For half a century, HOWARD ZINN has been one of the leading voices to speak out against the injustices carried out in the name of “democracy” by the U.S. government. An emeritus professor of history at Boston College, he’s the author of the classic A People’s History of the United States. His latest book is Terrorism and War, published by Seven Stories Press. And new editions of seven of his classic historical studies–including Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal and SNCC: The New Abolitionists–have been republished by South End Press.
In this special feature, Howard talks to Socialist Worker’s ANTHONY ARNOVE about what Bush’s war is really about.
GEORGE W. BUSH is beating the drums of war to invade Iraq. Why is this happening now? Is the war that they’re planning on Iraq about oil?
WHY NOW? I think it’s because the “war on terrorism” looks more and more to the American public–and certainly to the world–as, at best, unsuccessful, and, at worst, a sham.
The bombing of Afghanistan has gone on for almost a year, and we see no sign of Osama bin Laden, and no indications that we’ve uprooted any terrorist networks. So the Bush administration needs to turn the attention from a situation of failure to one of success. Iraq is an easy target, it is assumed, and a war there will lead the country to rally around Bush as it did after the attacks on September 11.
Is it about oil? I have no doubt that oil is a big factor. All of the U.S. policies in the Middle East since the Second World War have been rooted in the desire to control the enormous oil reserves there–and certainly to control the price of oil and the profits from oil.
Oil is not the only reason. There is the political motive of winning popular support by creating a war atmosphere. Then there’s the motive of establishing control in a country that has so far eluded the American grasp. The United States cannot abide the existence of nations that do not go along submissively with American policy. Iraq used to be such a country, when it was a close ally, but that changed when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990.
Also, a war with Iraq will help maintain the emergency atmosphere in the United States, in which civil liberties are curtailed, for both non-citizens and citizens, with war being the convenient excuse.
THE BUSH administration and the other supporters of war justify the “war on terrorism” with rhetoric about democracy. What are their real interests?
THE REAL interests of the Bush administration–and the Democratic Party supporters of war–are what the interests of the U.S. have been for a very long time, long before September 11.
The long-term interest of American governments, from the end of the Revolutionary War down to the present day, has been the expansion of national power, first on the continent, then into the Caribbean and the Pacific, and since the Second World War, everywhere on the globe.
Each time there was a period of expansion, there was an explanation: “Manifest Destiny,” the need to “save Spain,” the need to “civilize” and bring Christianity to the Filipinos, the Germans are sinking our merchant vessels, North Korea has invaded South Korea, we’ve been fired on in the Gulf of Tonkin, we need to stop the spread of Communism.
But behind all those justifications was the urge to expand American economic and military power. The “war on terrorism” is the latest opportunity to expand U.S. political, economic and military power into other parts of the world.
SOME PEOPLE have compared the situation of the detainees from September 11 with the incarceration of Japanese Americans during the Second World War. You lived through that period. What was the climate like?
THE INCARCERATION of the Japanese took place with the American public unaware or only vaguely aware that it was happening. Many liberals and radicals, knowing what was happening, were silent, believing it was necessary to win the war. Racist attitudes toward the Japanese were widespread in the population, thus making it harder for sympathy to be aroused.
Today, anti-immigration sentiment and racism are still strong in this county. It’s disturbing to see that Muslims have been detained without benefit of constitutional rights, and with no public outcry.
AS A participant in the civil rights movement, what was it like to hear political leaders talk about saluting the flag, and knowing that the most elementary rights supposedly guaranteed under that flag were being denied to African Americans?
BLACK AMERICANS have always been ambivalent towards the flag and “patriotism.” On the one hand, they have wanted to be recognized as supporters of the country, as people willing to fight in the nation’s wars. On the other hand, they have recognized that wars “for freedom” were based on hypocrisy, given what was happening to Blacks in this country.
Blacks in the Civil War struggled for the right to fight in the war, and yet knew they were being used as cannon fodder and treated as inferiors. Black soldiers in the Philippines at first welcomed the chance to show that they could serve in the military as whites did, but soon realized that they were killing people of color, while back home their Black countrymen were being lynched.
In the Second World War, though certain Black leaders (Joe Louis, notably) were used to build up Black support for the war, there was a great deal of disaffection, not only because of segregation in the armed forces, but because of how Blacks were treated in the nation. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for instance, refused to support an anti-lynching bill.
And in the Southern civil rights movement, Blacks were among the first to declare their opposition to the Vietnam War, pointing out how the federal government, under both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, was collaborating with Southern racists and was not protecting Blacks from violence.
WITH THE anniversary of September 11 approaching, the politicians are again wrapping themselves in the flag and talking about freedom and democracy. What are their motives?
THE RECORD of American political leaders on “freedom and democracy” is so poor that wrapping themselves in the flag is an attempt to conceal that record.
That record includes the starving of funds for health care, jobs and housing while huge sums are expended on the military. It also includes the imprisonment of huge numbers of people of color, whose desperate situation growing up is due to the very neglect of poor people in this country by our political leaders. Their patriotism is a way of covering all of that over and distracting people from these issues.
INITIALLY, THE Vietnam War had the same level of patriotic support as all the others. But significant numbers of people ultimately turned against it. When did this begin to change and why?
THERE WAS a dramatic shift in American public opinion between 1965, when 61 percent of those polled supported the war, to 1971, when 61 percent opposed the war.
You saw a gradual buildup of opposition. In 1965, 100 people gathered on the Boston Common to protest the war. In 1969, 100,000 gathered on the Common to protest the war. Later, millions were involved in demonstrations around the country.
I believe the change was due to the fact that the American people, by 1967 and 1968, finally began to understand that it was a brutal war against innocent people. They saw images on television of U.S. Marines burning peasant huts, of children being napalm victims, of the My Lai massacre. And also, they saw the toll of American life mounting week by week.
I believe this is an important thing to remember. There is no natural inclination to support war; it has to be artificially induced by political leaders. And when Americans, normally of good will and decent morality, begin to get information different from the official line, they have second thoughts and question the official line.
EUGENE DEBS, the leading U.S. socialist at the beginning of the last century, had a lot to say about this question of patriotism. Could you talk about his views of war and patriotism?
DEBS WAS a leader in the protest against the First World War. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, a decision that was affirmed by a unanimous Supreme Court led by the presumed liberal jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes. Debs was sentenced because in a speech in Canton, Ohio, he said that the master classes made the wars, and the working classes fought in them.
He said: “Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder. In the Middle Ages, when the feudal lords who inhabited the castles whose towers may still be seen along the Rhine concluded to enlarge their domains, to increase their power, their prestige and their wealth, they declared war upon one another. But they themselves did not go to war, any more than the modern feudal lords, the barons of Wall Street, go to war.
“The feudal barons of the Middle Ages, the economic predecessors of the capitalists of our day, declared all wars. And their miserable serfs fought all the battles. The poor, ignorant serfs had been taught to revere their masters; to believe that when their masters declared war upon one another, it was their patriotic duty to fall upon one another and to cut one another’s throats for the profit and glory of the lords and barons who held them in contempt.
“And that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose — especially their lives.”
Debs rightly saw war in class terms–as benefiting the rich, and killing the poor.