Howard Zinn, Q & A

Historians in the News

An interview with Howard Zinn, conducted by Kirk Johnson, editor of American Amnesia (Feb. 2004):

Howard Zinn, the historian most known for "A People's History of the United States," recently talked with American Amnesia about foreign policy, Iraq, historical amnesia, and democracy. His book, which has sold millions of copies, is unique in its advocacy for a different type of history - one that focuses less on the traditional white founding fathers and more on the (not always glamorous) foundation upon which this country was established. Born in Brooklyn, Zinn worked in a shipyard before fighting in World War II as an Air Force Bombardier, carrying out missions over France and Germany. After the war he received a PhD in history from Columbia University. He is professor emeritus at Boston University.

His viewpoints provoke strong responses from both the left and the right - which is why American Amnesia sees it worthwhile to include them in our discussion of history & foreign policy. He is also the first in a series of similar discussions which will include Noam Chomsky, Errol Morris, Niall Ferguson, Michael Walzer, and others. He may stop by American Amnesia and answer follow-up questions in the comments section (no guarantees).

A: We’re confronted today with alarming statistics from various groups connected with education, that essentially say we’re forgetting our past – that even the “titan” moments in history are slipping from the collective memory. What do you make of these stats?

Z: We're forgetting the past because neither our educational system nor our media inform us about the past. For instance, the history of the Vietnam War has been very much forgotten. I believe this amnesia is useful to those conducting our present foreign policy. It would be embarrassing if the story of the Vietnam War were told at a time when we are engaged in a war which has some of the same characteristics: government deception, the killing of civilians through bombing, scaring the American people (world communism in that case, terrorism in this one). As for the history beyond Vietnam, that would certainly be damaging to present policy. Because if young people knew the long history of U.S. expansion, through violence and deception, they would not easily believe that we are in Iraq to promote democracy. They would know how many false claims were made in the past to justify aggressive acts. They would learn of the expansion across the continent, destroying Indian villages, committing massacres. They would learn of the deceptions surrounding the Spanish-American War, of the bloody war in the Philippines leading to the deaths of perhaps 600,000 Filipinos. They would learn of the many interventions in the Caribbean. And they would see that these interventions did not bring democracy, and they were connected to U.S. commercial interests.

A: Do you see historical amnesia – that is, forgetting both recent and distant history (how many people even remember Kosovo, or even Afghanistan?) – as an ailment of the younger generation, or as a continuation of the “way we’ve always been.”?

Z: It's not an ailment of the younger generation but of that part of the older generation that controls the media and the educational system. I find that young people are hungry for information, but their sources are too often the major television channels, which are controlled by a tiny group of wealthy corporations, with ties and interests close to the government.

A: How do you feel about how the citation of historical events is portrayed in the media today – often as reflecting opinions of “conspiracy theorists,” on the margins of society? It seems as if the value of history in public discourse has been crippled somewhat.

Z: When critics of U.S. policy point to crass motivations behind our policy: like corporate profit, and political advantage, this is often labeled "conspiracy theory." There are indeed some untenable, improvable conspiracy theories floating around, but there are in fact real "conspiracies" -- That is, groups of people who have certain plans which they don't reveal to the public. For instance, the plans for the control of the oil in the Middle East are not made public, and instead they talk of overthrowing tyranny, instituting democracy, bringing freedom, etc.

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