Howard Zinn: America’s Blinders
The question is important because it might help us understand why Americans—members of the media as well as the ordinary citizen—rushed to declare their support as the President was sending troops halfway around the world to Iraq.
A small example of the innocence (or obsequiousness, to be more exact) of the press is the way it reacted to Colin Powell’s presentation in February 2003 to the Security Council, a month before the invasion, a speech which may have set a record for the number of falsehoods told in one talk. In it, Powell confidently rattled off his “evidence”: satellite photographs, audio records, reports from informants, with precise statistics on how many gallons of this and that existed for chemical warfare. The New York Times was breathless with admiration. The Washington Post editorial was titled “Irrefutable” and declared that after Powell’s talk “it is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction.”
It seems to me there are two reasons, which go deep into our national culture, and which help explain the vulnerability of the press and of the citizenry to outrageous lies whose consequences bring death to tens of thousands of people. If we can understand those reasons, we can guard ourselves better against being deceived.
One is in the dimension of time, that is, an absence of historical perspective. The other is in the dimension of space, that is, an inability to think outside the boundaries of nationalism. We are penned in by the arrogant idea that this country is the center of the universe, exceptionally virtuous, admirable, superior.
If we don’t know history, then we are ready meat for carnivorous politicians and the intellectuals and journalists who supply the carving knives. I am not speaking of the history we learned in school, a history subservient to our political leaders, from the much-admired Founding Fathers to the Presidents of recent years. I mean a history which is honest about the past. If we don’t know that history, then any President can stand up to the battery of microphones, declare that we must go to war, and we will have no basis for challenging him. He will say that the nation is in danger, that democracy and liberty are at stake, and that we must therefore send ships and planes to destroy our new enemy, and we will have no reason to disbelieve him.
But if we know some history, if we know how many times Presidents have made similar declarations to the country, and how they turned out to be lies, we will not be fooled. Although some of us may pride ourselves that we were never fooled, we still might accept as our civic duty the responsibility to buttress our fellow citizens against the mendacity of our high officials.
We would remind whoever we can that President Polk lied to the nation about the reason for going to war with Mexico in 1846. It wasn’t that Mexico “shed American blood upon the American soil,” but that Polk, and the slave-owning aristocracy, coveted half of Mexico.
We would point out that President McKinley lied in 1898 about the reason for invading Cuba, saying we wanted to liberate the Cubans from Spanish control, but the truth is that we really wanted Spain out of Cuba so that the island could be open to United Fruit and other American corporations. He also lied about the reasons for our war in the Philippines, claiming we only wanted to “civilize” the Filipinos, while the real reason was to own a valuable piece of real estate in the far Pacific, even if we had to kill hundreds of thousands of Filipinos to accomplish that.
President Woodrow Wilson—so often characterized in our history books as an “idealist”—lied about the reasons for entering the First World War, saying it was a war to “make the world safe for democracy,” when it was really a war to make the world safe for the Western imperial powers.
Harry Truman lied when he said the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima because it was “a military target.”
Everyone lied about Vietnam—Kennedy about the extent of our involvement, Johnson about the Gulf of Tonkin, Nixon about the secret bombing of Cambodia, all of them claiming it was to keep South Vietnam free of communism, but really wanting to keep South Vietnam as an American outpost at the edge of the Asian continent.
Reagan lied about the invasion of Grenada, claiming falsely that it was a threat to the United States.
The elder Bush lied about the invasion of Panama, leading to the death of thousands of ordinary citizens in that country.
And he lied again about the reason for attacking Iraq in 1991—hardly to defend the integrity of Kuwait (can one imagine Bush heartstricken over Iraq’s taking of
Kuwait?), rather to assert U.S. power in the oil-rich Middle East.
Given the overwhelming record of lies told to justify wars, how could anyone listening to the younger Bush believe him as he laid out the reasons for invading Iraq? Would we not instinctively rebel against the sacrifice of lives for oil?...
comments powered by Disqus
Arnold Shcherban - 4/8/2006
We are talking history and societal
awareness here, not partisan politics.
Both major American parties have buried themselves in lies, corporate
servitude and massive war crimes throughout the history, from the point of view of unbiased and really democratic observer.
And it is not just about Iraq, but,
perhaps, much more about future US military "engagements"/strikes, say against Iran and further ones, that
the American public MUST prevent from happenning (unless it wants to be condemned and despised not just by the 3/4 of the world, as it is now, but by 7/8 of the world population, including its closest allies, such as British).
Therefore, the difference between those or any other two "capitalist"
candidates, is only minute, not
the principal one.
Sheldon M. Stern - 4/5/2006
Professor Zinn is correct in asserting that presidents have repeatedly lied about the reasons for going to war. However, since he reserves special (and justified) contempt for the current Bush administration, it is worth pointing out that Zinn was a public supporter and active campaigner for Ralph Nader in 2000 despite clear indications that Nader would throw the election to Bush. Nader's 22,000+ votes allowed Bush to carry New Hampshire by some 6,000 votes--the only state in the northeast that Gore lost--and with those 4 electoral went the election. Also, Nader's 98,000+ votes in Florida made the election close enough for the Bush team to control the outcome of the vote count. Perhaps Zinn did not see any difference between these two "capitalist" candidates, but Gore would never have invaded Iraq.
- ‘Hamilton’ Puts Politics Onstage and Politicians in Attendance
- Earth Tectonic Plate Simulation Reveals Our Planet Has Changed A Lot In 200 Million Years
- For G.O.P., Support for Israel Becomes New Litmus Test
- Yale’s Beinecke Library Buys Vast Collection of Lincoln Photos
- A grandmother’s trove of Civil War photos goes to Library of Congress
- Role-playing history game gets students jazzed
- OAH denounces anti-gay legislation signed by Indiana governor
- Emory’s Leslie Harris says we should remember the racist roots of American colleges as we think about what went wrong at OU and other schools
- Stanford historian looks to the U.S. Postal Service to map the boom and bust of 19th-century American West
- U.S. historian denounces Japanese scholars' statement over wartime sexual slavery