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The History Issue

Zinn And The Art Of History Maintenance

Though not quite yet a household name, as historians and public intellectuals go, Howard Zinn has in the last few years become increasingly present in the public eye (whatever that is).

by Robert Birnbaum
02 May 2008, 12:00am

Though not quite yet a household name, as historians and public intellectuals go, Howard Zinn has in the last few years become increasingly present in the public eye (whatever that is). Though it is safe to say that some 20 years ago, when his magnum opus A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to the Present was published, it was unlikely that anyone thought it would sell over a million copies and spawn an entirely new historiography.

In addition to employing a radically revisionist analysis of history from the grassroots up, Zinn has also been a lifelong activist for various progressive movements and causes—from labor, to civil rights, to Vietnam, to the women’s liberation movement. He unflinchingly protested the American imperial adventures that have taken place everywhere from Cuba to Chile to Haiti to Grenada to Panama to Nicaragua, and, of course, Iraq, and his refusal to sequester himself in the proverbial ivory tower of the academy is a story delightfully related in his autobiography
You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train. The spry octogenarian with the craggy movie-star looks still crisscrosses the United States to speak in crowded auditoriums. In this, my fourth or fifth public conversation with him, Howard talks about whether he has changed any of his views and wonders whether the three holy wars of American history—the  Revolutionary War, the Civil War and World War II—were really necessary.

Vice: Is there any one issue you would like to see historians tackle?

Howard Zinn:
I am waiting for somebody to write a book about the American Revolution that questions the justice of it. In other words, it would ask, “Was this really a justified war?” There are three wars in American History that are considered holy—the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War II. I mean, people are willing to say that the Mexican War was imperialist—

Now they are.

That’s right. And the Spanish-American War and Vietnam. But the holy American wars? Untouchable, you know?

They get covered and talked about a lot, but never questioned or criticized.

Right. Ken Burns does the Civil War and then he does WWII.

And he calls it The War. So you think it would be good to look critically at the more unimpeachable wars?

Yes. I think it is worth questioning the justice of those wars. It’s a complicated moral issue. You might say Vietnam is easy to criticize. So are Iraq and the Mexican War. But the American Revolution, in terms of casualties, was the bloodiest of wars. A lot of people don’t realize that. There were only 3 million people in the colonies at that time.

So that’s calculated as percentage of casualties against the total population.

Yes, but the same question in all of these consecrated wars is: Could the same objective have been accomplished, independence from England, ending slavery, defeating fascism, at less than the bloody toll that was taken and without corrupting the moral values of the victors in the war—and with better outcomes? Those are questions worth asking. The American Revolution won independence from England at the expense of the Native Americans. The English had set a line, by the Proclamation of 1763, that you couldn’t go beyond, into Indian Territory. They didn’t want trouble with the Indians. But then independence from England takes place and the Proclamation of 1763 is wiped out. The settlers are free to move into Indian Territory. And also, most black people at the time joined the British side rather than the American side. It was not a revolution for them.

Interesting—and not the sort of things that are thought about.

These are questions that I haven’t seen asked. Canada won its independence from England without a bloody war.

And what about the Civil War?

Slavery was abolished in all of the countries of Latin America by 1833—without any bloody civil wars. Now, of course, all those situations are different and complicated. All that I am saying is that I think there are questions about history that so far have been untouched and untouchable. They should at least be opened up.

OK, I thought you were going to address the question of who the beneficiaries of the American Revolution were.

That’s another issue, or another aspect of it. The Constitution that came out of the American Revolution benefited the slaveholders, the merchants, and the bondholders. It’s interesting that the Constitution is looked upon in romantic terms—but what people think of when they think of the Constitution is really just the Bill of the Rights. That’s the nicest thing about the Constitution—and it was not even originally in it. The Founding Fathers didn’t want a Bill of Rights. They only put it in when there was protest and reaction.

But to address your point about who benefited from the Revolutionary War, we can certainly identify one group who did not—the soldiers who fought in it.

For example the famous Shays’ Rebellion of 1786 and ’87, in which a militia led by a Revolutionary War veteran attacked, among other targets, an armory in Springfield, Massachusetts.


Actually, maybe it isn’t so famous.

“What is Shays’ Rebellion?” It’s a question on a multiple-choice test. You ask people about Shays’ Rebellion and they say, “Oh yeah, Shays’ Rebellion.” But what do you know about it? Nothing! There is a connection between Shays’ Rebellion and the Constitution that the traditional history books never talk about. They never say that the Constitutional Convention was animated by the rebellions in Massachusetts and other places and that those rebellions caused the Founding Fathers to get together in Philadelphia and draw up a document that would create a national government strong enough to deal with rebellions like this. I remember learning in school something along the lines of, “Oh, the Constitution, what a great thing.”

Are popular history writers like David McCullough, Michael Beschloss, Joseph Ellis, and Richard Brookhiser, in your opinion, really writing history?

They are writing history. From my point of view they are writing superficial history, but sure, they are writing history. McCullough is a very colorful writer and some of his work has been really good, like the history of the Panama Canal. I think it is important for historians not to draw a line about their profession and to say, “We are historians and McCullough is a popularizer.” I am all for popularizing—it just depends on how you do it. When McCullough wrote a biography of Harry Truman, it passed very lightly over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In fact, it was worse than passing over it lightly. He seemed to justify it by repeating Truman’s defense of the bombing and not doing any critical examination of it. Nor was there any critical examination of Truman’s prosecution of the Rosenbergs and his refusal to do anything about their case. Even in his book on John Adams, McCullough passes very lightly over the Alien and Sedition Acts.

There seemed to be a continuation of the mythology of the godly mandate that accrues around the Founding Fathers.

The unfortunate thing about it is not just that it’s a misreading of history and a distortion of the actual role that these slaveholders and wealthy people played in putting down the poor and so on. To me the most important thing about how you deal with the past is what effect it has on the present. When you’re creating a hagiography, a saintliness, about figures of the past, then what you are doing is creating in the public an inclination to trust the leaders of the present and to not question them. I remember during the Vietnam War, people saying, “Well, he’s the president of the United States.” Even in this recent war, we had Dan Rather, a presumably intelligent news commentator, saying, “Well, he’s my commander in chief and what he says goes.”

What is your sense of how history is being taught today?

It’s better than it used to be, but it is still inadequate.

Have you changed your mind about anything you’ve said in the last decade?

Maybe all I can say is that I think my views have become intensified. I am even more persuaded than I was ten years ago that governments are essentially rotten and not to be trusted. To put it another way, as more history parades itself before us, as more events come into our view, the anarchist distrust of government seems to me more and more legitimate. Someone interviewed Jean-Paul Sartre near the end of his life and asked him, “Do you have any regrets about the positions that you took?” Sartre replied, “I wasn’t radical enough.” [laughs]

The People’s History of the American Empire ends with you pronouncing your great optimism, despite all the evidence to the contrary, about the triumph of humanity.

There is a greater consciousness today in this country about the rights of women than there was 20 years ago. There is a greater consciousness concerning rights of sexual privacy. And there is also a greater consciousness of the futility of war. The problem is it’s a consciousness that can be set aside when you have a fusillade of propaganda from the government coming at you and being echoed by the press. But when people begin to learn facts, somehow, even through the major media, people’s minds change. But then, of course, the changing of minds and the growing of consciousness does not immediately change policy. My optimism, if that’s what you want to call it, is not optimism for the short term but for the long term. It’s based on the thought that when consciousness develops to a certain point, it will break through the ceiling and something will change. This comes back to your question about whether I have changed my mind about anything. If I have changed my mind about anything, it is about the timetable of progress. We have to create a longer time frame. We have to assume that it will take a lot longer for things to change than at one time we may have assumed. We can’t expect that big changes will happen in our lifetime.

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Robert Birnbaum
A People’s History of the United States: 1492