You've come to an old part of SW Online. We're still moving this and other older stories into our new format. In the meanwhile, click here to go to the current home page.

Howard Zinn on the history of the struggle against war
"We have to rely on our organizing"

October 26, 2001 | Pages 6 and 7

HOWARD ZINN has spoken out for peace, justice and democracy for more than half a century. He's best known as the author of numerous books, including A People's History of the United States and You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train, as well as a play, Marx in Soho, about Karl Marx.

But Howard has also played an important role in numerous social movements in the U.S.--from the labor movement to the civil rights movement in the U.S. South to the struggle against the U.S. war in Vietnam.

He talked to Socialist Worker's ANTHONY ARNOVE.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

WHEN GEORGE W. Bush announced that the bombing of Afghanistan had started, he said, "We're a peaceful nation." What was your reaction to that?

OBVIOUSLY, BUSH hasn't read any history or doesn't remember any history, not even history of his own time. We've been involved in wars and military actions for a very long time.

Go back to the 19th century. You can't tell the Native Americans that we were a peaceful nation as we moved across the continent and engaged in hundreds of wars against the Indians. In 1898, the U.S. went to war against the Philippines.

The 20th century saw repeated military interventions in Central America--including at least 20 military interventions in the Caribbean in the first 20 years of the 20th century. Then there was our entrance into World War I and a foray into Mexico in 1914.

We sent the Marines in into Nicaragua in 1927, and then, we entered World War II. From the end of that war through to today, we've had an endless succession of wars and military interventions.

Just five years after the end of the most disastrous war in world history, World War II, we were at war in Korea, from 1950 to 1953.

And then, almost immediately, we were helping the French in Indochina, supplying 80 percent of their military equipment.

In the 1950s, the U.S. wasn't overtly engaged in war but covert operations, overthrowing the government of Iran, overthrowing the government of Guatemala.

Almost as soon as we get involved in Vietnam, we were sending military troops into the Dominican Republic. And during the Vietnam War, the U.S. was also intervening in Cambodia and Laos.

During that period, we were giving huge amounts of aid to the government of Indonesia, helping them to carry on their internal war against their opposition, in the course of which several hundred thousand people were killed. Then in 1975, the U.S. supported Indonesia's war to subdue the people of East Timor, in which hundreds of thousands more people were killed.

In 1978, even before the Russians were in Afghanistan, we were covertly sending arms to the rebel forces there--which turned out later to be the seeds of the Taliban. Zbigniew Brzezinski [President Jimmy Carter's National Security Adviser] himself boasted that we enticed the Russians into a war, a war which lasted 10 years, which was devastating to the people of Afghanistan and at the end of which left the country in ruins.

Then the United States immediately moved out. The people that we supported--including people like Osama bin Laden and those who would become the Taliban--the fundamentalists took power in Afghanistan and established their regime.

Meanwhile, in the 1980s, as Ronald Reagan came into office, we began a covert war in Nicaragua, creating the counterrevolutionary force, the contras, whom Reagan called "freedom fighters."

It goes on and on. In 1983, we engaged in the invasion of this little island Grenada.

Then we had George Bush Sr. Almost as soon as he came into office he launched a war against Panama which left perhaps several thousand dead.

Two years later, we were at war in the Gulf, using the invasion of Kuwait as an excuse to plant our military presence in that area and station troops in Saudi Arabia. These bases then become one of the major infuriating facts for Osama bin Laden and other Saudi Arabian nationalists.

Then the Clinton administration bombed Afghanistan and Sudan in reaction to the blowing up of American embassies in Africa in 1998.

At the very end of the Clinton administration, presumably to stop the terrible things that happened to the people of Kosovo, the U.S. launched a war against Yugoslavia. The war only magnified the atrocities that were going on in Kosovo, magnified the number of casualties in Kosovo, and killed a good number of Yugoslav civilians.

So for Bush to call the U.S. a peaceful nation means forgetting an enormous amount of history. Maybe that history is too much for Bush to take in, but even a small part of it would be enough to suggest that we haven't been a peaceful nation.

In fact, it's safe to say that there has not been a more warlike nation in the world than the United States of America.

WHAT ABOUT the other side to that story--the tradition of people who always opposed war and militarism?

THAT'S ALSO a long history. We've had internal movements against war from the American Revolution on.

There were mutinies in the American army against officers. Soldiers were disillusioned with the class nature of the war--with their own misery and the luxurious treatment of the officers.

When the Mexican War took place in 1846 to 1848, there was opposition and desertions from the United States Army. Many of the people who were in the army in the Mexican War were recent immigrants. There was a whole regiment of Irish immigrants.

On the way to Mexico City, many regiments simply deserted, and there was a lot of disillusionment about the war by the end. A number of soldiers deserted to the Mexicans. In fact, they formed a brigade that fought with the Mexicans. They were mostly Irishmen, and they were called the San Patricio Battalion. Every year, the Mexicans celebrate the San Patricio Battalion as heroes.

The Civil War was much more complex. It was both a war against the slave states and a war to establish the dominance of the Northern industrial and financial interests and to unify the country into one profitable market.

So a war with this moral element, the elimination of slavery, had a contradiction. Working-class people resented the class character of the war and the fact that the rich could get out of the war by paying $300. That became the root of the draft riots that took place in New York and several other cities in the country in one of the greatest internal uprisings in American history.

During the Spanish-American war in the Philippines, the public at first got whipped up into a frenzy against Spain by lies that had been told that the U.S.S. Maine was blown up in Havana harbor by the Spanish. The war lasted a very short time, and there wasn't much time for an antiwar movement to develop.

On the other hand, the war in the Philippines that followed the Spanish-American War lasted for years, and an antiwar movement did develop in the United States. The Anti-Imperialist League was formed with some of the most distinguished Americans heading it, including Mark Twain.

And there were desertions over in the Philippines of Black soldiers. Some of them went over to the other side and fought with the Filipinos--with whom they feel they had a greater rapport than with their white officers. Of course, the antiwar movement at the time wasn't enough to stop the war in the Philippines.

In World War I, there was a very substantial moment against the war. The Socialist Party was a very powerful social force in the United States at the time and had several million readers of socialist newspapers.

Just one of its newspapers, the Appeal to Reason, had 700,000 to 800,000 readers, and there were other socialist newspapers all over the country. Socialists were elected to office all over the U.S.--to state office and city offices. There were socialist mayors and members of congress.

It was a powerful movement, and when World War I started and the United States started to get into the war, the Socialist Party became a force against entrance into the war.

Two thousand people were indicted for speaking out against the war. One thousand of them went to jail, including Eugene Debs, the leader of the Socialist Party.

After the war, there was a great deal of disillusionment with the war, even among people who initially supported it. A lot of the literature of the 1920s--such as writing by Ford Maddox Ford, Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos--was antiwar literature.

World War II was certainly the most popular war. But there, too, like the Civil War, it had this moral element that was hard to extricate from the crass motives of the people who organized the war efforts.

Yes, there was Hitler and fascism and the murder of the Jews and other people, and the aggression against other countries. But all of that was mixed in with something much less noble.

You had the Western powers, which also had been expansionist and brutal and had been creating colonies all over the world. They desired power and resented the Japanese and Germans moving into the areas of the world controlled by the West.

Despite all of this, there was an antiwar movement in the United States. Some of it was right wing and isolationist, and some of it was even pro-Nazi. But another part of it was pacifist. About 6,000 Americans went to jail for refusing to fight in World War II.

By the end of the war, there was a certain amount of second thinking--though not a great deal, because World War II still remains the "good war" in the American mind.

This was caused perhaps by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. You also had the revelation that we caused perhaps 100,000 casualties in the bombing of Dresden in Germany and that we'd engaged in a lot of ruthless bombing of civilians.

There was also the fact that the war ended without the elimination of racism and tyranny and aggression in the world, even though Hitler, Japan and Mussolini were defeated. Now we had two superpowers, armed with nuclear weapons and fighting for control of various parts of the world.

While it's been rare for an antiwar movement to have any real effect on American policy, the Vietnam War was the outstanding exception. What happened in Vietnam was that the war lasted long enough for the American people to shake themselves of the deceptions of the government and begin to see what was happening in Vietnam--to learn about the atrocities that were being committed and what we were doing to the Vietnamese people.

With the GIs coming home and many GIs turning against the war and forming organizations such as Vietnam Veterans against the War, we had something unprecedented in American history.

So while in 1966 about two-thirds of the American people supported the war, by 1969, about two-thirds of the American people opposed the war. That's a very dramatic turnaround. For the first time, the movement was powerful enough to have an effect on government policy.

You can see this effect by reading the internal memos inside the government, which you can find in the Pentagon Papers. The Pentagon Papers weren't supposed to be seen by the American people but were released as an act of civil disobedience in 1971.

The documents show how fearful the administration was about antiwar protests and how difficult it would be to carry on the war with all the defections, the refusals to be drafted, the closing down of ROTC chapters and the general opposition to the war.

You had the Black uprisings in the cities in 1967 and 1968, which weren't specifically directed against the war but which were connected. People recognized that carrying on of the war meant neglecting the condition of people in the Black ghettoes in the United States.

With the Vietnam War, we saw the first antiwar movement that became broad enough and strong enough to have an effect on governmental policy.

And apparently the government learned something from that war. It learned that if it's going to conduct a war, it must conduct that war quickly enough and finish it quickly enough before an antiwar movement develops.

So the wars that followed in Grenada, Panama and the Gulf were all short wars. Reporters were kept off the scene, and there was tight government control of news and information.

As we go to war right now, we're again facing the control of information and again an attempt to make it the kind of war that visits suffering on others while limiting American casualties.

There's an effort not to give the American public time enough to learn about the background of American policy in the Middle East and to see their way through the government's defenses of military action.

BUSH SAID that the U.S. was the target of the September 11 attacks because "extremists" oppose our freedoms and democracy.

IT'S A useful way to explain it if you want to get public support for the war--to say that it's simple, they don't like our freedom, and they don't like our democracy. But it seems clear from the terrorists' own statements that what bothers them is not what we do internally and how much freedom we have, but what we do externally.

What bothers them is the troops stationed in Saudi Arabia, support for Israel, the maintenance of sanctions against Iraq, which have killed perhaps a million people, according to UN estimates. They've made it very clear what troubles them.

Even in Osama bin Laden's October 11 statement, while he invokes religious symbolism, embedded in his statement is his anger at the United States stationing its troops in the holy places in Saudi Arabia, and the Palestinian issue with Israel and the sanctions against Iraq. These things come up again and again.

Robert Fisk, a reporter for the Independent newspaper in London, has interviewed bin Laden several times. In these interviews, it's clear that bin Laden is infuriated about the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia and U.S. policies in Israel and Iraq.

I think there's a simple test of what it is that concerns bin Laden--whether it's our democracy and our internal freedom or whether it's our foreign policy. And that simple test is: What side was Osama bin Laden on before 1991? That is, before the United States stationed troops in Saudi Arabia and made war against Iraq and began its sanctions.

We were as democratic and libertarian internally before 1991 as we are today. But before 1991, Osama bin Laden was on our side, and we were on his side in the fight to take control over the other government in Afghanistan.

The turning point for Osama bin Laden is very clear. It's not a turning point that has to do with democracy and liberties. It's a turning point that has to do with U.S. foreign policy, and that turning point comes in 1991.

THE U.S. has a long record of suppressing civil liberties in times of war. Can you talk about that legacy?

THE HISTORY of repression of free speech goes back to the Alien and Sedition Act of 1798 under John Adams, who is now being made a hero by best-selling biographies.

Adams signed the Aliens and Sedition Act, under which people were put in jail for criticizing the government. That came at a time when we weren't at war, but we were in what you might call a cold war with France, and there was an atmosphere of war hysteria created.

In that atmosphere, the government set out to suppress the freedom of Americans to criticize the government by passing the Sedition Act, which enabled them to put in jail anybody who said anything critical of the government, and the Alien Act, which gave the government the power to pick up and deport aliens without due process--arbitrarily on the basis of whatever the government wanted to do, with no judicial check.

In fact, that is exactly the kind of power that our Attorney General John Ashcroft has proposed to Congress: the power to deport aliens.

Congress is coming up with some compromise that will still infringe on the rights of noncitizens and perhaps won't be as drastic as the original proposal. But this arousing of sentiment against foreigners, against noncitizens, against aliens, against people who are different is something that seems to accompany all wars.

I talked earlier about what happened in Word War I when so many people were put in prison as a result of the passage of the Espionage and Sedition Act. World War II brought the Smith Act, which enabled the government to put in jail people who criticized the war.

An even worse blanket over the rights of free speech and free expression isn't the direct suppression of dissent, but the great fog of propaganda that's spread out over the country at a time of war. The bugles blow and the flags fly, the yellow ribbons are put up, and an atmosphere is created in which people are afraid to speak up--in which your patriotism is being tested.

Phrases such as Bush has used recently--"You're either with us or against us"--become rather terrifying. They mean that if you're not supporting the government, you're an enemy of the government.

All of this produces a kind of hysteria which leads to what can only be described as a lynch mob spirit. You can see it coming not just from the government but from the major media.

An editor of the New Republic, Andrew Sullivan, wrote that people on the left will constitute a fifth column in the event of war. The phrase "fifth column" goes back to World War II. It means people in your midst who are traitors.

This is very dangerous talk. It's very threatening and intimidating to people who don't feel free to express their opinions.

To me, this atmosphere of "You mustn't criticize your government, and you must fall in line behind the president" is really a great danger to freedom of speech and to the very democracy that Bush claimed we were defending in going to war.

I think of Dan Rather, the network anchor, who said on national television that Bush is my president and if Bush says to get in line, I get in line. This is the language you might hear in a totalitarian state, but you're not supposed to hear that language in a democracy.

It's supposed to be part of the American tradition that if we want to step out of line, we step out of line.

BUSH SPEAKS as if war is the main way in which people in this country have won their freedoms and expanded their rights.

ONE THING is clear, and it's that our freedoms have expanded not as a result of what the government has done, but as a result of what citizens have done. The best test of that is the case of Black people in the United States--the history of slavery and of segregation.

It wasn't the government that initiated the movement against slavery but citizens--white and Black abolitionists. It wasn't the government that initiated the battle against racial segregation in the 1950s and 1960s, but the movement of mostly Black people in the South.

It wasn't the government that gave people the freedom to work eight hours a day instead of 12 hours a day. It was working people themselves who organized into unions and went out on strike and faced the police.

The government was on the other side, and the government was always in support of the employers and the corporations.

The freedom of working people and the freedom of Black people has always depended on and been fought for by the people themselves against the government.

So if we look at it historically, we certainly can't depend on governments to maintain our liberties. We have to depend on our own organized efforts.

Home page | Back to the top