American historian and activist
Howard Zinn ponders President-Elect
Obama’s positions on peace and imperial power
by MATT JONES
Few people are as unimpressed with the Bush presidency and the war in Iraq as American social historian, playwright and anti-war activist Howard Zinn. An opponent of U.S. military interventions since Vietnam, Zinn got his distaste for war after running high altitude bombing raids over Europe in World War II. Meeting survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki later convinced him that the disconnect between military decisions and their consequences on the ground inevitably brought with it massive, unnecessary suffering and devastation. He would spend the ’60s and ’70s forging his academic career and agitating against the Vietnam War.
Few people are as unimpressed with the Bush presidency and the War in Iraq as American social historian, playwright and anti-war activist Howard Zinn. An opponent of US military interventions since Vietnam, Zinn got his distaste for war after running high altitude bombing raids over Europe in World War Two. Meeting survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki later convinced him that the disconnection of military decisions from their consequences on the ground inevitably brought with it massive, unnecessary suffering and devastation. He would spend the 60s and 70s forging his academic career and agitating against the Vietnam War.
In 1980, Zinn published his piece de résistance, A People’s History of the United States, a grand survey of everything usually left unsaid in the triumphalism of mainstream American history, from the decimation of native populations during colonization through slavery and up to the invasion of Iraq. But the book doesn’t just dwell on the negative. Zinn’s real strength is as a storyteller, and his book uses anecdotes to tell the stories of slave revolts, strikes by garment workers and anti-conscription riots. The book has now sold over a million copies in its multiple variations, the latest of which is a graphic novel version called A People’s History of American Empire (Metropolitan Books, 2008).
Zinn will be in Montreal next week at the invitation of his Quebec publisher Lux éditeur. The Mirror caught up with him on the phone to talk about the war, the end of the Bush era and the future of the American Empire.
Mirror: So, there’s a new guy moving into the White House. What do you make of that?
Howard Zinn: All of us [in the progressive movement] were really terrified of a McCain victory and with an Obama victory we are cautiously hopeful. Knowing that Obama has a lot of shortcomings in his foreign and domestic policies, there’s a slight opening that could be filled with traditional conservative, old-line Democrats – which would be a disaster – or it could be filled by all those young, enthusiastic Obama supporters rushing into that opening and demanding that Obama not move toward the centre, as he has been doing, but move towards a more progressive agenda.
M: Does this election change anything for the American Empire?
HZ: Not clear yet. The American Empire is something that has been supported and advanced by every president of the United States since the beginning: Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative. So Obama has a very difficult job if he intends to change that. Of course, the time is right for him to change that because the American Empire – after a long, long period of expansion – is now going to start a period of decline. If he is going to go with the flow of history and with the flow of morality then he will speed that decline and call a halt to American military expansion in the world and declare that America does not want to be an imperial power, that America wants to be a peace-loving nation.
M: Can you see him doing that?
HZ: That is a very bold agenda. After all, Obama said we’re willing to withdraw our troops from Iraq – although at a rather slow pace – but he wants to send troops to Afghanistan. Obama talks about having a larger military force. He’s even talked about attacking Pakistan. So Obama does not give the signs that he is someone who is ready to dismantle the American Empire.
M: Do you think there’s a risk the American Left will become complaisant now that there’s a “good guy” in office?
HZ: It’s easier to mobilize people against a government which is obviously terrible, like the Bush administration. On the other hand, when you have an administration which is as Draconian and as threatening as the Bush administration, it also intimidates people and makes them cynical. With somebody like Obama, there’s a possibility that people will sit back and say, well we’ve elected the man we wanted, now let him do what he wants. But there’s also a possibility that when people who have wanted Obama in office in order to get us out of war and in order to make fundamental changes in our economic program, when these people see that there’s no real change then maybe they will be ready to mobilize in a movement that demands such change.
M: What’s next for you?
HZ: I keep writing little pieces, which people can look up on my website: howardzinn.org. I’ve also been working on a television documentary based on A People’s History of the United States. We have socially minded actors, like Danny Glover and Vigo Morres, reading historic documents and we have musicians like Bruce Springstein and Eddie Vedder [doing the music] and there’s commentary by me. We’re now in the editing process, hoping to get something into the Sundance Film Festival next January.
Zinn speaks at UQAM’s Marie-Gérin-Lajoie room (Judith-Jasmin Pavilion: 405 Sainte-Catherine East) on Wednesday November 19 at 7:30 p.m. (doors 6:45 p.m.). Entry is free, but donations will be collected to support activist organizing in Montreal. See www.luxediteur.com for details
Montreal Mirror 13 November 2008