion on weaponry when 40 million people are without health insurance and, and health, other, there’s…people understand that. And people fundamentally understand things, you know, and, but very often, they’re quiet about it. They’re practical, they’re waiting for the right moment, they’re waiting for somebody to make the first move. And and so you know, that a certain point that my students at Spellman burst out, you know, of that silence and, and they and young people and older people all over the South, of Black people all over the South, just galvanized the country and the world and embarrassed the U.S. government into finally doing something.
Howard Zinn 32:03
One of the things we learned at that time: don’t depend on the government. Don’t depend on even the most liberal government. I mean, we have had liberal governments and conservative governments, we had Democrats and Republicans for 100 years in this country after the passage of 14th Amendment. The 14th Amendment was supposed to guarantee racial equality and, and it didn’t matter who is in power in Washington, they didn’t do a thing to enforce the 14th Amendment until Black people in the 1950s and 1960s came out en masse and embarrassed the government of the United States and doing something. That was when democracy came alive. Democracy is not a set of procedures, it’s not a framework. Democracy is people giving you something to drink when you’re thirsty.
Howard Zinn 32:54
And so yeah, democracy came alive in the 60s. No, democracy, as I said, is not, you know, it’s not what we learned in junior high school. “Ah, this is democracy. I’m going to put it on the blackboard. Here are the three branches of government: executive, legislative, judicial. Here’s the Constitution, that’s democracy. Vote every two year or four years, that’s democracy.” No, no. If we depended on that, we would be lost more than we are. The thing that changed things, to the extent that they did change for Black people, for working people in this country, for women, for disabled people, for people who are against [indiscernable]…The government of the United States did not initiate any of the things that were necessary to remedy those grievances. People had to go out and create movements in order to bring that about. And then if the movement became strong enough and loud enough, and persistent enough, then the government responded. That was the lesson of democracy. So what else should I say? What other books of mine haven’t I mentioned?
I hear there’s a documentary being made about A People’s History?
Howard Zinn 34:20
I hear there’s a documentary being made about A People’s History?
Howard Zinn 34:23
Well, maybe. Maybe. It’s possible, but, how about questions? How about questions? Yes, I’m finished.
Cheryl Fullerton 34:58
There’s a microphone set up right back in case people…can’t project.
Howard Zinn 35:02
Oh, is it bad if people speak from their seats? Yeah. Does C-SPAN not like that? Who do you think we’re doing this for?
Cheryl Fullerton 35:22
[Indiscernable} to the microphone if you want to speak.
This mic right here?
Howard Zinn 35:25
What do you want people to line up behind the mic? Well, is, is, can people speak from their seats, is that alright? And then I repeat the question and distort it as I usually do. Okay. Yes. Yes, go ahead.
I have a question. I’m curious about Galludet University. In 1988, the big revolt was called Deaf President Now, and deaf people really mobilized. And then they closed the university — it was at that time called the college — they closed it for a week to do the Deaf President Now revolt. So I’m wondering, that had a large impact on American history, at least deaf people think so. But I was looking and the section about history during that period of time, and there was no mention at all of Deaf President Now…
Howard Zinn 36:23
…so it hasn’t really impacted American History according to the book.
Howard Zinn 36:27
My, my book? Or books generally?
General history, general history books, so I want to hear your opinion.
Howard Zinn 36:31
Well, generally, including my book. Yeah, really, I’m, I’m ashamed to say this, but now time to time people have pointed out things I missed in my book. You know, I’ve missed a lot. And, and, you know, when the first edition of the book came out, I, I really didn’t do justice to the struggles of Chicano people in this country. Didn’t do justice to the struggles of gay and lesbian people in this country. Didn’t do justice to the struggles of disabled people or, you know, to this event, which is a, I remember that event and, and to me, it was such a perfect example of democracy coming alive, where, you know, students protest in this remarkable way to have a president who represents their own situation. Yeah. And that was a wonderful event. And I’m going to make of note it for the next time there’s another printing of my book. And the printings come fast. So, I will make a, really, I’ll make a note of that. I wish [you would] send me some stuff, okay? You do, do you do email? Do you do email?
Yes, do you have a card?
Howard Zinn 37:45
No, I’m not a card person.
Yes, I have email. But I don’t know your email address.
Howard Zinn 37:56
I’ll tell you my email address. It’s… god everybody’s listening. Don’t listen. H-zinn, at b, u, dot, e, d, u. Got it? H-zinn, at b, u, b like in boy, dot e d u.
Howard Zinn 38:39
Many of us thought that the World War II was just another imperialist war, being fought between two powers, trying to capture territory. But then after World War II, seeing what Hitler had done, seeing what the role of Hitler had been, some of us changed, began to think about that more as maybe it was had been necessary to fight in it. What, I just wondered what your, whether you had changed your estimation.
Howard Zinn 39:19
That, do you want me to repeat, repeat? Oh, yeah. She asked me the most difficult question that, I get that question a lot. And it is…if I could recog… if I could know in advance that a person would ask that question, I wouldn’t recognize them. Because this, but there, there it is. It’s out. She’s asking me about World War II and saying that she started off with a notion it’s an imperialist war, you know, imperialist on both sides. But then with the stories of the death camps, you know, when the Holocaust and all of that, she changed her mind about the war. The reason I say it’s a tough question, because it’s very, very complex, you know? And, you know, let me say this. Something had to be known about fascism, right? something had to be done about Hitler. The only question is, whether it had to be done in the way that it was done. And whether it didn’t come late, you see, late because the main concern of the nations fighting the war was not the Jews, and not racism and not militarism. It wasn’t their concern, you see. And but it’s true that even, you know, there are unintended consequences of bad intentions, right? And so the thing I would come away from, I’d say, World War II is complex. We did not have to kill huge numbers of civilians in German cities, and we didn’t have to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and I didn’t have to drop napalm on this little town in France. So something had to be done about fascism, and and the question that’s left is, was there any way to fight against fascism without at some point in the war beginning to duplicate the atrocities of the other side? You see, I mean, that’s the big question, and it’s a very unanswerable question, because it’s all gone.
Howard Zinn 41:25
The only…I’ll just say one more thing. The problem with World War II having such elements of goodness and questioning about it, the problem with it is that is the ambiguity of World War II. The problem with that is that, to the extent that World War II can be seen as a good war, it casts a soft glow on every war that is followed since. Wars, which don’t have that ambiguity wars which are crass, imperial wars. But World War II is used, it’s used as a metaphor and is used to justify Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Koso-… they pull it out every time, you see, to help them justify unjustifiable killing. So World War II has passed. The real question is, how do we react to the wars today? And how do we react to wasting our enormous national treasures on preparation for war?
Howard Zinn 42:29
I wanted to ask about your involvement with the Wnd the Sanctions against Iraq campaign.
Howard Zinn 42:36
My involvement with what?
The End the Sanctions Against the Iraq campaign.
Howard Zinn 42:40
Oh, my involvement with the Sanctions Against the Iraq campaign. You all know about sanctions against Iraq? You all know that we’ve been carrying on ever since the Gulf War? It’s interesting how many Americans don’t know about. If you took a poll in the United States and asked, you would find most Americans do not know that we’ve been carrying on a campaign of sanctions which have killed hundreds and hundreds of thousands of children — children in Iraq — which leads me to a parenthetical remark.
Howard Zinn 43:12
[To person at side] No, I’ll hold that. Let me know when Marian arrives. Somebody, you know, like, we have a spotter.
Howard Zinn 43:25
But, I mean, I haven’t been I’ve been involved in it except talking about it, you know, and telling about. I haven’t been one of those heroic people who, in the voices of the wilderness, those people are breaking the law, the American law, and bringing food and medicine to Iraq, and they’ve done it, you know, 15, 16 times in one of the most shameful episodes in recent American history carried on by, you know, the liberal Clinton administration, really, and justified by it in the most awful ways.
Howard Zinn 44:00
Any sort of…there’s an enormous disproportion of attention to atrocities depending on what the people in power want us to pay attention to. And I mean, all trust should be paid attention to, but the fact is, if thousands of people are killed in Kosovo, that is brought to our attention, and it should be brought to our attention. Although the thousands of people we then killing bombing in order, presumably, to do something about it, that’s not brought to our attention, and the hundreds of thousands of people die as a result of our sanctions, that’s not brought to our attention. We have a real problem and getting past what the media tells us is important, and deciding for ourselves, on the basis of searching out independent sources of information, signing for ourselves what really is important. I don’t know what else I can say about it. I have a feeling that you know, sometimes behind questions, you know, there’s an answer, right? There’s the people who asked the questions, they know the answer they want, right? And I feel there is an answer you wanted which you didn’t get, am I right?
No, I actually I just I saw your name in the newspaper with many other scholars, and I just wondered how you got involved with the issue?
Howard Zinn 45:12
Well, you want to how I got involved? That’s easy. Getting involved is easy. You know, people get to know after a while, “Who would get involved in such a thing?” You see, and, you know, and if you know, if I can, you know, be on, you know, the list of American Airlines, I can certainly be on the Stop Sanctions Against Iraq list. — Yes. There’s a man way back there who’s held his hand up for a long time.
[Indiscernable] Why is it so extranordinarily difficult for government and for private enterprise to provide at least sufficient shelters for the homeless, particularly in our urban centers. Because I recall some time ago, a man who wanted to open up, I think, a deserted post office warehouse right next to the White House, and he had to fast and he finally got on TV, and somehow the federal government opened up that warehouse for temporary shelter. I mean, again, along with your point, about 444 million people not insured in our country with health insurance, it’s very shameful that we cannot provide any shelter for the homeless, is it not? I mean, that’s obviously not shame, because…
Howard Zinn 46:42
Is it not shameful? Yes. That’s an easy one. Right? Homeless people don’t vote, right? And a lot of, you know, and therefore it…and very often, you know, people who are the most most aggrieved, most harassed have the least resources to fight back. And therefore, they depend on the rest of us to speak up for them, like prisoners in jail, who are not in a position to fight back, you know, and they need people on the outside to advocate for them. And the same thing is true of the homeless, you know, instead of asking…oh sure, we should ask, why isn’t the government doing this? And we should ask, you know, why aren’t the people who have homes speaking up and loud voices for the homeless? — Who’s had a hand up for a long time? Go ahead. — Yes.
[Indiscernable]…I’m curious about individual acts of violence as part of revolution, and what you think, is there a separation? Is there a time at which individual acts of violence are effective, and a good idea, as oppose to war?
Howard Zinn 47:58
Oh, hmm. She asks…maybe you’ve got, did you all get that? No. It’s just about, I;m obviously speaking against the violence of war, and she asked me, “What about violence of individuals?” I assume you mean violence of individuals presumably for some good purpose, right? And, well, it always looks…violence is very tempting because it very often seems to offer a quick solution for a problem that you face. But it’s poisonous. It’s, it has consequences which simply spread the idea of violence, and which reinforce the acts of violence that are carried on on a large scale. In fact, the two things reverberate. The government’s acts of violence, I believe, encourage those individual acts of violence, which then are deplored, “Oh, how horrible” that they, you know, they have, you know, blow up the building and Oklahoma City or they, you know, they do this, and that’s looked upon with horror, by the same people who are ready to kill thousands of people and have, you know, in bombing campaigns. There’s a connection between the two. This connection between violence in schools and violence in the streets, and violence that comes out of Washington. And we we like to, you know, think about that kind of hypocrisy. But I don’t I don’t believe that violence is a solution. I think, the poet June Jordan, who lives I think, somewhere in the Bay Area, when she talks about the Gulf War, you know, she said, “War is like is crack. It’s a quick fix. And then, you know, when it’s over you realize what what terrible harm has been done?” I think the great problem for human ingenuity in this next 100 years — now that we’re, you know, at this date on the calendar that we’d like to talk about the next 200 years very wisely — but I think that the problem is how do we solve the fundamental problems of hunger and disease, you know, and injustice? And how do we do it without killing large numbers of people? How do we do it while we’re announcing war, you know, as solution? Now, that’s, I mean, that’s what human ingenuity should be used for.
There she is! [Greeting Marian Wright Edelman, applause]
Howard Zinn 51:08
I didn’t want her to miss my talk. Okay, I’m starting over. I’m gonna do the whole thing over again. — Oh, yeah. Great to see you. Thank you. — I don’t think she deserves a moment for the rest.
BookTV Announcer 51:42
Howard Zinn is a historian, playwright, and social activist. This book, A People’s History of the United States, is published by Harper Collins. A 20th anniversary edition was released last month.