For 19 years, the Cranbrook Peace Foundation has presented an annual award to someone of renown who's been a "personal witness to peace." Past recipients recognized by the group include economist John Kenneth Galbraith, South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu and folk singer Pete Seeger. Joining those and other luminaries this year is Howard Zinn, a historian, award-winning author and longtime peace activist. Now in his 80s, the Boston University professor emeritus is probably best known for his book A People's History of the United States, a decidedly leftist take on this country's past that has sold more than a million copies. His newest book, A Power Governments Cannot Suppress, is scheduled to be published this winter.
We caught up with Zinn by phone to talk about the upcoming Cranbrook lecture, and to get his take on the war in Iraq, the state of the U.S. economy and the prospects for hope at a time when things seem particularly doused with gloom.
Metro Times: Do you know what your speech will be about when you give the Cranbrook Peace Foundation's annual peace lecture?
Howard Zinn: I never do. [Laughs.] Of course I'll be talking about the war and how we can learn from history in order to understand the war in Iraq. I suppose I'll be arguing that the American people can be sort of seduced and cajoled into supporting a war only because of a lack of understanding history, and that they really need an understanding of government deception, and the history of wars and how people get into wars and the motivations that are behind them. If they did they would not be susceptible to a president who says we have to go to war for this reason or that reason. And I'll talk about what we need to do to see through that, and how to divest ourselves of certain myths, the myth of American exceptionalism, that the United States is different and better than all other places in the world, that we are uniquely liberal and democratic and peace-loving and justice-loving. I would suggest that a look at our history makes those claims very, very dubious. We ought to see ourselves honestly and clearly, to see ourselves as just another in a long line of imperial nations.
MT: From a historical perspective, what previous war do you see the war in Iraq as having the most in common with?
Zinn: Vietnam provides the most immediate example. Obviously, no two situations are exactly alike, but there are some fundamental resemblances. In both cases we were deceived about the reasons for going to war. We were deceived in Vietnam about the Gulf of Tonkin, we were deceived in Vietnam about the claim that we were fighting for the self-determination of the Vietnamese, we were deceived about the claim that we were only bombing military targets. Similar deceptions have taken place in the case of the war in Iraq. We were deceived about the weapons of mass destruction. In both cases, there was a hidden agenda not told to the American people, which have to do with the control and geopolitical reasons. In the case of Vietnam, it was seen secretly by American officials, whose views were only revealed when their memos were disclosed in the Pentagon Papers which weren't supposed to be seen by the American public but those internal memos showed that our officials were concerned about access to the tin, rubber and oil of Southeast Asia. That was the motive not told to the American public. In Iraq, the motive that they constantly disclaim, but which is so glaringly obvious, is the control of oil in the Middle East, which has been the guiding motive for all the U.S. policy in the Middle East ever since the end of World War II.
Then you have the fundamental similarity between Iraq and Vietnam, which is us sending an army halfway around the world to attack a country that is absolutely no threat to us. ... There's also a historical analogy I would make with the Spanish-American War, where we went into Cuba presumably to free the Cubans from Spanish rule, which we did, but then did not free them from our rule. In Iraq, we went in, presumably, to free the Iraqis from the rule of Saddam Hussein, which we did, but not from our rule, which is going on now with disastrous consequences.
MT: Looking at Iraq, what do you think we should do now?
Zinn: I believe in immediate withdrawal from Iraq. In 1967 I wrote a book called Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal. The same arguments were made then, that if we leave there would be a bloodbath, that we must stay the course and show our resolve. Same arguments. And, of course, we stayed for another six years after I wrote that book, and the result was simply another 30,000 American lives lost and another million Vietnamese lives lost.
MT: But there was a bloodbath that did occur after we left Vietnam*. And now, there are respected people on the left who argue that we can't just leave Iraq because of the chaos that would result.
Zinn: Our presence in Iraq now is doing no good at all. It is only provoking more violence and more chaos. So, if I have to chose between an uncertainty and it is uncertain what will happen when we leave and the certainty of disaster if we stay, then I will choose the uncertainty, because it is not going to do anything but continue to get worse if we stay.
MT: How frustrating is it as an historian to see these same scenarios being replayed?
Zinn: It is disheartening. On the other hand, if you take a long historical perspective, you realize that you never solve really profound problems in one shot, and that you have to go through a number of bad experiences before you do something about them. In the United States, when it went through the Depression in the 1930s, it wasn't the first depression we went through, but it was the first depression that finally caused the government to pass some basic legislation to help poor people. So I believe that, despite the repetition of certain terrible things, there is a certain learning that accumulates and at a certain point has a result. My hope is that maybe we'll come out of this war with a kind of resolve not to be fooled again, so that if the president wants us to go against Iran or wants us to go to war against North Korea the people will immediately reject that.
MT: You mentioned the Great Depression. Do you see any parallels between what's going on now and the period preceding the crash of 1929?
Zinn: What we saw in the 1920s was a constantly widening gap between the rich and the poor, and a kind of false prosperity with huge fortunes being made on one hand and the buying power of the population not keeping up with that, and the collapse of the economy. I think that, although it's not exactly the same situation, the American economy is heading for a fall right now. One difference is that we were a creditor nation in the 1920s and we're a debtor nation now. That adds to the economic danger we face. We owe huge sums of money to the Chinese and other people. I think we're on an economic bubble. You hear people gloating about the Dow Jones average as people gloated about the stock market in 1929 until it exploded.
MT: So, when you give your talks, do you have anything hopeful to offer?
Zinn:[Laughs.] Yes, there are. I like to point to the fact that we've gone through times in the past when it seems government policy couldn't be changed, yet government policy was changed. The civil rights movement in the South, the movement against the war in Vietnam, the labor movement by its actions changed things never enough, or course but the thing is that people have power which lies mostly unused, but when they decide to use it they can cause even enormous conglomerations of power and wealth to concede something and change. So there's hope. Not certainty, but hope.
* When we asked Zinn about the bloodbath that followed the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Vietnam, we had the events in Cambodia in mind. Nonetheless, after the article appeared, Zinn e-mail us with this comment: "I realize I didn’t answer your point about the bloodbath. There was no bloodbath in Vietnam when the U.S. troops left. Not that things were good. The Chinese were harassed and became boat people, and many drowned at sea. ‘Re-education’ camps were established for ‘collaborators.’ But the real bloodbath -- the bombing of villages, the huge casualties -- was ended."
The Cranbrook Peace Foundation's 19th Annual Peace Lecture and Award Ceremony will be held at 7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 5, at Cobo Hall in downtown Detroit. For ticket details phone 248-345-3475 or check out its Web site at cranbrookpeace.org.
Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]
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