Howard Zinn: Vision and Voice

The author of ‘A People’s History of the United States’ talks about falling into academia, his new book and the people making tomorrow’s history today.

October 21, 2005  |   I first saw Howard Zinn when I was in college in the Boston area in the late 60s. Along with William Sloane Coffin of Yale and Noam Chomsky of MIT, he was a leader of protests against the Vietnam War. Nearly 40 years later, as Zinn speaks against another misguided foreign adventure, he’s still vital at 83 and his voice and vision still vitally important. His classic, A People’s History of the United States, has sold over a million copies.

Of his newest book, Voices of a People’s History of the United States (co-edited with Anthony Arnove), Zinn has said, “Educators and politicians may say that students ought to learn pure facts, innocent of interpretation, but there’s no such thing! Long before I decided to write A People’s History, which came out in 1980, my partisanship was shaped by my upbringing in a working-class immigrant family, by my three years as a shipyard worker, by my experience as a bombardier in World War II, and by the civil rights movement in the South and the movement against the war in Vietnam. So I’ve chosen to emphasize voices of resistance — to class oppression, racial injustice, sexual inequality, nationalist arrogance — left out of the orthodox histories.”

Terrence McNally: You weren’t necessarily destined to be a college professor, were you?

Howard Zinn: No. I wasn’t destined to be one, I wasn’t prepared to be one, and certainly my parents didn’t expect me to be one. I think my parents, like most working-class parents, just hope their kids will survive and be healthy and make a living of some sort. I was a shipyard worker for three years from the age of 18-21, then I was in the Air Force. But somewhere along the line I got interested in reading, in history, in politics. When I was a teenager I read Upton Sinclair and I read Karl Marx — I’m not supposed to say that!

I think the remarkable thing is that you actually read him.

I did not read Volume Three of Das Kapital, but I read a lot of him. I read Sinclair and Jack London and Lincoln Steffens and all sorts of people who got me excited about the world around us, and interested in things like fascism and socialism and democracy and all of that.

When I got out of the Air Force, I was married and we had a kid and then two kids, and I was knocking around in various jobs and my wife was working. We were sort of a typical struggling young working class family living in a low income housing project in Manhattan, and I just decided to go to college under the G.I. Bill. Marvelous thing the G.I. Bill. Today not just Republicans but Democrats like Clinton say “the era of big government is over, we must get government out of this and government out of that.” Well, the government can do marvelous things. Private enterprise was certainly not going to give working class kids an education. You leave things to the free market and the rich will go to college and the poor will go to work.

My dad, also a bombardier in World War II, came back and got an Ivy League education on that G.I. Bill, graduating with three children. Very similar situation. That isn’t available today.

No, not at all. In fact, the way tuition has skyrocketed even in the state schools, it’s very very difficult now for working-class kids to go to college. College is becoming again more and more a place for the well-to-do. That’s just part of what has been a polarization of wealth in this country over these last decades, the rich becoming richer, the poor having children.

Was Spelman College your first teaching gig?

I had a couple of part-time teaching jobs while I was in graduate school, but Spelman was my first real, full-time teaching job. I didn’t actually choose Spelman — a black women’s college.

I was thinking that was an odd fit, how did it happen?

Really an accident, I’m not black and I’m not a woman, right? I can’t say I was such a socially conscious person that I wanted to teach at a black college in the South. No, not so at all. I was just looking for a job, and the president of Spelman was up north talking to my advisor at Columbia, and my advisors recommended me. So I met with the president of Spelman and he offered me a job as chair of a department. Imagine, my first job as chair of the department! I mean, a small department, but still. Frankly I hadn’t even considered teaching at a negro college. I wasn’t really even aware of that phenomenon, you see. Though of course at that time I was certainly very conscious of the race question.

How much did that odd turn in the road affect the rest of your life?

Oh, I think that it was critical. Seven years at Spelman, in the South, involved in the movement and involved with SNCC. I went from Atlanta to Albany, Georgia to report on the demonstrations there. Then to Selma, Alabama and Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Those seven years, those years of what is called the movement, were very exciting years and educational years and important years. I’m sure I learned more from that experience than my students learned from me.

How did you come to write first A People’s History of the United States and now Voices of a People’s History of the United States?

I think that those seven years in the south had a lot to do with my writing A People’s History. Because here I was, a participant in some of the most exciting things happening in the country and writing about them. And realizing that so much of what was going on in the south at the grassroots in these little towns in southwest Georgia and Mississippi and Alabama, was not being reported in the newspapers. They were reporting the big events. Sure they would report the march on Washington, they would report when 10,000 people demonstrated in Birmingham. But so much was happening that was not being recorded for history.

It made me realize fully what I had up to then only realized partially: the necessity to tell the history of ordinary people and people’s movements. To tell history from the point of view of people who had been left out of history; tell history from the point of view of the indigenous peoples, to tell the history of the Mexican war from the standpoint of the Mexicans.

Had you been in the ivory tower of an Ivy League school, you might have had an intuition that something was left out, but you were right among those people so the omission was all the more glaring.

That’s right. So when I set out to write this book, I knew what I wanted to do. I was going to tell the story of the anti-slavery movement from the standpoint of the black abolitionists. I had been taught about the abolitionist movement in graduate school, but it seemed like mostly a white movement. We were taught about Garrison and Phillips and Lovejoy, and yes, there was Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman, but there was no real understanding of the part that black people played in their own liberation and in their own struggle against slavery.

I realized that if you look at history from the point of view of black people, of native Americans, of women, of working people, everything looks different. A lot of the heroes suddenly are not heroes any more. It’s still true, in traditional history Andrew Jackson still represents democracy, and Theodore Roosevelt represents I don’t know what, but…

— trust busting, maybe …

Trust busting, yeah. He busted more human beings in war than he busted trusts. He engineered the invasion of the Philippines, a bloody war.

I learned in your book that 600,000 Phillipinos died in that war.

I know it’s startling because we don’t learn that in school. We learn about the Spanish American War, which was a short and victorious war, and then there’s some little item about how we went and took the Philippines. Well, the Philippine war was a long and bloody war, in many ways a precursor of the Vietnam War, with its massacres and atrocities. It was so blatant as an act of aggression, preventing a people from running their own country. Once the Spaniards were out, the Philippinos wanted to run the Philippines themselves, but no, the United States wanted the Philippines, and would take it at a cost of 600,000 lives.

Let me read a quote of yours: “I want to point out that people who seem to have no power, whether working people, people of color, or women — once they organize and protest and create movements — have a voice no government can suppress.” Do you find that’s still true today?

Well, the exercise of power by people is always something in process. It’s always something that’s ongoing. and so it depends on what point in the process you look at. If you look at the movement against racial segregation at an early point, you won’t see the power of the people, it won’t have been realized yet. It won’t have resulted yet in racial desegregation or in laws passed by Congress to allow black people to vote.

If you look at the movement against the war in Vietnam. … In the early years when it was still a minority movement and the war was still going full blast, you don’t see that power. Movements suffer defeat after defeat after defeat before they break through. There’s a certain moment in history where they break through. And we are at a moment now in the war in Iraq where a movement is growing against the war. You can see it in public opinion polls. You can see where two years ago Bush had 70 percent of the public behind him, now he has less than half of the public behind him in the war.

Would it be fair to say that Cindy Sheehan is a current incarnation of the people who speak in Voices of a People’s History of the United States?

Oh, absolutely. You know Anthony Arnove and I carry this up to the current war. We bring it up to war resisters, to G.I.’s who refused to go to Iraq. Cindy Sheehan has become a phenomenon just in the last few months. If we were doing a new edition of Voices, we certainly would include her.

In fact, now when we have public readings from the Voices book, we include some things that aren’t in the book, and one of the things we include is the voice of Cindy Sheehan.

In 1967 you wrote Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal. What would you write today in Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal?

First let me cite a couple of generals on the matter. The L.A. Times reported October 1st that “The U.S. generals running the war in Iraq presented a new assessment of the military situation in public comments and sworn testimony this week: The 149,000 U.S. troops currently in Iraq are increasingly part of the problem. During a trip to Washington, the generals said the presence of U.S. forces was fueling the insurgency, fostering an undesirable dependency on American troops among the nascent Iraqi armed forces and energizing terrorists across the Middle East.”

What’s the military case for withdrawal and the political case for its happening?

Certainly, from the generals’ own point of view, from the military point of view, it’s just disaster or loss. And when they say so, then you know that all of the elements are falling into place for a withdrawal. The only question is when, how soon?

The longer we wait to withdraw the more people will die. All the arguments about how if we withdraw it’ll be chaos are absurd because there is chaos now. And the chaos in fact is to a large extent — and those generals indicated that — caused by our occupation. It’s the occupation that’s fuelling so much of the anger and so much of the violence. So the most healthy thing we can do is to get out of there as quickly as possible. Even from a military point of view, we’re losing, we have to get out.

From a larger moral point of view, of course, we didn’t belong there in the first place, we don’t deserve to be there. Even if we were winning, it would be an immoral victory. We have won before at certain times where the winning was not something we could be proud of.

We won in the Philippines — we defeated the Philippinos, and what was the result? The result was fifty years of occupation, dictatorship and poverty. So the real question, the moral question is not “are we losing or are we winning?” The question is, “why are we there?”

And we seem to be there for oil, for military bases, for the psychological kicks that people in power get from extending the American Empire. So both from a practical and military point of view, the fact that we’re losing — and from the long term moral point of view, which asks are we doing the right thing — the best thing that we can do is to get out of there as quickly as possible.

I remember you as one of the first speakers I saw at some of the earliest demonstrations against the Vietnam war. You followed how long it took to get out of there. How do you see this one playing out? In other words, you’ve made the case that both politically and militarily it’s really the only choice, how do you suspect it’s going to play out?

Exactly how it will happen, I don’t know. I can say confidently it will happen. I can’t say confidently when it will happen, I can’t say confidently how it will happen. I can say in a general sense it will become more and more obvious that it’s a disaster.

Public opinion, which is already heavily against the war, will become even more so. The press following public opinion, always lagging behind, will finally speak up strongly. Some of the very timid politicians of the Democratic Party, who talk half-heartedly about “Oh, let’s withdraw in a year or so,” maybe they will be induced by their constituents and by the rise of public opinion, to come out more strongly against it.

At a certain point I think the administration will have to find a way out, and a way to explain that to the American public, to give the public a reason. They’re good at that. I mean, they have a huge staff of people making up reasons for the stupid things they do. This time they’ll be making up reasons for a good thing that they do.

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