Howard Zinn on A People’s History of American Empire

Howard Zinn

It is unlikely that 20 years ago, when Howard Zinn's magnum opus A People's History of the United States: 1492-Present was published, that anyone thought it would sell close to two million copies and spawn an entirely new historiography. Today, though not quite a household name, spry octogenarian Zinn is a much in-demand lecturer, criss-crossing the country, speaking to crowded halls and auditoriums and continuing his life-long commitment to social justice activism.

Zinn’s radically revisionist analysis of history from the grassroots up is of a piece with his support 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 around the planet, 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.

In this, my fourth or fifth public conversation with him, Zinn talks about whether he has changed his views and shares his thoughts on the upcoming election and the newly published graphic/comic A People’s History of American Empire with historian Paul Buhle, and cartoonist Mike Konopacki. A shorter version of this conversation appeared in Vice Magazine as “Zinn and the Art of History Maintenance.”

Robert Birnbaum: What ever happened to the HBO project?

Howard Zinn: [chuckles] The famous HBO project. Well, before the HBO project here was the Fox project, you see. And this must have been about ten years ago. And what happened is that a vice president of Fox had read A People’s History in college and then her bosses at Fox Television on the West Coast asked her to find a good series for Fox, a documentary series. She immediately thought of A People's History. And then she was having dinner with an agent and told him about it. He immediately called me. So I get a call from somebody I didn’t know. He says, “Fox Television is interested in doing a documentary series based on A People’s History and I’d like to be your agent.” I said, “OK.” And Fox doodled with it for two years. One of the reasons they were interested was that his agent cleverly brought Matt Damon and Ben Affleck into the picture and Chris Moore with me, the four of us as executive producers. Of course, [Fox was] attracted by the names. Aside from this vice president, probably none of them knew the book. Anyway, Fox fooled around with it for a couple of years. Then dropped it. My theory is that finally Rupert Murdoch read the book [both laugh] and they dropped the project. I doubt it. He probably hasn’t read a book for years. Whereupon Chris Moore, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and I—they flew me out to LA. The four of us visited three television networks: ABC, TNT, HBO. Affleck pitched the story of a documentary to all three and they all wanted it. We had a choice, we chose HBO. HBO diddled with it for two years. Actually hired three script writers—which we chose—John Sayles, to write something on the Lowell mill girls, Howard Fast to write something on the American Revolution and Paul Laverty (who works with Ken Loach) to write something about Bartolomé de Las Cases. They wrote scripts. HBO turned them down. And that was the end of the project.

RB: Wow.

HZ: Now—for the first time it has a real chance of being done. More than a chance. It will probably be done. Chris Moore, who is an experienced Hollywood producer, decided that he is going to do it. And so he is raising the money—it is a two-and-a-half-million-dollar budget. And he has already spent a good part of it organizing these performances which took place in Boston in early January where we have quite well-known actors reading the voices of historical figures like Frederick Douglas, [Henry David] Thoreau and [Eugene Victor] Debs and Helen Keller and Emma Goldman and mutinous soldiers of the American Revolution and so we had coming to Boston for a few days to do these performance at the Emerson Majestic Theater: Josh Brolin, Viggo Mortensen, and Danny Glover, Marisa Tomei, Kerry Washington, others, David Strathan, and they read these pieces from history to audiences of a thousand people at each performance. And Chris Moore had twelve cameras in the theater, and the result is we have fifteen hours or so of film, which will be edited down into four hours of television.

RB: This is different than when it was first proposed. This is no longer a docudrama—

HZ: That’s right, this is nonfiction. This is real. What was envisioned before by Fox and HBO were feature films based on incident—which, when you think about it, is a very difficult thing to do. I am happier with the present situation because, one, when you start to fictionalize history, you are in great danger for moving away from what the historian intended to do. You are caught up in the story, the drama, you sensationalize it, distort it. And so, here, where I have final say over the script, I feel very confident that what will come out will reflect my views on American History. Which means what will come will be an in-your-face [both laugh] radical history in which we feature dissenters and troublemakers and visionaries and socialists and anarchists, and if television is put off by that, well that’s too bad. It’ll be a DVD. But right now they are editing the material and preparing to show it at the Berlin Film Festival. They’ll be showing it at Cannes in May and it's—to put it in Hollywoodese terms—“It’s a go.”

9780805087444RB: Interestingly enough, in the coming months there will be yet another iteration of the People’s History: the People’s History of the American Empire, a graphic novel.

HZ: Yes.

RB: And I had to reminds me of a Mel Brooks line in one of his later films, about how they were marketing something and, in exploiting the brand, he suggested forthcoming bed sheets and towels—how many iterations of the People’s History can there be?

HZ: Well, you are reflecting the exasperation of my wife. Every time someone comes up with one of these things, she says, “Please, enough, enough of the People’s History.” Someone wants to do an animation. Some animation group in Canada wants to do an animated People’s History, like The Simpsons. And sure, as you pointed out, there is this graphic history. They used to call them comic books. Do you remember Classic comic books? They were good. I remember reading A Tale of Two Cities as a comic book. So this graphic history will come out in April.

RB: It's entitled A People’s History of the American Empire, a bolder statement than the original—and it effectively weaves your biography into the presentation.

HZ: When I first looked at his [Mike Konopacki’s] portrait of me, I said, “Hey!” [both laugh]

RB: Real photos are included—there is one of you and your parents.

HZ: Yes, actual photographs.

RB: Like Ken Burns.

HZ: He’s very good—Mike Konapacki. Before this, he did labor cartoons for labor newspapers—

RB: Plural? There are still labor newspapers?

HZ: Yes.

RB: Anyway, there is a volume called Voices of A People’s History and a CD of recordings.

HZ: Which Anthony Arnove and I put together. It’s a spinoff—we started with little nuggets of quotations. The People’s History is really full of little juicy paragraphs of quotes and we decided to expand on that and have a book of the words of these historical figures. So Voices is a substantial book including about 200 documents. Instead of having a few sentences from Las Casas, we’ll have two pages of him. We have a whole speech by Emma Goldman on patriotism. And it goes from Christopher Columbus right up to the Bush Administration and the so-called War on Terror and the Iraq War. One of the last documents in it is an Iraq [war] veteran, returning from Iraq, and he turns against the war. That has been used as the basis for readings that have taken place in various parts of the country in LA and New York for five years now. We started in 2003 at the 92nd Street Y with readings by James Earl Jones.

RB: Was that an anniversary of the book's publication?

HZ: What it was, was a celebration by Harper Collins of the one-millionth copy sold of the People’s History. We had a wonderful lineup of readers. We had Kurt Vonnegut and Alice Walker. It was a lot of fun.

RB: And I saw A People’s History of Sports coming out.

HZ: That’s right. It turns out I am the general editor—something I never wanted to be—a general editor. A general editor being someone who really doesn’t do anything.

RB: Like an executive producer.

HZ: That’s right. The New Press, they do a lot of good books, and they decided—another example of people deciding—they look at the People’s History, “My God it sold a million copies, what can we do with this?” [laughs] Some editor at The New Press, probably André Schiffrin, decided, let’s do a bunch of People’s History of this and that—People’s History of Molasses. So they said, will you be general editor of this series? I said, I don’t want to be a general editor of anything. But then they showed me the first volume, which had come to them—A People’s History of the American Revolution.

RB: By Ray Raphael.

HZ: Have you ever talked to him?

RB: No.

HZ: He’d be an interesting guy to interview.

RB: He lives on the West Coast, I think.

HZ: He lives up on the very northern part of California, a little town. He is not a professional historian. He is not an academic. But he is a wonderful researcher. And it's interesting how he can live in this little town with this little library and, through the interlibrary loan and the Internet, he has all this material pouring into his house, and he does wonderful research. So when I read the People’s History of the American Revolution, I said, “Wow, this is good. Okay.” We have that. We have A People’s History of the Civil War out. There will be A People’s History of Sports [in the United States], which you mentioned. A People’s History of Art in The United States. [laughs] They have already done A People’s History of the Roman Empire.

Howard Zinn

RB: Who is doing revisionist history today? Eric Foner?

HZ: Yes.

RB: Gordon Wood?

HZ: I wouldn’t call Gordon Wood a revisionist historian. Wood does write about the American Revolution but takes a very different point of view than Ray Raphael. Alfred Young, who is the dean of historians of the American Revolution and who wrote a very critical essay about Gordon Wood—he sees Wood writing about the Revolution from the standpoint of the Great Man. There are a number of people who write about that period who love to write about John Adams and Jefferson and so on, but there are people who write about it for A People’s History point of view. And Alfred Young has done several volumes. Let me broach an interesting thing about the American Revolution, if you don’t mind. You don’t mind if your interviewee broaches interesting things?

RB: Not at all.

HZ: As opposed to the boring things that the interviewee has been talking about. [both laugh]

RB: Knock yourself out.

HZ: I am waiting for somebody to write a book about the American Revolution questioning the justice of the American Revolution. In another words, asking, "Was this really a justified war?" There are there holy wars in American History—the Revolutionary, the Civil War and World War II. People are willing to say that the Mexican War was imperialist—

RB: Now they are.

HZ: That's right. And the Spanish American War and Vietnam. But there are holy wars. Untouchable, you know. Ken Burns does the Civil War and then he does the WWII.

RB: Called it The War.

HZ: And there is nothing revisionist about that. I think it is worth questioning the justice of those wars. It’s a complicated moral issue. You might say Vietnam is easy. Iraq is easy. And the Mexican War is easy. And there are no wars which are more morally complicated. But the fact that there are morally complicated wars shouldn’t stop us from examining them. And the American Revolution, in terms of casualties, the bloodiest of wars. A lot of people don’t recognize that. There were only three million people in the colonies at that time. I’ll put it another way. It ranks with the Civil War as—

RB: Percentage of casualties against the total population.

HZ: Yes, and the question is as questions in all of these holy wars: Could the same objective have been accomplished, independence from England, ending slavery, defeating Fascism—could those have been accomplished 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 Indians, at the expense of the Native Americans. What it did, the English had set a line, the Proclamation of 1763, you couldn’t go beyond it, into Indian territory. They didn’t want trouble with the Indians. Independence from England takes place, the Proclamation of 1763 is wiped out. The settlers are free to move into Indian territory. Black People—most of them joined the British side rather than the American side. It was not a revolution for them. And the question I haven’t seen asked... Canada won its independence from England without a bloody war...Conceivable? It’s like asking the question about the nature of the Civil War. Slavery was abolished in all of the countries of Latin America by 1833. Without a bloody civil war. 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 and should at least be opened up.

RB: I thought you were going to address who were the beneficiaries of the American Revolution.

HZ: That’s another issue. Another aspect of it. Because the constitution that came out of the American Revolution was a constitution that benefited the slaveholders, the merchants, the bondholders. It's interesting that the Constitution is looked upon in romantic terms—as it always has been in the United States. What people think of when they think of the Constitution is the Bill of the Rights. That’s the nicest thing about the Constitution. The Bill of Rights was not in the original Constitution, The Founding Fathers did not want a Bill of Rights. They only put a Bill of Rights in when there was protest and reaction. And what a lot of people don’t understand, and this goes to your point about who benefited from the Revolution—the soldiers who fought in the Revolution did not benefit from the Revolution.

RB: Ergo the famous Shay’s Rebellion.

HZ: Exactly.

RB: Actually, not so famous.

HZ: What is Shay’s Rebellion? It’s a question on a multiple-choice test. [laughs] You ask people about Shay’s Rebellion—“Oh yeah, Shay’s Rebellion.” What do you know about it? “Nothing.” There is a connection between Shay’s Rebellion and the Constitution, which the traditional history books never talk about. They will mention Shay’s Rebellion and of course they will talk about the Constitution and the Founding Fathers. They will not say that the Constitutional Convention was animated by the rebellions in Massachusetts and other places, and those rebellions caused the Founding Fathers to decide to get together in Philadelphia and draw up a document that would create a national government strong enough to deal with rebellions like this. And you have General Knox writing to Washington before the Constitutional Convention, saying, “These soldiers of the revolution come back and they think because they fought in the revolution they deserve an equal share of the wealth of this country.”

RB: The nerve. [both laugh]

HZ: I remember learning in school—Oh the Constitution was a great thing. The Articles of Confederation—that was weak. The Constitution gave us a strong country. It gave strength to a country, which would now be strong enough to put down troubles.

RB: Are the writers like McCullough and Joseph Ellis and Brookhiser, are they historians?

HZ: [laughs] Are they historians? Ellis is a historian.

RB: Are they writing history?

HZ: They are writing history. From my point of view they are writing superficial history, but, sure, they are writing history. I do believe—McCullough is a very colorful writer and some of his work has been really good—the history of the Panama Canal. But I think it is important for historians not to draw a line about their profession and to say we are historians, and somebody like McCullough is a popularizer. I am all for popularizing—it depends on how you do it.

RB: That’s why I didn’t want to talk about him as a historian but whether he was doing legitimate history or hagiography.

HZ: When McCullough writes about Truman, a biography of Truman, it passes very lightly over Hiroshima and Nagasaki--worse than passes over lightly it. He seems to justify it by repeating Truman’s defense of the bombing and not doing any critical examination of it. And no critical examination of Truman’s prosecution of the Rosenbergs and refusal to do anything about the Rosenberg case. And even in his book on John Adams, he [McCullough] passes very lightly over the Alien and Sedition Acts. So it’s not the fact of popularizing, which is fine. Hoard Fast popularized history in his novels but he did it in a meaningful and important way. But, sure, I welcome non-professional historians. I remember Barbara Tuchman, who wrote the book 1914, about World War I. Not a professional historian but a very good historian, a colorful and very fine writer. People like her and Ray Raphael should be welcomed for what they do.

RB: I asked you because there seems to be a continuation of the mythology of the godly heavenly mandate that seems to accrue to the Founding Fathers. They seem to have a halo around them—

HZ: Exactly. The unfortunate thing about it is not just that it is a misreading of history and a distortion of the actual role these slave holders and wealthy people played in putting down the poor and so on. Not just a misreading. What it does—and to me this is most important—how you deal with the past, what effect it has on the present. When you have hagiography about figures of the past, what you are doing is creating in the public an inclination to trust your leaders of the present and to look upon them as important and not questioning them. I remember during the Vietnam War, people saying, “Well, he’s the president of the United States—"

RB: He knows what he is doing.

HZ: Even in the recent war, Dan Rather, a presumably intelligent news commentator, saying, “Well, he’s my commander-in-chief and what he says goes.”

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

HZ: Well, it's better than it used to be. And still not adequate. Lets’s put it this way: a critical and a people’s history—paying more attention to native Americans and women and working people and so on—that has made inroads in the teaching of history which didn't exist before.

RB: Have any public school systems adopted your book as a text?

HZ: Yes, yes, whole departments, whole schools. Actually, as I think of it, more private than public schools. I guess simply because private schools have more freedom than public schools. They are not subject to state legislatures and politicians and so on. But even in public schools, my book has been used more and more. This is a relatively new development. When the book first came out, it—is there such a thing as a libro non grata?

RB: Sure, usually they are burned. [both laugh]

HZ: Yes, but now I am a little worried about the book's respectability.

RB: Have you changed your mind about anything or things in the last decade?

HZ: [chuckles]

RB: Do you see things differently at all?

HZ: [long pause] That’s a good question. I suppose we all should be examining ourselves all the time to see if we still hold the same views. Maybe all I can say is 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, the anarchist distrust for government—as more history parades itself before us, the more events come into our view—the anarchist distrust of government seems to me more and more legitimate. After Jean Paul Sartre died, and there were a lot of recollections of Sartre and so on, and someone who interviewed him just before...I was thinking about Sartre being interviewed just before he died and I became worried that you are interviewing people just before they die. [both laugh] Which is a very common thing in oral history. It's triage—you think, "Who am I going to interview first?" and decide to interview the oldest first. No, you don’t think that.

RB: I did have Kurt Vonnegut on my list of future conversations.

HZ: You missed out. One of my great fortunes was to become friends with Kurt Vonnegut in the last ten years. By the way, they are making a film--a documentary group in Chile is making a film--about Kurt Vonnegut.

RB: Makes you wonder why an American group wouldn’t hop on that idea immediately?

HZ: That’s right.

RB: There is a new Vonnegut anthology forthcoming and his son has written the introduction.

HZ: You know his son wrote a memoir about his own mental illness?

RB: No.

HZ: He might be interesting to talk to. He lives in Milton, I think. He’s a physician. He’s a schizophrenic and wrote a book about it, and he came out of and went to Harvard Medical School.

RB: Amazing—we were talking about Sartre.

HZ: I’m sorry. I was saying, we started out with you asking me if I had changed my views and somebody asked Sartre, in retrospect on his life, “Do you have any regrets about the positions that you took?” Sartre replied, “I wasn’t radical enough.” [both laugh]

RB: He was an admirer of the Soviets, called a Stalinist apologist.

HZ: He was. That’s one of the things that caused a break between him and Camus. When he said, "I wasn’t radical enough," I don’t think he meant, "I wasn’t Communist enough." I think he meant, on the other hand, that it was more radical to recognize the limits of Communism—to be a true Communist, a true radical.

RB: Because the people’s history unfolds the stories of the marginalized and oppressed, the backlash of resentment against so-called political correctness—when you have a litany of stories about women and ethnicities and all manner of sexual identities, that is dismissed as politically correct—has that subsided?

HZ: There will always be a clash, a continuing clash, between the defenders of traditional history and those who are writing a more radical and critical people’s history. I still keep getting criticism—the work is not objective, you are biased. You saw the [negative] review of A Young People’s History—talking about offshoots—soon there will be A Baby’s History. [laughs]

RB: This book, A People’s History of the American Empire, ends with you pronouncing your great optimism, despite much evidence to the contrary, about humanity triumphing. One wonders, is it a skeptical view or a cynical view, who would offer it’s the grandeur of the American system to allow us our illusions? [Herbert] Marcuse called it “repressive tolerance,” I think. Was it [Emile] Zola or Anatole France who commented, “It’s the grandeur of Prussian law that the nobleman as well as the vagrant will be arrested for sleeping under the bridge”?

HZ: This whole issue of optimism and pessimism, cynicism and utopianism—these issues will always be with us. Always you can draw up this double list. Always. You can draw up this double list you started to draw up, which is a terrifying list which shows we are still going to stupid wars and still violating people’s liberties and all of that is true. You can’t deny it. On the other hand, you can also draw up a list which says there is a greater consciousness today in this country about the rights of women than there was twenty years ago. There is a greater consciousness of people to sexual privacy. A greater consciousness about that. And the problem is—and there is a greater consciousness of the futility of war–it’s a consciousness which can be set aside when [there’s] a fusillade of propaganda from the government and it’s echoed by the press, and that’s what happened in the Iraq war. But when people begin to learn facts and the information somehow makes its way even through the major media, then people’s minds change. As they have changed. And the problem is, of course, that the changing of minds and the growing of consciousness does not immediately change policy. We have the same policy going on, but under the surface, consciousness changes. My optimism, if that’s what you want to call it, which is not an optimism for the short term but for the long term, it's based on the thought that when consciousness develops at a certain point, it will break through that ceiling and something will change. In the way that we have seen change take place in other parts of the world. Where, apparently, all-powerful governments have been toppled by popular protest. Not that these popular uprisings have therefore lead to wonderful societies. They show the possibility that power can be dislodged when enough people become indignant and angry. As they did in the Soviet Union. What happened in the Soviet Union was that under the sheet of total control that the Communist Party exercised, there was a consciousness that grew—samizdat and cultural change, murmurs of rebellion and more and more contact with the outside world--and at a certain point it broke through. Now, of course, what has happened in [the former] Soviet Russia is not something admirable and yet we have at least a suggestion that things can change and that power is not always apparent—that the normal requisites of power, the military power, money, secret police and so on—are not sufficient to hold back change when enough people become aroused. South Africa is a case in point. Where a remarkable change took place with the ending of apartheid there. Now the change that has taken place is not the best possible solution for the people of South Africa.

RB: We can make the same claim about Iran and the overthrow of the Shah.

HZ: There was revolution in Iran […]—whoever holds power in Iran there is a different consciousness than there was with the Shah. Their revolution set ideas in motion, which are still operative in Iran, below the surface of who is holding power. This comes back to a question that you asked earlier, that is, Have I changed my mind about anything? If I have changed my mind about anything, it is about the timetable of progress. That is, that those of us who have some hope for the future--maybe I’ll use the word 'hope' instead of 'optimism' (hope is not as confident a statement as optimism)--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 assumed. We can’t expect that big changes will happen in our lifetime.

RB: But in some cases we face a deadline—as with global warming.

HZ: That’s true.

RB: And at one point we faced strong possibilities of nuclear war, and the issue of proliferation even now haunts the moment.

HZ: Nuclear warfare is still a threat. And you are right about global warming, which doesn’t allow the luxury of waiting. And it’s a race and, I suppose, maybe the best justification for hope and optimism is a pragmatic one—it is more useful to be hopeful. At least it gives us some energy, give us a better chance in this race. Because it is a race.

zinn08 4RB: Speaking of races, it is an election year. We will have a regime change of sorts. What do you see at play in the presidential campaign of 2008?

HZ: One of the things that has happened in 2008 that did not happen in 2004 is that in 2004, although we had already been at war for a year and a half, the Democratic candidate, Kerry, did not take a clear antiwar stance. The Democratic candidates, even though the details are murky, they have said, we are going to get us out of the war. Hillary Clinton says, “I’m going to take us out of Iraq.” They may not say exactly when but all have said they were going to end the war. So we have made some progress since the last election. There has been some recognition of the change in public opinion about the war. More recognition about the stupidity and futility and failure of the war. And that’s a good thing. I don’t recall in the 2004 election that anybody came forward very strongly with the idea of universal health care. It was not a major issue. In fact in the election of 2004 it was very hard to find a major issue that was presented in a clear way. Which is one of the reasons that the Democrats lost. Now, all the Democrats came forward with plans for what they call universal health care, which are better than anything proposed previously, even though they are not the best kind of plans. So I see some progress made, I am hopeful that whoever the Democratic candidate is, the Republican administration will be ousted in the next election. I say this not on the basis of enormous enthusiasm for the Democratic candidates but on the basis of an enormous distaste in the country for what has been going on so far—the war and everything connected with this administration. So I am hopeful for this election, although even assuming that a Democrat is elected, whether Clinton or Obama, I don’t expect there will be a radical change. I don’t expect them to immediately get out of Iraq, I don’t expect them to immediately institute what we need as a health plan—we really need a single-payer system health plan. But I do expect that they will be more open and sensitive to the popular currents swirling around in the country. The Republican administration has been totally deaf to whatever the people have been saying in the country. They have been going their own way. They have felt very confident that they can do whatever they want and not listen to anything that the public is saying. I think that the Democratic candidates will at least [have] the advantage of being more sensitive to public opinion.

RB: 2004 was about so called moral issues--which any number of people, Thomas Frank in What’s Wrong with Kansas, for example--explained why working people voted against their own real interests.

HZ: The moral issues came to the fore because there was a vacuum in other areas. And because what you are calling people’s own interests were not really appealed to. And their interests were not really identified and described by the candidates in such a way as to make people aware that their interests were being jettisoned. But, as always, I don’t think we are going to see the kind of changes we need coming from the White House unless there is a rising popular movement. My hope is that there is such a movement growing. That more and more people are becoming aware of the environment. And more and more people are fed up with wars and that the new president will be open to this.

RB: Thank you— always a pleasure.

Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing

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