The following interview was conducted by Raw Story editor John Byrne in September of 2005. Howard Zinn, a critically acclaimed historian and political scientist, was author of the “People’s History of the United States,” a radical and popular retelling of United States history. Zinn wrote fifteen books and was a longstanding critic of U.S. foreign policy. He died Wednesday at 87.
Raw Story’s John Byrne: Let’s first touch on New Orleans, and Hurricane Katrina. What is your sense of the region, how this disaster will affect the Gulf Coast?
Boston University Professor Emeritus of Political Science Howard Zinn: There was ample warning. People who knew about the situation there knew that the dikes were in danger, knew that a great hurricane would place the city in danger, and there was not enough money available, enough resources available to the Army Corps of Engineers. Their budget had been cut by the Bush Administration. The federal government was totally negligent in this thing, they didn’t supply enough funds and they absolutely took no cognizance of the fact that people who were poor had no means of getting out. I remember when the hurricane was approaching, they said, ‘well, we’re telling people to get out.’ Big deal. Warning people. You warn people to get out but you don’t give them the means to get out, they’re stuck, they’re doomed. It’s a tragedy, a tragedy that is not just a natural disaster but also an unnatural disaster in that it didn’t have to happen that way, people could have been taken out of there. Other countries with much less resources have managed to transport—I mean, China recently in the face of a typhoon situation—transported hundreds of thousands of people out of danger, the result being only three or four or five people died.
Raw Story: I remember, 790,000 people they moved.
Zinn: Yeah, and this has happened in places much poorer than the United States, [who] have done much better jobs of taking care of their people. I think it fits in with the general unconcern of the Bush Administration for poor people and for black people. And I’m sure that people with means could get out and other people could not.
And then there’s something deeper I think, and something more long term. And that is the fact that the Bush Administration has been contemptuous of all of the scientific evidence about global warming. There was an article not long ago in a British magazine, in fact shortly before the New Orleans disaster, which pointed to the sequence of hurricanes in recent years and how they have gotten worse and worse and worse and the only explanation for this is global warming. And the Bush Administration of course, you know, has not only refused to sign the Kyoto treaty, but The Bush administration has not taken any steps to reduce the emissions in the atmosphere, they’re in cahoots with the auto companies and with the oil companies, and all they care about is the profits of corporations. And not what can happen to human beings as a result of natural disasters.
We are going to see, and I mean the problem is not just this recent one in New Orleans, there are going to be more natural events that come out of global warming. And that is directly attributable to the failure of the national administration. And of course the Bush Administration is not the first administration to really be unaware, or rather, callous, it’s not that they’re unaware—they know but they don’t care—to be callous to the problems that people will face. And this has been an ongoing thing. It’s just that the Bush Administration is worse than any other administration we have had about rejecting the warnings about what is happening to the environment.
Raw Story: Do you see a role for race in the relief, and in the planning?
Zinn: I don’t doubt it. But you know this is generally true, this is true, you know, of fires, it’s true of hurricanes, it’s true of earthquakes; governments do not represent the interests of the people who live in the worst circumstances, and they don’t respond. There’s also the political factor which Jesse Jackson pointed to, and that is that poor people and black people in the areas in which they live are the areas which don’t give political support to the Bush Administration. They’ve lost that vote already, so you know, they really don’t care about people who live in fragile housing and vulnerable geographic locations. Those are the people that are not going to vote Republican; those are people who are not going to give donations to the Republican National Committee.
Raw Story: You were quoted in the Boston Phoenix as saying after the Abu Ghraib photographs that “there are still many, many Americans who will not be swayed by anything.” Given that you work over the decades has examined something of the American zeitgeist, why do you think that is? Is that lack of willingness to face clear evidence—global warming another example in the face of science, a sort of blindness, an example?
Zinn: Global warming is an example of people simply are not paying attention to it, neither the government nor the politicians nor the media have brought the issue to attention in a dramatic way, but when I said it that the people who wouldn’t be swayed even by that, I wasn’t talking about all of the people. I wasn’t even talking about a majority of the people.
I believe there is a hard core of people who go along with the establishment no matter what it does. It’s a minority in the country; I don’t know what percentage of the country it is. My testing ground is the Vietnam War, where even as public opinion changed over the course of the war, still by the end of the war, one third of the American population still thought the war was right, still thought the war was a good thing. However, one third of the population had moved from being in support of the war to being opposed to the war.
So what I’m saying is there is a hard core of Americans whose nationalism, whose loyalty to the establishment is so engraved, who find a way of rationalizing whatever they see. They find a way of rationalizing Abu Ghraib, they find a way of rationalizing the bombing of civilians in Iraq or Afghanistan, they find a way of rationalizing the curtailment of civil liberties. But as I say, that’s a minority.
The crucial question is: what about those people who are not hard and fast in their opinions, who start off believing in the American dream and believing the United States is basically right, but who can be moved by what they see, by what they hear, by new information. Those people who during the Vietnam War who were moved by the photos they saw, the My Lai massacre, or the use of napalm, or the destruction of villages. And there are Americans I believe who are moved by the pictures at Abu Ghraib. What else explains the fact that Bush’s support has declined continually over the last two years? I mean, what accounts for the fact that at the beginning of the Iraq war two years ago, Bush had over 70 percent of the population in support of the war, and now it’s less than 50 percent of the population in support of the war. That means that there’s a considerable number of Americans who, however they may start to go along with the tendency to go along with whatever the establishment says, or whatever the press says, there’s an important segment—there’s a crucial segment of the American population which is capable of learning, of seeing, of having these facts that they see sort of coalesce into a new understanding of what’s going on in the world.
Raw Story: You mentioned napalm— and I know that you had dropped napalm on a French village during World War II, is that right?
Zinn: Yeah that’s right. The war was almost over. Everybody knew the war was almost over. We didn’t see any need for any more bombing missions, and we were set out to drop bombs, in this case napalm, the first use of napalm in the European theater.
Raw Story: Did you see that—there were reports that the U.S. used a variant of napalm in Fallujah.
Zinn: I don’t know for a fact, but I wouldn’t be surprised.
Raw Story: It was in the British press.
Zinn: I do not underestimate the ruthlessness of the American political establishment, or the military machine. A nation that will use nuclear weapons over Hiroshima over Nakasaki, that would use napalm and firebombs over Tokyo and kill 100,000 people in one night. A nation like that is not going to have any moral qualms about using napalm, or white phosphorous, or depleted uranium against the people in the Middle East, although I don’t have direct proof of it, but let’s put it this way: it certainly wouldn’t surprise me at all if that were true.
Raw Story: In your speech to Spelman college graduates this year you told them not to be discouraged because of the Iraq war. You insisted “that if you are right, and you persist, things will change. The government may try to deceive the people, and the newspapers and television may do the same, but the truth has a way of coming out. The truth has a power greater than a hundred lies.” Where do you see the truth coming out today?
Zinn: I see the truth coming out about the war. I see the truth coming out—I mean it already has come out—the truth came out about weapons of mass destruction. The truth comes out that even though Saddam Hussein is captured, after we said, you know, ‘we’re fighting the war to get rid of Saddam Hussein,’ he’s captured, we’ve gotten rid of him, and yet we’re still fighting a war. That’s a truth that must make itself evident to many, many people.
The truth of the continuing casualties in Iraq. The truth that we’re not getting anywhere in the war. The truth that American soldiers are becoming more and more discontented with the war. More and more soldiers are refusing to go back for the second time. The Army recruitment is falling down; they’re going to desperate lengths to go into high schools and try to persuade young kids that they should sign up in the military. But they’re having more and more difficulty doing it. And more parents are becoming aroused about the fact that their high school kids are being subjected to this kind of propaganda campaign about joining the military. So I see all sorts of signs going on that more and more people are seeing the Administration for what it is. And that is really a money-hungry administration, an Administration that really doesn’t care about human beings whether in other countries or this country, whose greatest concern is for corporate profit, for military power, and the expansion of the American empire. An administration that’s ruthless, that will use any methods, torture, bombing, ignoring the constitution in order to get what it wants. I believe that the truth about all of that is becoming clear to more and more people. There will be a certain point reached—and I don’t know when that will be—when the Administration will not be able to carry on with what it’s doing.
Raw Story: Some people are comparing Iraq with Vietnam. Do you think that’s a fair comparison?
Zinn: Of course there are obvious differences, the scale, there are only 130,000 troops in Iraq, there were 550,000 troops in Vietnam, different kind of terrain, and so on. But certain fundamental things are very much the same. The fact that the American people were led into war with deception, the Gulf of Tonkin incident fabricated and presented as an attack on the United States, and therefore Congress rushes to give Johnson the authority basically to go to war in Southeast Asia. The fact that in both instances the fundamental fact that this very powerful country crossed half the world to send troops into a tiny country far, far weaker than this country and rained huge amounts of death and destruction on that country and still could not win a military victory.
And in both cases, there were lies told about the deaths of civilians, the killing of innocent people, you know, so-called accidents, mistakes which resulted in Vietnam in the deaths of over a million civilians, and which resulted in Iraq in the deaths of, we don’t know, 30,000 to100,000 people in the course of this war.
And we have faced the same situation in Iraq that were faced in Vietnam two years into the war, that some people began calling for withdrawal from Vietnam. And in fact I wrote the book, Vietnam: The logical withdrawal which came out in the spring of ’67, which was exactly two years after the war had begun. When I wrote that book, Vietnam: The Logical Withdrawal, because it seemed evident by that time; it seemed clear by that time that this war was wrong, that it was immoral, and that the only proper thing to do was to get out of Vietnam as fast as possible.
The same arguments that were made then are made now. And what happened of course was that we did not get out of there. We did not withdraw for another six years, and in the course of that time huge numbers of people died. Today there is a timidity in our political leadership about calling for withdrawal. The farthest they can come in direction of boldness is the suggestion that maybe in the end of 2006 troops might be withdrawn.
But there is no major political leader who’s calling for immediate withdrawal, and that’s shameful. Because people are going to die as a result as the continuation of the war. And the same arguments that were made then at the time of Vietnam against withdrawal are being made now. ‘Well, we’re in it too deep and we can’t get out,’ ‘our prestige will be hurt if we leave,’ it’s sort of ridiculous. A thief has broken into a house and decides it’s wrong to leave because he will be called a coward, you know. Or they say, ‘well, terrible things will happen when we leave.’ Well, they said that about Vietnam. The most terrible thing in Vietnam was what we were doing to Vietnam, that’s not what happened after we left. It’s not that things were fine after we left. That the Chinese were driven out, and so on, and people were sent to reeducation camps. But it was nothing compared to the ongoing slaughter while we were occupying and fighting in Vietnam.
And similarly today, there may be trouble in Iraq when we leave, but nothing that happens is going to be worse than what we’re experiencing now there. Chaos, violence, and people dying every day. Whatever bad things are happening in Iraq now, are happening as a result of the American occupation. So if the American occupation is not helping the situation, if we’re not pastoring the situation, if we’re not defending any people, not saving any lives—and we’re not doing any of that—then we have no business there, and we should withdraw. But as I said, the same arguments that were made in Vietnam are being made today. And if we continue the war as the war continued in Vietnam, later on, years later, we will say, ‘yes, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of lives will be lost because the United States would not withdraw when it should have withdrawn.’
Raw Story: You talked about how over times the truth comes out, and you can’t get discouraged; what would you say to someone who is really frustrated with this administration, what would encourage people to do to affect change?
Zinn: I would encourage people to look around them in their community and find an organization that is doing something that they believe in, even if that organization has only five people, or ten people, or twenty people, or a hundred people. And to look at history and understand that when change takes place it takes place as a result of large, large numbers of people doing little things unbeknownst to one another. And that history is very important for people to not get discouraged. Because if you look at history you see the way the labor movement was able to achieve things when it stuck to its guns, when it organized, when it resisted. Black people were able to change their condition when they fought back and when they organized. Same thing with the movement against the war in Vietnam, and the women’s movement. History is instructive. And what it suggests to people is that even if they do little things, if they walk on the picket line, if they join a vigil, if they write a letter to their local newspaper. Anything they do, however small, becomes part of a much, much larger sort of flow of energy. And when enough people do enough things, however small they are, then change takes place.
Raw Story: Well thank you for taking the time.
Zinn: Oh sure. Good luck.
Raw Story: Thanks so much. Take care.