On March 14, 2005, Howard Zinn gave a talk at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) titled “The Myth of American Exceptionalism.” He was the inaugural lecturer in the series “Myths About America” organized by MIT’s Special Program for Urban and Regional Studies (SPURS). Zinn gave an account of United States imperialism spanning the last hundred years noting tactics that the U.S. uses, such as extraordinary rendition and shared the various reasons the U.S. goes to war. He ended on a note of hope, reminding us of all of the great social movements this country has had and will likely have again.
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.
Bish Sanyal, Director of the SPURS/Hubert Humphrey Program
Welcome to the opening lecture of the series “Myths About America.” This lecture series has been organized by MIT’s Special Program for Urban and Regional Studies. In short SPURS. SPURS is institutionally located in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT. I’m Bish Sanyal, Director of SPURS, and it is an honor for me to welcome Professor Howard Zinn, the speaker this evening. I also want to welcome all of you, the fellows, the students, faculty, and staff. Perhaps there are others in the audience who do not fit any of these categories, but are eager nonetheless, to participate in our deliberations on Myths About America. A welcome to you all.
Let me provide a very brief description of SPURS, the program which is hosting this lecture series. For some of you who may not know, SPURS was created in 1967. A critical historical moment, much like the time we’re living now. And it was created for mid-career professionals from around the world who wanted to spend a year at MIT, reflecting on their work experience in a setting very different from their work environment, and one which provided opportunities for reflection and learning. Now, a majority of the fellows in the program are supported by the Fulbright Exchange Program for Practitioners, named after the late Senator Hubert Humphrey. One key objective of this program is to cultivate international understanding of the U.S. by other nations in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East.
As you well know, the need for such an understanding is more important now than ever before. The selection of the team and the speakers for this year’s lecture series was made with this particular objective in mind. We assumed that most international fellows and students come to the U.S. with certain preconceived opinions and perceptions regarding American society, politics, and economy. The goal of this lecture series is to subject such perceptions to critical scrutiny, drawing on historical evidence. We hope that such scrutiny of both negative and positive myths about America as held by others, and also by Americans themselves, will help the fellows better understand this nation.
A few individuals and institutions deserve thanks for the organization of this lecture series. First, the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT, which is currently headed by Professor Larry Vale, who I see is in the audience. [Indiscernable], without whose help we could not have organized this lecture series. And finally, I want to thank the fellows themselves for their intellectual curiosity and eagerness to better understand the U.S. We are honored that this process of critical understanding is to be started with a lecture by Professor Howard Zinn who does not need much of an introduction.
A People’s History of the United States, which Professor Zinn published in 1980, is a book that has inspired many who could for the first time, see their own contributions to the nation’s historical evolution, thanks to this new history from below. But Howard Zinn is not a person whose experience is confined to non-traditional social groups at the bottom of American society. He’s a decorated war veteran who flew bombing missions in Europe during World War II, returned from the war and attended New York University on the G.I. Bill, and then went on to attend Columbia University, where he earned a master’s degree and a PhD in political science. Later, he became the Chair of History and Social Science at Spelman College in Atlanta, a college for Black women, where he became deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement.
Howard Zinn’s understanding of the U.S. is based as much on such concrete first-hand experience as on academic studies of historical events. The combination of these two sources of knowledge has cultivated a mind which is at once sharply analytical, deeply empathetic, and patriotic, too, in a way in which is necessary for our times. So with much admiration, I present to you the opening speaker of our lecture series, Professor Howard Zinn, who will speak this evening, on the topic of the myth of American exceptionalism. Professor Zinn will speak for an hour or 45 minutes to an hour, at the end of which he will have an exchange of views with you. Thank you. [Applause]
Howard Zinn 06:36
Thank you, Professor Sanyal, for that nice introduction. Can you all hear me? And also for inviting me. Not everybody invites me — I sometimes have to go places uninvited. But it’s good to be here at MIT. Any of you back there having trouble hearing me? No. One person. [Laughs]. Oh, okay. American exceptionalism. The Myth of American Exceptionalism. And, by the way, when I told a friend of mine, that I was going to give a talk on American exceptionalism, she immediately got in touch with somebody who had been a student of hers (and I think who is now teaching) and who sent me a paper on American exceptionalism. But I will not read her paper. Although she has some interesting, good, and useful things to say. And one of the points she makes is that by American exceptionalism, we don’t mean that the United States is simply unique, simply different. All countries are unique. All countries are different. It’s exceptionalism suggests more than that. It suggests superiority. It suggests something that all of us living in the United States have encountered a lot. And that is, self-congratulation. That we are fond, in the United States, of congratulating ourselves for how wonderful we are and how we are the best — we are the greatest — we are the strongest — we are the most prosperous — we are the freest — we are the most democratic. And, yes, we are number one. And we are, in fact, number one in many things. And we are very good, really very good in many things.
And those are the things I probably don’t have to tell you about, because anybody who is in the United States, even for a short time, knows. Because the things that the United States is good about are immediately apparent. But that’s not enough. That doesn’t tell the whole story. And if we only dwell on what we all acknowledge are some remarkable things about the United States, we will be missing something very important.
Something, in fact, so important that we will be shocked if something happens one day that arouses us from our complacency, and makes us wonder how it is that a country so gifted, so special, so superior, should experience suddenly a disaster that nobody can explain. And well, yes, when 9/11 happened, that was an occasion perhaps for reflection on ourselves — a sober and critical reflection on ourselves. That did not happen in the higher reaches of government. The people at the top of the government are not given to self-reflection or to self-criticism.
No. Instead the reaction was a kind of a hysterical reaction. Reaching out (reaching is a euphemism), war, violence, attack, do something. But no, no reflection. So I think that kind of examination of who we are, as a country, is needed. So we won’t be unguarded — so we won’t be shocked — when something terrible happens. So we will perhaps begin to understand. This idea of self-congratulation sometimes manifests itself this way: If you criticize the United States government (and a lot of people who have probably experienced this is anybody who has ever uttered a word of criticism) you’re met with the exhortation: “Well, why don’t you go somewhere else?” Well, sometimes they say, “Why don’t you go back to where you came from?” Which might be Brooklyn, but somehow, “go somewhere else”.
A friend of mine who is a comedian (I have friends of mine who are comedians, but who don’t know it) but this is a guy who is a comedian and who knows it. But he’s also serious. Some of you may have encountered him because he used to do comedy here in the Boston area. His name is Barry Crimmins. And in his serious comedy, he would very often be critical of certain things that the United States had done in the world. And people would say to him, “Well, why don’t you move somewhere else?” And he would say, “I don’t want to move somewhere else, because I don’t want to become the victim of American foreign policy.” [Laughter].
Well, this notion of superiority and exceptionalism starts early. Sarah Merton wrote this book that points out that it starts as early as — well, here in Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. The colony had just begun and the governor Winthrop utters those words, which centuries later, will be repeated by Ronald Reagan, who is a great student, as you know, of early American history. Winthrop talked about the Massachusetts Bay Colony as a “City on a Hill.” I think Reagan embellished a little and talked about a “Golden City on a Hill.” Well, the idea of a City on a Hill — you probably heard that expression a number of times – the idea of the City on a Hill is a nice one because it suggests a model, it suggests setting an example, it suggests what, in fact, George Bush has spoken of when he said, “We are a beacon of liberty and democracy.”
And if that was what we were, if that’s all we are, if we are a City on a Hill that people can look to, and people can learn from, and people can admire, and people can emulate, I mean, that is a wonderful thing to be. But it doesn’t stop there with just being a City on a Hill. Because you can see it. Because just a few years after Governor Winthrop utters these words about being a City on a Hill, just a few years later the people in the City on a Hill move out to massacre the Pequot Indians, who seem to think they belong on this land. And there’s a description of that: William Bradford (who was one of the early settlers in Massachusetts at that time, a contemporary of Winthrop) wrote a history of the Plymouth Plantation and he talks about how Captain Mason, attacking the Pequot village said, “We must burn them.” And then Bradford reports, “Those that escaped the fire were slain with a sword, some hewed to pieces, some run through with their rapiers. So as they were quickly dispatched, and very few escaped, it is conceived that thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them frying in the fire and the streams of blood quenching the same. But the victory was seen as sweet sacrifice and they gave prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, and given them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enemy.”
And very early on, there’s an association between what the government does and what God approves of. And in that process of not being just a City on the Hill, but a moving out, of expanding, continued. That’s a persistent fact of American history going all the way back to those first settlers and coming down to the present day. The persistence of expansion into somebody else’s territory, and occupying that territory, and dealing harshly with people who resist that occupation.
And now one of the things that when you study the American Revolution in school — one of the things they don’t tell you (we know about the good things with the American Revolution: independence from England and the Declaration of Independence and all of that) but generally they skip over the fact that independence from England for the colonists was disastrous for the Indians, because it meant that from now on the colonists, who had been restrained by the British in their proclamation of 1763, setting up a line, a boundary within which the settlers were supposed to stay, so as not to encroach on Indian Territory. This boundary line was now erased and the colonists, with the revolution victorious, with independence from England, the colonists could move westward into Indian Territory.
And, of course, that process continued on and on with the kind of description that you heard of the Pequot massacre occurring again and again in American history as we moved across to the west coast and down to the Gulf of Mexico. And this notion of God being involved, this notion of being divinely ordained, that notion continued. In the middle of the 19th century, on the eve of the war with Mexico, when the United States had just annexed Texas. A lot of Americans don’t know that Texas was just part of Mexico. A lot of people in United States don’t know that California was once part of Mexico. They wonder why do they have all these Spanish names out there? San- this and Santa- this.
But on the eve of war with Mexico, this famous phrase was coined by a writer and editor named John O’Sullivan. He spoke about Manifest Destiny. And he said it was our “Manifest Destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” Providence, God continues to be involved in our expansion. When the United States went into the Philippines in the beginning of the 20th century, President McKinley said — some of you may know this, because it’s not everything that I say to people is an obscure fact. And sometimes I tell people that they really know. Maybe often I tell people things that they really know, sometimes I think everything I tell people is something they really know. But I say it anyway.
But you may have heard McKinley said that his decision to invade the Philippines came one night when he prayed, and God told him to take the Philippines. And so this is a very dangerous kind of idea. Once you have God’s permission to do what you want, you need no criterion of human morality. And with President Bush (if you don’t mind me skipping immediately, a lot of American history to President Bush) and it’s well known that Bush has a special relationship to God. And that Bush invokes God every chance he gets. He’s not the only president — you know, I mustn’t be too hard — he’s not the only president who does this. The invoking of God is a very common thing through American history, but Bush has made a specialty of it. And now I’m going to tell you something. I don’t know if this is true. Not all historians will admit the things they tell you may not be true, but it sounds true to me. How’s that for a scientific bit of evidence?
And that is, an article appeared in the in the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz — any of you remember an article that appeared in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz?— in which the reporter talks about talking to Palestinian leaders who had met with Bush? Okay. Finally, I’m telling you something that is not only fairly new, but dubious. But according to this reporter, he spoke to this Palestinian leader and the Palestinian leader reported on his conversation with Bush. And as he reported, Bush told him, “God told me to strike at Al-Qaeda. And I struck them. And then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did. And now I am determined to solve the problem in the Middle East.” Well, as I say, who knows? You know, it’s one of those situations we get something second and third hand. It’s just that it’s plausible, knowing Bush. If it’s true or not, it’s plausible. It fits everything else.
Now I’ll give you a piece of evidence which is, I think, more credible. That is, it’s closer to home. Here’s the president of the Ethics and Religious Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (a friend of Bush) and he says that Bush told him during the election campaign, quote, “I believe God wants me to be president.” Now, I would consider that interference in a free election. [Audience laughter] I mean, “God wants me to be president.” This actually was reported in the newspaper. And this man, Richard Lamb, who says that Bush told him this during election campaign, he resented the fact that it was quoted, “I believe God wants me to be president.” But it was quoted out of context, the context was that Bush followed this up by saying, “But if that doesn’t happen, it’s okay.” I thought, yeah, that’s reasonable.
This, you know, willing to change his mind if God changes His or Her mind. Okay. This idea of God giving strength to whatever the government does is something that is true, not just with Bush, but at the higher reaches of American government, with people around Bush. And Justice Scalia. Justice Scalia, I don’t know how closely you watch him. But this is an aside because I just got this in the mail today — and that was something — a publication of the Dramatists Guild in which they have. They reproduce a talk that the playwright Tony Kushner gave at Bard College and it’s all about Scalia. But that’s just an aside. Scalia seriously believes that God is a source of governmental power. And he has said this again and again. And he’s spoken, well, two years ago, at the University of Chicago Divinity School and said, “Government is the Minister of God. Government derives its moral authority from God.” And, I mean, this is a dangerous idea in anybody’s hands. Scalia seems to be overlooking the fact that the Declaration of Independence suggests that government gets its authority from the people.
I mean, that’s what the government gets its authority from — the people. It’s answerable to the people. If the government doesn’t make sure that people have an equal right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, it is then the people who have the right to, as the Declaration of Independence says, to alter or abolish the government. But I suppose Scalia is a strict constitutionalist. And the Declaration of Independence is not part of the Constitution. In fact, the Declaration of Independence is not a legal document at all. It’s just the most idealistic statement that come out of the American Revolution and one to be put aside as soon as you win the revolution.
So this idea of God being a source of governmental power, I mean, it’s always dangerous in anybody’s hands. I mean, it’s dangerous when people call themselves “the chosen people.” It’s dangerous there, too. But if these people don’t have a lot of power, there’s not much they can do with that. They can sort of enjoy the fact that they are the chosen people. If there’s some point in history where they develop the power to do something to somebody else, well, then it becomes serious. And we’ve seen that there are people who, in Israel, who have justified the occupation of the West Bank on sort of very pragmatic grounds of security and self-defense.
But there are others — there are religious fanatics — who justify the occupation on the basis of, yes, being the chosen people and being the chosen by God to do this. Of course, there are important people — important Jews — who have opposed this idea of calling themselves a chosen people, considering what terrible things have been done in the name of being selected by God. After all the Nazi storm troopers had on their belts “Got mit Uns” — “God with us.” So it’s a dangerous concept when— especially when people who believe they are instructed by God have great military power. And the Nazis, with their military power and with that kind of divine ordination, we know what they did in Europe. And now you have the United States, and you have a government which assures us gets its power from God. And in the hands of the United States, this is a dangerous doctrine simply because of the great power of the United States to do whatever they think is God’s will. Then as a nation with the 10,000 nuclear weapons, a nation with military bases in a 100 different countries with warships on every sea. When you couple that power with the notion of divine sanction, the world is in danger.
And this idea that the United States should use its power in the world, should revel in its being number one, became especially important at the end of World War II. Because at the end of World War II, the United States did become the preeminent power in the world. Yes, there was a Soviet Union, but it was the United States that was, you know, the greatest economic and, with the atomic weapons, the greatest military power in the world. And at the end of World War II, Henry Luce, who was one of the most important non-governmental people, one of the most powerful non-governmental people, in the country, the owner of a vast chain of media enterprises, the man who owned Time, Life, and Fortune — not just the magazines but the things themselves. But Henry Luce said that this would be the American Century.
As he put it: “The victory at the end of World War II, gave the United States the right to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit.” And that idea that we do what we want — that this is the American Century — that, in fact, persisted, and was acted out through the rest of the 20th century. Because the United States now continues to expand, even with the Soviet Union there and soon acquiring its own nuclear weapons, the United States continued to expand its influence into the oil regions of the Middle East by this special arrangement with Saudi Arabia, into Asia with Japan, and certainly into Latin America. And no, there were some setbacks, you know. Setback in Vietnam. But the Philippines remained a very important base for the United States.
And yes, soon the United States had military bases all over the world. And soldiers and sailors stationed all over the world. And the cold war with the Soviet Union did not really do much to stop this expansion. In fact, the Cold War, the existence of the Soviet Union as a rival, the existence of something called a communist threat in the world, gave the United States a justification for doing so much of what it was doing in the world. For expanding its power in the world, for overthrowing this government or that government, for moving troops here and moving troops there — all justified by the necessity of stopping communism. Now, you can see that, I think, historically, that this was an artificial justification. And by that I mean, that this wasn’t the real reason for American expansion in the world. The real reason for American expansion was not to stop communism. After all, that expansion was a continuation of expansion, which had gone on for a long time. If you want to see the limits of that idea — that it was the Soviet Union and Cold War, which was the reason for America — United States — expanding its power in the world, all you have to do is ask a question: What was going on before 1917? What was going on before there was a Bolshevik Revolution? I mean, at that point, the United States was just minding its own business?
No. Long before the Bolshevik Revolution, the United States was engaged in expanding its power into the Caribbean, into the Pacific. So what happened, of course, is that the Cold War ended and that justification ended. But very soon after, 9/11 happened. And once 9/11 took place, another justification appeared. Terrorism replaced communism, as a kind of simple answer to the question of, you know, why are we going here? Why are we going there? Why are we making war here? Why are we sending troops there? And, you know, in the 50s, you know, why we overthrowing the government of Guatemala, or the government of Chile or the government of Iran? Well, it’s communism. And now, it’s terrorism. And it has certain plausibility because there was a reality to communism. But what we did in relation to that reality went far beyond what the real threat was. There’s a reality to terrorism, but what we do in relation to terrorism does not quite meet the requirement of having an effect, serious effect, on terrorism. And it does suggest that there are motives deeper than the idea of fighting terrorism for the American move into the Middle East in these past few years. So, one year after 9/11, President Bush announces the national security strategy.
And this basically lays out the principles for American foreign policy, and lays out the principles of unilateralism, and the preemption, and making sure that no power can rival the power of the United States in the world. And essentially, this is a declaration that the United States could ignore the UN Charter. Because if you accept preemption, then you are violating the principle of the UN Charter. You’re only supposed to make war in self-defense. And I suggest to you are also violating the principles laid down in the Nuremberg trials for which the Nazi leaders were put on trial and hanged, and that is for aggressive war — preemptive war — war not in self-defense. So this is a very serious thing, this declaration of principles and national security strategy. And we shouldn’t think it was just a Bush/Republican idea.
Very often we like to think that before Bush, things were okay. And that Bush represents a dramatic departure from whatever we had before. But in fact, preemption is something that, after all, the United States has made war before and invaded countries before — well, as we did in Southeast Asia — which certainly was not a matter of defending ourselves. No. The United States has made war unilaterally before Bush, made war unilaterally, or carried out bombing missions unilaterally. I mean, sometimes creating a kind of cloak of internationalism by bringing in NATO or by bringing in the UN — as in Korea — but basically an American enterprise. And, in fact, under Clinton, Madeleine Albright said at one point (some of you may remember) that she said, “If possible, we will act in the world, multilaterally, but if necessary, we will act unilaterally.”
So, yeah. And, you know, Clinton was not averse to acting unilaterally and preemptively. And what happens in the present situation is that very often liberals in the United States — people who are not for Bush — yes, liberals in the United States accept, with sort of qualifications here and there, but accept, basically the Bush principles. And the reason for this, I think, is that 9/11 had a very powerful psychological effect on everybody in America. But I think there are many people in the United States — liberal intellectuals — who were really, I think, so affected emotionally by what happened on 9/11 that I think it began to distort their thinking — I know they wouldn’t like me saying this — distort their thinking about what was happening in the world and about America’s role in the world. And they were sort of becoming hysterical over terrorism.
And again, yes, there’s a reality of terrorism, but there’s a difference between dealing with terrorism in an intelligent and real way, and becoming hysterical over terrorism in the way that actually liberals in the 1950s. Those of you who know some of the history of the United States in the 1950s during the Cold War period, during what is called the McCarthy period, you might remember there were not just McCarthy people but liberal people — Democrats — who reacted hysterically to what they considered the communist threat. I mean, to the point where Hubert Humphrey, who is sort of a quintessential American political liberal, Hubert Humphrey suggested the notion of internment camps for dangerous people in the United States in times of crisis.
And I think we’re seeing something of this same phenomenon. Because I was reading in the liberal magazine, The American Prospect where the editors in a recent issue, their premise is that “the greatest immediate threat to our lives and liberties are Islamic terrorists with global reach. And therefore, when facing a substantial, immediate and provable threat, the United States has both the right and the obligation to strike preemptively and if need be, unilaterally against terrorists or states that support them.” Preemptively and, if need be, unilaterally. Well, that is the Bush Doctrine. And of course, they qualify this by saying, facing a substantial, immediate and provable threat. The problem is that those who decide whether a threat is in fact, substantial, immediate, provable, people who decide that will not be the liberal intellectuals who formulated this, but the people who run the government of the United States. They will decide it, just as Bush decided it when he decided to go to war in Afghanistan, and when he decided to go to war in Iraq. And so these ideas of unilateralism and preemption — these are not new. The whole history of the United States in the world is a history of expansion based on these and also rationales given.
Like the rationales given today, when we go to war about spreading liberty and democracy and civilization. And, you know, we declared war on Mexico in 1846, and, again, for the purpose of sort of teaching civilization to the Mexicans. And then we went into Cuba in 1898, to bring liberty to the Cubans. And in fact, as you know, there’s always — well, a lot of times — a certain measure of truth to these statements. That is we did expel Spanish domination from Cuba. We liberated the Cubans from Spain, but not from ourselves. Because once Spain was gone, the United States moved in — corporations moved in — the American military moved in. America rewrote the Cuban constitution. But the rationale was, you know, we are bringing freedom to the Cubans.
And then of course, going into the Philippines and bringing civilization, as McKinley said, “We will Christianize and civilize the Filipinos because we are different, we are better.” There was at the time of the invasion of the Philippines, the American Secretary of War, Elia Root said sort of a very classical statement of American exceptionalism. He said, “The American soldier is different from all other soldiers of all other countries since the world began. He is the advanced guard of liberty and justice, of law and order, and of peace and happiness.” The American soldier is different. Of course now, right now, immediately now in the wake of Abu Ghraib, in the wake of all these revelations coming out every day about torture, and atrocities and so on — that doesn’t sound right. But you might say, “Well, Root could not anticipate Abu Ghraib.” But he didn’t have to anticipate it because at the time he was saying this, the United States was already committing atrocities and massacres in the Philippines by these American soldiers who are different from soldiers known all over the world.
And our history — the history of American expansion in the world — is not history which is taught very much in our schools or even in our colleges and universities. That is we have something called diplomatic history. That’s a discipline. The discipline is diplomatic history. And that’s what our history is. Very often it is diplomatic history and we diplomatically treat the American foreign policy in the world. Because if young people in our schools learned the history of United States expansion in the world, if they learn the history of the massacres and invasions that accompanied American expansion in the world, they could not possibly believe the president of the United States when he gets up before the nation and says, “We’re going into this country for liberty and democracy.” This operation Enduring Freedom, and so on. But that history is not there.
And this misuse of histories continues to be perpetuated by our political leaders, and not really caught or criticized by that part of the American culture which is supposed to check up on and criticize what the government does. That is the press, the media. And so you have Bush, appearing as he did a couple of years ago before the Philippine National Assembly and saying to the Philippine National Assembly, “America is proud of its part in the great story of the Filipino people. Together, our soldiers liberated the Philippines from colonial rule.” Well, people in the Philippine National Assembly sitting there, you wonder, it must have taken a lot of self-restraint to just sit there and listen to this “liberated the Philippines.” Six hundred thousand or so Filipinos died in this long war against the Filipinos. And at the end of it, when the United States was triumphant, it did not bring liberty to the Philippines. It brought decades and decades and decades of military dictatorship to the Philippines.
But I remember, there was a point talking about a year ago where the Mexican ambassador to the UN said something undiplomatic about the United States and Mexico. He said something about how the United States has been treating Mexico as its backyard. He was immediately reprimanded by Colin Powell, who said that he, this man, did not understand the history of U.S./Mexican relations. And, in fact, he was soon removed from his post. That’s how much clout we have. He was removed from his post as Mexican ambassador to the United Nations.
So, yes, without that history, you might actually believe Bush when he says in his recent inaugural address that it is — how did he put it? — is the mission of the United States to spread liberty around the world. As he put it, “Spreading liberty around the world” (as he put it) “is the calling of our time.” And if you read the newspapers, including the so called liberal press, The New York Times and the Washington Post, right after Bush’s inaugural address, you saw a flurry of praise for what Bush has said. The people in the editorial rooms of these newspapers were so eager to hear those words about spreading liberty in the world. As if everything else that has been reported from Iraq over the past two years is meaningless in the light of these beautiful words uttered by George Bush. But all I would have to do would be to (just with a very short memory) remember that a couple of days before Bush’s inaugural address (a couple of days before that) there was a photo in the New York Times, which some of you may have seen, it showed an Iraqi girl crouching, bleeding, and according to the caption, she was screaming because her parents had just been shot to death by Americans firing on their car. And of course, you know, always, we will claim the military will investigate. They were warning shots.
How do you distinguish a warning shot from a shot? But in any case, to me this was a remarkable juxtaposition, but also a testament to the loss of memory, even a memory that can last a couple of days, to see this eager acceptance of Bush’s words about liberty and this idea of American exceptionalism.
You were told I would speak for an hour, [laughs] so I’m taking advantage of every minute of it. Because when I heard that, I said, “No, I’m not going to speak for an hour. Actually, I’m going to speak for two hours.” [Audience laughs]
But what this idea of special American dispensation in the world, what it leads to is an abrogation of all sorts of responsibilities to the human race, to everybody else in the world. And it means that the United States is exempt from these responsibilities. When I told you about Madeleine Albright declaring that we have a right, if necessary, to be unilateral. When she said that, Henry Kissinger said, “This principle of our right to take unilateral action,” he said, “should not be universalized.”
That’s an interesting thought. It’s a good principle for us, but no, it shouldn’t be universalized. No. And so there are all these — there’s a long list of instances in which the United States has declared itself exempt from all sorts of international agreements and international laws and The UN Charter and the Convention on Biological weapons — which was actually signed some years ago, but which didn’t have any teeth, didn’t have any force.
And when it was proposed to enforce this Convention on Biological weapons a few years ago, the Bush administration said, “No, no way.” It wouldn’t go along with that. And you know (and I think most of us know) the United States has not gone along with the hundreds or more nations that have outlawed landmines. And just the other day I spoke to — spoke with and listened to — a presentation by a surgeon, an Italian surgeon, who for 15 years, has been doing surgery on war victims in every possible war zone of the world. Most of the people he operates on, which includes a lot of amputations, are children. And much of that comes from landmines, 100 million of which are strewn around the world. But the United States wants to be exempt from the notion that we should outlaw landmines.
And of course, we continue to use things outlawed by the Geneva Convention: cluster bombs and napalm. And so well, so what’s the answer? What’s the answer to this very dangerous notion of American exceptionalism, our right to do as we will in the world? Well, I guess the answer is sort of obvious. The answer is that those of us in the United States and in the world who don’t accept this idea must declare very forcibly and act very vigorously against this idea. And insist that the ethical norms that most decent people can agree on should be observed. And that no country should be an exception to the rules of morality in world affairs. And that the children of the world should all be seen as part of a family. And that the children of Iraq and the children of China, the children anywhere in the world, have the same rights to life as American children.
I mean, those are very fundamental moral principles, which if our government doesn’t uphold them, we must uphold them. Fortunately, there are people all over the world who want to uphold those principles and who oppose it when the United States does not. And we saw, you know, on February 15, 2003 — on the eve of the invasion of Iraq — we saw that amazing moment when on one day, 10 to 15 million people around the world, in 60-70 countries around the world — demonstrated against that war. So there are people all over the world who do not accept the idea of American exceptionalism. When last week, the State Department issued its report on human rights abuses (some of you may have seen that in the newspapers), the State Department issued this report on — it does this every year — it lists countries which are guilty of torture and other abuses of human rights. It lists a bunch of countries. A number of those countries are countries which are allies of the United States. A number of those are countries to which the United States has sent prisoners. And, I think by now, this notion of extraordinary rendition where we’re not going to torture these people. We’ll send them to countries which will torture them.
And so the State Department issues this list of countries which have violated human rights. And then when the report came out, there were responses from around the world which said, “Hey, there’s one country which is missing from this list. What about the United States?” And the Turkish newspapers said, “There’s not even a mention of the incidents in Abu Ghraib prison. No mention of Guantanamo.” A newspaper in Sydney, Australia, pointed out that the United States sends suspects — not people who’ve been tried and found guilty of anything — just people who are suspected of doing something — sends suspects to prisons in Morocco, Egypt, Libya, Uzbekistan. Countries that the State Department says uses torture. And so people around the world, and here in the United States, and this is something that we very often are deprived of, not only deprived of history, we’re very often deprived of immediate history. Because we’re deprived of things that happen in this country that people are doing that we don’t know about because this is a big country. But that would be an easy excuse that we’re a big country, and that’s why we don’t know about them.
No, we don’t know about these things that are happening around the country — these protests, these declarations of humanity. We don’t know about them because they’re not really reported. And so if you go to the internet, you might find out. If you go to a rally, you might get some of this information. If you travel around the country, you might learn that this coming weekend there will be demonstrations in cities all over the country. There’s going to be a demonstration in New Orleans. There’s going to be a demonstration in Fayetteville, North Carolina. And there’s a resistance movement in the United States for this war. And you see only a superficial recognition of this when you read public opinion polls which show that now about half the country does not believe in the war. And if half the country does not believe in the war, then somewhere among that 50%, there must be many, many people who are actively opposing that war. And those people are, in fact, engaged in protests all over the United States. And what’s perhaps most significant is that in the Armed Forces, and in the families of the Armed Forces, there is more and more defection from this war.
The Iraqi Veterans Against the War have formed a kind of reprise of what we had during Vietnam —V ietnam veterans against the war. And we have military families speak out — of the families of soldiers organizing and who now have thousands of members and G.I.s themselves, G.I.s in the field. And you read about instances of mutiny and G.I.s who say, “We don’t want to — who’ve been to Iraq — who are being sent back who don’t want to go back.”
And some of them go to Canada. And some of them get court martialed. And this is important, because I think of what Einstein said when, at the end of World War I, horrified by that war and by the idea of war itself, and by the knowledge that now modern warfare would be indiscriminate and massive. And Einstein said, “Wars will stop when men refuse to fight.”
And so the refusal to fight and refusal of families to let their kids fight, and the insistence of the parents of high school kids that they will not let recruiters come into the high schools and approach their kids — all of these things are consistent with what Einstein thought was ultimately the way that wars would stop.
So I leave you with the idea that we’re not alone, and that there are people all over the world and people in this country who do not accept the idea of a special dispensation to do whatever we want in the world. And they will insist on human equality of people everywhere. And I think of William Lloyd Garrison, the abolitionist. I think of what was on the masthead of his anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator. On his masthead were the words: “My country is the world. My countrymen are mankind.” A good thing to remember. Thank you. [Audience applause] [Acknowledges audience member]
Audience Member 1:09:27
Hi, professor. My question was: Do people in our government, do they believe their own rhetoric? Because I feel it must take an extreme suspension of belief to, you know, believe a lot of this rhetoric of democracy and, you know, American Freedom being spread everywhere. And, you know, or do they act knowingly, and, in fact, blindly. Is it because of the structure of our educational systems in our government or simply disbelief of the rhetoric?
[Walks away from microphone to audience member] This will be just between us. [Laughter] [Almost inaudible – audience member repeats his question and Professor Zinn returns to microphone.]
Howard Zinn 1:10:37
Did you all hear the question? Okay. Do the people in government do what they — do they believe in what they do, or are they brainwashed by themselves? Essentially. That’s a tough, tough question. And I don’t think I have an answer to this. I don’t know if anybody has an answer to this, because I think the answer varies from person to person. I think there are people who understand what they’re doing and don’t care. You know, they know what they want, and they’re going to get it. And they don’t care. And they’re willing to lie. But the lies are acceptable because it’s going to achieve the results that they want.
These people are cynical people. They know what they’re doing. And there are other people I think, who persuade themselves. I mean, the human mind has an infinite capacity for self-deception. And therefore there are people — I’m sure there are people in government — who really believe in what they’re doing. Who actually believe that they’re advancing the cause of liberty and democracy in the world by what they’re doing. But as I say, I don’t think there’s any one answer for this great conglomeration of decision makers.
Audience Member 1:12:17
I wanted to ask, which kind of — my name is [indiscernable]. I’m one of the Hartford Fellows. I’m from Israel, and I wanted to ask which kind of institutions in American society do you think needs to implement these moral norms? Because I was looking at the United States policy in the last two years, the detainees at Guantanamo and about the judiciary. And I was seeing that the judiciary was more interested in gay marriage than in detainee’s rights. And I was asking myself, “Which kind of institutes will handle these kind of moral issues that you’re speaking about?”
Howard Zinn 1:12:52
You say, what kind of institution? I think we — especially in countries that have institutions that seem democratic and that, on the surface, will guarantee our liberties — I think that in a country like the United States, we tend to overvalue institutions. And very often we think that if a situation is bad we can correct it by setting up another institution or by amending the Constitution. I can’t tell you how many times people have approached me and said, “I have the following amendments to the Constitution.” And, “Don’t you think that if we adopted these amendments that everything. . .” No. Institutions are all malleable, subject to interpretation. Well, we can see that with the Constitution. We can see that with even the Supreme Court, which claims to be a strict interpreter of whatever the Constitution says. And, no, all these institutions depend on who has the power. And the laws are violated with impunity by the government.
Doesn’t matter what laws you pass. And you can pass a law limiting the powers of the FBI — won’t matter. Because the FBI doesn’t have to obey the law. Because if the FBI violates the law, who will go after it? The FBI? We have a long history of government violation of law. And so the answer doesn’t lie in institutions or even in laws. Now, it helps to have some laws rather than other laws. But those aren’t critical. We changed the Constitution at the end of the Civil War to give Black people freedom from slavery, presumably equal rights with the 14th Amendment. The right to vote with the 15th Amendment. And so there we had institutionalized racial equality. Didn’t matter. Because the 13th, or the 14th, and 15th, and to even to a certain extent the 13th because Blacks were really put back in a semi-slavery by their lack of resources. But the 14th and 15th Amendments were simply unenforced. Not only were they unenforced, but the 14th Amendment — presumably passed to assure equality for Black people — the 14th Amendment became a tool for corporations — to protect corporations against governmental regulation. And so the laws and institutions are not critical.
As I say, it’s better if you can set up the institutions, if you put better laws in. Fine. But that is never enough. Because it takes citizen action. I mean, when we’ve had changes, important social changes take place in this country, that hasn’t come as a result of changes in institutions. Certainly not changes in who was elected. No. It’s come through the growth of social movements. And that was true of winning a degree of freedom for ex-slaves. And it’s true of winning rights of workers. And true in recent years, whatever rights have been won by women or by disabled people or by Black people. They have not come simply through the change in institutions. Although they may accompany the social movements. They may come out of the social movements. But basically, it’s citizen action and organization and willing to take risks on behalf of important values. Those have been crucial.
Audience Member 1:17:13
My name is [indiscernable]. I would think it would be exceptional to think that this problem was a uniquely American problem. And that history had numerous societies assumed that they were exceptional: the Romans, the British, the Japanese — at different points in time. So as an historian, can you give us any examples where societies have successfully climbed down from generating this myth about themselves to actually assuming that they’re equal with other people? Are there any success stories?
Howard Zinn 1:17:53
Historical examples of where nations have divested themselves of this exceptionalism and accepted the idea of equality with other people? Only when they were forced to. That is, the British Empire was dismantled, but not out of sheer generosity. But it was forced to dismantle. And, no. I don’t know of any government which has claimed exceptional position for itself, which has given up that in deference to human rights. But governments and empires in the past have fallen and have been forced to retrench as the Belgians in Africa and the British and the French in Asia. But only when compelled to by resistance.
Audience Member 1:19:17
When speaking about exceptionalism, you were talking about an outside threat helping to justify a lot of U.S. aggression and taking on imperial actions. I was wondering, prior to the justification of communism, what was the U.S. justification for expansion? And what was the prevailing — as part of a reflection of a time that we all live through — what was the prevailing thought between the fall of communism and the prevailing idea of terrorism?
Howard Zinn 1:19:57
So two questions, I guess. What did we do before — what was our justification before communism? Well, all the different justifications are over several centuries. And in the case of, for instance, our wars against the Indians, and our expansion there. Very often the justification was that we were civilizing them, they were a savage group and we were civilizing them. And when we conquered them, we would take the young people and put them into special schools to teach them civilization and so on. So, civilizing other people who were backward.
There was a certain amount of justification for that in the Mexican War, certainly in the Philippine war. And as I pointed out in Cuba, the justification was liberating the Cubans. In the case of our forays into Central America, which they were many, many marine forays into Central America, in the early part of the 20th century, now culminating in the long occupation of Haiti and the long occupation of Dominican Republic. The argument — the justification — was that there was disorder, and we were bringing order to these countries. And, you know, in the case of, for instance, of Theodore Roosevelt, who developed something called the Roosevelt Corollary, the justification was corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. The justification was they’re unstable — they’re not able to take care of their own finances — which means they really can’t take care of their obligations to the United States. We don’t like that.
So there are varying reasons given for all of these foreign policy actions. Before communism became a kind of easy, monolithic kind of excuse. And you asked me about what about between the fall of the Soviet Union and the war on terrorism? Well, I guess there’s an example in the war in Panama, right? Or the first Gulf War. The war in Panama takes place just at the point where the Soviet Union is falling apart. The justification of the war in Panama is, well: Noriega, bad man. You know, no longer likes us. He did at one time. He worked for us. He doesn’t want to work for us anymore. And furthermore, he’s involved in the drug trade. And we want to get him and we want to do something about the drug trade.
Well, if you know what’s happening with the drug trade today, you’ll be dubious about that. By the way, if you want to read something more interesting than the kinds of things I tell you about history, and about Panama, read John le Carré’s novel, The Tailor of Panama. And in John le Carré’s novel, the Tailor of Panama, he has a small section, which deals with the American invasion of Panama and the mayhem that we created in Panama. But then, of course, the first Gulf War took place between the collapse of the Soviet Union and the war on terrorism. And what was the reason there? Well, the reason there, the justification given to that, was that Iraq had invaded Kuwait, which is certainly true — and certainly not justifiable. But there’s an interesting leap that takes place in thinking about war. It’s a leap from a just cause to a just war. As the cause may be just and that is that sort of keeping Kuwait out of Saddam Hussein’s hands is a just cause. But then you’re making a jump if you immediately rush from that to the idea, therefore war is required, just as in Korea. It was unjust for North Korea to move into South Korea. So there was a just cause there. But that leaves open the question of whether then the proper response —- the human response — the best response to that was to go to war, and therefore, be a just war.
Well, not quite. We know now. We have three years of war in Korea. Two to three million people dead in Korea. And at the end of it, we are back where we were when the war started. Back to North Korea dictatorship. South Korea dictatorship. So it was a just cause. The question is: Should we have gone to war? Did we go to war — and the motivation is important. And, you know, it is important to ask whether motivations that are expressed are honest ones. And I think it’s worth thinking about this question: Did George Bush Senior go to war against Iraq in 1991 because he was heartbroken over the invasion of Kuwait? That’s hard to believe. There have been other invasions, other occupations. We don’t go to war over every invasion, every occupation. Is it possible that there’s something about Iraq and its oil reserves and the Middle East that prompted, again, the real taking over of Kuwait, but made that a very convenient excuse to move into Iraq? And then to establish bases there. And the bases that we established in Saudi Arabia came directly out of that war. Last question! [Acknowledges audience member]
Audience Member 1:27:26
My name is James. There’s a current of American exceptionalism, if I’m not mistaken, that has to do with trying to explain why there hasn’t been a strong social democracy in America like there has been in some, if not many, European countries. And I think, probably the most, the best known exponent of this is probably (and correct me if I’m mistaken) Seymour Martin Lipset, the Canadian political scientist. I think he’s one of the best known to put forward this attempt to explain American exceptionalism, i.e., the absence of a strong social democracy, or even a stronger socialist movement.
What’s your take on this current of what sometimes referred to as American exceptionalism? And but more importantly, what’s your take on the whole idea of trying to come to terms with, quote, unquote, why there hasn’t been a stronger movement for social democracy, realized social democracy, in the United States? And parenthetically, how much would you say the incredible diversity in this country is part of the challenge that anybody interested in that programmatically has to come to terms with?
Howard Zinn 1:28:59
Well, James. You know that’s a big question. [Audience laughter] And I don’t deal with big questions. I deal in little ones. I like little questions. And well, you mentioned diversity. And, you know, this is an issue which American historians and political scientists have grappled with for a very long time. So, here is my MIT statement. I’m going to give the definitive final — I’m going to — after all these people have worked on this — I am going to tell you what the real truth is. Yes, of course. You can give a number of reasons why we haven’t had a very powerful radical left movement in the United States. Yes. Diversity, the size of the country, all the conflicts between immigrants and native born, the pitting of people against one another, Black against white, the reformism of the United States, the doling out of little goodies to the middle class to create a large enough middle class to act as a buffer between the very rich and the very poor.
There are a number of reasons, I think, for the fact that there hasn’t been a powerful movement in the United States. But I would add one more thing: I think there’s a tendency on the part of a lot of people — I would never accuse you of this, James — but there are people who, I think, make too great a distinction between the United States — that is, who see too much exceptionalism there — too great a distinction between the United States and other post-industrial countries. As if these countries have great social movements — England, France, Italy, but the United States lags behind. I reject the idea of that sharp a distinction between these countries in Europe, granted that you know, the shoulders big, powerful trade union movement in France, and there isn’t a powerful trade union movement here. But we have had important social movements in this country from time to time, and we’ll probably have one again, especially if things continue the way they are.
And I think it’s too easy to denigrate the amount of social protest and social organization and resistance that there has been in this country throughout our history. At the beginning of the 20th century, we had a very powerful socialist movement in this country. We had radical labor unions at the beginning of the 20th century. And then again in the 30s, with the CIO. We had the movements, the great movements of the 60s. Very important social movements which had no counterpart in Europe, except France in ’68, and so on. But I guess what I’m saying is, I don’t think we’re as exceptional as a lot of people make us out to be in lagging behind in the development of social movements and social consciousness. We have a long way to go. That’s the last question? Okay. [Applause]