Interview by Joel Whitney • Guernica • October 27, 2004
Since its publication in 1980, Howard Zinn’s bestselling A People’s History of the United States has sold more copies every year and has had a tremendous effect on our understanding of who gets left out of traditional histories. Zinn grew up in the slums of New York, and worked as a young man in the New York shipyards. At seventeen, he attended his first public rallies to petition for better working conditions. He volunteered as an Air Force bombardier in World War II and, after the war had effectively ended, was ordered to drop napalm on French villagers and German soldiers who’d already surrendered.
After a doctorate from Columbia University, Zinn took a job at Spelman College, an all-black women’s college in Atlanta, where he worked with students as an early civil rights advocate. In 1968, during the United States war in Vietnam, he worked on the North Vietnamese prisoner exchange and at home as an anti-war activist. He ended up at Boston University and published A People’s History and many other books. A documentary released this summer, Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train traces his career and his influence on progressives, historians, and the anti-war movement.
– Joel Whitney for Guernica
Guernica: I just saw the documentary on your life and career, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train. Could you explain the title of the film.
Howard Zinn: It comes from something I used to say in teaching when I was starting a new class. I would tell my students, “This is not going to be a neutral class.” I don’t believe in neutrality because the world is already moving in certain directions and wars are going on and children are going hungry. Terrible things are happening. And so to be neutral in a situation like this when things are already moving is to collaborate with whatever is going on. And I don’t want to collaborate with the world as it is. I want to intrude myself. I want to participate in changing the direction of things. So that’s the origin of the title, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train.
Guernica: In the film you talk about how, as an advocate for shipyard workers, you were beaten by police, and that you realized something important about the police…
Howard Zinn: I was just a seventeen-year-old kid, going to Times Square to participate in this left-wing demonstration. I really didn’t know what was going on. But it seemed good. The signs were for peace and justice and so on. But then at this peaceful demonstration, I was attacked by police mounted on horseback and on foot. Before I knew it, I was clubbed and knocked unconscious. You might say I woke up with a new consciousness. I woke up realizing that things my radical friends had been saying to me were really true, that the police and the government were not detached bystanders, that freedom of speech did not really exist for dissenters, for radicals, for troublemakers. So it gave me a radical view of the United States, a critical view of the role of the state and of the instruments of the state—the police, the Army, and so on—as not being neutral at all in political battles, but being generally against workers and against striking people, against dissenters of all kinds.
Guernica: After working on behalf of your fellow shipyard workers, you went into the Air Force during World War II. What was it that turned you into an anti-war activist?
Howard Zinn: Oh, I think after the war. I had volunteered for the Air Force and was an enthusiastic bombardier. While dropping bombs on Europe, I generally didn’t understand what I was doing. That’s generally true of people who drop bombs from high altitudes. You don’t know what’s going on below. You don’t see the human consequences of what you’re doing. After the war, I read John Hersey’s book Hiroshima in which he went to Hiroshima afterwards and interviewed the survivors and talked to them about what it was like to be under an atomic bomb. It was horrifying. And it was the first time I realized what I had been involved in and what all of us in the Air Force had been involved in, while dropping bombs and killing civilians.
And I began to think of war—even a war with as moral a purpose as World War II (that is, getting rid of Hitler)—as being inadequate, really, to solve fundamental problems. I began to think of war, even so-called “good wars” like World War II, as corrupting everybody. Violence begetting violence. The good guys beginning to act like the bad guys. And when I studied the history of wars, it seemed to me that that was the case. Athens vs. Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. The Athenians presumably the democratic state. The Spartans the totalitarian state. But as the war went on—and you can see this in Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War—the Athenians began to act like the Spartans. They began committing atrocities and cruelties. So I saw this as a characteristic of war, even so-called “good wars.”
Guernica: In the film, Dan Berrigan, who went with you to receive American prisoners in North Vietnam, describes a colorful moment in your career. He says the North Vietnamese were singing patriotic songs, as was their custom. And they turned to you and Berrigan, presumably to do the same. Berrigan froze. But without a moment’s hesitation you stood and sang “America the Beautiful.” What was that time like, being involved in the prisoner exchanges inside a country that was at war with your own country?
Howard Zinn: Actually, I’m not at all sure about whether we sang “America the Beautiful.” People have all sorts of different memories of what happened. But I can say this: I did not feel very patriotic. I did not feel proud of our country, seeing that we were bombing peasant villages, that we were not just hitting military targets, that children were being killed. We were terrorizing the North Vietnamese with our enormous Air Force. They had no Air Force at all. They were a little pitiful country and we were terrorizing them with our bombs. And no, I did not feel proud at all.
Guernica: In the film there is a long list of leftist and literary luminaries who praise you—people like Alice Walker and Noam Chomsky. They talk about your enormous influence. Who’s been the most important influence on your own career?
Howard Zinn: When I was growing up, I was not radicalized. I was not politically influenced by any people that I knew, nobody around me. But people I read about: the works of Upton Sinclair, for instance, or the journalist Lincoln Steffens, or John Steinbeck, writing The Grapes of Wrath—those are the people who influenced me. Writers and artists. Listening to Paul Robeson, seeing how radical he was, and what a magnificent person he was. Reading the poems of Langston Hughes, very heartfelt and intense—yes, and rather bitter about America and how we treated black people in America. So those were the great influences on me, the literary influences.
Guernica: What led you to write A People’s History of the United States and how long did it take to finish?
Howard Zinn: You might say it took twenty years, twenty years of teaching American history and gathering material and so on, but not knowing that I would write this book. When I actually sat down to write, it took less than a year to write it. I wrote it because after the movements of the sixties people had been radicalized and people became dissatisfied with the traditional history, and wanted histories that showed working people and black people and Native Americans and women. And I was aware that no such book existed, that no such history existed. So I decided that I would try to fill that gap.
Guernica: How important is the 2004 presidential election and what’s at stake?
Howard Zinn: Oh, it’s very important—because we are in the thrall of a very dangerous regime, more dangerous than any presidency I can remember. Kind of a runaway group of people who seem not to care about the opinions of the rest of the world, not to care either about the majority of Americans who now oppose the war. They have their own agenda and they are trying to take total power. I mean, here’s a president who gets 47 or 48 percent of the vote—loses the popular vote, in fact, to his opponent—and takes 100 percent of the power as soon as he takes office, as if he had a mandate. He didn’t have a mandate from the American people. He snuck into the presidency with the aid of political cronies, his father’s having appointed members of the Supreme Court, his brother governor of Florida. And then he takes total control.
Now we’ve had two wars. We’ve done a lot of damage in the world. We’ve killed a lot of people. And of course Americans have died. But even more Afghans and Iraqis have died in the course of this war. And this is a president who seems to react to everything with force. The way to solve problems is with force. The way to react to terrorism is with more terrorism—because, after all, war is terrorism.
So it’s a very dangerous regime. That’s why I think this election is important. For anybody who is interested in not being a warlike nation anymore, and becoming a nation respected in the world, it becomes important to defeat Bush.
Guernica: Is the war in Iraq the most important issue in this election?
Howard Zinn: I think it is, the stories coming out of Iraq everyday—the violence, the chaos, the deaths of Americans, the deaths of Iraqis… Of course the deaths of Iraqis are not played up as much. You read that we bombed this house where there were “suspects.” But when they count the corpses they see women and children. We are constantly killing the people who are suspected of something. Now, in the United States or under any decent system of justice, you don’t kill people on suspicion. That’s what you do when you bomb a house because there are suspected leaders there. But we’ve been doing that again and again and the result has been a toll of thousands of civilians.
And some of that information is coming through to the American public. Not enough of it. But certainly the American casualties… something like 1, 2, 3, 4 American soldiers killed everyday. I think that’s the chief issue on the minds of Americans today.
Guernica: After the war, what ranks as the next most important issue, in your view?
Howard Zinn: I think the next most important issue is health care, which is going to take a beating as a result of the money allocated for the war—which can’t be solved. The problem of giving health care to everybody cannot be solved so long as we’re spending huge sums of money for war. Already we have a very wasteful healthcare system, the most wasteful healthcare system in the world. I mean, we spend the most money and still have 40 million people without insurance.
Compare us to Cuba. You know, Cuba is our enemy, run by a dictator, Fidel Castro. But people in Cuba get health care at least equal to that of the United States—with very scarce resources. Canada does a much better job, a much more efficient job of giving health care to its citizens. So I think this issue is the most important domestic issue.
Guernica: Based on how things look right now, who’s going to win the election?
Howard Zinn: Historians hate to make predictions. (Laughs) I hesitate to make a prediction. But I believe that Kerry will win. I’m not sure of this. Nobody knows. I don’t believe the polls. I think the polls are distorted. My statement is simply based on what is called “anecdotal evidence”—just talking to people and getting a sense, and imagining what the effect on Americans is of reading stories everyday of the havoc in Iraq. I think the people will vote against Bush, not because they are for Kerry—but because they’re tired of the war.
Guernica: Tell me your thoughts on the Nader factor.
Howard Zinn: Well, I don’t think Nader will be as much of a factor this time as he was last time. I think most of the people who voted for Nader last time will not vote for him this time. Most Americans who voted for Nader last time, including me, didn’t really fathom what kind of administration the Bush administration would be. It did not look at the time of the election to be as bad an administration as it turned out to be.
Nader is certainly the best candidate, certainly the best program by far. The most impressive candidate. But knowing that he can’t really win and wanting Bush to be out of office, I don’t think the Nader factor will be as important this time. I hope it won’t be.
Guernica: Do you think he should drop out?
Howard Zinn: Yes, I think he should. I think it would be a wise thing for him to do. I think he should make his statement and drop out, hold a big press conference, declare his program to the American people, which is a very good program, say what he thinks the candidates should do about getting out of Iraq, and using our resources for human needs… In other words, use the opportunity of a dramatic exit from the election to lay out an inspiring program for the American people. And sort of challenge the candidates to meet that program and then drop out, and explain why he’s dropping out.
Guernica: Beneath the despair, there seems to be a note of hope that resonates throughout your work and throughout this film. What should Americans be hopeful about as we move toward the possibility of a second term of Bush-Cheney?
Howard Zinn: (Laughs) Well, the only hope lies in the fact that the American people—like people everywhere—are basically decent people with common sense. Though they can be fooled, as they have been, and they can be propagandized, as they have been… and, you know, information can be distorted… But, as Lincoln said, “You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time. But you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” And so hope lies in the fact that little by little, even if the American people can be fooled, even if they continue to be fooled in this coming election, they will gradually learn, as they have learned—for instance, in the Vietnam War and turned against the Vietnam War. People learn and their natural instincts come to the fore.
G: Do you have a cell phone?
HZ: Yes. (Laughs)
G: Ali G or Jon Stewart?
HZ: (Laughs) Jon Stewart. I like Jon Stewart.
G: Will the U.S. ever have a woman president?
HZ: Some day, yes.
G: Who did you vote for in the primaries?
HZ: Did I vote in the primaries? I don’t think I voted in the primaries.
G: Do you ever watch reality shows or dating shows?
G: Are you right-handed or left-handed?
G: Do you ever watch sports?
HZ: Oh, yeah.
G: Are you a Red Sox…
HZ: Red Sox fan all the way.
G: Coffee or tea?
G: If you had to leave the United States, which country would you go to?
HZ: Probably Italy.
G: If you could fire anyone in the Bush administration, besides Bush himself, whom would you fire?
HZ: That’s a tough one. (Laughs) Cheney.
G: When was the last time you were in a Starbucks?
HZ: Probably the last time I was in an airport. A few weeks ago.
G: Who is your favorite historian?
HZ: Living or dead?
HZ: Charles Beard.
G: Who is your favorite president?
G: What quality did he possess that makes you like him so much?
HZ: He responded to the economic crisis and to the grassroots protests with a degree of sensitivity rare among presidents.