by Howard Zinn
The Progressive magazine, April
Now that most Americans no longer believe
in the war, now that they no longer trust Bush and his Administration,
now that the evidence of deception has become overwhelming (so
overwhelming that even the major media, always late, have begun
to register indignation), we might ask: How come so many people
were so easily fooled?
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
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
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
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
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
A careful reading of history might give
us another safeguard against being deceived. It would make clear
that there has always been, and is today, a profound conflict
of interest between the government and the people of the United
States. This thought startles most people, because it goes against
everything we have been taught.
We have been led to believe that, from
the beginning, as our Founding Fathers put it in the Preamble
to the Constitution, it was "we the people" who established
the new government after the Revolution. When the eminent historian
Charles Beard suggested, a hundred years ago, that the Constitution
represented not the working people, not the slaves, but the slaveholders,
the merchants, the bondholders, he became the object of an indignant
editorial in The New York Times.
Our culture demands, in its very language,
that we accept a commonality of interest binding all of us to
one another. We mustn't talk about classes. Only Marxists do that,
although James Madison, "Father of the Constitution,"
said, thirty years before Marx was born that there was an inevitable
conflict in society between those who had property and those who
Our present leaders are not so candid.
They bombard us with phrases like "national interest,"
"national security," and "national defense"
as if all of these concepts applied equally to all of us, colored
or white, rich or poor, as if General Motors and Halliburton have
the same interests as the rest of us, as if George Bush has the
same interest as the young man or woman he sends to war.
Surely, in the history of lies told to
the population, this is the biggest lie. In the history of secrets,
withheld from the American people, this is the biggest secret:
that there are classes with different interests in this country.
To ignore that-not to know that the history of our country is
a history of slaveowner against slave, landlord against tenant,
corporation against worker, rich against poor-is to render us
helpless before all the lesser lies told to us by people in power.
If we as citizens start out with an understanding
that these people up there-the President, the Congress, the Supreme
Court, all those institutions pretending to be "checks and
balances"-do not have our interests at heart, we are on a
course towards the truth. Not to know that is to make us helpless
before determined liars.
The deeply ingrained belief-no, not from
birth but from the educational system and from our culture in
general-that the United States is an especially virtuous nation
makes us especially vulnerable to government deception. It starts
early, in the first grade, when we are compelled to "pledge
allegiance" (before we even know what that means), forced
to proclaim that we are a nation with "liberty and justice
And then come the countless ceremonies,
whether at the ballpark or elsewhere, where we are expected to
stand and bow our heads during the singing of the "Star-Spangled
Banner," announcing that we are "the land of the free
and the home of the brave." There is also the unofficial
national anthem "God Bless America," and you are looked
on with suspicion if you ask why we would expect God to single
out this one nation-just 5 percent of the world's population-for
his or her blessing._
If your starting point for evaluating
the world around you is the firm belief that this nation is somehow
endowed by Providence with unique qualities that make it morally
superior to every other nation on Earth, then you are not likely
to question the President when he says we are sending our troops
here or there, or bombing this or that, in order to spread our
values-democracy, liberty, and let's not forget free enterprise-to
some God-forsaken (literally) place in the world._
It becomes necessary then, if we are going
to protect ourselves and our fellow citizens against policies
that will be disastrous not only for other people but for Americans
too, that we face some facts that disturb the idea of a uniquely
These facts are embarrassing, but must
be faced if we are to be honest. We must face our long history
of ethnic cleansing, in which millions of Indians were driven
off their land by means of massacres and forced evacuations. And
our long history, still not behind us, of slavery, segregation,
and racism. We must face our record of imperial conquest, in the
Caribbean and in the Pacific, our shameful wars against small
countries a tenth our size: Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan,
Iraq. And the lingering memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is
not a history of which we can be proud.
Our leaders have taken it for granted,
and planted that belief in the minds of many people, that we are
entitled, because of our moral superiority, to dominate the world.
At the end of World War II, Henry Luce, with an arrogance appropriate
to the owner of Time, Life, and Fortune, pronounced this "the
American century," saying that victory in the war gave the
United States the right "to exert upon the world the full
impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by
such means as we see fit."
Both the Republican and Democratic parties
have embraced this notion. George Bush, in his Inaugural Address
on January 20, 2005, said that spreading liberty around the world
was "the calling of our time." Years before that, in
1993, President Bill Clinton, speaking at a West Point commencement,
declared: "The values you learned here . . . will be able
to spread throughout this country and throughout the world and
give other people the opportunity to live as you have lived, to
fulfill your God-given capacities."
What is the idea of our moral superiority
based on? Surely not on our behavior toward people in other parts
of the world. Is it based on how well people in the United States
live? The World Health Organization in 2000 ranked countries in
terms of overall health performance, and the United States was
thirty-seventh on the list, though it spends more per capita for
health care than any other nation. One of five children in this,
the richest country in the world, is born in poverty. There are
more than forty countries that have better records on infant mortality.
Cuba does better. And there is a sure sign of sickness in society
when we lead the world in the number of people in prison-more
than two million.
A more honest estimate of ourselves as
a nation would prepare us all for the next barrage of lies that
will accompany the next proposal to inflict our power on some
other part of the world. It might also inspire us to create a
different history for ourselves, by taking our country away from
the liars and killers who govern it, and by rejecting nationalist
arrogance, so that we can join the rest of the human race in the
common cause of peace and justice.
Howard Zinn is the co-author, with
Anthony Arnove, of "Voices of a People's History of the United
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