excerpted from

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 in Vietnam.

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 automatic rifles.

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 in Cambodia.

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.


Declarations of Independence