Who We Are

Howard Zinn on the uses of history

Boston University professor Howard Zinn
Boston University professor Howard Zinn

On Feb. 17-19, Austin will be host to hundreds of historians and activists who will gather in UT's Thompson Conference Center to raise some serious questions, most prominently: 1) What has brought us to the war in Iraq; 2) What are we supposed to do now? Among the scholars convening in the name of informed resistance will be Rashid Khalidi, director of Columbia University's Middle East Institute and author of Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America's Perilous Path in the Middle East; Andrea Smith, Native American activist and scholar and co-founder of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence; and Howard Zinn, the historian, activist, and author best known for his ground-breaking retelling of American history from the bottom up, A People's History of the United States. The veteran of both World War II and the fight for civil rights talked with the Chronicle from his home in Massachusetts – about the power of context, America's potential to be truly great, and the truth of human nature.

Empire, Resistance, and the War in Iraq: A Conference for Historians and Activists, Feb 17-19, UT-Austin. For a full list of speakers and a detailed schedule, see www.historiansagainstwar.org.

The following is a lightly edited transcript of our talk with Howard Zinn. – D.W.

Austin Chronicle: You're coming to town to give the keynote at a conference for Historians Against the War. What are you going to talk about?

Howard Zinn: I was just wondering that myself! I know roughly what I'm going to say. About 24 hours before I speak I sit down and think.

I'm going to talk about history, of course, since it's for Historians Against the War. I'm going to talk about the uses of history and how history can be important in understanding what is going on today – in particular, in understanding the war in Iraq. So, I guess I will draw upon the American historical experience in order to throw some light on these issues.

AC: I feel like it's so hard to contextualize what's going on, for a lot of people.

HZ: But without a historical context, it's very easy to get lost and overwhelmed by what the people in authority are saying. If you don't have any history, you really have no way of checking up on what people are saying. It's as if you had amnesia, and someone could say anything to you. There's no way of corroborating or contradicting what they're saying without some memory. So, I'm going to try to refresh that memory. Though, sometimes there's not that much to refresh, because the history hasn't been learned to begin with. Our historical education doesn't really prepare us very well to deal with matters of life and death, really.

I think historians have a special responsibility to be more than just historians. It's more than just writing papers and books and being dutiful members of the Historical Association. I think that historians have a special obligation to use whatever historical knowledge they have to advance, well, the cause of human rights. This of course breaks into the tradition of objectivity and distance and neutrality, which is so powerful. Not only in a historical profession, but professions generally. It seems to be part of a culture of professionalism. You don't step outside boundaries of what you are supposed to do as a professional, because, well, you'll get into controversy, which will get you into trouble, and you're assumed not to know anything outside of your field.

AC: People often offer the argument that war is inherent to human nature. You clearly don't believe that. Why?

HZ: It's a pretty commonly held idea that we get war because that kind of violence is inside human beings to begin with. Well, one of my arguments is that, if that is true, then we wouldn't find governments going to such enormous lengths to go to war. They would not have a draft. They would not have to entice young people with promises of jobs and give them bonuses and they wouldn't have to wave the flag and blow the trumpets and appeal to their patriotism.

You wouldn't have to go through this enormous process of propagandizing a whole nation in order to go to war. You can see how this works historically: People are not naturally inclined to go to war. People's natural instinct is to shy away from war. Look at the First World War. There wasn't a rush to go war; there was an enormous propaganda campaign. And yes, they had to lie to the American people. They had to say that the Lusitania was an innocent passenger ship blown up by the evil Germans, not that the Lusitania was packed with ammunition and therefore part of the military enterprise.

Woodrow Wilson actually tapped into the peace of the American people when he said that there was such a thing as being too proud to fight. He won an election on that basis in 1916. After he was elected, he proceeded to rev up the country for war. To get them ready, he sent 75,000 speakers around the country to speak in 750 cities in the country, to make the case for the necessity for war. The opposition to war was very extensive, and Wilson had to batter that down. He got legislation passed by Congress that would put people in jail if they spoke up against the war, and of course, thousands of people were put in jail for speaking up against the war.

I cite World War I as just one example. You can see that happening in any war. Even in a war that seems so obviously right, as World War II. That is a war against Hitler, a war against fascism. The American people were not anxious to go to war. There was no natural rush to war. Roosevelt was elected in 1940 on the basis of keeping the nation out of war. It was only after he was elected, and of course, Pearl Harbor, was he able to mobilize the nation for war. Furthermore, there is no biological evidence [laughs], there's no genetic evidence, there's no anthropological evidence. And, by anthropological evidence, I mean you look at the behavior of what are called primitive peoples, and what you'll find that some of them are warlike and some of them are not warlike, depending on their environment. There was an anthropologist called Colin Turnbull who wrote two books about different primitive tribes in Africa: one was called The Forest People and one was called The Mountain People. One tribe was fierce, and one tribe was pacific.

AC: Which one was which?

HZ: The mountain tribe was more pacific. They had more room. They weren't just crowded in.

AC: Driving each other crazy?

HZ: That's right. The forest people were claustrophobic, looking behind every tree. [Laughs] I'm simplifying it a bit.

But, anyway the argument for war as human nature: It's amazing to me how many people – even anti-war people – believe this. They talk about how men love war. I'm amazed at how many people say this. I'm a veteran; I was in World War II. I was in combat, and I did not see a lust for war. No, I saw people sort of resigned to doing their job, and feeling, in some vague way, that they are doing the right thing. They weren't anxious to get into combat situations, and to kill and to be killed. There may have been some people like that, but it's some. Not all people are like that. It's not "natural." It's something that is conditional on all sorts of factors. I remember John Hersey, the novelist and journalist, wrote a novel called The War Lover. I was interested in it because it was about an air crew in England, which is what I was in, a bombing crew in England, and the pilot of this crew was a war lover. But, the other people in this crew were not. They didn't all have the same "human nature."

AC: That's something that has been pretty powerful in the Iraq war and Vietnam, and probably every war: the dissent from within the military community.

HZ: That's true, certainly Vietnam. That is probably the best example, because we have never had an antiwar movement inside the military as powerful as Vietnam. We've had reluctance to fight in all wars, starting with the Revolutionary War. We had mutinies in the Revolutionary Army by soldiers. They didn't rush to war just by hearing the words of the Declaration of Independence.

AC: How important is the realization of the role that class plays in war?

HZ: I think that, obviously, it is the poor people who fight the wars. And they go to war because they are conscripted or lured or propagandized. At a certain point some of them – not all of them – begin to wonder about how it is that it is the poor people who go to war, and exactly what you are fighting for.

I think you can see this most markedly in the black community, that is: Black people, or, African-Americans, in this country, have always been more reluctant to go to war than anybody else. Even in World War II, which was the most popular of American wars, you found reluctance among black people. They were looking at their own situation and the racial segregation of the armed forces. In Vietnam, this became most marked, with a huge number of black desertions and hundreds of thousands of blacks not showing up for the draft. A part of that is race, and a part of that is class.

AC: That reminds me of Frederick Douglass' speech in your recent book, Voices of a Peoples' History of the United States, where he questioned what the celebration of the Fourth of July means for black people. The knowledge of your situation and the ability to contextualize yourself in your society allows you to question so much of the status quo.

HZ: At the Los Angeles reading of Voices, in 2003, James Earl Jones read that speech, and he was amazing. You can imagine.

AC: I just watched the DVD of the New York reading, where Brian Jones read Douglass' speech, and Lili Taylor read a speech from Emma Goldman on the dangers of patriotism and Wallace Shawn read your speech on the importance of civil disobedience. It is amazing to see all these articulate calls for reform that have yet to come to fruition. It was inspiring, but I couldn't help feeling a little bit depressed.

HZ: You would think that it wouldn't have taken us so long to catch on.

AC: Have we caught on?

HZ: Well, it takes time to break through the fog of propaganda. The power of that propaganda and the control of the media having become so close to absolute, you have to break through so many layers of falsehood before you get to the truth. Eventually people do, but it takes time. I mean, look at what's happening with the war in Iraq, and look at the 80% support for Bush when the war started and the less than 50% support now.

AC: It's a pity the time it takes.

HZ: Yeah, and the lives it takes.

AC: You said, in that speech on civil disobedience that is in your book: "The world is topsy-turvy. … The wrong people are in jail, and the wrong people are out of jail. The wrong people are in power and the wrong people are out of power." That was 1970. Now, 36 years later, what's changed?

HZ: Well, it's still true. I was thinking about that just this morning when I got the news that the St. Patrick Four were being sentenced (www.commondreams.org/views05/0317-32.htm). They are getting basically six-month sentences. It could have been worse, but the jury did not find them guilty of a felony, they found them guilty of misdemeanors. Their first trial, the jury could not come to a decision. In fact, nine out of the 12 jurors were going to acquit them. There, too, is an instance where people are befogged by what they get from the news and what they get from the authorities. This is true of these jurors who were prevented, by the judge, from hearing the context of what the defendants have done. And when the judge will not allow testimony that can tell the juries why these people committed this act of civil disobedience, then the juries will convict. But, in the first trial, where the juries were allowed to hear arguments of international law, the jury could not convict them. I saw this during the Vietnam War, I testified many times in trials of people who had committed civil disobedience. The outcome of the trial really depended on what the jury was allowed to hear by the judge. Talk about human nature: It gives you a little bit of faith in human nature to know that when people learn the truth, or when people have a chance to hear the other side, they will vote their consciences.

AC: So, true freedom of information is a good place to start making these wrongs right?

HZ: It's an absolutely necessary starting point. It can't be the ending point, because the information then has to turn into something else, so knowledge needs to then turn into action and organization. You've got to translate the new understanding that people have into a powerful social force before policy is actually changed.

AC: Do you have any tactical advice for people who are feeling totally overwhelmed?

HZ: People are always looking for magical solutions, like the government is always looking for new weapons. The truth is, it's really the same story all of the time. You have to keep doing whatever you're doing. People are inclined to do different things, and people play different roles. There are people who can educate others, give them information that will transform their thinking, and there are people who will demonstrate and picket, and then there are soldiers who will refuse to go back to Iraq, and there are military families who will protest what is happening to their husbands or their children. Historically, you see the old tactics of resistance taking many different forms. In each case, you have to get to the point where you become overwhelmed enough for the policy makers to have to up and listen. So, it's not a matter of looking for new clever tactics. It's really a matter of continuing and increasing the pace of whatever people are doing.

AC: So, persistence is really the key?

HZ: And patience. Not the patience of passivity, but – yes, I guess persistence is the word, because patience suggests waiting and watching and persistence suggests continuing to do what you're doing, even though you may not be seeing results.

AC: What is your reaction to the common political statement: "America is the greatest country in the world."

HZ: There's an example of where people need a sobering lesson. They need to know the history of the United States, and they need to develop a kind of modesty about this country. You can't overlook the fact that this country was a slave-holding country after slavery had been abolished all over the world, and that the slavery in this country lasted over 200 years, and that racial segregation lasted for another hundred years after that. That is not the history of a great country.

We are great in many ways. We are rich. We are big. We have a lot of television sets, and phones, and automobiles. But, we are not rich in what a really good country should be, and that is our treatment of people in other places in the world.

People should understand that, while there many good things about this country, we are number 20 among industrialized countries in our record for infant mortality. The World Health Organization puts us about 25 after 24 other countries in the fairness of our health system. We have 2 million people in prison, one of the highest rates of incarceration anywhere in the world. And in terms of foreign policy: Since World War II, we are the most aggressive, invading, war-making country in the world. We are responsible for the deaths of millions of people. That is hardly something to make us feel that we are the greatest.

We could be the greatest. We have the potential to be the greatest. We have the wealth to be the greatest. We have the talent and the energy, but we are not using that for the advancement of human rights. I think that people ought to realize that we are just ordinary. And being ordinary we're subject to all the same enticements of power and profit that are rampaging through the modern world. So, I think that we have to be honest with ourselves about who we are.


Empire, Resistance, and the War in Iraq: A Conference for Historians and Activists

Friday-Sunday, Feb. 17-19

Thompson Conference Center at UT-Austin

Register online through Feb. 10, or at the event.

Howard Zinn will be a keynote speaker at the opening session, Friday, Feb. 17 at 7pm. This event is open to the public; $5 admission for nonregistrants.

For a full list of speakers and a detailed schedule, see www.historiansagainstwar.org.

Got something to say? The Chronicle welcomes opinion pieces on any topic from the community. Submit yours now at austinchronicle.com/opinion.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More by Diana Welch
The Real Cost of a Lap Dance?
The Real Cost of a Lap Dance?
Lawsuit cites violation of wage laws at strip clubs

Oct. 29, 2010

Mistrial, Retrial for McKay
Mistrial, Retrial for McKay
Jurors drop bomb on prosecutors' case against man accused of bomb-making

Feb. 6, 2009

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

historyhuman nature, Rashid Khalidi, Andrea Smith, Woodrow Wilson, World War I, World War II, Colin Turnbull, John Hersey, Frederick Douglass, St. Patrick Four

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Behind the scenes at The Austin Chronicle

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle