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As Iraq votes, historian, iconoclast looks to Vietnam; Says lack of position cost Democrats in 1968

John Byrne

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Howard Zinn, critically acclaimed historian and political scientist, is author of the "People's History of the United States," a radical and popular retelling of American history. Zinn, 83, has written fifteen books and is a longstanding critic of U.S. foreign policy. He is now a professor emeritus at Boston University.

Raw Story's John Byrne: Speaking to elementary school children Tuesday, Lynne Cheney compared this week's parliamentary elections in Iraq to America's own early struggle for democracy. "Two hundred and seventeen years ago, we held our first vote under our Constitution," she said. "We started then on the path the Iraqis are walking now." What do you make of that?

Boston University Professor Emeritus of Political Science Howard Zinn: [Laughs] It's sort of ridiculous the juxtaposition of an election that took place in the United States after we had gotten rid of an occupying power, England, an election which represented our independence, with an election that is taking place now, which is in the midst of an occupation. It's like saying when the British were still maintaining troops throughout the 13 colonies, while still maintaining control, had pronounced that now democracy was being brought to the 13 colonies. We were holding an election after ousting the occupying power.


Raw Story: Do you think the Iraq situation is "better" than Vietnam because they are having elections?

Zinn: Well, elections are a very, very superficial way of judging whether there is democracy in the country. There were elections taking place in Vietnam in 1967, and they said this is a good sign. It meant nothing, because we were still bombarding the country... the Vietnamese people were not liking us anymore.... the elections are held amidst the military occupation of the country.

Raw Story: So basically democracy under the gun is not democracy.

Zinn: Yeah, exactly.

Raw Story: If you were a Democratic member of Congress and involved in shaping the party's plan and statements with regard to the Iraq conflict, what would you tell your colleagues? What would you tell the country?

Zinn: If I were Nancy Pelosi I would certainly say to my fellow Democrats, "If we want to win the next election we better get with the American people, they're way ahead of us. The American people are forthrightly against the war and we're forthrightly about [nothing]." The American people are much more bold and forthright. If I were any Democratic leader, if I were Howard Dean - who unfortunately has been the kind of silent head of the Democratic National Committee - I would say to my fellow Democrats, wake up. If you don't give the American people what the American people want, then you are going to go down in history as a party that loses and loses and loses.

Raw Story: How do the Democratic positions compare now to their positions during Vietnam?

Zinn: Certainly when the elections were taking place in 1967, the Democratic Party still had not taken a position against the war. Only by 1968 when the election was coming up did we have an anti-war candidate. Johnson was out of the race because in fact he recognized that he somehow was missing history. Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy understood by 1968 that the war was wrong and furthermore that the American people knew the war was wrong. And so they at least provided some leadership to the Democratic Party. Unfortunately, neither of them made it and the Democratic Party devolved into the hands of Hubert Humphrey who had been a supporter of the war, and Humphrey lost narrowly to Nixon... similar to the 2004 election because Humphrey did not give a clear support for what the American people wanted, which was to get out of Vietnam.

Raw Story: Rumsfeld was recently seen dining with Henry Kissinger, one of the architects of the Vietnam War and Secretary of State to Presidents Nixon and Ford. What tips do you suppose Kissinger could offer Rumsfeld, given his experience in that war?

Zinn: The two belong together. They're birds of feather and I would say vultures of a feather. If Kissinger really understood what we did in Vietnam then he would have been telling Rumsfeld to get out of the Iraq war as fast as possible, and tell him that people will forget that we cut and run. They'll only be grateful that we stopped the killing. I think he would be telling him - if he were really giving him good advice - that no amount of American troops put in there will help; sending more troops to Vietnam didn't help the situation at all. We had 500,000 troops in Vietnam. Basically, if the people don't want us to be there, then no amount of troops is going to make our position satisfying. In fact, the more troops we send the more unsatisfying our presence will be.

Raw Story: In a recent CBS poll, 17 percent of Americans surveyed said they felt the war in Iraq was about oil - a greater percentage than those who thought the war was aimed at fighting terrorism or deposing Saddam Hussein. Do you believe the war was about oil?

Click here for answer on page two: 'The war isn't really about oil but about the price of oil,' and 'What's going well?'

Originally published on Thursday December 15, 2005


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