Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States: 1492–Present first came out in 1980, and recently an updated edition has been published. To date, A People's History has sold a million copies. Its author is a historian, a social activist and a playwright. Among the twenty books he has written are: La Guardia in Congress, Disobedience and Democracy, The Politics of History, The Pentagon Papers: Critical Essays, Declarations of Independence: Cross Examining American Ideology, You Can't Be Neutral On A Moving Train (his autobiography), The Zinn Reader, and Marx in Soho. Howard Zinn has won numerous awards, including the Thomas Merton Award, The Eugene V. Debs award, The Upton Sinclair Award and the Lannan Literary Award. He lives in Auburndale, Massachusetts with his wife, artist Roslyn Zinn.
This is the third published conversation between Robert Birnbaum and Howard Zinn.
Robert Birnbaum: What's the publication date of the new edition of A People's History?
Howard Zinn: I don't know if it is officially out yet.
RB: Oh yeah, it is. Here it is [looks at a press release]— the publication date is February 16, 2003.
HZ: Oh, okay.
RB: So we haven't violated any publishing embargo by our talk.
RB: The last time I checked in with you, you told me that there were 800,000 copies of A People's History in print and that was before the 20th Anniversary edition. Where is the total now?
HZ: Well, we reached a million copies, and in fact, I don't know if you knew this, the publisher, HarperCollins, organized a celebration in New York on February 23 to recognize the fact that a million copies had been sold.
RB: Was Rupert Murdoch there? (both laugh)
HZ: Yeah, I think he was sitting there in dark glasses in the audience. Yes, I'm sure…It was held at the 92nd Street Y in New York and there was a huge crowd. We had people from the arts on stage reading the voices of people—fugitives, slaves, and mutinous soldiers and labor people and dissidents of all sorts. We had James Earl Jones, Danny Glover, Alice Walker, Alfre Woodard, Kurt Vonnegut, Marisa Tomei, and my son Jeff. He replaced Ben Affleck, who couldn't come because he was shooting a film on the West Coast. And so Jeff read the words of Arturo Giovannetti, the IWW poet during the Lawrence textile strike who was up on trial for murder and who delivered a wonderful courtroom speech. It was a great evening.
RB: You were not anticipating updating A People's History were you?
HZ: No, I never anticipate updating a book. I don't want to have anything to do with a book once it's done.
RB: (laughs) Yeah.
HZ: You know, enough. But this book has come back to haunt me again and again. The very success of the book has led to my life being too busy. It's good to have a book that flops. Nobody hears about it. Nobody bothers you. Nobody knows about it. But this book has led to all sorts of offshoots. And speaking engagements, of course. And new editions and teaching editions. And now there is going to be a young people's edition. And it led to foreign translations a Spanish edition. It's been translated into a dozen different languages. In fact, it's just been translated into French, and I've been invited to come to give talks in Grenoble and Paris.
RB: Who would have thought it?
HZ: Which I am happy to do. Any excuse to go to Paris, right? So the book has become a kind of monster. (chuckles)
RB: And there is A People’s History series, of which you are the editor?
HZ: Well, yeah. I never wanted to be the editor of a series because that is kind of corporate job. You are not a writer. You are not anything important. But the New Press, which is this independent publishing house in New York run by Andre Shiffrin—they got the idea of putting out a series of books with the name of A People's History— a people's history of this and a people's history of that. They asked me to be the general editor, and I didn't want to do it, and then they sent me the first one …
RB: A People History of the American Revolution…
HZ: By Ray Raphael. And I was so impressed with it. I thought it was so great that I said, "Okay, I'll do it." So Ray Raphael's book came out, and it's the best single volume on the American Revolution that I know of. We now have somebody writing A People History of The Civil War—a guy who teaches at Valdosta State University in Georgia. A real Southerner. Unlike fake Southerners, of whom we have many. People who put on Southern accents. This guy—his name is David Williams, and he has done some wonderful work on the common people of the Confederacy, the people who suffered, the dissidents. People don't know about the number of dissidents in the Confederacy, the number of deserters…the wives back home who rioted because the rich plantation owners were growing cotton instead of food. Because cotton was a cash crop, and food was—well what is food? It's only necessary to feed people. So he's doing this People's History of the Civil War and we are going to have others. Probably A People's History of American Sports.
HZ: Yeah. Because when you think of it, sports is not usually considered to be a political subject, but of course it is. The issues of class and race come into sports in such a big way.
RB: And money.
HZ: And money. Yes, money.
RB: And I hope this is not a sore subject, but what has happened to the cinemafication of A People's History?
HZ: (laughs) The dramatization. 'Cinemafication' is a very good word actually. It should enter our vocabulary. Um, and you are not the first one to embarrass me with this question.
RB: (Both laugh) I could excise this from the transcript if it gets too painful. And then it will be between you and me.
HZ: No, no. Let's have an uncensored tape.
HZ: It’s still alive at HBO. And, in fact, it's at a critical moment right now. Because the very first script which is a script about Columbus and Las Casas, which went through two drafts written by a Scottish writer Paul Laverty, a man who has worked with Ken Loach in England and has written some fine screenplays. He wrote My Name is Joe. Which isn't very well known in this country, but was a very class-conscious film about a Scottish family and then a film about Los Angeles women who cleaned the offices in Hollywood, called Bread and Roses. The films didn't get a lot of attention in this country because they are not Chicago. And so on. But he is a very good screenwriter. He is now turning in his third draft to HBO. This will be it. If HBO likes the draft, a movie will be made and the series will be alive. If HBO doesn't like it, well, goodbye to HBO.
RB: I had heard names like Howard Fast and John Sayles and Paul Lussier…Howard Fast, of course, can't be writing it anymore.
HZ: No, no, very sad. But Lussier replaced Howard Fast. I had a very interesting relationship with Howard Fast. I was introduced to him after thinking he was dead. (Both laugh) That can be embarrassing. I didn't say to him, "Howard, I thought you were dead." Although, I have had that happen to me, actually. This is little parenthetical aside, if you don't mind.
HZ: Noam Chomsky once sent me, forwarded something to me that had been sent to him, by some reader. And the reader wrote to Noam, "Tell me, is Howard Zinn dead?" And Noam forwarded this me and I wrote back to Noam. I said, "Tell this guy, yes. (both laugh) And I promise to do the same for you. And that will save us a lot of trouble."
RB: If he doesn't know, why correct him?
HZ: But anyway. I met Howard Fast three or four years ago at an anti-Hiroshima demonstration in Wellfleet. Every year on August 6 in Wellfleet I have this little Quaker picket line—not picket line, silent vigil. A silent vigil to commemorate the dropping of the bomb and protest against nuclear warfare and this woman came up to me—I was there as part of the vigil. She said, "There is a man sitting there on the bench he wants to meet you. He would like to be on the vigil but he just had a hip operation. And he is sitting on the bench." I said, "Who is that?" She said, "Howard Fast." I didn't immediately say, "I thought he was dead."
RB: Right. (both laugh) But the balloon was there over your head.
HZ: That's right. It was. I went over to him. He said, "I just finished reading your People's History of The United States." Actually you can see a little blurb that he did, a wonderful little comment that he made about the book [on the dust jacket]. So we became…we got to know each other.
RB: You can say friends…
HZ: Yeah, we became friends. And we had coffee the next day and we were in touch and when the issue came up about who would write the episode on the American Revolution. I thought, "Howard Fast, of course." He had even written a book about the very subject that I wanted the Revolution to deal with, and that is the mutinies of soldiers in the Revolutionary Armies. Something we don't learn about in school when we learn about the American Revolution. "Mutinies? Against George Washington? Yes!" I wanted to draw out the class character of the American Revolution represented by the mutinies and represented by Shay's rebellion after the war. And Howard Fast wrote one of his many novels about that. So I persuaded—it wasn't hard to persuade HBO—to let him do the script on the Revolution. He turned in a couple of drafts. They didn't do the trick. A great novelist, a wonderful storyteller, but there is a difference between writing a novel and writing a screenplay.
HZ: And so it didn't quite make it. It was very hard for me to tell him that. So Paul Lussier, who is a very accomplished screenwriter, he wrote this very funny book [Last Refuge of Scoundrels] about the American Revolution. He has written a lot of television. He has turned in the first draft on the American Revolution and if the series goes forward—well then he will be doing the American Revolution.
RB: So, you are waiting.
HZ: We are waiting. In fact, I expect tomorrow to get the copy of the third draft. Just in time for me to take it on a plane with me to California so on a six-hour flight I can read this draft unperturbed. Or maybe perturbed but not disturbed. So that's where we are with it.
RB: Wasn't there some feeling that Affleck and Damon had enough clout to get this made, especially in a system where filmmaking is so star-driven? They aren't actually going to appear in them, are they?
HZ: It's not certain at all what role they will play. Whether they will appear. That was left open. The only thing that was clear was that they were going to be executive producers along with me and Chris Moore. And the fact that you have stars as executive producers is not the same as saying that Ben Affleck is going to play a Revolutionary War soldier.
RB: Or George Washington (both laugh). I assume that your cultural visibility was increased by references to you in Good Will Hunting and you must be aware of the fact that you were mentioned in an episode of The Sopranos.
HZ: I wouldn't have known it because we aren't regular viewers of The Sopranos. In fact, we didn't have HBO. But I got a call from Kurt Vonnegut's wife. I have gotten to be friendly with Kurt Vonnegut these last few years and his wife called and said, "Do you know that your book is there on the table and there is this argument between Tony Soprano and his son?" "No, I didn't know that." But I soon learned about it.
RB: Do you have any sense of what that meant? You know there is a big industry based on product placement in films. Soft drink and auto makers work hard and spend serious money to have their goods in films and TV.
HZ: I could claim, I suppose, that I paid Tony Soprano five dollars.
RB: Was there an uptick in book sales in New Jersey?
HZ: Truth is I don't know. It's hard to tell. Same thing with Good Will Hunting. Because before Good Will Hunting appeared the sales had been going up and up and up. It had been going up steadily every year. A very unusual phenomenon in the publishing world. Maybe after the film there was a blip and after The Sopranos there was a blip. But nothing sensational. It's been a steady upward climb—which is remarkable.
RB: So here we are in 2003 and we have this newly revised edition that takes us just past September 11, 2001 and has a new Afterward.
HZ: It ended in the '70s. So I did cover Carter.
RB: I went back and reread it anyway.
HZ: I am trying to—you say you haven't read it for a while. I haven't read it for a while. (both laugh) It's very embarrassing when you don't know what's in your own book. I know I went in to the '70s but did I go as far as 1977? I'm not sure. Either I missed Carter or just got the beginning of it because in the next edition I did have a chapter on Carter, Reagan and Bush.
RB: That's right. So as I read the section on Carter I came to wonder how he won a Nobel Prize.
HZ: Carter won a Nobel Prize not because of what he did as President but he won it for what he did after he left office. Generally people are better out of office…
HZ: Than they are in office. If power corrupts, then lack of power brings gentleness and kindness and humility. So Carter, when he left office, he became a kind of peacemaker and went around the world and…
RB: Monitored elections and negotiated…
HZ: Yes exactly. He tried to mediate in conflict situations and while he was in office he behaved very traditionally. He had Zbigniew Brzezinski as his foreign policy advisor, who was no dove. While Carter didn't get us into any war he did continue military aid to dictatorships—Indonesia, Iran, Nicaragua. So he wouldn't have deserved a Nobel Peace Prize on the basis of his presidency.
RB: I wonder how he changed so much? And it does seem as if he is cast as glory seeker and a meddler.
HZ: I don't mind somebody being a meddler and a glory seeker, just as long as he seeks glory for the right reasons, for doing good things. That wouldn't bother me about Carter. In fact, anyone who plays a very important and dramatic role in world affairs must have a certain amount of ego and glory seeking. That wouldn't bother me. Did Carter change? I suspect that Carter before he became president was not as aggressive and marshal as he became when he got into the White House and he had to deal with this ongoing military budget and this ongoing foreign policy. I am not trying to exonerate him for that because that does not excuse a President that says, "I inherited this." You can give up your inheritance. I suspect it wasn't a very dramatic change. I suspect he went back to some pre-presidential sensibility.
RB: You quote him as responding to people saying, "This isn't fair," by saying, "Well, life isn't fair." Which suggests a deeper kind of belief or attitude.
HZ: You are right. That was a terrible statement on his part. Was it something that represented a deep belief on his part? Or was it a kind of ad hoc response because he really felt defensive and trapped and had to come up with something? I think it is more like that. He said some unfortunate things like when somebody asked about how we weren't really following through on our promise to help reconstruct Vietnam, after all the damage. He said, "The destruction was mutual." (laughs)
RB: What happened to the peace dividend?
HZ: (laughs) You are the first person who has mentioned that phrase for as long time. It's been forgotten. The peace dividend has been forgotten. It never was real. That is, the peace dividend could only be considered real if you really considered the Cold War real. I don't consider the Cold War real. That is, I consider that Communism played the same role in that period of the Cold War that terrorism plays today. That it was a useful opportunity to do what we wanted to do in foreign policy.
RB: Isn't this the part in the show when people will start calling in with outrage saying that you are suggesting that terrorism is not a real threat…
HZ: No, no. Terrorism is real and Communism was real. The Soviet Union was a real threat to Eastern Europe. It occupied countries in Eastern Europe. And terrorism is a real threat today. The problem comes in when you so exaggerate the threat as to justify doing things that have nothing to do with countering the real threat. And so we intervened in other countries and intervened in Central America. Always claiming we were doing something about world Communism. When what was happening in those countries has virtually nothing to do with world Communism. It had to do with indigenous revolutionary movements that we wanted to suppress because we wanted to control governments. And revolutionary governments would, like Castro's, be reluctant to come under our control. Terrorism is real but how do we react to it? Do we react to it in a way that intelligently examines the roots of terrorism and figures out what we can do about and prevent it? No, it becomes an excuse for us to carry on the expansion of the American Empire. And it's a very handy excuse, just as Communism was a handy excuse. Because they are both real. If they weren't, real it would be harder, you see.
RB: I was struck by your reference to the august George Kennan's reaction to the disintegration of the Soviet Union. That event was expropriated as the triumph of the Cold Warriors and how and Reagan had forced the Soviet Union to spend themselves into destruction. Kennan—a veritable Bible of information on the Soviets—observed our strategy prolonged the life of the Soviet Union.
HZ: Yes, yes. George Kennan probably knows more about the Soviet Union, had more experience with the Soviet Union, was ambassador to the Soviet Union studied the Soviet Union and knew that situation probably better than anybody else. And he thought it was nonsense that Reagan would claim that he was responsible for the disintegration of the Soviet Union. And that, in fact, the winds of change were blowing across the world and into the Soviet Union and there was a certain kind of inexorable movement in the Soviet Union where people became more aware of the outside world, became more impatient with the lives they were living. Became more intolerant of a dictatorship and that happened to coincide with Reagan's presidency. So he took credit for it.
RB: How was it that this—this is editorializing—myth, partisan position continued to be propagated with very little refutation or opposition? This seems to be something that is still claimed and still taken credit for and with no counterclaim. You even quote CIA analysts as saying the Reagan/Bush claims were not factually based.
HZ: It's an interesting question of how myths are propagated and remain very large in the American consciousness. I think it has to do with the power of the government and of a complicit media to maintain these myths. That is, the government persists in saying something and if the government dominates the air waves as it always does—it’s governmental figures that dominate television and screens and even on public television, the people you see most often are White House officials and former White House officials and so the power of the government to maintain a myth is enormous. When the media don't counter, don't play the role of a really critical, scrutinizing journalism, then those myths will be perpetuated. What accounts for the fact that most Americans believe that the Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11, when there is no evidence for it?
RB: It's very peculiar that surveys and polls that I see commented on indicate that those surveyed seem to hold and believe contradictory views. This is something very odd.
HZ: It suggests several things. It suggests we should be wary of polls and suggests that public opinion is volatile. And it suggests that people are capable of contradicting themselves. I remember during the Clinton administration, when the polls showed that people were opposed to welfare. And then they were asked, "Do you believe that the government should help people who are in need?" and they said yes by sixty-five percent.
RB: And so a word is demonized and it loses its meaning.
RB: 'Welfare queens' was a good one. In the last chapter of The new edition of A People's History I came across this:
The American system is the most ingenious system of control in world history. With a country so rich in natural resources, talent, and labor power, the system can afford to distribute just enough wealth to just enough people to limit discontent to a troublesome minority. It is a country so powerful, so big that it can afford to give freedom of dissent to the small number who is not pleased.
There is no system of control with more openings, apertures, leeways, flexibility, rewards for the chosen, winning tickets in lotteries. There is none that disperses it controls more completely through the voting system, the work situation, the church, the family, the school, the mass media—none more successful in mollifying opposition with reforms, isolating people from one another, creating patriotic loyalty.
One percent of the nation owns a third of the wealth. The rest of the wealth is distributed in such a way as to turn those in the 99% against one another: Small property owners against the propertyless, black against white, native born against foreign born, intellectuals and professionals against the uneducated and unskilled. These groups have resented one another and warred against one another with such vehemence and violence as to obscure their common position as sharers of leftovers in a very wealthy country.
It took you a long time to get to such a concise summation of your critique. Why not put that in the Prologue? (both laugh)
HZ: And then forget about the rest.
RB: My point is that I don't recall you saying it exactly that way.
HZ: Oh not exactly that way. When you sit down to write you say things that you never said before. And so I hadn't said it exactly that way before and probably have never said it that way since.
HZ: But there it is.
RB: Those paragraphs I thought were a wonderfully articulated expression of your sense of the fundamental problems of this country. And this is, of course, a great counterpoint to the well-rehearsed response such as "We live in a great country and of course we have problems but it’s the greatest country in history." But these cheers don't acknowledge any anomalies.
HZ: People will say, "What are you complaining about? Look you are speaking. And you are not being arrested." And allows Barbara Ehrenreich and Noam Chomsky and even Michael Moore to speak out but limits us. And [the system] is willing to take the risk that what we say can be controlled that what we say will be limited to a small listening audience, or that what we say—even if we get a large audience—that it will be ephemeral, that it will disappear very quickly. That people will forget, that there will be no sustained dissent of a powerful kind, powerful enough to change the society.
RB: Michael Moore is an example of someone whose persona can obscure his work and his views. I've seen lots of commentary from people who find Moore's advocacy obnoxious. He seems to have obscured his own message. What does that say?
HZ: (laughs) That Academy Award—my wife Roslyn and I had different reactions to it as we watched it—you probably heard he was sort of wild, shouting and gesticulating and waving his arms. I said, "Great that he is breaking into that smug pompous atmosphere of the Academy Awards when everybody is so controlled and uptight and when people have been warned not to say anything political. How refreshing that is." My wife said, "Yes, but he could have said it differently. He could have said the same thing without actually epitomizing what people consider the hysteria of the Left." And that's true. The people on the Left, people who are dissidents really have to think about their style. They have to think about how they appear to people.
RB: Well, there is the calm and reassuring and avuncular and gentle presentation that you offer. No hysteria coming from you.
HZ: (laughs) Well, it's all inside. (both laugh) It's all in my lower intestine. When I am in demonstrations, I don't like people yelling and screaming in demonstrations. I don't like them yelling slogans that have no meaning for people who are on the sides watching. I'd rather have a wild crazy Michael Moore than no Michael Moore at all. But that isn't our only choice. I think we can monitor the way we do things. I remember, before we invaded Iraq but while we were bombing Afghanistan—we had a peace march—my wife and I were marching and of course when you are in a march you never know what banner you are marching under—I remember once in New York, we looked around at a huge anti-nuclear rally in New York in 1982, about a million people demonstrating for a nuclear freeze and my wife and I looked up and saw we were marching under a banner that said "Lesbians From Hoboken Against Nuclear War" (both laugh). And in this recent demonstration that I was telling you about, somebody around us started to chant, "One, two, three, four what do want? Class war!" I thought, "Really?" Maybe I secretly I do want class war but…
RB: That's the shibboleth of the Republicans that progressives are waging class war.
HZ: The Republican line is you mustn't have class war but let's wage it.
RB: This book is continuing its meteoric ascension in the Western canon or at least in the consciousness of right-thinking Americans and now we are once again in a situation that you are very familiar with. The US is engaged in a very unpopular foreign policy initiative and in fact engaged in open hostilities. You have been busy before the Iraq invasion, now what?
HZ: Now I am ferociously busy. I have been speaking, speaking, speaking. Speaking to high schools, community colleges, teach-ins, in the Boston area around the country. I spoke in New York several times recently, Columbia University and at the New School. I spoke, the other day at Emerson College. I am going in a few days to California and Oregon. In April I am going to Minnesota, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee. And I am doing a lot of radio interviews. This to me is very important because often it is only progressive radio stations and alternative radio like Pacifica and David Barsamian's alternative radio and I also do get called on regular—by regular I mean AM call in shows with conservative hosts. I love situations like that because then I am reaching different kinds of people.
RB: Your lectures and appearances, are these instances of preaching to the converted? Aren't these people who are already inclined to agree with you?
HZ: That's a tough question to answer because…where was I recently as an example? Oh, I spoke at a little Catholic college about a week ago near Albany, New York. Siena College. Three thousand students. The faculty who were escorting me to the auditorium said, "Now keep in mind this is a Catholic school, very conservative…”
RB: "Keep it clean." (both laugh)
HZ: …and the kids here are generally pro-Bush." 800 hundred students of the three thousand were in that auditorium. The place was jammed. I gave them my pro-peace, anti-war talk and I got this wonderful standing ovation. So how do I interpret that? Sure it could have been just courtesy. But I interpreted it this way--that there is a certain part if that audience that is already sympathetic with my view. There are other students who maybe are not sure where they stand—and I like to think that I actually have an effect and that they listened to me and it made sense to them. Maybe the best test of that are the high schools that I speak to. I speak to high school assemblies. Here these young people are corralled—you know how high schools are, they are totalitarian institutions. These people are forced at gunpoint in these high schools assemblies. So they are not the converted. And I have been talking to high schools and I get wonderful enthusiastic reactions from high school students. I do believe that there are those that are already converted and those that do not have strong opinions. And if people don't have strong opinions and don't know very much and they may even be in favor of the war but they don't know very much and if they are presented with certain amount of information that they didn't have before or given some questions that they never thought of before, yes it's possible to think differently and have second thoughts. And when I speak on these radio programs I am speaking to audiences out there that I don't know. I don't know what effect I have but I always think of the Vietnam War. I think of how the polls showed at the beginning of the Vietnam War, two thirds of Americans were in favor of the war. Two years later, two thirds of Americans were against the war. Something happened in that period. What happened is that people changed their minds. So I do believe that people can change their minds. Sometimes it takes two years. Sometimes it doesn't take that long.
RB: It seems a lingering or overshadowing issue that Iraq is the first move in a broader policy and strategy. You were on the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour recently.
HZ: On the Lehrer Report…
RB: So much for my television literacy. Is that an issue that is being debated publicly?
HZ: I think that when people begin to think in that way then they begin to worry about the war. What the administration has wanted to do, it's wanted to build an iron curtain—to go back to Churchill's phrase—around Iraq, and keep people focused only on this one spot in the world. And not to think beyond it, and not to think outside it and also not to think back in history. What I try to do, when I talk to audiences, I try to enlarge their view. I say, "Let's look back into back into history. Let's look at other wars. Let's look at other deceptions. Let's look at other claims of how we are fighting for democracy and liberty and to liberate people. Let's look at the history. Let's expand our view longitudinally and then let's expand it laterally. Let's go beyond Iraq and look at the rest of the world. Ask how many other tyrants there are besides Saddam Hussein. Ask how many other countries have weapons of mass destruction. Ask what the United States has been doing with other countries in the world and ask where are we going from here." And as you were saying, it's not just Iraq. I suggest that the reasons given by the administration don't stand up and that what we are really watching is the continuous march of empire—the continuous expansion of the United States starting from the end of the Revolutionary War down to the present day. I think when people begin to get some of that historical perspective, it makes sense to them.
RB: To how many countries has the United States brought democracy?
HZ: (laughs) Well, they always cite Germany and Japan at the end of World War II. And yes they were totally devastated by the war and they were a kind of a vacuum and therefore you might say that the United States helped bring democracy. It was also useful for the United States to get rid of old regimes and to have—and this is important—to have countries that were democracies but that were going to be our allies. This has been the crucial test for the United States, really. Not whether a country is democratic or not. The United States is willing to put up with democratic countries if they play ball.
HZ: So the test has not has it been democratic or a dictatorship but will they play ball? The result is that we have overthrown democratic countries as we did in Guatemala and Chile when those governments didn't please us. That's been the test.
RB: So the answer is perhaps two. Thanks very much, Howard.
HZ: Okay. All right.
© 2003 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing