from Z Magazine, http://www.zmag.org/zmag/articles/barzinn.htm
HOWARD ZINN --One Step Ahead of
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
Was there any kind of intellectual life at home, books,
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
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
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
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
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.