from Z Magazine,


HOWARD ZINN --One Step Ahead of the Landlord

Boulder, Colorado, November 11, 1992, interviewed by David Barsamian


Howard Zinn, professor emeritus at Boston University, is one of this country's most distinguished historians. Professor Zinn is a decorated World War II bombardier. He was an active figure in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. His seminal book, A People's History of the United States, is widely used in college and university classrooms. His latest book is Declarations of Independence.


I want to know something about your roots, growing up in the projects on the lower east side.


I grew up in the slums of Brooklyn. Not projects. They weren't advanced enough to have projects. I think maybe the first New Deal housing project was in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. But that was too good for us. I grew up in the slums of Brooklyn, a working class family. My parents were European immigrants, factory workers in New York. They met as factory workers. They were Jewish immigrants. My father came from Austria, my mother from Asiatic Russia, Siberia. I remember moving all the time. We were always one step ahead of the landlord. And changing schools all the time. My father struggled, went from job to job, he was unemployed and under WPA. I wanted to get out of the house all the time. Where we lived was never a nice place to be. So I was in the streets a lot. I understand what it's like for kids to live in and prefer the streets. That's how I grew up.


When I got to be college age I went to work in a shipyard and became a shipyard worker for three years. My family needed the money. The East Side came later, after the war. I volunteered for the Air Force and was a bombardier. I got married before I went overseas. After the war my wife and I first lived in Bedford-Stuyvesant in a rat-infested basement. I"m building up my sordid past, trying to evoke tears. We were so happy when we were accepted into the Lillian Wald housing project, a low-income housing project on the east side of New York. We lived there for seven years while I went to school under the GI Bill and to graduate school at Columbia. My wife worked. Our two kids were in nursery school.


What was the language at home? Did you speak Yiddish?


Not me. My parents spoke Yiddish to each other, so I understood it. When they spoke to us they spoke English, nicely accented, with a few Yiddish words thrown in. I never actually used Yiddish, but I still can understand it. Words like "bagel" and "knish."


I remember you telling me about your father being a waiter for many years. He'd work a bar mitzvah and then there'd be no work, and then he'd do a bat mitzvah.


He did a lot of Jewish weddings. In fact, when I was about seventeen he introduced me to it. On New Year's Eve they would be short and the waiters would be able to bring their sons in. They called them "juniors." It was an AFL craft union. Everything was hereditary: the leadership of the union, the jobs, etc. I really hated being a waiter, and I felt for my father. They used to call him "Charlie Chaplin" because he walked like Charlie Chaplin. His feet were flat. They said it was the result of all those years of being a waiter. I don't know if that's true or not, but that was the story. He worked very hard. He was a great fan of Roosevelt during the New Deal. He and a lot of other people who didn't have any jobs any more. People were still getting married, but they weren't paying waiters, so my father worked as a ditch digger with the WPA. My mother had been a factory worker before she was married. When she got married she began having kids, and it was my father's job to support the family.


Was there any kind of intellectual life at home, books, magazines?


No. There were no books or magazines. The very first book I read I picked up on the street. Ten pages were ripped off, but it didn't matter to me because it was my first book. I was already reading, and this was Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar. I'll always remember that. No books at home. However, my parents knew that I liked books and liked to read, so when the New York Post came out with this gift, that if you clipped these coupons and sent in twenty five cents, they would send you a volume of Dickens. So my parents sent away for the whole set of Dickens, the collected works, twenty volumes. I read every single one. Dickens was my first author. Some of them I didn't understand, like The Pickwick Papers. Sometimes I got the humor and sometimes I didn't. I went through them in order. I thought if the New York Post sent you the books in order, somehow they must have a reason for it. So first it was David Copperfield, then Oliver Twist, then Dombey and Son, then Bleak House. When I was thirteen my parents bought me a typewriter. They didn't know about typewriters or books, but they knew I was interested in reading and writing, so they paid five dollars for a remade Underwood No. 5, which I had for a very long time.


I want you to talk about your World War Two bombardier experience. I've heard you discuss it in public lectures, and you write about it. There were two missions in particular that you always mention, one over Pilsen in Czechoslovakia and the other in France in the town of Royan. Why are they so important to you?


These things weren't important at the time. I was another member of the Air Force doing my duty, listening to my briefings before going out on the flight and dropping the bombs where I was supposed to, without thinking, where am I dropping them? What am I doing? Who lives here? What's going on here? I flew the last missions of the war. By then we were well into Germany. We were running out of targets, and so we were bombing Eastern Europe. I dropped bombs on Hungary. I remember the raid on Pilsen. A lot of planes went over. I remember reading about the raid after the war. It was described by Churchill in his memoirs as, Well, we bombed Pilsen and there were very few civilian casualties. Then I was in Europe years after that, sometime in the mid-1960s, in Yugoslavia. I ran into a couple from Pilsen. Hesitantly, I told them that I had been in one of the crews that bombed Pilsen. They said, when you finished the streets were full of corpses, hundreds and hundreds of people killed in that raid. It was only after the war that I began to think about the raids I had been on. The thing about being in the Air Force and dropping bombs from 35,000 feet is that you don't see anybody, human beings, you don't hear screams, see blood, see mangled bodies. I understand very well how atrocities are committed in modern warfare, from a distance. So there I was doing these things.


The raid on Royan was an even more difficult experience for me as I thought about it later. It was a situation where the war was just about over, a few months before the end of the war. We thought we weren't going to fly any more missions, because we had already overrun France, taken most of Germany, there was virtually nothing left to bomb, and everybody knew the war was going to be over in a few weeks. We were awakened at one in the morning, the usual waking up time if you're going to fly at six. It's not like in the movies where you leap out of bed into the cockpit, rev up the engines and you're off. Five boring hours of listening to briefings, getting your equipment, putting on your electrically heated suit, going to the bombardiers' briefing, the officers' briefing, going to eat and deciding whether you eat square eggs or round eggs. They briefed us and told us we were going to bomb this little town on the Atlantic coast near Bordeaux, a town called Royan. They showed it to us on the map. Nobody asked why. You don't ask questions at briefings. To this day I feel ashamed that it didn't even occur to me to ask, Why are we doing this when the war is almost over? Why are we bombing this little French town when France is all ours? There were a few thousand German soldiers holed up near this town, waiting for the war to end, not doing anything, not bothering anybody. But we were going to destroy them.


So twelve hundred heavy bombers were sent over. I didn't know how many bombers were sent. All I knew was my squadron of twelve bombers were going over. I could see other squadrons. It wasn't until later, when I did research into it after the war, that I realized that it was twelve hundred heavy bombers going over against two or three thousand German soldiers. But they told us in the briefing, You're going to carry a different time of bomb in the bomb bay. Not the usual demolition bomb. You're going to carry canisters, long cylinders of jellied gasoline. It didn't mean anything to us, except we knew jellied gasoline would ignite. It was napalm.


It was only after the war that I began to think about that raid and did some research and visited Royan. I went into the ruins of the library, now rebuilt, and read what they had written about it. I wrote an essay about that bombing. It epitomized the stupidity of modern warfare and how the momentum of military machines carries armies on to do the most atrocious things that any rational person sitting down for five minutes and thinking about it would stop immediately. So we destroyed the town, the German soldiers, the French also who were there. In one of my essays I coupled it with the bombing of Hiroshima as two bombings that at the time, I ashamed to say, I welcomed. With Royan it wasn't that I welcomed it, I was just doing it. With Hiroshima I welcomed it because it meant that the war would end and I wouldn't have to go to the Pacific and fly any more bombing missions.


Some years after that, in the mid-1960s, you visited Hiroshima. You had intended to make certain remarks at a gathering of survivors. You weren't able to make those remarks.


It was a terrible moment. A few Americans were visiting Hiroshima every August, an international gathering to commemorate the dropping of the bomb. We were taken to visit a house of survivors, where people who had survived Hiroshima gathered and socialized with one another. They brought this little international group, a few Americans, a Frenchman, a Russian. The Japanese, the survivors, were sitting on the floor. We were expected to get up and say something to them as visitors from other countries. The Russian woman spoke about what the Russians had suffered in the war and how she could commiserate with the Japanese. As I planned to get up and speak, I thought, I don't know what I can say. But I have to be honest. I have to say I was a bombardier, even though I didn't bomb Japan. I bombed people, innocent people, civilians, just as in Hiroshima. So I got up to speak and looked out at the people sitting there. Suddenly something happened to my eyesight, my brain. I saw this blur of people who were blind, with missing arms, missing legs, people whose skin was covered with sores. This was real. That's what these people looked like. I looked out at them and I couldn't speak. In all the speaking I've ever done, nothing like that has ever happened to me. It was impossible. I just stood there. My voice choked up. That was it.


What about the notion of history as a commodity, something that can be bought and sold. Do you accept that?


I once wrote an essay called "History as Private Enterprise." What I meant was that I thought so much history was written without a social conscience behind it. Or if there was a social conscience somewhere in the historian, it was put aside for the writing of history, because writing history was done as a professional duty. It was done to get something published, to get a job at a university, to get tenure, to get a promotion, to build up one's prestige. It was printed by publishers in books that would sell and make a profit. The profit motive, which has so distorted our whole economic and social system by making profit the key to what is produced and therefore leaving important things unproduced and stupid things produced and leaving some people rich and some people poor. That same profit system had extended to that world, which as an innocent young student I thought was a world separated from the world of commerce and business. But the world of the university, of publishing, of history, of scholarship is not at all separated from the profit seeking world. The historian doesn't think of it consciously this way. But there is the fact of economic security that operates in every profession. The professional writer and historian is perhaps conscious, perhaps semi-conscious, or perhaps it has already been absorbed into the bloodstream, is thinking about economic security and therefore about playing it safe. So we get a lot of safe history.


You're fond of quoting Orwell's dictum "Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past."


Orwell is one of my favorite writers in general. When I came across that I knew I had to use it. We writers are real thieves. We see something good and use it, and then if we're nice we say where we got it. Sometimes we don't. What the Orwell quote means to me is a very important observation that if you can control history, what people know about history, if you can decide what's in people's history and what's left out, you can order their thinking. You can order their values. You can in effect organize their brains by controlling their knowledge. The people who can do that, who can control the past, are the people who control the present. The people who would dominate the media, who publish the textbooks, who decide in our culture what are the dominant ideas, what gets told and what doesn't.


Who are they? Who are the guardians of the past? Can you make some general comments about their class background, race?


They are mostly guys, mostly well off, mostly white. Sometimes this is talked about as the history of rich, white men. There's a history which is done by rich white men. Not that historians are rich. But the people who publish the textbooks are, the people who control the media, the people who decide what historians to invite on the networks at special moments when they want to call on a historian. The people who dominate the big media networks, they're rich. Not only are the controls of our information rich and white and male, but they then ask that history concentrate on those who are rich and white and male. That is why the point of view of black people has not been a very important one in the telling of our history. The point of view of women certainly has not been. The point of view of working people is something that has not been given its due in the histories that we have mostly been given in our culture.


You've made the astounding comment that objectivity and scholarship in the media and elsewhere is not only "harmful and misleading, it's not desirable."


I've said two things about it. One, that it's not possible. Two, it's not desirable. It's not possible because all history is a selection out of an infinite number of facts. As soon as you begin to select, you select according to what you think is important. Therefore it is already not objective. It's already biased in the direction of whatever you, as the selector of this information, think people should know. So it's really not possible. Of course, some people claim to be objective. The worst thing is to claim to be objective. Of course you can't be. Historians should say what their values are, what they care about, what their background is, and let you know what is important to them so that young people and everybody who reads history are warned in advance that they should never count on any one source, but should go to many sources. So it's not possible to be objective, and it's not desirable if it were possible. We should have history that does reflect points of view and values, in other words, history that is not objective. We should have history that enhances human values, humane values, values of brotherhood, sisterhood, peace, justice and equality. The closest I can get to it is the values enunciated in the Declaration of Independence. Equality, the right of all people to have life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Those are values that historians should actively promulgate in writing history. In doing that they needn't distort or omit important things. But it does mean if they have those values in mind, that they will emphasize those things in history which will bring up a new generation of people who read history books and who will care about treating other people equally, about doing away with war, about justice in every form.


How do you filter those biases, or can you even filter them?


As I've said, yes, I have my biases, my leanings. So if I'm writing or speaking about Columbus, I will try not to hide, omit the fact that Columbus did a remarkable thing in crossing the ocean and venturing out into uncharted waters. It took physical courage and navigational skill. It was a remarkable event. I have to say that so that I don't omit what people see as the positive side of Columbus. But then I have to go on to say the other things about Columbus which are much more important than his navigational skill, than the fact that he was a religious man. That is how he treated the human beings that he found in this hemisphere. The enslavement, the torture, the murder, the dehumanization of these people. That is the important thing.


There's an interesting way in which you can frame a sentence which will show what you emphasize and which will have two very different results. Here's what I mean. Take Columbus as an example. You can frame it, and this was the way the Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison in effect framed it in his biography of Columbus: Columbus committed genocide, but he was a wonderful sailor. He did a remarkable and extraordinary thing in finding these islands in the Western Hemisphere. Where's the emphasis there? He committed genocide, but ... He's a good sailor. I say, He was a good sailor, but he treated people with the most horrible cruelty. Those are two different ways of saying the same facts. Depending on which side of the buck you're on, you show your bias. I believe that it's good for us to put our biases in the direction of a humane view of history.


I know you were present at the 1892 celebration of the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus' voyage ...


Of course, I try to be at all these important events. I tried to be there in 1492 but I didn't make it.


In terms of 1992, were you surprised at the level of protest, indignation and general criticism of Columbus?


I was delightfully surprised. I did expect more protest this year than there ever has been, because I knew, just from going around the country speaking and from reactions to my book [A People's History of the United States], which has sold a couple of hundred thousand copies. It starts off with Columbus, so anybody who has read my book is going to have a different view of Columbus, I hope. I knew that there has been more literature in the last few years. Hans Koenig's wonderful book, which appeared before mine, Columbus' Enterprise. I was aware that Native American groups around the country were planning protests. So I knew that things would happen, but I really wasn't prepared for the number of things that have happened and the extent of protest that there has been. It has been very satisfying. What's interesting about it, much as people like me and you rail against the media, they don't have total control. It is possible for us, and this is a very heartwarming thing and it should be encouraging, even though we don't control the major media and major publishing organizations, by sheer word of mouth, a little radio broadcast, community newspapers, speaking here and there, Noam Chomsky speaking seventeen times a day in a hundred cities, it's possible by doing these things to actually change the culture in a very important way. When the New York Times has a story saying that this year the Columbus quincentennial is mocked by protests. In Denver they called off a parade because of the protest that they expected. This has happened in a number of other places. Berkeley changed Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day.


Traveling around the country I am encouraged by what I see. Not just about Columbus, but that as soon as you give people information that they didn't have before, they are ready to accept it. When I went around the country speaking about Columbus, I was worried that suddenly, as I started telling about these atrocities that Columbus committed, people in the audience would start yelling and shouting and throwing things at me, threatening my life. That hasn't happened at all. Maybe the worst that happened is that one Italian-American said to me in a low voice, plaintively, "What are Italians going to do? Who are we going to celebrate?" I said, "Joe DiMaggio, Arturo Toscanini, Pavoratti, Fiorello LaGuardia, a whole bunch of wonderful Italians that we can celebrate."


It's been very encouraging. I believe that all over this country there are people who really want change.