Guns or butter?
In part four of our interview with Howard Zinn, Prof. Zinn provides his opinion on the major decision that the incoming US president will have to make; the decision between maintaining the US policy of intervention abroad and providing jobs and health care to the American people. Prof. Zinn believes that the US has been in perpetual expansion since its foundation, expansion driven by economic motives. This theme has continued through both Republican and Democratic administrations and therefore Prof. Zinn is not surprised that Obama’s campaign has not deviated from this policy, pointing out that he has called for escalation in Afghanistan and an increase in the size of the armed forces. But, Prof. Zinn contends, if Obama is serious about delivering health care and jobs for all, he will have to chart a new path in American foreign policy.
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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.
Zinn: Gens or butter?
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: Welcome back to the next segment of our interview with Howard Zinn. Thank you, Howard.
HOWARD ZINN, HISTORIAN AND AUTHOR: Glad to be here.
JAY: While there’s a fairly, it seems, dramatic division in many domestic questions between Obama and McCain, although not so much when it came to the bailout, but certainly on other questions, health care and some other issues, there hasn’t been a heck of a lot of difference on foreign policy. And that’s generally the American tradition, that the Democrats and Republicans, with some small exceptions, are mostly on the same page. Why is that? And might we see a new change in that?
ZINN: The history of the United States is a history of expansion. That’s sort of fundamental to what the United States has been from the very beginning. From the very end of the Revolutionary War, the nation began expanding westward. And everybody was caught up in that—Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives. Thomas Jefferson, who was an opponent of big governments and presumably of expansion, doubled the size of the country by the Louisiana Purchase. And so the country expanded westward and southward—southward through the Mexican War, westward through exterminating Indians, really, and destroying their civilizations, and then into the Caribbean, and then into the Pacific. And, yes, Republican and Democratic administrations both participated in this, because in all cases they were driven by economic motives. Polk was a Democrat when we went to the Mexican War, but he still was driven by the desire for more land. McKinley, a Republican during the Philippine War, driven by the riches he saw in the Philippines and in Asia. The Vietnam War, we had a succession of Democratic and Republican presidents all pursuing victory in Vietnam War, all pursuing the idea of planting an American base in Vietnam. And why? Because, as they confided to one another in their inter-office memos, because they’re interested in the tin, rubber, and oil of southeast Asia, and Vietnam was a nice base for guarding all of that. So, yes, Republican and Democratic administrations have been as one. And, after all, it was Jimmy Carter, presumably a sort of liberal Democrat, who declared a Carter doctrine, saying, "Oh, we’re prepared to use force to any extent in order to control the oil of the Middle East." So I’m not surprised that Obama, the Democratic candidate, has not departed in any really serious way from the militarist idea of American power in the world, because even though he calls for the reduction of American forces in Iraq—and it’s only a reduction; he’s [never] really talked about the complete withdrawal of American forces—but at the same time, he calls for sending more troops to Afghanistan, and at the same time, he talks about increasing our armed forces and maintaining a large military budget. So this is a disheartening thing about the American political system, that both major parties have in common an imperial quest for more power. And this, I think, bears on the presidential campaign, because what it does is to limit Obama in what he can say about domestic policy, because if Obama is really going to give everybody health care—and he hasn’t made that clear at all—if he really is going to make sure everybody has jobs, if he really is going to use government resources to take care of everybody in a decent way, the only way he can find this money to do this is by reducing the military budget. We’re spending $600 billion this year on the military, and it will take a bold move to reduce the military. Now, that means a bold change in American foreign policy, because so long as you have, as we have now, military bases in over 100 countries in the world—. I wonder how many Americans have taken that into consideration when they think of us as a peaceful, peace-loving, gentle nation, that we have military bases in 100 countries in the world. So long as we have military bases in 100 countries, we have a huge expense in sustaining these military bases.
JAY: In the election campaign, the only one that really talked about that with any seriousness was Ron Paul.
JAY: I mean, you didn’t really hear it from—. I guess Nader talks about it a bit, maybe Kucinich, but the real spokesperson on this—.
ZINN: Kucinich has always raised that question. It’s interesting: the people who raise that questions are people who are kept at the margin of the political system—Ron Paul, Kucinich, Nader.
JAY: Well, I guess the only thing that’s more sacrilegious than talking about taxes is talking about reductions in the military.
ZINN: That’s right. And yet public opinion polls that have taken over the decades have shown that the American people are not as militaristic as our leaders. The American people have been willing to cut the military budget, especially if you align that with more money for health, education, clean up the environment. When the American people are given no choice and they’re just asked, "Do you think we should have a strong military?" Oh, yes, everybody thinks we should have a strong military. But when you ask them: What would you rather have? More money for the military or more money for education and health? The answer in all these polls has always been the same, and the Democratic Party has not taken advantage of that.
JAY: Now, we haven’t heard, really, a word from Obama on any kind of reduction of the military budget. In fact, if anything, he’s talked about adding troops to the army. I mean, one, it’s not clear he wants to do it. And if he does want to do it, can he do it without having seeded it to some extent in the election campaign? And people will say he has no mandate to do it if he hasn’t talked about it.
ZINN: Once you become president, you can do what you want, as Bush has shown us.
ZINN: Yes, so long as you can persuade the American people that you’re doing the right thing. And I think that you can easily persuade the American people that the wealth of the country should be used to create a decent society here at home.
JAY: Let’s assume Obama does get elected, and you get a phone call at—it seems these calls only can come at three in the morning if they have to do with foreign policy. And it’s Barack, and he says, "Well, Howard, what do you think a rational foreign policy would be?" What are some very specific things you would suggest to him?
ZINN: Well, the specific things I would suggest would be to withdraw our military bases from other countries, withdraw our aircraft carriers from seas that are not immediately around the United States. But in order to do those specific things, you have to have a larger objective in mind. You have to have a larger philosophical decision that you’ve made. And the larger decision that you have to make, President Obama, the larger decision you have to make is that—and this is a tough one, and you have to think about this—that we are not going to engage in aggressive wars anymore. Once you make that decision, then you immediately free up huge sums of money to take care of real problems for us and for other people in the world. Make up your mind that we are no longer going to be a military superpower. We’ll be a humanitarian superpower. We’ll still be strong, we’ll still be wealthy, but we are not going to use our strength and we are not going to waste our wealth in military actions, because—and I think history bears this out—war is no longer viable as a way of solving problems in the world. I mean, if you look at Iraq, Afghanistan, here we are, the most powerful country in the world, and we cannot win a war in Iraq or win a war in Afghanistan. The Russians, powerful as they were, could not win a war in Afghanistan. Now, this is from a pragmatic point of view: do you win? But the question is: what is accomplished in the war? And the answer that we have, ever since World War II, is you don’t really change the world in a good direction with war.
JAY: In the next segment of our interview, let’s talk about where did this idea come that America is the beacon of freedom on the hill, and can Americans give up on that idea, ’cause it sure isn’t just Republicans that believe in that—there’s lots of Democrats that believe in that. Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Howard Zinn.
Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.