The Use and Abuse of History
from the book
Declarations of Independence
by Howard Zinn
publisher - HarperCollins
[Henry] Kissinger, secretary of state to Nixon, ... surrendered
himself with ease to the princes of war and destruction. In private
discussions with old colleagues from Harvard who thought the Vietnam
War immoral, he presented himself as someone trying to bring it
to an end, but in his official capacity he was the willing intellectual
tool of a policy that involved the massive killing of civilians
Kissinger approved the bombing and invasion of Cambodia, an
act so disruptive of the delicate Cambodian society that it can
be considered an important factor in the rise of the murderous
Pol Pot regime in the country. After he and the representatives
of North Vietnam had negotiated a peace agreement to end the war
in late 1972, he approved the breaking off of the talks and the
brutal bombardment of residential districts in Hanoi by the most
ferocious bombing plane of the time, the B-52.
[Henry] Kissinger's biographers describe his role [in the
bombing of Cambodia]: "If he had disapproved of Nixon's policy,
he could have argued against the Cambodian attack. But there is
no sign that he ever mustered his considerable influence to persuade
the President to hold his fire. Or that he ever considered resigning
in protest. Quite the contrary, Kissinger supported the policy."
We had been brought up to believe that our political leaders
had good motives and could be trusted to do right in the world;
we had learned that the world had good guys and bad guys, good
countries and bad countries, and ours was good. We had been trained
to fly planes, fire guns, operate bombsights, and to take pride
in doing the job well. And we had been trained to follow orders,
which there was no reason to question, because everyone on our
side was good, and on the other side, bad. Besides, we didn't
have to watch a little girl's leg' get blown off by our bombs;
we were 30,000 feet high and no human being on the ground was
visible, no scream could be heard. Surely that is enough to explain
how men can participate in war.
Once in the war [Vietnam], the tensions of combat on top of
the training in obedience produced atrocities. In the My Lai Massacre
we have an extreme example of the power of a culture in teaching
obedience. In My Lai, a hamlet in South Vietnam, a company of
U.S. soldiers landed by helicopter early one morning in March
1968, with orders to kill everybody there. In about one hour,
although not a single shot was fired at them, they slaughtered
about 400 Vietnamese, most of them old people, women, and children.
Many of them were herded into ditches and then mowed down with
One of the American soldiers, Charles Hutto, said later, "The
impression I got was that we was to shoot everyone in the village....
An order came down to destroy all of the food, kill all the animals
and kill all the people ... then the village was burned.... I
didn't agree with the killings but we were ordered to do it.
In May of 1976 the New York Times published a series of articles
in which it lamented the ignorance of American students about
their own history. The Times was pained. Four leading historians
whom it consulted were also pained. It seemed students did not
know that James Polk was president during the Mexican War, that
James Madison was president during the War of 1812, that the Homestead
Act was passed arlier than Civil Service reform, or that the Constitution
authorizes Congress to regulate interstate commerce but says nothing
about the cabinet.
We might wonder if the Times, or its historian-consultants,
learned anything from the history of this century. It has been
a century of atrocities: the death camps of Hitler, the slave
camps of Stalin, and the devastation of Southeast Asia by the
United States. All of these were done by powerful leaders and
obedient populations in countries that had achieved high levels
of literacy and education. ...
In the case of the United States the killing of a million
Vietnamese and the sacrifice of 55,000 Americans were carried
out by highly educated men around the White House who scored very
well in tests and who undoubtedly would have made impressive grades
in the New York Times exam. It was a Phi Beta Kappa, McGeorge
Bundy, who was one of the chief planners of the bombing of civilians
in Southeast Asia. It was a Harvard professor, Henry Kissinger,
who was a strategist of the secret bombing of peasant villages
Going back a bit in history, it was our most educated president,
Woodrow Wilson-a historian, a Ph.D., and a former president of
Princeton-who bombarded the Mexican coast, killing hundreds of
innocent people, because the Mexican government refused to salute
the American flag. It was Harvard-educated John Kennedy, author
of two books on history, who presided over the American invasion
of Cuba and the lies that accompanied it.
What did Kennedy or Wilson learn from all that history they
absorbed in the best universities in America? What did the American
people learn in their high-cschool history texts that caused them
to submerge their own common sense and listen to these leaders?
Surely ... how "educated" someone is, tells you nothing
about whether that person is decent or indecent, violent or peaceful,
and whether that person will resist evil or become a consultant
to warmakers. It does not tell you who will become a Pastor Niemoller
(a German who resisted the Nazis) or an Albert Speer (who worked
for them), a Lieutenant Calley (who killed children at My Lai),
or a Warrant Oflficer Thompson who tried to save them). ...
We do need to learn history, the kind that does not put its
main emphasis on knowing presidents and statutes and Supreme Court
decisions, but inspires a new generation to resist the madness
of governments trying to carve the world and our minds into their
spheres of efluence.