Brooklyn native Howard Zinn is the author of more than 20 works of American history, including A People’s History of the United States and, most recently, Terrorism and War (Seven Stories) and Emma (South End), a play about the anarchist Emma Goldman.
The following conversation took place in late September.
Theodore Hamm (Rail): Let’s start with Iraq. What do you think should, or should not, be done?
Howard Zinn: We certainly should not be initiating a war, as it’s not a clear and present danger to the United States, or in fact, to anyone around it. If it were, then the states around Iraq would be calling for a war on it. The Arab states around Iraq are opposed to the war, and if anyone’s in danger from Iraq, they are. At the same time, the U.S. is violating the U.N. charter by initiating a war on Iraq. Bush made a big deal about the number of resolutions Iraq has violated—and it’s true, Iraq has not abided by the resolutions of the Security Council. But it’s not the first nation to violate Security Council resolutions. Israel has violated Security Council resolutions every year since 1967. Now, however, the U.S. is violating a fundamental principle of the U.N. Charter, which is that nations can’t initiate a war—they can only do so after being attacked. And Iraq has not attacked us.
Rail: What about its potential possession of nuclear weapons?
Zinn: Well, the evidence is that in a year or two, Iraq may possibly develop one or two nuclear weapons, without any certainty that they have the delivery system to do anything with them. But the U.S. has 20–30,000 nuclear weapons, Israel has hundreds—and so do France, India, China, Pakistan, etc. It’s absurd to suggest that because Iraq might conceivably have one nuclear weapon, therefore we should make war on it first. And as for Iraq possessing possible chemical and biological weapons elements, that may very well be true—but these again are something that a lot of nations have, including the U.S., not to mention Turkey and a lot of other nations that we don’t know about, because we don’t insist on inspectors going anywhere except Iraq. We certainly wouldn’t accept the idea of inspectors coming to the U.S. to see what facilities we have. And we also must consider that the ingredients for chemical and biological warfare were supplied to Iraq by the U.S., when we supported Iraq in its war against Iran. So there’s an enormous amount of hypocrisy in terms of the accusations made. The one time that Iraq would impose a danger is if it were attacked—then it would feel free to do whatever it wanted out of desperation. And so by attacking Iraq, we are creating a danger that doesn’t exist now.
Rail: So what’s the real motive behind going into Iraq?
Zinn: I think the real motive is to get rid of a dictator whose nation controls 10 percent of the oil supplies of the world. Ever since the end of WWII, when Roosevelt met with King Ibin Saud and essentially agreed that the U.S. would become the protector of Saudi Arabia in return for our moving into the Middle East oil fields, oil has been at the center of American policy in the Middle East. But it’s not about obtaining Iraq’s oil—since Middle East states also have to sell their oil, the question is the price of oil. And the U.S. is willing to go to war for the price of oil.
Rail: But let’s assume—counterfactually, as historians say—that the Bush administration went about this differently, and had mobilized a multi-national coalition, committed primarily to ground war, and later to nation-building. Would you support this? I guess the question is really whether you equate all forms of intervention with imperialism.
Zinn: The record of American interventions is the record of American expansionism. You can cite WWII as a possible exception, but even that became the occasion for expansion of American power. American interventions by and large have not toppled dictatorships and installed democracies—they more often have done the opposite, as in Iran, Guatemala, Chile, et al. American expansionism is not based on humanitarian motives. It’s based on very crass reasons of political and economic gain.
Rail: But in the process of this expansionism, regimes like those of the Taliban or Saddam may fall. Isn’t this beneficial for people living under these regimes?
Zinn: Yes, but it’s not worth the many lives lost in the process. We don’t go to war to overthrow the government of Saudi Arabia, which is repressive and treats women the way the Taliban did. You can’t go to war against every country in the world that represses its own people. You have to try to do everything you can to create the conditions under which people can overthrow their own governments.
Rail: What kinds of things can be done in this regard?
Zinn: We could lift the sanctions, which have caused an enormous amount of misery and hundreds of thousands of deaths in Iraq, and created a situation where people are gathering around their leader in defense against a cruel outsider. Keep in mind that the Soviet Union was a far greater nuclear and military threat than Iraq is today, and there were people who argued for a preventive war against the Soviet Union. But instead we waited for the currents of change to blow through the Soviet Union, as they will blow through Iraq. Tyrannical governments fall of their own weight. I think the American government will fall of its own weight. I’m serious—we need a regime change in the U.S., and I’m not talking about simply the Democrats winning the next election.
Rail: In the New Yorker recently, David Remnick and Hendrik Hertzberg said something to the effect of “pacifism is not an option after 9/11.” Why is it that extreme first-strike militarism can be on the table, but peaceful solutions cannot?
Zinn: Instead of talking about pacifism in the abstract, let’s talk about the reality. What is an option after 9/11? Military action? That’s absurd, because 9/11 was the work of terrorists. How can you make war on terrorism? It’s not in an identifiable spot on earth that you can bomb into submission and say, “We’ve done away with terrorism.” The Bush administration itself has said that there are tens of thousands of terrorists around the world, and that dozens of countries may harbor them, including the U.S. So you can’t make war on terrorism, and if not, you might try to find other means. And if you’re going to call that pacifism, then yes, pacifism is an option after 9/11. Take the example of Afghanistan. We’ve been bombing it for a year—but what has it done? Have we destroyed terrorism? No, but we’ve killed a lot of people. So I would turn it around and say, military action, which inevitably kills a lot of people, is not an option after 9/11.
Rail: Let’s turn to the home front. Has there ever been a worse time for civil liberties in the U.S.?
Zinn: It’s hard to say. It’s a close call between now and WWI, although we haven’t yet gotten to the point of WWI, in terms of putting people in jail for opposing war. At that time, about 1,000 were jailed, several thousands deported, and thousands rounded up and held without rights. In a certain sense, it may be worse now, because the fact of 9/11 and the fear of terrorism have allowed the administration to create an atmosphere of fear all over the country. And in this atmosphere, criticism of the administration becomes unpatriotic.
Rail: I’m wondering what can be done to stop the assault on civil liberties. McCarthy, after all, only lost power because he made the mistake of going after the Army.
Zinn: What it would take is popular resistance, people speaking out, coming to the defense of those who are attacked or defamed, making it a nationwide issue. The only response to the assault on our Constitutional rights in the name of national security is citizen resistance.
Rail: In your autobiography, You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train (1994), your chapter on growing up in Brooklyn describes how you became “class conscious.” To what degree did you become “race” or “ethnicity” conscious as well?
Zinn: Well, my parents were Russian Jewish immigrants, so I had some ethnic awareness, but I think that during the ’30s, class consciousness was much more important. Living in poor neighborhoods, seeing people evicted from their homes, their furniture put out onto the street—it seemed to have nothing to do with race or ethnicity, just poverty and helplessness.
Rail: What neighborhoods did you grow up in?
Zinn: There were many, because we were always moving to keep one step ahead of the landlord before getting evicted [laughs]. But we lived in Brownsville, East New York, Williamsburg; and I went to Thomas Jefferson High School in East New York. When my wife and I first married, we lived on Lafayette Avenue; and while I was working in the Brooklyn Navy Yard during the war, my parents lived in the Fort Greene Housing Projects. So I covered a lot of ground.
Rail: But even to take the job at Spellman (a black college in Atlanta) in the mid-’50s, you had to be racially tolerant to begin with, so your upbringing must have had some influence.
Zinn: Sure, I guess it was in what was then called Upper Williamsburg, where I lived for a while—on Vernon Ave., near Bed Stuy—that I first became conscious of racism. Because there was racial segregation in the area, with black people living on Myrtle Ave., under the el. On Vernon Ave., everybody was white, but one block away, everybody was black, and worked as janitors and domestic workers and so forth. So as a teenager in Brooklyn I was becoming aware of racial segregation, and almost instinctively found it abhorrent.
Rail: Are you ever nostalgic about Brooklyn?
Zinn: I do have a certain nostalgia about Brooklyn, and in fact, I’m really dying to go back to the old neighborhoods that I lived in, and see what’s going on there. This past spring I spoke in Park Slope, which was the first time I had been back to Brooklyn in decades. And I was astonished by what I saw. It was like no Brooklyn I ever knew—it looked more like Greenwich Village or Paris.
Rail: Let’s talk about the future a little bit. In You Can’t be Neutral, you discuss the many “small acts” of disobedience, as opposed to simply the large marches and so on, that led to the dismantling of racial segregation in the South. What kinds of small acts do you see happening today against racial or class inequality, extreme militarism, environmental destruction, and other current pressing issues?
Zinn: I see a number of antiwar demonstrations taking place around the country on a very small scale. I get letters, invitations, and e-mails from little towns all over the country telling me about antiwar actions there—places like Chico, California, and little towns in Maine, and Athens, Georgia, and so on. And I see things like the families of people who were killed in the Twin Towers forming an antiwar organization. And I just spoke at Holy Cross, presumably a conservative institution, and about 300 people showed up, totally against the war; and 700 people packed the auditorium the other night at Carnegie Mellon. Meanwhile, Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore bring out thousands—so there’s plenty of antiwar sentiment out there. Not a majority, of course, but countless pockets of resistance. Similarly, on matters of class, there are groups like Justice for Janitors, and living wage campaigns across the country. Here in Boston, they’re trying to get the first living wage bill passed that would extend to private as well to public employers. So there are little signs of opposition everywhere, and the mainstream media do not give us an accurate picture of how much dissent there really is.
Rail: By way of closing, I’m wondering what kinds of advice you might have for the Rail’s staff and its readers. Speaking at least for the staff, I can say that in terms of employment, we’re on the margins of academia, publishing, and the arts worlds. And so to what degree should we “watch what we say,” for fear of scaring off deans, editors, arts funders, and so on? Shouldn’t we be worried about the career consequences of speaking out politically?
Zinn: That’s a tough one. It’s true that here we are in a country that prides itself on the Constitution and the First Amendment, but, in order to support yourself economically, you are dependent on deans, editors, and so on. It’s a terrible reality about American life and society that you have to watch what you say. And yet unless people take that kind of risk, we won’t have any democracy, so people must take risks. Of course, the best way to minimize that risk is to organize, to form teachers unions and the like. And the more we speak out, and the more we encourage others to do it, there will be more protections, and more democracy, for all of us.