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In the final segment of our interview with Howard Zinn we explore the idea of the United States as a source of freedom and democracy in the world. Prof. Zinn outlines the long history in the US of linking military pursuits with the cause of freedom and democracy, a marriage which Prof. Zinn believes is still used due to inappropriate historical education. Prof. Zinn believes that it is time to drop war altogether as a practice and begin the hard but fruitful transition to an economy based on domestic improvement rather than military dominance. He finishes by adding that education is most effective when coinciding with a changing reality and that the combination of the financial crisis and the military crisis are creating such a scenario.

Story Transcript

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TEXT ON SCREEN: Howard Zinn is an American historian, political scientist, social critic, activist and playwright. He is best known as author of the best-seller ‘A People’s History of the United States.’ Zinn has been active in the Civil Rights and the anti-war movements in the United States.

Democracy and militarism
Paul Jay

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Thank you for joining us for the next segment of our interview with Howard Zinn. Were talking about the economic crisis, the elections, and US foreign policy. Howard, when Reagan talked about the beacon of freedom on the hill, and the role of America, and the rationale for US military might and US military bases being one of freedom and democracy and spreading enlightenment against the evil forces, this is something that is not just a Republican belief—you can scratch a lot of Democrats, and you don’t have to scratch very far. For them it’s the embodiment of Kennedy as the one that stood for the beacon of freedom, but it’s also very militaristic vision of how that freedom’s achieved. So talk a bit about this idea of this role of America in the world and can Americans give up on this idea?

HOWARD ZINN, HISTORIAN AND AUTHOR: I don’t think Americans need to give up on the idea of helping to spread the idea of freedom and democracy in the world. I think they have to give up on that idea that this is done by force of arms, because the idea of connecting freedom and democracy with war and military action goes way back in our history. And our expansion, for continental expansion, overseas expansion, has always been accompanied by noble declarations that we’re doing this for liberty and democracy. Here’s where the historical education of Americans is at fault, because Americans have not learned, as they should have learned, that the history of the United States is a history of very sordid military actions accompanied by great declarations about freedom and democracy. I mean, when we went into Mexico in 1846 and took half of Mexico, we did it with the idea, “We’re bringing civilization to the Mexicans.” We went into Cuba in 1898, and, “Oh, we’re going to liberate the Cubans.” Well, we actually did liberate the Cubans from Spain, but not from us, ’cause then our corporations were there. Went into the Philippines because, as President McKinley said, “We’re going to bring civilization and Christianity to the Philippines.” Woodrow Wilson, who has a reputation of being a liberal—he was a Democrat—Woodrow Wilson talked about spreading our freedom over the world, but Wilson sent a navy to bombard the Mexican coast, he sent an occupation force to Haiti, he sent an occupying army into the Dominican Republic. This has gone on and on, this pretense of bringing freedom and democracy to other places, and all serving the interests of military and economic expansion. And therefore I think the American people need to begin separating those two ideas, that you can bring freedom and democracy by war. And I think we may have reached that point in world history—at least I hope we have. We’ve had enough experience with war, lots of experience with war. Our experience with war has been this: that these wars have served no purpose, that in the process we have killed huge numbers of people. And it’s time to accept the fact that war, like tuberculosis, like cannibalism, like slavery, is something that should be put into the past.

JAY: There’s a great deal of the American economy that would have to change. Taking on the industrial-military complex, and taking that wealth and putting it into domestic infrastructure, civilian infrastructure, is a sea change in terms of US economics. Is that possible?

ZINN: Not easy, of course, but I think it’s possible. I think it’s possible, and I think it would be fruitful because the money that’s poured into building up the military is, you might say, wasted money—it goes into destructive things. The money that is poured into the domestic economy builds up people’s capacity to live and it builds up the country, it builds up the physical infrastructure, and it builds up the human infrastructure. So I think it would be actually healthy for the economy. Well, we’ve seen that our economy, which has been based on war for so long, has not been made healthy as a result.

JAY: And that military-industrial sector has its ideological, political allies. They’re in think-tanks; they’re in both political parties; they’re in unions; they’re in churches. And that force is going to get organized for a fight if one goes down this road. So the people that want to go down this road had better get ready for a fight.

ZINN: Yes. It will take a tremendous educational effort. But I think education is effective when it coincides with a changing reality which people can perceive. And the American people, for instance, had to be educated on the race question—they did not see what was going on, they did not see black people in the South, they did not see black people in all their neighborhoods—and they were educated about this by what they saw then about black people rebelling against their condition. So I think the American people are ready to be educated about a very fundamental change in the way we see the world.

JAY: Well, a great teacher has shown up on the scene, and that great teacher may be this financial crisis, because reality has just taken a two-by-four and, I think, swatted us all in the side of the head, and saying, “Life ain’t going on the same way it’s gone on, and you’d better wake up.” So maybe we’re in one of these periods that are going to force us to have more realistic conversations and amongst more people.

ZINN: I think you are right. I think the financial crisis and the war crisis combined to create an opening for real change.

JAY: Thank you very much. And thank you very much for joining us. And I hope, Howard, you will join us again after the election.

ZINN: I’d be glad to.

JAY: And if you’d like to see more of these interviews, then we need you to click donate here, donate there, wherever the donate button is. But, as you know, we depend on your donations for our existence. Thank you for joining us.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Howard Zinn was an American historian, political scientist, social critic, activist and playwright. He is best known as author of the best-seller 'A People's History of the United States'. Zinn has been active in the Civil Rights and the anti-war movements in the United States.

Howard Zinn passed away on January 27, 2010.

Zinn was raised in a working-class family in Brooklyn, and flew bombing missions for the United States in World War II, an experience he now points to in shaping his opposition to war. In 1956, he became a professor at Spelman College in Atlanta, a school for black women, where he soon became involved in the Civil rights movement, which he participated in as an adviser to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee SNCC and chronicled, in his book SNCC The New Abolitionists. Zinn collaborated with historian Staughton Lynd and mentored a young student named Alice Walker. When he was fired in 1963 for insubordination related to his protest work, he moved to Boston University, where he became a leading critic of the Vietnam War.