Three Holy Wars: The Progressive’s 100th Anniversary Conference
Speech give by Howard Zinn in Madison, Wisconsin, May 2, 2009
Matt Rothschild: For all his fame he’s more humble, or as I told him once, he fakes it better than anyone I know. So, let’s hear it for Howard Zinn.
Howard Zinn: Hello. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. As Matt said, I am a very humble person. I’ll try to be humble for the rest of this talk, but it’s not easy given my enormous ego.
But Matt’s told accurately about my coming to The Progressive – but I must say this, that I have never had an editor like Matt Rothschild. Really.
You may wonder, what does that mean? I have never had an editor who was a bird watcher. Really. That’s very important. But really, he is a great editor. He reads everything carefully. He doesn’t give you a hard time and that’s the sign of a good editor. So, I am very happy to write for The Progressive.
The readership of The Progressive is a very special readership. Well, there you are. You’re out there. Really, they’re a very special readership – a peculiar readership – yes, in a good way.
Anyway, I am happy to be introduced by Matt. I am very happy to be on the same platform as Will Durst, whom I’ve never heard and, well, he is a really funny guy. I’m happy to be on a program with Barbara Ehrenreich and Bob Redford. I’m honored.
So, now I will try to sober things up a little. I thought I would introduce an idea which I have been toying with and I thought this is a good crowd to introduce this idea with.
It’s about three holy wars. In my head that’s my title of this talk – although it’s not a very formal talk. Three holy wars. What does that mean? I’m not talking about religious wars. I’m talking about the three wars in American history that are sacrosanct – the three wars that you cannot say anything bad about: The Revolutionary War, the Civil War and World War II.
Ever hear anyone say anything bad about the founding fathers? About the Civil War? About the “Good War,” World War II? It’s very, very, very hard in our culture to be critical in any way of these wars.
Oh, you can be critical of other wars and there’s a kind of acceptance of this was a bad one. This was a bad one, but, no, no, the Revolutionary War, the Civil War.
So, I thought it was very important to look very critically and carefully at these three idealized wars. I guess the word idealized gives me away. Three romanticized wars. Important. Important to be willing to at least raise the question. It’s not that I am going to immediately denounce these three wars – well, maybe.
Well, I don’t know how to characterize what I will say about them, but I guess I think it is important to at least raise the possibility that you can criticize something which everybody has accepted as uncriticizable. I mean we are supposed to be thinking people – you should be able to question anything.
I just heard Barbara Ehrenreich question god – and I didn’t hear an answer. I would like to hear an interview between them – which Matt can publish in The Progressive.
If we are thinking human beings, we have to be willing to question everything including these wars which nobody wants to say anything bad about. So, that’s what I am going to start to do because it’s a very big topic and I only have a little bit of time. I’ve been warned about time. They have a guy here who warns you. He’s a very tough looking guy and he warns you about time. I only have a bit of time, just enough to introduce a few ideas just to think about. O.K.?
One of those ideas is actually something that Matt mentioned, Irwin Knoll. I don’t know how many of you knew him or read The Progressive when Irwin Knoll was editor of The Progressive. I met Irwin Knoll. One of the first things that happened when I met Irwin Knoll is that we both found that we both had the exact same idea about a certain thing. That is, we were both making the distinction between a just cause and a just war.
That is, there are things that happen in the world that are bad that you want to do something about, and so you have a just cause there. But our culture is so war prone that we immediately rush and make this illogical jump from “this is a just cause, therefore it deserves a war.”
No, you have to be very careful from making that jump from “Oh, this is a good cause,” to therefore we have to make war to do something about it.
Actually, you might say it was a good cause to get Spain out of Cuba in 1898. Spain was oppressing Cuba. But did that mean necessarily that we had to go to war? You have to examine that war very carefully to see what it produced. You have to see, to understand, that we got Spain out of oppressing Cuba and got ourselves in to oppress Cuba. So, you have to be very careful.
You might say that stopping North Korea from invading South Korea was – there was a just cause there. They shouldn’t do that. It’s not good. It’s not right. Does that mean, therefore, we should go to war to stop it? You know Korean War is one of the least known wars. It’s sort of a war that has been lost in history. Two to three million Koreans died in that war. Of course, a just cause: North Korea should not have invaded South Korea. So, we go, “What’s the answer? War.” What’s the result? Two to three million Koreans dead.
And is there any particular change in the alignment of South Korea and North Korea? No. It starts off with a dictatorship in South Korea and a dictatorship in North Korea. It ends up after two million dead with a dictatorship in South Korea and a dictatorship in North Korea.
You have to be very careful about rushing from one thing to another, from just cause to just war.
Irwin Knoll is the only other person I found who was thinking exactly along the same lines. I’m always looking for somebody who is thinking along the same lines as me. That’s what I do. I go around looking for people. Very gratified when I find somebody.
The American Revolution, independence from England – a just cause. Why should a group of colonists here be occupied? Yes, they were occupying us. They were oppressing us, therefore, we go to war: The Revolutionary War.
How many people died in the Revolutionary War? Nobody knows exactly. By the way, you will find out when you look at the statistics of war dead that nobody knows exactly how many people died. Who cares? Twenty-five thousand to fifty-thousand people. Let’s take the lower figure. Twenty-five thousand die in the Revolutionary War in a population of three million. That would be the equivalent today of two and a half million people dying in a war to get England off our backs. Well, you might consider that worth it, or you might not.
Canada is independent of England – aren’t they? I think so. Not a bad society. They have good health care. They have a lot of things we don’t have. They didn’t fight a bloody revolutionary war.
Why do we assume that we had to fight a bloody revolutionary war to get rid of England? Do you know (I always start off saying, “Do you know” because I figure people don’t know and they will be gratified that I am telling them this). In the first year before the first shots were fired, those famous shots. You know, the shot that was heard around the world. You know, Lexington, Concord, April of 1775, the beginning of the Revolutionary War. The year before that farmers in western Massachusetts had driven the British government out of most of western Massachusetts without firing a shot. They had assembled thousands upon thousands around court houses, around official offices and they had taken over and they said good bye to the British officials. It was a nonviolent revolution that took place.
But then came Lexington and Concord and the Revolution became violent and then the revolution was taken over, not by the farmers, but taken over by the founding fathers. The farmers were rather poor. The founding fathers were rather rich.
The Revolutionary War is not as simple as it first seems you know. Oh – independence from England. Good. Not that simple.
Who actually gained from that victory over England? There were people who gained, no question about that. But it is very important to ask, especially if you are considering a war or evaluating a war, who gained what and differentiate between the different parts of the population about who benefited from a certain policy. That’s one thing we’re not accustomed to doing in this country because we don’t think in class terms. We think we all have the same interests. We all have the same interests in independence from England. We did not all have the same interests.
Do you think the Indians cared about independence from England? No. In fact, the Indians were unhappy that we won independence from England because England had set a line – the Proclamation of 1763 – had set a line and said you cannot go westward into Indian territory beyond this line. They didn’t do it because they loved the Indians. They didn’t want trouble, right? When England was defeated in the Revolutionary War that line was eliminated. Now, the way was opened for the colonists to move westward across the continent, which they did for the next 100 years, committing massacres and making sure that they destroyed Indian civilization. So, you can say, when you look at the American Revolution, you can say, hey, there’s a fact you have to take into consideration. Indians, no, didn’t benefit.
Did blacks benefit from the Revolution? Slavery was there before; slavery was there after. No, we remained a slave society after the Revolution. Not only that, we wrote slavery into the Constitution. We legitimized it.
What about class divisions? Why do we assume, well aside from blacks and slaves and Indians, what about, say ordinary, let’s say white farmers. Did they have the same interest in the Revolution as say John Hancock or a Governor Morris or Madison or Jefferson or the slave owners or bond holders. Not really. It was not all the common people getting together to fight against England. In fact, Washington had a very hard time assembling an army.
They got an army. They promised people – they took poor guys and promised them land. They browbeat people and, oh yes, of course, they inspired people. Let’s have a Declaration of Independence. Wow, this is what we are fighting for. It is always good if you want to get people to go to war to have a good document and have good words like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Yes, that’s what we’re fighting for.
Of course, when they write the Constitution it’s not, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. When they write the Constitution it’s life, liberty and property. Have you noticed that difference? You should notice. You should take notice of these little things.
There were class divisions. When you assess and evaluate a war, when you assess and evaluate any policy, you have to ask, “Who gets what?” out of this policy. It’s not the same for all of us. Oh, we’re going to raise taxes. On whom? On which part of the population? We’re going to spend money. On whom?
And what about the Revolution? Is there a class division there in the benefits in the Revolution? Oh, yes. We were a class society from the beginning. American society started off as a society of rich and poor. There were people with enormous grants of land and people who had no land. There were riots; there were bread riots in Boston and flour riots. There were rebellions all over the colonies of poor against rich, of tenants breaking into jails to release people who were in prison there for nonpayment of debt. There was class conflict. We try to pretend in this country we’re all one big happy family. We’re not. So, when you look at the American Revolution, you have to look at it in terms of class.
Do you know that in the (again, my air of superiority – “Did you know what I know?” Well, you know things that I don’t know, but I might as well take advantage of what I know to lord it over everybody else.) Did you know that there were mutinies in the Revolutionary Army by the privates against the officers? I ask you, “Do you know?” because when I studied the American Revolution, when I studied American history – now I’m talking not just in elementary school, but I went to graduate school. I want you to know that. I got a Ph.D. in history. Really. Did I ever learn in my whole undergraduate, graduate education, did I ever learn about mutinies in the American Revolutionary Army? No. Well, there is a lot I didn’t learn.
When I got out of school I began to learn things. That’s when you begin to learn. Right? You go to the library. There is nothing like a library.
There were mutinies of ordinary soldiers, who saw the way the officers were treated. The officers were getting fine clothes and good food and high pay and privates were – well you saw at Valley Forge – they had no shoes and bad clothes and they weren’t getting paid. They mutinied. Thousands of them, not just five or ten. Thousands of soldiers mutinied. So many mutinied in the Pennsylvania line, as it was called, George Washington worried about this. It was too much to handle. He couldn’t put this down, so he made compromises with them.
But, later when there was a smaller mutiny in the New Jersey line, not with thousands but with hundreds, Washington said, “Execute the leaders.” They took out a number of the mutineers and they were executed by their fellow mutineers by orders of the officers.
I tell you this just to indicate that the American Revolution was not a simple affair of all of us against all of them. Not everyone thought they would benefit from the Revolution. And true, it was a benefit to be freed from England. But, in proportion to the population, two and a half million people died, right?
When considering war, the human cost needs to be measured against what you gain from war. On both sides of that ledger, problems arise because when you think about the human cost, generally it’s an abstraction. Oh, so many and so many people died. It’s a number. You give it a number. World War II, 400,000 died. Civil War, 600,000. But 50 million people died in World War II, in numbers. What does that mean in human terms?
So, the tendency is, on that side of the ledger, if you really want to have an accurate assessment of weighing the cost against the benefits, you will have to look at that cost, not as an abstraction or statistic. You have to look at [it] in terms of every human being who died, and every human being who lost a limb, and every human being who came out blind and every human being who came out mentally damaged. You have to put all of that together when assessing that side of the ledger, the cost of the war before you ask the question, “Was it worth it? Was it a just war?” Yes, you have to get that side of the ledger right.
One of the things, great things, that Drew Gilpin Faust – I don’t know if you know about her book, the book she wrote about the Civil War; it’s a wonderful book. The great thing about her book is that she brings home in very explicit, very human terms what happens to human beings in that war. The Civil War was an ugly, brutal war of amputation after amputation after amputation done out in a field without anesthetics. So, you have to have a very careful assessment of that. This is the cost. Now you know the real cost, real human cost.
On the side of gain, you have to ask yourself the question that I asked about the Revolutionary War. Who gained and who didn’t and what were the class divisions? What this class gave and what that class gave.
(I’m just seeing if this guy is following me. If you see someone creeping up behind me let me know.)
The Civil War. What did you learn about the Civil War? North against the South. Blue against the gray. Battles, Antietam and Gettysburg. Who in the North? Who in the South? What divisions were there? It was a war to free the slaves.
But, also, there was a class element to it in that poor white people were conscripted into a war which didn’t have much meaning to them. They were being drafted where the rich could get out of the draft by paying 300 dollars. So, there were riots that some of you have heard about. There were the draft riots in New York and other cities during the Civil War.
There was class conflict in the North. There were some people in the North that got rich during the war. There were fortunes made. J.P. Morgan made a fortune during the Civil War. That’s what wars do. They make some people very rich and the poor go to fight in the war.
O.K., I must agree. I must not ignore the positive side and I am going to come back to that about emancipation – freeing the slaves. That’s no small matter. That’s a big thing on that side of the ledger.
But let’s say one more thing about class conflict in the Confederacy. There was class conflict in the Confederacy. Most whites were not slave owners. Maybe one out of six whites was a slave owner. Whites were not slave owners. Whites were poor, poor jokers fighting in this war. For what? Dying at a much higher rate than the soldiers in the North. The Confederate losses were much greater than the losses in the North.
As the mayhem went on, as the bloodshed magnified, their families back home were starving because the plantation owners were growing cotton instead of food, and so the wives and the daughters and the girlfriends and the sisters they began to riot. They rioted in Georgia and Alabama. They rioted in protest against the fact that their sons and husbands were dying at the front while the plantation owners were getting rich. Huge desertions in the Confederate Army. So, the class thing had to be examined.
But let me get back to the great positive thing that happened out of the Civil War, the emancipation of the slaves – except that it was not totally an emancipation. Yes, in a certain sense it was. In another sense it wasn’t. Now, that’s important because if you are going to lose 600,000 dead in the Civil War, which is equivalent in proportion to the population to five million today, (imagine a war we wage on our soil state against state in which five million people die) maybe it’s worth it if the result is to free four million black people and bring them into freedom. Well, they weren’t exactly brought into freedom. They were brought into semi-slavery.
They were betrayed by the politicians, the financiers in the North. They were given promises and promises, but, sure, they were not technically slaves, but they were left without resources. They were really left at the mercy of the same plantation owners who had owned them as slaves, and now they were serfs. Now they were tenant farmers. Now they couldn’t move from one place to another. They were hemmed in by all sorts of restrictions. Many of them were put in jail on false charges. Vagrancy statutes were passed so that employers could pick up blacks off the streets and force them to work – kind of slave labor.
I say all of this to indicate that, well, in may have been O.K. for 600,000 people to die because we ended slavery. Not quite. Is it possible that slavery could have been ended another way without 600,000 dead? That’s something we don’t think of. Just like we don’t think could we have won independence from England without a bloody war?
The thing about bloody wars, about winning something with violence, is that that is controlled from the top. It’s not a people’s war. Neither the Revolution nor the Civil War, not a people’s war. There are the people at the top; they’re the ones who gain the most out of this situation.
So, you have to ask the question: could slavery been ended another way? There are other countries in the Western Hemisphere that ended slavery without bloody civil war.
(I still have a green light. I was wondering if I would be able to get to World War II.)
I volunteered to be in (World War II)]. Maybe you know that. Maybe you know my whole history. Maybe you know more about me than I do.
I volunteered for the Air Force in World War II and flew bombing missions over Europe. I did it because it was the “good war”; it was a right war; it was a just war.
Well, after I got out of the war, I began to think and think, sometimes. I began to research and go back over things and learn about Hiroshima and Nagasaki because when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. I had just finished my missions in Europe and was going to go to the Pacific to continue dropping bombs. Then the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and the war had ended soon after. Wow, that was great. I welcomed it.
Did I really know what happened when that bomb was dropped on Hiroshima? Did I know what happened to those people? Did I have any idea what that meant to those hundreds of thousands of people, of those men and women and children? No, I did not. When I began to think about that, then I began to think about the people under my bombs whom I hadn’t thought about. I never saw them. Flying at 30,000 feet you don’t see anybody; you just drop bombs.
Warfare today is a very antiseptic thing. People blithely – they send some Predator missiles without any pilots at all, right? That’s easy. We’ll just kill people and we won’t even take any chances of having anybody shot down.
Three months before Nagasaki, we sent planes over Tokyo to fire bomb Tokyo, and 100,000 people were killed in one night in the bombing of Tokyo.
Later, when I visited Japan and I talked to people there, and later when I visited Hiroshima and met with people who were survivors of Hiroshima – and you should have seen them: people without legs and arms and blind and so on. When I could actually see what that meant, that war, the fifty million dead in the war. You can say, well, we defeated fascism. Well, did we? Did we really?
That’s another thing with the Revolutionary War. Well, not everything turned out so well after the Revolutionary War. Not everything turned out really that great and surely not the war in that many people [were] killed.
And what about World War II with fifty million dead? Sure, you got rid of Hitler. You got rid of the Japanese military machine and you got rid of Mussolini. But did you get rid of fascism in the world? Did you get rid of militarism? Did you get rid of racism? Did you get rid of war? We’ve had war after war after war. What did those fifty million people die for?
We have to rethink this question of war.
(I’ve come to the conclusion that the guy monitoring this has fallen asleep. Believe me, I am not going to wake him.)
You have to come to the conclusion as I have. War cannot be accepted no matter what. No matter what. No matter the reasons given: liberty, democracy, this, that. War by its definition is the indiscriminate killing of huge numbers of people for ends which are uncertain. When you think about means and ends, you think about that ethical proposition and apply it to war. The means are horrible certainly. The end is uncertain. That alone should make you hesitate.
Then, of course, people always ask this question. This question has always been asked of me and so I’m going to pre-empt your asking it, even in your head. “Yes, but what else were we to do?” This is what people ask. What else are we to do about this or about that or independence from England, or about slavery? By the way, the interesting thing about slavery, John Brown wanted to free the slaves. That was a year before the Civil War. Right? He tries to start. He wasn’t very good at it. He tries to start a slave insurrection, hoping that would spread and spread and spread. Maybe they would end slavery that way. He was executed by the government of the United States and the State of Virginia for using such violence. The next year, they start a war which ends up with 600,000 dead, and everybody is celebrating that slavery is ended in that way. Well.
Just one point I want to make. This is the question that says, “What else would you do?” They say, “[what about] Hitler? You had to do something.” I agree. You have to do something about all these things. You have to do something about winning independence if you’re oppressed. You have to do something about slavery if there’s slavery. You have to do something about fascism. You have to do something about all these things. But, you don’t have to do war. If we have any brains (I don’t know if we do). We are supposed to be smart. We are smart. There’re so many ways. Surely, you should be able to understand that in between war and passivity there are a thousand possibilities, you see.
It’s curious that once a historical event has taken place a certain way, once history has played itself out in a certain way – Hitler invades Czechoslovakia, Poland, we go to war. War lasts a number of years. The war is over. Once it gets played out in a certain way – fascism is over – once it is played out that way, it becomes very hard to imagine it could have been achieved some other way. You know when something has happened in history it takes on a certain air of inevitability. This is the only way it could have happened. No.
You see so many instances in history where surprising things take place that you wouldn’t have even imagined. I mean, if the African National Congress had decided on a bloody war of rebellion against the apartheid system it might be justified. To end apartheid, yes. There’d be a war. They’d end apartheid. Maybe a million people would be killed, mostly black people. If it happened that way, then you would say, “Well, I guess it was the only way that could have been done.” Apartheid ended because the African National Congress decided: No, we don’t want that. We’re going to do it another way. We’re not going to be passive. We’re going to fight back in various ways. We’re going to have strikes. We’re going to have all sorts of things. We’re going to have economic pressure. We’re going to do all sorts of things to bring down this regime, to erode its power. But we’re not going to have a bloody war in which we are going to be the victims, mostly.
So, finally. You’re saved. Well, you get my point. That is all I have to say.