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An idea that can bring us together
Interview with Howard Zinn
by Jason Francis

In an interview, author, historian, professor and playwright Howard Zinn discusses the need to promote cooperation, mutual understanding and sharing in solving the world's problems.

Historian, playwright, professor and author of over 25 books, Howard Zinn has been a lifelong activist for peace and justice. His opposition to warfare developed after reflecting on his time spent in the US military during WWII. Later, he participated in the civil rights movement, serving as an advisor to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. He is best known as author of A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present (2005). His most recent book, A Power Governments Cannot Suppress (2007), is a collection of his published essays on such topics as history, class struggle, war and terrorism, justice and the impact made by ordinary citizens. Currently, Howard Zinn is professor emeritus at Boston University. Jason Francis interviewed him for Share International.


Share International: You say that America’s future is linked to an understanding of its past and that Americans would not be so eager to go to war if not for our “historical illiteracy”. What do Americans need to learn from our national as well as world history?

Howard Zinn: They need to learn the history of American foreign policy. They need to know that there’s been a persistent pattern of American expansionism from the earliest period on; from the time of the American Revolution to the expansion into the West in the 19th century; all through the 19th century, moving the indigenous people out of the plains of the West, committing massacres, pushing them farther and farther into smaller and smaller parts of the country and, essentially, taking their land from them – actually, something that we today would call ethnic cleansing. This is just barely mentioned in the history books, which reduce our relationship with the Indians to a few dramatic points: Custer’s last stand, Pocahontas. That very complex history of the American annihilation and expulsion of the Indians is lost.

There is the beginning of expansion overseas in 1898 in response to Spain’s occupation of Cuba, replaced by an American occupation of Cuba. The US took over Puerto Rico and the Philippines, and in the early 20th century there are the continual Marine invasions of Central America and the long occupations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. After World War II, the US became the number one imperial power, replacing the imperial powers of the Middle East, the oil domination by England, the Dutch and French.

Now we’re fighting war after war – in Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, Iraq – a whole series of wars after World War II. It is very important to understand we do not bring democracy or freedom to any of these countries that we occupied. We have brought misery and death to these people. We became a military superpower, not a humane superpower but a dominating superpower, setting up military bases in over 100 countries.

Knowledge of that history would have prepared the American public for President Bush’s insistence that we must go to war after September 2001 in order to make war on terror, in order to bring democracy to the Middle East. Knowing that history would have made the American public very skeptical of these claims that we would, by going to war, bring freedom and democracy to other parts of the world. That history of foreign policy is crucial to an understanding of American history which will prepare us for events today.

There are other parts of our history – the class struggles inside the United States, the domination of this country by business interests from the time of the framing of the Constitution to the present day. The importance of economic control in creating political control, the subjugation of the labor movement, the use of the government to break strikes, and the long history of labor struggles in this country against both corporate power and the government in order to win certain basic rights for working people – the eight-hour day, workman’s compensation, and a decent standard of living.

That part of our history, which tells something about class domination, is extremely important for people to understand; that behind the political struggles today are economic struggles. Behind the two-party domination of our politics is the fact that both parties are tied to corporate interests. The result is that we don’t have a genuine opposition party but instead have two parties that are basically beholden to the same financial interests, in contradistinction to the interests of most of the American people.


SI: What does history teach us about the power of unified peoples to bring about change even if it means challenging such seemingly insurmountable odds as the power of government and wealth?

HZ: That is a crucial part of learning history, to learn not only how we have been led into wars, nor how our foreign policy has been detrimental to us and other people, but learning how, at various times, the American people have resisted this combination. And that it is possible for citizens at certain points in history to organize social movements that will overcome the power of the government and the power of corporations.

The history of the labor movement isn’t just a history of defeat. It’s a history of very inspiring struggles by working people to win the eight-hour day, to organize unions, to challenge corporations. The history of the labor movement shows that it’s possible to face off against corporations that have enormous power and seem invulnerable, like General Motors and Ford and US Steel in the 1930s, which seemed absolutely impervious to change. Yet when they were faced with organized labor unions, with sit-down strikes, they had to give in – in spite of all their claims that they would never give in.

We have learned that black people in this country have at various times been able to organize movements that brought about very critical change. I’m thinking of the anti-slavery movement that took 30 years to develop, from the 1830s to 1860s, but that eventually became powerful enough to force Lincoln and the Congress to emancipate or partially emancipate slaves. It was only a partial emancipation, because blacks still remained subjugated in the South: It took another social movement in the 1950s and 1960s, which showed that it’s possible for apparently powerless people – if they organized and persisted, if they committed civil disobedience and were willing to go to prison and even get beaten and some killed – to develop power that would bring about fundamental change. That’s what happened in the south when black people got together in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the sit-ins, the freedom rides, the demonstrations in Birmingham and Selma, Alabama, and other places. That brought about a really miraculous transformation.

We had the experience in the years of the Vietnam War, of an apparently tiny antiwar movement growing into a great antiwar movement. It caused the most powerful military nation in the world to yield, finally, and to call off the war, to withdraw from Vietnam in spite of all its claims that it would never withdraw, never give in. The antiwar movement was successful in doing that.

We’ve seen other victories by social movements. We’ve seen women organizing in the 1960s and 1970s, creating a feminist movement which has brought about a new consciousness of sexual equality in this country; also how disabled people were able to organize and finally get legislation that would give them certain rights. There is a history in this country of citizens at certain times getting together and managing to overcome the immense power of the government and wealthy interests.


SI: Do you see that taking place today with the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq?

HZ: It’s in an early stage; it hasn’t happened yet. If you look at all those movements and observe them at early stages, they look something like the antiwar movement today. They look as if people are beginning to speak up but they haven’t yet succeeded in changing policy. If you look at the antiwar movement against the Vietnam War in 1967 and 1968, it still looked as if it was not going to bring about anything.

Today, unfortunately, after four years of war in Iraq, the antiwar movement is only powerful enough to ensure the Democrats in Congress sponsor pitifully weak legislation calling for timetables. That will keep us in the war at least another year or two, and in the meantime give the government more funds for the war. I do see the antiwar movement today growing. But it has not grown fast enough or large enough yet to bring about change in policy.


SI: Could you discuss how your military service in the US Army Air Corps during World War II helped shape your opposition to war?

HZ: It was only after the war that I looked back on it and realized that war had corrupted my mind, as it did others’, as happens in wars. People get herded into a kind of collective mentality, where they don’t question what is going on, don’t question what they’re doing. That leads to atrocities, to bombings of civilians that took place in World War II – some of which I engaged in. I escaped the prison of the military and then looked back on the experience and began to think for myself. I learned about Hiroshima and Nagasaki and reflected on my own experiences. I looked around at the world and saw that even a so-called ‘good war’ had not really changed the world in a fundamental way after 50 million people were dead. So I came to the conclusion that war is futile and cannot be accepted.


SI: You say in your book: “At the core of unspeakable and unjustifiable acts of terrorism are justified grievances felt by millions of people who would not themselves engage in terrorism but from whose ranks violent desperation springs.” What are those grievances?

HZ: The grievance, for instance, that lies behind the acts of terrorism – whether the attacks of 9/11 or suicide bombers in the Middle East is an anger against foreign occupation. Robert Pape, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, did a study of suicide bombings, acts of terrorism, over a 20-year period all over the world, looking at perhaps 180 such acts of terrorism. He found that the common denominator was not religious fanaticism, or anything like that. The common denominator for all these actions, whether in Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka or the Palestinian territories, was anger against foreign occupation.

If we understood that in the United States, we would no longer support the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, or support our occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, or our military bases in Japan and other countries. It’s so important to understand the root of terrorism – the indignation that millions and millions of people feel, which drives a small fraction of them to fanatic acts.


SI: There have been many social movements around the world recently – indigenous and poor people who brought to power socialist leaders in several South American nations, as well as global protests due to the economic policies of the World Trade Organisation and, as we discussed, the embryonic movement against America’s Middle East policies. Do all of these movements share a commonality?

HZ: They do. It’s very important to know that there is a common interest that people have in countries all over the world – an interest that they have in common with one another and which separates them from the interests of their own governments. We live in a world that is divided by nationalism and national boundaries. These boundaries create an artificial unity among the people inside them. But it is artificial because the genuine interest is not of people within those boundaries. There is no genuine common interest within each country between the elites and the mass of people.

There is a common interest among people all over the world, who want to live in peace, who want economic equality, who want to solve problems that plague millions and millions of people. We all have a common interest across national borders, and the common interest comes out from time to time as it did on 15 February 2003, when 10 million people around the world demonstrated on one day against the impending US war in Iraq. And World Social Forums that have taken place with tens of thousands of people gathered from all around the world to declare common interests, like “a new world is possible”. What you were saying is very true: there is a kind of internationalism that is only embryonic. But I think that holds out hope for the future.


SI: Should there be an accepted universal standard of conduct when dealing with people in our nation and around the world, individually and collectively?

HZ: Yes, I think there should be a common and internationally recognized standard. We can find it in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted in 1948 by the United Nations. It says that every human being has a right to food, shelter, healthcare, and education, and to be free from war. Every person on Earth should have a certain basic standard of living that is guaranteed, which is possible because it is a wealthy world. It’s just that the wealth has been wasted, maldistributed. Everybody should have fundamental human rights, including the freedom of speech and freedom of the press, freedom of association, and the right to communicate with others on an equal basis, so that the media are not monopolized by a small number of wealthy people.


SI: What type of change is needed in our collective consciousness to bring about true and honest freedom and justice, which are needed to secure lasting peace?

HZ: Change in our thinking would consist of a rejection of nationalism, a rejection of the idea of national borders, boundaries, visas, passports and immigration quotas. A rejection of the idea that the world can be divided up into 100 or 200 different places, each with its own kind of fierce resentment of other people – a rejection of nationalism, a spirit of world solidarity. That is a fundamental change in our thinking.

The other change in our thinking is a rejection of violence as a solution to problems and the insistence that whatever problem there is in the world, even if it’s a tyrant somewhere oppressing people, the answer to tyranny, or whatever injustice is going on in the world, cannot be force, violence or war. We must seek imaginative, non-violent solutions to the problems that exist.


SI: You say that we risk becoming victims of the ‘War on Terror’ by simply criticizing it since it diverts our attention away from an idea that could unite us as surely as the fear of terrorism. What is the idea that could bring us together?

HZ: The idea that can bring us together is the common recognition that violence, war, militarism cannot solve any of the problems in the world. That we must turn away from violence and war, and use the wealth of the world to help people, to give people healthcare, education and cure sickness and give people places to live. That idea of a common interest, that idea of renouncing war and instead using the enormous wealth that’s been wasted on war to work with one another in the world and save the lives of millions and millions of people who now die of sickness and malnutrition – that fundamental idea can bring us together.


 From the  May 2007 issue of Share International magazine.

Jason Francis is a Share International co-worker based in Massachusetts, USA.

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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005