BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Howard Zinn, when did you first start thinking about writing "A People's History Of The United States"?
Mr. HOWARD ZINN, AUTHOR, "A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES, 1942-PRESENT": Well, I think, you know, it was somewhere in the '70s, and I was teaching and people kept asking me to recommend a sort of one-volume history of the United States written from a point of view that would reflect the sensibilities of the '60s--you know, the--of the movements: of the civil rights movement and the anti-war m--and I couldn't find a book that would do it. It--I think that's what happens very often. If you can't find a book that does what you want, you write it.
So--but I had to wait until the war in Vietnam ended because, until then, I was so wrapped up in the--in the movement against the war, and my writing was wrapped up in it. You know, I wrote a book about Vietnam, "Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal." I wrote a book about civil disobedience. I wrote another book on sort of the politics of history. But my--my writings were all geared to sort of immediate political necessities, and I didn't have the leisure to sit down and do what I sort of had in the back of my mind.
And then after the war, I--I--well, my agent prodded me, my wife prodded me. My wife was a big prod, you know, because I started, and then I--I--I tried to give up a few times because it's--it was too daunting a job. I mean, `The whole thing fr--from the beginning? No, too much.' But my wife said, `You have to do it.' So I did it. So—so I began writing in the late '70s. I actually went to Paris in '78 to teach, and I had this romantic idea, you know, about going to Paris and writing, you know? And I spent four months in Paris, easy teaching--you know, one day a week, plenty of time to write. Didn't write a word because it was Paris, it got in the way. But when I came back, I immediately got to work, and I--and I think that's the way I work. I sort of w--then I worked furiously day and night.
And my edi--my editor at Harper--and at that time it was Harper & Row--my editor, Hugh Van Dusen, was very encouraging, and Harper was--was terrific. They didn't edit what I se--I mean, this sounds bad. When I say they didn't edit, I mean they didn't change what I wrote. You know, they didn't say, `No, you've got to do this. You've got to add this. You've got to take this out.' I sent it to them, and my then-editor, a woman named Cynthia Merman, who was working with Hugh Van Dusen, said--now I was expecting some big thing from her with 97 pages of notes, and she sent back sort of one line saying, `This is wonderful.' Every author loves that. So...
LAMB: And--and the first edition was 1980?
Mr. ZINN: First edition was 1980. They published 5,000 hard-back copies. Now they didn't know what would happen to it; neither did I. They--5,000 hard-back copies, immediately went into paperback, and then every year, the sales went up, up, up. And my--my editor at—at Harper, Hugh Van Dusen, said--we had lunch one day in New York: You know, pu--those publishers lunches; the publisher pays, but nice restaurant. And--and he said--said, `This is u--unusual.' He said, `You know usually books, even books that sell very well, they sell for one or two years and then it goes down.' He said, `This book go--goes up, up every year,' and that's the way it's been for 20 years.
LAMB: In 20 years, how many books do you think you've sold?
Mr. ZINN: Well, I--as of--let's see, where are we? Wait a minute. As of last June, it had sold over 600,000. By now, it must be getting close to 700,000. I know it sold more in '99 than it sold in '98 and more in '98 than in '97. So it's f--you know, it's--it surprised me.
LAMB: Now how does a man who writes a history...
Mr. ZINN: Yeah.
LAMB: ...which basically is--and you can explain exactly what it is ,in a minute. It's not basically your capitalist, rah-rah history book. Basically, you've become somewhat of a rich man from the book.
Mr. ZINN: Are you saying I'm a rich man because you're looking at the way I'm dressed?
LAMB: No. But if you total up 700,000 copies, it's...
Mr. ZINN: No, it's true. It's true. I mean, it--it--I'm in awe of the money I've made from the book, although if you divide it by 20 years, right--you know, if you divide, I don't know, $600,000 or $700,000 by 20 years, then it comes out to like $35,000 a year. And then if you add that to my meager professor's salary, then I'm sort of doing OK. Well, in--let's put it this way: you know, enough to, you know, buy half a house and buy half a house on Cape Cod, you know, with--with friends and--and buy a new automobile instead of a used automobile. And it's nice.
But, of course, I didn't expect--I didn't write the book thinking I would make a lot of money, and I didn't write it to make a lot of money. And I wrote it, and--and the reason my wife was urging me to write it is sh--just she thought it was needed. And I guess I didn't myself gauge the extent to which it was needed. I think the reason that it sold--I mean, Harper didn't go on a big advertising campaign. They didn't put ads in The New York Times or--I mean, they distributed the book very well. You know, they're a big outfit, and they get the book around. But I think it was word of mouth, and I think fundamentally the book just met a need that people had.
After the movements of the '60s, people began to rethink all sorts of issues: black history, women's history, labor movement, war and anti-war movements. And the traditional textbooks and the traditional books on American history didn't satisfy them. So they wanted a—I think they were looking for this point of view.
LAMB: All right. Let me just ask you about some people that you write about in the book.
Mr. ZINN: Yeah.
LAMB: And just give a real brief...
Mr. ZINN: OK.
LAMB: ...synopsis of what you think of them, so people watching have never--maybe never heard of this, but have an understanding of where you're coming from. Christopher Columbus.
Mr. ZINN: Christopher Columbus--I have to laugh because that was the most explosive thing in the book; that is, when I began to—getting letters from all over the country--my first chapter deals with Christopher Columbus. And when I be--I began le--getting letters from all over the country about the book, a disproportionate number of them were about Christopher Columbus. And the reason is that, I think, although there are a lot of things in the book that people never heard of and a lot of new angles in the book that people never saw--but I think what I said about Christopher Columbus was the most startling because every American has learned about Christohper Columbus. You know, in--from elementary school on, Christopher Columbus, the great adventurer, navigator, you know, brave man, religious, a h--a hero. Well, there are all these cities named after Columbus, all the statues of Columbus.
They--so that when I said that he--you know, yeah, sure, sure, Columbus was a great navigator, was a brave man, but he was also, you might say, the first ruthless imperialist of, you know, the--and, I mean, he kidnapped Indians. He was--he was greedy for gold to satisfy his financiers back in Spain. And in search of gold, he drove the Indians, mutilated them when they didn't bring him gold, kidnapped them and bring--brought them back to Spain because he had to have something to show his--his supporters back in Spain. And that essentially began a campaign which resulted in the genocide of the indigenous people of Hispaniola, the island where th--he and the Spaniards did a lot of, you know, their marauding, the island which is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
So this--this picture of Columbus was a very startling one. In fact, I must tell you this. There was a--I got a letter from a teacher--high school teacher in California. She was using my book--well, she was using my book as a supplement to the regular text, because there was a time--I think it's not so true now, but there was a time when using my book was just not accepted in--especially in high schools, where there's a more rigid control of textbooks. But she was using my b--book, and she--in a way it was used very often. The teachers would photocopy chapters, and it sounded like--samizdatlike. You know, like the underground--s--photocopy chapters and hand it out to the class.
Well, but the student brought the chapter on Columbus back home, her mother looked at it and went into a fit and asked for an investigation of the teacher because, you know, this was just outrageous to her that anybody should say these things about Columbus.
LAMB: Let me jump all the way to the present.
Mr. ZINN: OK.
LAMB: Bill Clinton.
Mr. ZINN: Ah, Bill Clinton. Yeah. Actually, I--yeah, the book does go up to Bill Clinton. Yeah, I--I brought it up as close to the present I can. And I just--what I say about Bill Clinton--you know, I--I'm not interested in the sex scandals or anything like that. You know, I'm interested in his policies; I'm interested in his domestic policy and foreign policy. And what I said about Bill Clinton is that he fits in to what Richard Hofstadter, you know, one of the great American historians of this century--what Richard Hofstadter called `the American political tradition.'
And when Hofstadter wrote his book "The American Political Tradition," wh--what he was saying was that, `Oh, sure, there are Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, and they occupy the White House in turn. But, fundamentally, even though there are differences among them, there's certain fundamental things they have in common.' One of them is nationalism and a willingness to go to war, and the other is capitalism and the--the market and private enterprise.
And--and I think that Hofstadter was right, and Clinton fits in. I mean, he's as nationalistic, as ready to go to war. He doesn't cut the military budget; he increases the military budget. He does what Republicans and Democrats before him have done, and that is try to extend American military and political and economic powers far over the world as he can. And domestically, while his domestic policies are probably maybe a little bit more progressive than the Republicans, fundamentally he doesn't make any serious changes in the social structure. He doesn't do away with poverty. He doesn't do away with uninsured, you know, people; people who don't have medical insurance. He doesn't use the--the huge wealth that we have to take care of the 30 million, 40 million people in this country who live like Third World people. And so, no, he--he's a very good salesman.
LAMB: Go back to George Washington.
Mr. ZINN: Washington. Well, I mean, Washington--admirable, you know, in many ways, of course. A--a--yeah, a great leader and great military leader. But my emphasis in this book is not on the Founding Fathers, you know. And when I deal with that early period, the Revolutionary period, I treat the Founding Fathers as what I think they are, and that is the American elite who want independence from England, which is a good thing because England has been an oppressive force. But they want independence from England mostly for their own purposes. That is to replace the British elite with an American elite.
When they set up the new government, when they set up the new Constitution, I mean, they set up a strong, central government which will be able to legislate on behalf of bondholders and slaveholders and manufacturers and Western land speculators. I mean, Charles Beard, in his book "An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, "which he wrote back in 1913 and which startled people because he sort of was not reverential towards the Founding Fathers, and he said, `Look, these were guys with economic interests.' Sure, they were very smart, much smarter than the people we have around today, much more eloquent than the people we have around today--you know, Madison, Adams.
I mean, you have to admire their elegance of language, their brilliance of mind, their, you know, wide education. But, in fact,
they--they set up a government that was designed to maintain control and prevent rebellion by poor people. After all, the Constitutional Convention was convened just after Shays' Rebellion in western Massachusetts. Shays' Rebellion had a lot to do with the convening of the Constitutional Convention because it was a--here was a—an uprising of farmers led by Revolutionary War veterans, who had land in western Massachusetts and suddenly found that the promises made to them in the Revolution--you know, `It's a war for democracy, for liberty, for us,' and so on--and it didn't seem to work out because they were being harassed by the people who control the Legislature in Massachusetts. They were being taxed; they couldn't afford it. Land was being taken away from them. Their farms were being taken away, livestock taken away.
They rebelled under the leadership of former Captain Daniel Shays. And, I mean, it was quite a rebellion. I mean, they stormed the courthouses, wouldn't let auctions take place. Sometimes they were joined by the local militia, who were called out to suppress them and then joined them, because they saw them in a righteous cause. And Shays' Rebellion was put down, but it put a scare into the Founding Fathers.
LAMB: Let me come all the way back the other way again...
Mr. ZINN: OK.
LAMB: ...and ask you about Ronald Reagan.
Mr. ZINN: Ronald Reagan. Well, you know what happens? When a president leaves office, no matter what his policies were in office, a glow--a soft glow descends upon him, and he--he--you forget what he did, and you--you look kind of kindly on him, especially on Reagan because he was such a nice, you know, good-humored, avuncular person. But, in fact, you know--Reagan, you know, represented really, I think, as both parties have, and the Republican Party somewhat more than the Democratic Party--he represented the wealthy interests of the country. And he--you know, the tax structure changed in such a way as to benefit the--the upper 1 percent of the population.
And then, of course, on foreign policy, you know, he was so obsessed with Soviet communism and Soviet expansion that he saw everything that happened everywhere in the world as the work of the Soviets. So the revolution in Nicaragua, you know, in 1979 that overthrows a--a very corrupt government, which the United States had supported, the Somoza government, was a revolution. It was quite a popular revolution in Nicaragua, and Reagan determined to put it down. And so he—he secretly, and finally illegally, gets arms, sets up the Contras, whom he called freedom fighters, and they go on rampages and they—they commit a lot of atrocities.
And he--he supported the military dictatorship of El Salvador. Again, fear of rebellion. I mean, Latin America's always seen attempts at popular rebellion against dictatorships, and in our times, since the Cold War with the Soviet Union, all of these popular uprisings have been interpreted as, you know, attempts of the Soviet Union to spread its power, when actually it represented indigenous movements trying to get rid of dictatorships and trying to get land for peasants and so on. But the result was we kept--the Reagan administration kept giving money and supporting the--really, the death squads in El Salvador, and terrible, terrible things happened.
LAMB: How long have you been a teacher?
Mr. ZINN: Well, I started teaching--I--I--my first real teaching job was at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, a black women's college. And I went there in 1956, taught there for seven years, until 1963.
LAMB: Where'd you come from to there?
Mr. ZINN: Well, Columb--I--I was--I lived in New York. My wife and I lived in a low-income housing project in New York, Lillian Wald houses and we both had two little kids, working. Both of us working--both of us working my way through graduate school. And I was getting my PhD at Columbia when this job at Spelman College opened up, and I became suddenly chair of this tiny department, a prestigious thing. It was like being headwaiter of a two-waiter restaurant, you know, with about four people in the department. But it was a very fortunate time for me because I was coming into the South when the civil rights movement was beginning to develop, and I was there to see it spread and--and w--work its way into a great, tumultuous movement and to become part of that and become involved in it.
LAMB: Your wife's name is Rosalyn?
Mr. ZINN: Yeah.
LAMB: And where did you meet her?
Mr. ZINN: Oh, met her in Brooklyn. We both were brought up in--in--in sort of a working-class neighborhood of Brooklyn. And...
LAMB: What was the neighborhood?
Mr. ZINN: It was Williamsburg or sort of on the edge—between Williamsburg and Bedford-Stuyvesant. But it--and her father ran a little gas station. My father was a waiter. And I was working in the shipyard. At the age of 18, I went to work, worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and I worked there for three years. And while I was three as a shipyard worker, I met her. And--and we just had a few dates, and then I enlisted in the Air Force. And then we carried on a long correspondence while I was off training and all over the country. Anyway, I came back finally from bombing school and gunnery school, and I had a lieutenant's wings and--and came back to Brooklyn and four days later we got married.
LAMB: Now what was your--did you have strong political beliefs when you were in the service?
Mr. ZINN: My political beliefs developed from about the age of 18 on, when I was working in the shipyard, in Brook--in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, because I was--I--I encountered this little group of, well, about three or four guys who were like me, young workers in the—and we were shut out of the trade unions because the A.F. of L was craft union, and all the unskilled workers were shut out of it. So most of the shipyard workers were not even unionized, and we'd decided to form our own union. And th--there were these other guys--and--and we would get together, and we would read radical literature: Marx, Upton Sinclair, Jack London.
And, you know, it was--I so--suppose it's fair to say it was sort of m--I got a kind of Marxist education while I was working in the shipyard. So by the time I enlisted in the Air Force, I was all imbued with war against fascism and I--I volunteered. And--and—and in the Air Force, I--I maint--you know, I--I maintained these kind of political views, except that sort of towards the end of my Air Force days, I was in England flying the last bombing missions of the war, I began to become disillusioned with the Soviet Union, which a lot of people on the left, you know, had looked t--to as, you know, the—the great socialist hope. And I began reading and learning and—and became very disillusioned with the Soviet Union. But I remem--I still consider myself a socialist.
LAMB: To this day?
Mr. ZINN: To this day, to at least yesterday.
LAMB: But--but the--i--in your book, you say that World War II and the bombing of Pearl Harbor was played up as a big shock, and that's what it's portrayed as in history. But you say it wasn't a shock at all.
Mr. ZINN: No. I mean, the evidence is clear that the United States government expected the Japanese to strike because the tensions between the United States and Japan had been building up, building up, building up, and--and we had been tightening the pincers on Japan more and more and, you know, finally cut off oil supplies. And--and it was--we--we knew that th--and--and we had broken the Japanese code, you know. We knew the Japanese were going to--to attack somewhere, but I--although some people think that the Roosevelt administration knew they were going to attack Pearl Harbor, I'm not at all sure of this.
But it was known that there would be a Japanese attack. Maybe it was expected they would attack Hawaii at--later after attacking the Philippines and moving, you know, their way up. But--so it was a half surprise.
LAMB: When--how many years did you actually serve in the military?
Mr. ZINN: Two and a half years in the Air Force.
LAMB: Did you drop a lot of bombs?
Mr. ZINN: Well, I dropped--yeah, I dropped a fair number of bombs on--as I say, it was the last missions of the war, and I dropped bombs on Berlin, I dropped bombs on Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, on places in Hungary. And towards the very end--just before the end of the war, I--I--I participated in the bombing mission that was going to have a very important effect on my thinking, and that was a bombing mission in which we bombed a little French town on the Atlantic coast called Royon.
We thought we were through bombing. We thought our missions were over. It--everybody knew the war would end in a few weeks. You know, the Russians and the Americans had joined on the Elbe, but France was long overrun. And they woke us up one morning at 1:00--1:00 in the morning, the usual wake-up time for a mission...
LAMB: Were you in--in England?
Mr. ZINN: We were in England, in East Anglia. And--and w--and, you know, f--and take off at 6, but they wake you up at 1 and--and told us we were going to bomb this little town in France, which was, you know--why--`What are we doing bombing a town in France?' But, interestingly enough--and it tells you something about the military mentality, the military training--nobody would dare stand up in the briefing room and ask, `Why are we bombing this little town when the war is going to be over? Why are we going to kill more people here?' Yet--and nobody asked that question, but they briefed us--said, `Well, there are several thousand German troops hanging around this little town. They're waiting for the war to end. They're not doing anything, but we're going to destroy them.'
And then they said something which gave me a clue later, when I thought about it, to why we went on this mission. They said, `We're not going to use regular demolition bombs. We have something new. We w--you're going--instead of dropping our usual 12 500-pound demolition bombs, you're going to drop 30 100-pound canisters of jel—jellied gasoline.' It was napalm--the first use of napalm in the European theater. And w--it wasn't called napalm then. So we had a--we really didn't know. And, again, the--you know, the military might--I—to this day, you know, I understand very well how soldiers commit atrocities, how airmen bomb civilians, how terrible things are done in war because you're trained to do your job, to follow orders, not to ask questions.
And here we are, we're officers, we're supposed to sort of have a little more initiative, but it's not true, you know. In fact, you might say, you know, the fact that you're an officer means you've had even more intensive training. So we went over and--and bombed Royon and destroyed the town, killed the Germans and also killed the Frenchmen and s--women and children in Royon. And it didn't s--the--the thing is you'd bomb from 30,000 feet. You don't see what's happening down there. You don't see people suffering. You don't see people burning. You don't see limbs falling. You--you just see little flashes in the--in the d--in the dark, you know. And—and you go back, and you're debriefed and you don't think about it. And it's horrifying.
Later--only later did I begin to think about it, and I was horrified by what I had done, and I'm still horrified by what I did. But I think that had an effect on my thinking about war, because here I was in the best of wars. And I believed it was the best of wars because I volunteered for it. A war against fascism? I mean, how could you find a more bestial enemy? And yet it's a--it complicated the war for me. It complicated the morality of the war, and it made me begin to think that war itself is evil. Even when it starts with good cause, even when the enemy is horrible, that there's something about war, especially in our time when war inevitably involves indiscriminate killing--and I came to the conclusion that war simply cannot be accepted morally as a solution for whatever problems are in the world.
Whatever tyranny, whatever borders are crossed, whatever problems there are, somehow human ingenuity has to find a way to deal with that without the indiscriminate killing that war involves.
LAMB: What would you have done had you been president and those bombs were dropped on Pearl Harbor?
Mr. ZINN: That's the toughest question I've ever faced. I--it was a--I knew you would ask tough questions. But, you know, by then, it was too late, you know, but what do we do then? No, I--I--me, I say the tough question. People have asked me the question, `Well, what would you have done about Germany, about'--they've asked me the general question. Nobody--you're the first one in all these years who's asked me this very specific question, `What would you do if you were president on the day Pearl Harbor was attacked? What would you have done then?' And, you know, of course with my--with--with the psychology I had then, as a volunteer in the Air Force and so on, I'd say, `Well, of course, we're at war now and we've gotta do all the things that war requires,' and so on and so forth.
And now I think, `Well, what is the alternative to simply going in an all-out war which is going to result in enormous number of casualties? Is there any way of dealing with Japanese aggression in a--a way that is unique in world history?' I mean, this is really--I mean, it's--it's very hard for people to think this way, 'cause once--once a historical event has taken place a certain way, it is very hard to go back and imagine a different sequence of events. And once we have gone through World War II and--and won the war, and aft—after dropping all those bombs and so on, we can't imagine there could be another scenario. And--and I confess, I--I--I haven't worked out an alternative scenario.
LAMB: Well let me jump way beyond that...
Mr. ZINN: Sure.
LAMB: ...to Saddam Hussein going into Kuwait.
Mr. ZINN: Oh, yes.
LAMB: What would you have done there?
Mr. ZINN: Oh, well--well there--there I think it's--the answer is--is clearer. I would not go to war over Kuwait because--and--and--and this is what happened. Because of the number of people killed in the war, and the--the--the--the things that happened as a result of the war far overshadow even what Saddam Hussein did to Kuwait. But in every case, I would always look for solutions short of war; in the case of Kuwait, I would look for diplomatic solutions and there were. The American press didn't play these up at all and so the American public did not know about them.
But there were possibilities for diplomatic solutions. There were--Saddam Hussein was willing to give up Kuwait if he could get other things which were connected with oil and the price of oil and access to oil--things which the United States did not want to give up. And--and there were--there were overtures made before the--bef—after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and before the United States began the war, and the United States simply ignored them. When, you know, the secretary of State, James Baker, was sent to meet Aziz, the foreign minister of Iraq, before the war started, his instructions were, `do not negotiate.' I remember that very clearly. I thought this was very strange. Why are they meeting if there's not going to be any compromise, negotiation, some way of getting Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, giving some concessions, but not having a war? But no, no negotiations. In other words, only an ultimatum, you get out of Kuwait with no conditions.
Well, if you--if you want to avoid war, if you want to minimize casualties, you have to be willing to compromise even with evil people. And w--I mean, we would have had to done--do that with Japan if we didn't want to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That is, we could have compromised what was our position, you know, unconditional surrender. We could have said, `OK, there's a condition we'll meet, we'll take care of the emperor, we won't bother the emperor,' and we wouldn't have had to drop the bombs.
LAMB: Let me go back to Spelman.
Mr. ZINN: OK.
LAMB: Seven years at Spelman.
Mr. ZINN: Yes.
LAMB: Where did you go after that?
Mr. ZINN: Went to Boston University.
LAMB: Still there?
Mr. ZINN: I'm--well, I'm still--sort of, that is, you asked me how long I was teaching. Well, seven years at Spelman, 24 years at Boston University, but I stopped teaching in '88, 10 years ago--about 10 years ago, I stopped teaching--11 years ago. But I taught there for 24 years. I'm now a professor emeritus. My daughter asked me, `What is a professor emeritus?' And I said, `It means you're unemployed.'
LAMB: You have two kids?
Mr. ZINN: Two kids. Two grown.
LAMB: Where--two girls?
Mr. ZINN: No, we--no, we have a daughter and a son and, yeah, they're--they're married, they have kids and--and yeah, the--the...
LAMB: What do they do?
Mr. ZINN: What do they do? Our daughter wa--was--was a nurse and she's active in local environmental things. She and her husband, Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is a--sort of--fairly well-known in some behavioral science and meditation. They've written a book together on parenting and--and they live in Lexington, Mass, and they have--have three wonderful kids.
LAMB: And he took her name?
Mr. ZINN: And--yeah. They--well, they kind--they hyphenated their names, which created a problem for our grandson 'cause--at one point our--our grandson, who's now in his 20s, had a girlfriend and--I--I--and I asked him, `Well--well, how are things going with your girlfriend?' He said, `It can't be serious, she has a hyphenated name.'
LAMB: So if you had...
Mr. ZINN: You had two...
LAMB: ...four names again...
Mr. ZINN: You can't have two--you can't have two hyphenated—so anyway, their--our--our son is a theater person on Cape Cod. He runs a--he and his co-producer--our son, Jeff Zinn, and his co-producer, Gib Hoppy, they run a little theater in Wellsley down on Cape Cod, and they've been doing it for many years. And they're the kind of heroic theater people that you--you hear about. You know, they--they, oh, struggle, struggle, struggle to put on plays that they care about each year. And he's married and has two littles ones, about five--five--yeah, five and two, and two--two different generations of grandchildren. Our daughter married young, our--our son married late and so we have a grandson who's 24 and we have a grand--and another grandson who's two.
LAMB: I don't know how many years ago, but we do call-in shows here at this network. And callers would call up every so often and say, `Why don't you have on Noam Chomsky, Michael Perranny and Howard Zinn?'
Mr. ZINN: Oh, really?
LAMB: And it's kind of a--you know, I got the sense there must be a cult out there. It--it--it's gone on...
Mr. ZINN: A conspiracy.
LAMB: No, it's just gone on for years that--that those--those three names are joined together.
Mr. ZINN: Oh, really? Oh, that's interesting.
LAMB: For people who have never heard of Noam Chomsky and Michael Perranny and Howard Zinn, why would they join the three together?
Mr. ZINN: Well, I think the three of us are joined--probably because the three of us--although we probably have some differences here and there, but the three of us are all sort of radical, social critics--critics of American foreign policy, critical--critics of domestic policy. And the three of us have written a fair amount, and so we're sort of known in progressive left radical circles--of course, Noam Chomsky is known far beyond that. And--and I think they ask that because they're very conscious of the fact that the three of us are not invited to be on major network interviews, you know, and forums.
And, you know, if you look at the Lehrer Report, you know, I mean, they have all sorts of experts and congressmen and secretaries of state discussing--but you will almost never--I think he was once on there--I mean, Noam Chomsky is--and I say this not because he's a friend of mine or because we have very similar political views—he just is a brilliant, brilliant guy who knows more about American foreign policy maybe than anybody in the country. And--and the idea that there are all these panels that you see on TV and that you never see him on suggest to people that there's a kind of s--yeah, censorship, not censorship that comes from the government but a kind of self-censorship of networks and programs and--that want to play it safe.
LAMB: Are you ever called by any of these programs?
Mr. ZINN: Not--no. Well, let's see, the closest--I'm trying to think--the closest I came was during the--the--the war on Kosovo, I was called by CNBC, which I guess was a pretty big thing. And that--that's the closest I've come to, you know, being on a kind of network program discussing some important issues. I've been on National Public Radio, you know, a couple of times, but most of the time, my talks are carried on alternative radio programs, little community radio stations. Sometimes I'm interviewed by radio stations in New York, W--Pacifica Radio. I don't know where C-SPAN fits in. Maybe this is the closest I've come to something big.
LAMB: Well, t--tell me about--I mean, this book sold 700,000 copies.
Mr. ZINN: Yeah.
LAMB: As you know, most books don't come close to selling 700 copies.
Mr. ZINN: Yeah. Yeah.
LAMB: Seven hundred thousand copies or whatever.
Mr. ZINN: Yeah.
LAMB: What is it, do you think, about your book that grabs peoples' attention and who buys it?
Mr. ZINN: I think what grabs peoples' attention about the book is that they are startled by the point of view. They see historical events that they have learned about--like Columbus, the American Revolution, the Civil War, World War I--they see events that they've heard about but they see these looked at from very different points of view. They see Columbus looked at from the point of view of Indians. There's basi--they see the revolution looked at from the point of view of soldiers who mutiny against George Washington. You know, they see the--not the age of Jackson seen through the White House, but they see the age of Jackson through the eyes of the Indians in southeast United States who Jackson sends the army to drive out of their homes.
You know, they see the American industrial revolution from the standpoint of working people and farmers; people who go out on strike. They don't see military heros. They see the heros of the book being people who protest against war. Th--they don't see World War I through Woodrow Wilson. They see Helen Keller who, a--again, they--they see people that they heard about and they s--they get a different slant. I mean, you--every school kid learns about Helen Keller, this wonderful woman who overcame, you know, blindness and wh--oth--handicaps, but they never learned that she was a socialist or that she campaigned against World War I. And so they learn about people in this book that just don't appear and--and they learn about events; the Ludlow massacre, the Colorado coal strike, the textile strike; some of the most dramatic events in American history ignored in the regular textbooks.
And so, you know, last night, I get a call--I mean, this--you ask who reads the book. Last night, I get a call, he said, `Remember me? I--I used to mow your lawn? Yes, then I went out to Johns Hopkins.' And I said, `Yeah.' I was wondering, `Does he really want to mow our lawn again now that he's been to Johns Hopkins?' No. He said, `I just want to tell you I just--I didn't know you were--were a writer, and I just picked up your "Peoples History,"' and he says, `It just blew my mind.' And--and that's the reaction. And this morning, as I was getting ready to go in the car, pick me up to take me to the airport to bring me here, the phone rang and my wife answered, and as I was walking out the door, she said, `Well, this was some man who just read your book and he said this is the best book he's ever read.' And so I--I--I've gotten huge amount--I mean, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of letters from all over the country, and the answer to your question `Who reads the book?'...
LAMB: Let me--let me restate the question. Do schools buy it or do individuals buy it?
Mr. ZINN: Both. Well, schools for a long time were reluctant to buy it--and I don't know what the percentage is. But the--there's how--now more high schools are willing to buy it officially now; at one time, they were not. College teachers will use it, but I think most of its sales just--it wasn't written as a textbook and not sold as a textbook, but most of the sales I com--I think come through, youknow, in bookstores or maybe Amazon.com--who knows. And people call me and say, `I just bought six copies of your book to send to--to my grandmother in Oklahoma City and my brother-in-law.' And, you know, and what happens is people--it's easy to read, you know. It's--it's--it's not academic. It's--this is what people tell me again and again, you know, they say, `It's--it's--it's readable and--and it's exciting.'
And you may remember that in the film, "Good Will Hunting"--I don't know if you saw that movie, "Good Will Hunting." But in the film,
"Good Will Hunting," the character, Will Hunting--played by Matt Damon--at one point--there's this moment in the movie where he's talking to Robin Williams, who's his sort of therapist, and he's in his office, and he says, `What are you reading?' He says, `If you want to read a real good history book,' he says, `read "A People's History of the United States."' Well, this was a surprise to people who went to see the movie, and l--here's a movie that recommends a book. That doesn't happen too often.
LAMB: In my hand is the audio version of your book read by Matt Damon.
Mr. ZINN: Right.
LAMB: Was that your idea or his?
Mr. ZINN: Neither. It was Harper Collins' audio department, they decided that it would be good to have "People's History" on tape. Of course, it's too big a book to--you know, you need too many--too many tapes, but they selected about six hours and then they approached Matt Damon. I didn't want to approach him because I thought, `No, he's too busy,' you know, he's making one film after another. And they approached Matt Damon--and, of course, he's a great fan of my book.He and Ben Affleck--is his friend--are both great fans of my book. And--and he agreed to do it, so he spent two days taping, which I didn't really want him to do, didn't ask him to do, but he--it was just, you know, an active friendship and...
LAMB: Is he politically attuned? I mean, is he on the same side?
Mr. ZINN: I think he is, yeah. You know--well, let's put it this way. Yeah, I mean, he knows the book very well. At the age of 10, his mother--I must tell you this--I've known Matt Damon since he was--I don't know--five years old. He--he--his mother s--was a single mother raising two boys. They were our next-door neighbors. His mother is a very...
LAMB: In Boston?
Mr. ZINN: In Boston--very good friend, and when he was 10 years old, she gave Matt my book. And he read it, and then when he was in high school, his high school teacher in Cambridge read--u--used the book in class. Ben Affleck also was going to that same school; he read the book. So they both became fans of the book. And, yeah, and I think they're attuned to the point of view of the book. And you could tell this if you s--when you see the film, "Good Will Hunting," there's a--a great moment--even better than a moment in which he recommends my book--a great moment in which this s--sort of genius, working-class kid who sweeps the floors at MIT is approached because he's been discovered as this mathematical genius and everybody wants to hire him and the National Security Agency wants to hire him.
And they--and he's being interviewed by them and--and--and he says to them, `Oh,' he says, `the National Security Agency,' he says, `I get it,' he says, `I would work for you and help you break a code or something which would enable you to bomb a peasant village in a Third World country, and then the bombing wouldn't do the trick so we'd send over troops and they'd send over some of my friends from Southie--south Boston--to fight, and they would come back, you know, maybe wounded and then they would look for jobs and they would find that the company they worked for here had moved to this Third World country which was bombed.' It was a great--it was--and he delivers that very, very fast, but it's a very--an unusually radical statement to make in a movie about American foreign policy.
LAMB: On page 408--and I don't want to drone on here, but it seemed like this page kind of summarized the way you feel about a lot of our involvements over the years in foreign invent--intervention. Let me read just a little bit about it and I'll--I'll try--try not to go too far.
`For the United States to step forward as a defender of helpless countries matched its image in American high school history books but not its record in world affairs. It had opposed the Haitian revolution for independence from France at the start of the 19th century. It had instituted a war with Mexico and taken half the country. It had pretended to help Cuba win freedom from Spain and then planted itself in Cuba with a military base, investments and rights of intervention. It had seized Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam and fought a brutal war to subjugate the Filipinos. It had opened Japan to its trade with gunboats and threats. It had declared an open-door policy in China as a means of assuring the United States would have opportunities equal to other imperial powers in exploiting China. It had sent troops to Peking with other nations to assert Western supremacy in China and kept them from--kept them for over 30 years.'
There's a lot more in here about Colombia and Haiti and Nicaragua. Is this country at--this sounds like I'm--I'm arguing here, but has this country done anything right?
Mr. ZINN: Well, yeah, prob--I'm sure we've done some right things, you know, when we have given economic aid to countries, we have done ri--right. You know, from time to time, we will help out when—you know, if there's a--you know, if there's an earthquake or famine. Yeah, we've done some right things.
And--but in the main and--I mean, I understand that when you read that litany of offenses against other countries, it's kind of shocking, because we were all brought up to be proud of our country and--and its policies and to think of us as the good guys in the world and helping people in the world. But the fact is that we are--we have behaved in the world--and I'm--I'm--I'm not trying to single out the United States--we are the, you know, evil. No.
Great powers historically have tried to spread their power all over the world. I mean, the last 500 years have been years in which one empire after another has tried to dominate countries all over the world--you know, the Dutch empire and the Spanish and Portuguese empire and the--and the b--French and German and the British empire. And, I mean, all of them, and the United States came late upon the scene, became the greatest empire of all. So, no, the record o—of the United States in dealing with other places in the world, you know, is just not a pleasant one.
LAMB: Where would you go to get better treatment for blacks, better treatment for women, better treatment for Native Americans in the world, if you had to pick a country?
Mr. ZINN: Oh, well, of course, other countries don't have Native American prob--you know, the way that we do. But let's put it in...
LAMB: Basically minorities.
Mr. ZINN: Yeah, but--but put it this way. Where would I go to have a--a country that has more humane policy towards, let's say, its poor people and so on? I guess the Scandinavian countries are--are good models, maybe New Zealand is another. There are--you know, there--there are at least 15 industrialized countries where they take better care of their children than we do. You know, where--where the infant mortality rate is a much better one then ours. There are countries that have universal health care, and--and--and there are co--there are countries where if you're unemployed, you still will get enough money in unemployment insurance so that you can live and you can retire at an earlier age. And, in other words, there are countries that--that hav--that have social programs that don't require them to have a--a great percentage of the population in poverty. I mean, we have 40 million people in this country living at the--at the edge of poverty and we ha--the thing is we have the least excuse for it because we are the richest country in the world.
LAMB: Why do you think we've not done better?
Mr. ZINN: Well, I think we haven't done better because the motive that drives our economic system is not a motive of human need, it's a motive of--of corporate profit. And what we have done for people when we have done it, when we've passed--and we--you asked, `Have we done good things?' Yeah, we've passed--in the 1930s, we passed Social Security and unemployment insurance and, you know, hosing subsidies. And--and--and in the 1960s, Medicare and--and Medicaid and--and—but when these things happen, they usually happen as a result of some kind of pressure from outside. It didn't come--the system itself doesn't no--normally and instinctively do things for the least privileged. Instinctively, it does things for the--for the--for the wealthy.
And it takes--it takes--well, what happened in the '30s is we had great movements, a labor movement in the '30s, and--and all sorts of turmoil all over the country which, I think, had an ef--effect on Roosevelt and Congress in passing legislation. And in the '60s, again, we had great movements in the '60s. And the riots of black people in the cities, and--and--and I think Lyndon Johnson responded to that with Medicare and Medicaid and the war on poverty which was, you know, not really fulfilled. So it will--it would take an economic system--I'm talking about something very radically different—that isn't motived by corporate profit, that where the motivation is: How can we use the wealth of our society to make sure that nobody--no kid goes hungry, nobody is without a decent home, nobody who wants to work is without a job, nobody is without medical care? We have the wealth to do it. I mean, that's the shame of it, you know.
LAMB: Let me read on page 650 a--a statement and get you to elaborate on it. `There is evidence of growing disvat--dissatisfaction among the guards.'
Mr. ZINN: I supposed by guards, I--I--I meant that the--the great American middle class which benefits somewhat, you know, we're not the very poor. And--and I call us the guards because we're--you know, we're sort of in between the--the--the people who run the country and the--the corporate rich and--and the--and the--the underclass. And we're--we're the great middle class, and we're the professionals and we're the teachers and the doctors and--and the small business people. And--and what I say, I suppose half in hope and half in prophecy,' cause after all, who can predict what will happen? But I should say half in hope that--the--the only hope there is for serious change in this country is if people in the middle class begin to feel that something is wrong; that even though we are doing fairly well, that somehow we're--we're uneasy in a country where there are too many people who don't enjoy the benefits, you know, that's we in the middle class, and certainly with the people in the upper class, enjoy.
And it seems to me, therefore, that people in the middle class, looking around at the amount of violence in this society--well--and--and we know, we've seen that, you know, incredible violence in this society and much more than in any other industrialized country. I mean, the number of murders that take place in this country compared to the number of murders that take place in England or Scandinavia, it's shocking. The violence, the--the number of people in prison in this country, there are close to two million people in prison. Now it's a sign of sickness in--in a society when you have to put two million people--probably more than perhaps any other country in the world--in prison. And it seems to me that the middle class, the guards, are looking at a society where the middleclass has to be careful about muggings and crime and--where people in New York who are well off have to put six locks on their door and where such a large pur--portion of the population is really being turned into less than human by being sent to prison and then come out of prison worse than before. It seems to me the middle class must be getting uneasy about that. I hope they are. And--and thinking that we--even though we are doing well--we, the guards--we don't want to live in a society that doesn't distribute the benefits of society more humanely than is now done.
LAMB: Has there been a politician in your lifetime in this country who you consider to be caring--caring about the--the little people?
Mr. ZINN: Well...
LAMB: And I don't mean that--unimportant people, I mean the people who don't have anything.
Mr. ZINN: Yeah. Sure. Caring--well, the problem is that even if somebody who is caring, you know, and they--and they...
LAMB: Or courageous or done anything about it.
Mr. ZINN: Well, Roosevelt--you know, Roosevelt was certainly more caring and more courageous, probably prodded by his wife, Eleanor, I think. If you call her a politician, maybe she was a polit--she's a politician who was definitely a caring person, you know. She had worked with the poor as--you know, as a social worker in--in New York. And she--and--and she had a feeling about black people in this country and racism, and she certainly was a hu--humane, compassionate--yes--political figure. And I think she had an effect on her husband.
I haven't seen too much of that. And even where--even where a political figure has some humane feelings, there is something about the process of going through, you know, the--up the political ladder and getting into the White House and being surrounded by the military and the corporate and the people who contributed money. There's something about that that's--begins to sap whatever humanitarian energy you started with.
LAMB: Here's the book, and it's in a new printing. First came out in 1980, but updated to the Clinton administration, "A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present." Our guest has been Howard Zinn. Thank you.
Mr. ZINN: Thank you. Thank you very much.
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