By Judith Orr
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Howard Zinn on Making History

This article is over 15 years, 1 months old
Pathbreaking historian and political activist Howard Zinn talks to Judith Orr about his life, war, class politics and taking sides.
Issue 315

Can I take you back to your memories of childhood in Brooklyn?

This was the 1930s during the depression. My father and mother were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. My father was from the Austro-Hungarian empire, my mother from Siberia. They came to the US and worked in factories, met one another and got married.

By the 1930s when I was growing up we were living in one tenement after another, barely able to pay the rent and therefore having to move from one place to another. My father worked as a waiter and my mother had to care for four boys. Our lives were mostly in the street, because home was not a pleasant place to be.

Very often we lived in what were called cold-water flats where there was no hot water; you had to create your own heat; it was very much like Third World countries today. So I grew up with a consciousness of poverty and working class neighbourhoods. I saw families evicted and their furniture out on the streets.

One of my first memories was of a family with all their belongings out on the street and the woman weeping, and then suddenly these Communists arrive and move the furniture back into the apartment they had been evicted from. It was an act of civil disobedience and militancy and it gave me a certain vision of these radicals, that they were good people.

Central to your work is the importance of class. It seems incredible that something so obvious needs to be constantly restated.

The idea of class in the US is still a rare kind of discussion topic. Americans have been so indoctrinated with the idea that we’re all one great happy family. Poverty is something that belongs to somebody else. Survey after survey shows that most Americans consider themselves middle class. People don’t want to acknowledge that they are members of the working class.

Everything in our culture works towards trying to persuade people that all of our interests are the same. We have this language of the national interest, national defence, national security, the pretence that we all have the same interests and defence means defence of everybody.

So the idea of class is submerged in the culture under this vocabulary. The movies and the television screens, which portray how people live, only very rarely show vividly that there are different class interests.

You volunteered to fight in the Second World War. Tell me about how your ideas changed about the nature of that conflict.

I was an enthusiastic enlistee in the air force, and became a bombardier. I flew out of England, based at one of the many air force bases in East Anglia.

I believed in the war against fascism. It seemed very clear: after all the enemy was Hitler, the enemy was Mussolini, the enemy was fascism and what could be more obvious and clear cut than that this was a just war. It wasn’t really until the end of the war that I began to rethink the whole issue of this good war, this just war. I realised that during the war I was swept up in the kind of psychology that I think soldiers are generally swept up in. This is the simplistic notion that you are on the good side and the others are on the bad side and if you are on the good side then anything you do is alright. I imagine that this is part of the psychology of Abu Ghraib, the torture and the bombing of civilians. You are the good guys and they are the bad guys.

Once you’ve made that decision you don’t have to think any more and everything you do is on behalf of a good cause, even if the things you do are ugly.

I only realised this at the end of the war and I think it was through my reading about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and reading John Hersey’s book Hiroshima and his interviews with the survivors.

For the first time, although I had been dropping bombs in Europe, I realised what bombing does to human beings, because when you drop bombs as I did from 30,000 feet high you don’t see people; you don’t hear screams; you don’t see mangled limbs or children suffering.

It’s all very antiseptic.

It horrified me that this is what I had been doing, what we had all been doing – we had been dropping bombs on innocent people, indiscriminately, and killing huge numbers of them. I suddenly began to rethink the whole question of the good war.

You can have a good cause in the sense that the enemy is evil, but the fact that the enemy is evil doesn’t mean that you are good.

And I began to think that war, any war, even a war against a tyrant like Hitler or Saddam Hussein, whatever good cause seems to be wrapped up in the justification, any war inevitably involves the indiscriminate killing of large numbers of people. So any war must be avoided; war itself should be outlawed. We need to find other ways of dealing with the problems of the war, other ways of dealing with tyranny and aggression.

During your time in the air force you came across Communists again. What do you think of the impact the Communist Party (CP) had on US politics?

What’s very interesting about the CP in the US is that it had a very naive view about the Soviet Union, which was very far away and about which you could spin myths about the glorious socialist society that was being built.

Once you had made that decision, that it was a socialist society, all the things it did were OK and could be justified, a little like with wars, even when you heard something about the purges, for example.

CP members simply automatically went along with acceptance of the Soviet Union without thinking very much about it. That was the negative part of the CP in the US.

The positive part of the CP was that it was in the forefront in the US of the organisation of working people, the labour movement of the CIO union federation in the 1930s, was in the forefront of fighting against racism and defending the Scottsboro boys. In general the CP raised issues that nobody else would raise about women, black people, class and exploitation.

Very often criticisms of the CP, and this is still true, are focused on its adulation of the Soviet Union, ignoring the very positive things that the Communist movement did in the US.

You moved to the South on the cusp of the changes brought by the civil rights movement. Did you get a sense of the scale of struggles to come?

It was 1956 when I and my family moved to Atlanta, Georgia, to teach in Spelman College, a black women’s college. That was one year after the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955. Now in 1956 things seemed quiet again, and yet there were rumblings in the South and small actions that began to take place. There was already a kind of awakening of consciousness that had not yet broken out into the great demonstrations of the early 1960s.

I could see that and experience that in Atlanta in 1957-8 when my students began cautiously moving out into the city of Atlanta battering against small bastions of racial segregation.

We took as our project the desegregation of Atlanta public library. It was a public library but it was only open to white people. So my students began a campaign to embarrass the librarians by showing up and asking for books, books with provocative titles like An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke. It became a successful campaign and the library was desegregated.

So there were little forays like that which took place in the late 1950s leading up to what then became the publicised sit-ins starting in North Carolina in the 1960s. It was fascinating watching a movement develop from very tiny beginnings into a nationwide phenomenon and so I became a participant in the movement and a writer about the movement all through those years.

Your book A People’s History of the United States is proudly partisan. Why do you think it is so important for history to be openly partisan?

First you use the phrase “openly partisan”. It’s a good point. All history is partisan except that most of it is not open. Histories that pretend to be objective and neutral, and pretend not to be taking sides, are of course taking sides, because they are not raising any consciousness about society. It’s flat history which doesn’t provoke anyone into action and which therefore reinforces the status quo.

That passive, pretentious scholarship which is partisan without saying so is what I’m trying to overcome. I believe the historian is a citizen, a human being, before he is a historian. To me being a historian is just a means to an end.

History, by its nature, is always a selection out of the past of an enormous amount of data. What you select out of that data to present in a book or a lecture suggests what your point of view is.

The selection is inevitably partisan. You select things that are unprovocative and harmless or the facts of history that will really provoke thinking and action.

That’s a decision I realised I had to make and I made it early in my writing and teaching career.

Today a new generation of activists politicised by the anti-war movement are discovering books like yours which offer an alternative view of the world. What are the books that have shaped you?

Of the books that affected me when I was growing up Charles Dickens was probably my first influence.

My semi-literate parents were buying volumes of Dickens for me without knowing who he was, only knowing that I was interested in books.

So Dickens had a powerful effect on me: his class consciousness, his rendition of what it was like to be poor in London in the mid-19th century. It resonated so much with my own life. Then as I grew older I began to read Upton Sinclair, the American socialist. His book, The Jungle, ends up with a marvellous rendition of what a socialist anarchist society would be like.

I read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, his amazing vivid account of people in the south western part of the US migrating to California during the depression. It is a very political book. In one scene one of his characters says, “If you ask for an increase in wages from 25 cents an hour to 30 cents an hour it means you’re a Communist.”

I read the autobiography of Lincoln Steffens, who was a radical journalist in the early 20th century, and the autobiography of Anna Louise Strong, a leftist foreign correspondent.

Reading was the most powerful influence in moving me in the political directions I finally ended up in.

But you have never just been satisfied with writing and teaching – you have been politically active all your life.

I have to trace it back. Not to when I was five years old – that’s going too far! Certainly when I went to work in a shipyard at the age of 18, at that time I was already reading radical literature. I joined a handful of young fellows who felt the same way and we began organising the shipyard workers.

Then when I moved to the South I got involved in the movement. So yes, I guess ever since I’ve been about 18 I’ve been active in one thing or another and it has added a lot of spice to my life! It’s made it much more interesting, more busy of course, but more interesting.

If you were writing a people’s history of the US of today what would you write about?

What I would probably be doing would be to go below the level of presidents and secretaries of state and those people who hog the headlines and television screens, who seem to bedazzle our journalists who follow every small act that these mediocre politicians engage in.

I would concentrate on what is happening out in the country that is not being reported in the newspapers.

I would write about these vigils taking place in hundreds of cities around the US, the anti-war vigils of people standing on street corners where people go by honking their horns in approval of the signs saying, “Bring the troops home”.

I would cover the story of the raging grannies, though they have been more successful than most in getting coverage because they are so colourful and romantic. They are grandmothers who commit acts of civil disobedience and are hauled up before judges who don’t have the heart to send them to jail.

I would cover the GIs who are coming back from Iraq and declaring their opposition to the war, and the families of the GIs.

I would cover the immigrants’ movements, the rallies taking place across the country in support of immigrant rights, the sanctuaries created in several parts of the country where churches have opened their doors to immigrants who are in fear of being apprehended by the law.

In other words, I would try to emphasise the acts of resistance and defiance which are unreported in the mainstream press.

How do you think attitudes to the war in Iraq are changing?

I think if the soldiers who are now serving in Iraq were able to speak up undeterred by the military atmosphere they would express their resentment and anger at the situation that they are in.

Enough of them have spoken up to indicate that there are many more who feel the same way.

It is very difficult to speak openly in the military. I know, having been in the military myself, how oppressive that atmosphere of conformity can be and how difficult it is to even think of dissenting against the policy that is already ongoing.

I think there is more and more dissent in the military, not as much yet as happened in the Vietnam War, but it is growing.

I just got a call yesterday from an American now living in Canada telling me about the growing number of deserters from the American military who are now living there. The last figure I saw for the number of desertions was 8,000. Now imagine if you could tell those 8,000 individual stories of desertion. But they haven’t been told and those people have disappeared here and there.

Some of them are in Canada. Some are hiding out in the US. Some of them have gone to other countries. But I believe it is a growing phenomenon and ultimately that may be the breaking point for the US government.

One of the things that has become very obvious is that when we have disasters here like Katrina, people dying as a result of hurricanes, earthquakes and, just in the last few days, tornadoes in the Midwest, the help people need is not forthcoming.

This is because the helicopters, the personnel who would help them, the National Guardsmen who are normally summoned to help in times of crisis, are over in Iraq or Afghanistan.

That is becoming more and more apparent and at some point – of course I hope it will be very soon – this growing indignation is going to result in a turnabout in US policy.

You have written that “If you have no history you can be oppressed by the moment.” To many the US seems unassailable in the world today. What do you say to them?

A little historical perspective might help. That is seeing how an apparently very powerful US government had at a certain point to give way when the movement against the Vietnam War became great enough. Or looking at the South, it was totally controlled by white leaders who had to give way at a certain point. How many times in history has the moment looked grim, yet things changed?

Or I think of South Africa or Eastern Europe or Latin America, where dictatorships which seemed impenetrable fell suddenly and surprisingly. Regimes changed when there was a build up, and a build up, and a build up of resentment, which finally burst out and something had to go. So I am hopeful for change even in this very powerful country.

Howard Zinn’s latest book, A Young Person’s History of the United States, is published by Seven Stories and will be reviewed in Socialist Review next month.

Howard Zinn at a Glance

  • Born 24 August 1922 in Brooklyn, New York.
  • 1943: Joined the Army Air Corps and became a bombardier. Participated in the first use of napalm in France.
  • Attended New York University under the GI Bill.
  • 1956: Professor of History at Spelman College, Atlanta, also adviser to Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Sacked in 1963 for “insubordination” – he supported his students who were standing up against the college administration.
  • 1964-88: Professor of Political Science at Boston University.
  • 1968: Visited Hanoi, Vietnam, securing the release of three US airmen.
  • Took part in the Winter Soldier investigation where Vietnam veterans testified about US Army atrocities.
  • 1980: Published A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present.

Zinn’s extraordinary life is chronicled in his autobiography You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, and as a film of the same name available from First Run Features.

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