Howard Zinn on:
A People's History of Antiwar
Socialist Worker Online,
March 7, 2003
With Bush's new Gulf War slaughter looming,
America's rulers are cranking up a patriotic frenzy common to
any war drive. Their goal is simple: To disguise the lies they
tell and to stampede ordinary people into believing they have
a stake in this war.
But that's only one side of it. There
is a long and rich history, hidden from us most of the time, of
people in the U.S. standing up against war--exposing the lies
and rejecting the appeals to patriotism.
Many of these struggles are chronicled
in Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. This
year, A People's History sold its 1 millionth copy--an incredible
achievement for a book that tells a story the ruling establishment
would prefer to conceal.
To celebrate this milestone and to pay
tribute to Zinn, hundreds of people gathered in New York City
at the 92nd Street Y February 23 for an evening of readings--featuring
James Earl Jones, Marisa Tomei, Kurt Vonnegut, Alice Walker, Danny
Glover and others--from Zinn's new book project.
The new book, co-edited by Zinn with Anthony
Arnove, will collect speeches, articles and essays, poetry and
more from people who were part of the struggles chronicled in
A People's History. The new book will be called Voices of People's
History, and it is due to be published in 2004 by Seven Stories
Press. Here, Socialist Worker reprints some of the excerpts read
at the 92nd St. Y--with brief introductions written by Zinn.
Frederick Douglass, once a slave, became
the brilliant and powerful leader of the anti-slavery movement.
In 1852, he was asked to speak in celebration of the Fourth of
Fellow citizens, pardon me, allow me to
ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I, or
those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are
the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice,
embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?
And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering
to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express
devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence
I am not included within the pale of this
glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the
immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you,
this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance
of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by
your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought
life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me.
This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.
You may rejoice. I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the
grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join
you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.
Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today?
Fellow-citizens, above your national,
tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! Whose chains
heavy and grievous yesterday, are, today, rendered more intolerable
by the jubilee shouts that reach them.
At a time like this, scorching irony,
not convincing argument is needed. O! had I the ability, and could
I reach the nation's ear, I would, today, pour out a fiery stream
of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm and stern
rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not
the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind,
the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the
conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the
nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed;
and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.
The orthodox texts in American history
pay much attention to what was called "a splendid little
war," the victory of the United States in the three-month
long Spanish-American War of 1898. But they slide quickly over
the bloody conquest of the Philippines that went on for years,
which President McKinley said was necessary to "civilize
and Christianize" the Filipinos, and which Theodore Roosevelt
hailed as the newest outpost of the American Empire.
Roosevelt loved war and militarism, and
when the U.S. army massacred 600 Moros on a southern Island in
the Philippines in 1906, Roosevelt congratulated the commanding
general. Here is novelist and essayist Mark Twain's response:
This incident burst upon the world last
Friday in an official cablegram from the commander of our forces
in the Philippines to our Government at Washington. The substance
of it was as follows: A tribe of Moros, dark-skinned savages,
had fortified themselves in the bowl of an extinct crater not
many miles from Jolo; and as they were hostiles, and bitter against
us because we have been trying for eight years to take their liberties
away from them, their presence in that position was a menace.
Our commander, Gen. Leonard Wood, ordered
a reconnaissance. It was found that the Moros numbered six hundred,
counting women and children; that their crater bowl was in the
summit of a peak or mountain 2,200 feet above sea level, and very
difficult of access for Christian troops and artillery. Then General
Wood ordered a surprise, and went along himself to see the order
Gen. Wood's order was, "Kill or capture
the six hundred." There, with 600 engaged on each side, we
lost 15 men killed outright, and we had 32 wounded--counting that
nose and that elbow. The enemy numbered 600--including women and
children--and we abolished them utterly, leaving not even a baby
alive to cry for its dead mother. This is incomparably the greatest
victory that was ever achieved by the Christian soldiers of the
So far as I can find out, there was only
one person among our eighty millions who allowed himself the privilege
of a public remark on this great occasion--that was the President
of the United States. All day Friday, he was as studiously silent
as the rest. But on Saturday, he recognized that his duty required
him to say something, and he took his pen and performed that duty.
This is what he said:
Washington, March 10. Wood, Manila: I
congratulate you and the officers and men of your command upon
the brilliant feat of arms wherein you and they so well upheld
the honor of the American flag. (Signed) Theodore Roosevelt.
I have read carefully the treaty of Paris,
and I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate
the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer,
not to redeemIt should, it seems to me, be our pleasure and duty
to make those people free, and let them deal with their own domestic
questions in their own way. And so I am an anti-imperialist. I
am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.
Helen Keller is presented to American
school children as an extraordinary person who overcame blindness
and deafness and became internationally famous. What our schools
do not say about Helen Keller is that she was a socialist, a radical,
that she opposed war and militarism, that she walked on picket
But she had to deal with charges that
she was incompetent to judge such issues because of her disabilities.
The editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, who had once praised her lavishly,
changed his mind when she declared herself a socialist. She wrote
a letter to the newspaper in response, addressing it: "Poor
Here she speaks in Carnegie Hall, on the
eve of American's entrance into the First World War.
We are facing a grave crisis in our national
life. The few who profit from the labor of the masses want to
organize the workers into an army which will protect the interests
of the capitalists. You are urged to add to the heavy burdens
you already bear the burden of a larger army and many additional
warships. It is in your power to refuse
We are not preparing to defend our country--we
have no enemies foolhardy enough to attempt to invade the United
States. Yet, everywhere, we hear fear advanced as argument for
armament. Congress is not preparing to defend the people of the
United States. It is planning to protect the capital of American
speculators and investors in Mexico, South America, China, and
the Philippine Islands.
Every modern war has had its root in exploitation.
The preparedness propagandists have still another object, and
a very important one. They want to give the people something to
think about besides their own unhappy condition. Every few days,
we are given a new war scare to lend realism to their propaganda.
They are taught that brave men die for
their country's honor. What a price to pay for an abstraction--the
lives of millions of young men; other millions crippled and blinded
for life; existence made hideous for still more millions of human
beings; the achievement and inheritance of generations swept away
in a moment--and nobody better off for all the misery!
Strike against war, for without you no
battles can be fought. Strike against manufacturing shrapnel and
gas bombs and all other tools of murder. Strike against preparedness
that means death and misery to millions of human beings. Be not
dumb, obedient slaves in an army of destruction. Be heroes in
an army of construction.
Eugene Debs led a national strike of railroad
workers in 1894, and spent six months in jail for doing that.
He went into prison a labor leader and came out a socialist. As
leader of the Socialist Party, he ran for president four times.
When the United States entered the First
World War, President Wilson signed the Espionage Act, which provided
long jail terms for anyone who said anything that might discourage
recruitment in the armed forces. Debs spoke against the war and
was arrested for violating the Espionage Act, and his conviction
was upheld unanimously by the Supreme Court, which pointed to
his statement that "the master class has always made the
wars, the working class has always fought them."
Here, at his trial in the fall of 1918,
he is speaking to the court:
Your Honor, years ago, I recognized my
kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was
not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and
I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and
while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there
is a soul in prison, I am not free.
Your Honor, I have stated in this court
that I am opposed to the social system in which we live; that
I believe in a fundamental change--but if possible by peaceable
and orderly means
Standing here this morning, I recall my
boyhood. At fourteen, I went to work in a railroad shop; at sixteen,
I was firing a freight engine on a railroad. I remember all the
hardships and privations of that earlier day, and from that time
until now my heart has been with the working class. I could have
been in Congress long ago. I have preferred to go to prison
I am thinking this morning of the men
in the mills and the factories; of the men in the mines and on
the railroads. I am thinking of the women who for a paltry wage
are compelled to work out their barren lives; of the little children
who in this system are robbed of their childhood and in their
tender years are seized in the remorseless grasp of Mammon and
forced into the industrial dungeons, there to feed the monster
machines while they themselves are being starved and stunted,
body and soul. I see them dwarfed and diseased and their little
lives broken and blasted because in this high noon of Christian
civilization, money is still so much more important than the flesh
and blood of childhood. In very truth, gold is god today and rules
with pitiless sway in the affairs of men.
I am opposing a social order in which
it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is
useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars,
while millions of men and women who work all the days of their
lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.
This order of things cannot always endure.
I have registered my protest against it. I recognize the feebleness
of my effort, but, fortunately, I am not alone. I can see the
dawn of the better day for humanity. The people are awakening.
In due time, they will and must come to their own.
Martin Luther King Jr.
In the great national campaign against
the war in Vietnam, young Black people in the Southern civil rights
movement were among the first protesters, and in 1967, Martin
Luther King Jr., against the advice of more conservative black
leaders, spoke out powerfully against the war.
I am convinced that if we are to get on
the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo
a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift
from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented"
society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property
rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets
of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
A true revolution of values will soon
cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past
and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the
Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial
act. One day, we must come to see that the whole Jericho road
must be transformed, so that men and women will not be constantly
beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway.
True compassion is more than flinging
a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes
to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring
contrast of poverty and wealth.
With righteous indignation, it will look
across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing
huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to
take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment
of the countries, and say: "This is not just." It will
look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and
say: "This is not just." The Western arrogance of feeling
that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from
them is not just.
A true revolution of values will lay hands
on the world order and say of war: "This way of settling
differences is not just." This business of burning human
beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans
and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of
people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody
battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged,
cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that
continues year after year to spend more money on military defense
than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
A Gulf War resister
Early in 1991, President George Bush Sr.
sent American troops into Iraq, presumably to liberate Kuwait
from the control of Saddam Hussein--more likely to assure American
power in the oil-rich countries of the Middle East. The government
had learned from the Vietnam experience that an antiwar movement
must not be allowed time to develop, that U.S. casualties must
be kept low, and that information about the war must be controlled.
A massive air attack quickly defeated the forces of Saddam Hussein,
and the American people were kept ignorant of the large numbers
of casualties among Iraqi civilians.
Nevertheless, a protest movement developed,
and there were refusals among the military to participate in the
war. A Navy Reserve corpsman named James Lawrence Harrington wrote
to his Commander:
There comes a time in life when maintaining
silence is but a betrayal of one's own spiritual core of being.
Such a time has come, and I must declare from the expansion of
my heart and over the limited sphere of my mind, that I am a conscientious
objector opposed to any and all wars. The power and command of
my faith dictates that I work diligently and completely to stop
war. To this end, do I dedicate the efforts of my life.
I do not hold that the absence of participation
in war is itself a peace. Through the power of the people, peace
is an active force that can and must spread to all nations, including
our own. Our nation suffers from a deep malady in its consciousness
that leads it down the path of continual violence and strife.
I seek not only to stop this impending war in the Persian Gulf,
but to also treat our own profound sickness.
War is but a symptom of a greater concern.
I prescribe the treatment of a radical revolution within our nation
from that of a "thing"-oriented society to a "person"-oriented
community. We must learn to love and respect all people for the
sake of divinity and basic goodness that dwells within them.
When we deny people the rights to exist
and to self-determination, we are assuring our own self-destruction.
In order to save my nation and in order not to betray my own soul,
I take this open stance of opposition to all wars.
This excerpt comes from the first pages
of A People's History of the United States.
My viewpoint, in telling the history of
the United States, is that we must not accept the memory of states
as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been. The
history of any country, presented as the history of a family,
conceals fierce conflicts of interest. And in such a world of
conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of
thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side
of the executioners.
Thus, in that inevitable taking of sides
which comes from selection and emphasis in history, I prefer to
try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint
of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the
slaves, of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women
in the Lowell textile mills, the conquest of the Philippines as
seen by black soldiers on Luzon, the postwar American empire as
seen by peons in Latin America. And so on, to the limited extent
that any one person, however he or she strains, can "see"
history from the standpoint of others.
My point is not to grieve for the victims
and denounce the executioners. Those tears, that anger, cast into
the past, depletes our moral energy for the present. And the lines
are not always clear. In the long run, the oppressor is also a
victim. In the short run, the victims, themselves desperate and
tainted with the culture that oppresses them, turn on other victims.
Still, understanding the complexities,
this book will be skeptical of governments and their attempts,
through politics and culture, to ensnare ordinary people in a
giant web of nationhood pretending to a common interest. I will
try not to overlook the cruelties that victims inflict on one
another as they are jammed together in the boxcars of the system.
I don't want to romanticize them.
But I do remember (in rough paraphrase)
a statement I once read: "The cry of the poor is not always
just, but if you don't listen to it, you will never know what
Howard Zinn page