Historian Zinn Addresses Nation's Censored Reports

May 13, 1998


Howard Zinn

historian and activist who has authored numerous books, including A People’s History of the United States and his memoir, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train.

No other historian has attacked the distortions and myths about the history of the United States as forcefully as Howard Zinn. His book, A People’s History of the United States, tells history not from the perspective of the victors, but rather through the voices of the victims. A People’s History has become standard text in the struggle for justice in this country. Zinn has said that because history is not neutral, neither should historians be. He has been arrested numerous times for antiwar actions and other demonstrations, and has testified at several civil disobedience trials in this country on the importance of breaking unjust laws. Today we play for you a very powerful speech Howard Zinn gave just a few weeks ago at the Project Censored Awards in New York City, awards given to journalists who wrote stories censored or un-covered by the "corporate media." [includes rush transcript]


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: No other historian has attacked the distortions and myths about the history of the United States as forcefully as Howard Zinn. His book, A People’s History of the United States, tells history not from the perspective of the victors, but rather from the voices of the victims. A People’s History has become standard text in the struggle for justice in this country. Zinn has said that because history is not neutral, neither should historians be. He himself has been arrested numerous times for antiwar actions and other demonstrations and has testified at several civil disobedience trials in this country on the importance of breaking unjust laws.

Today on Democracy Now!, we want to play for you a powerful speech Zinn gave just a few weeks ago at the Project Censored Awards in New York City, awards given to journalists who wrote groundbreaking stories left almost untouched by the corporate media. Howard Zinn was the keynote speaker at the Project Censored Awards ceremony.

HOWARD ZINN: Well, thanks for inviting me here. Not everybody invites me. I was thinking about the common situation of journalists and historians and about the fact that both of us, both groups, are always exhorted to be professional and not to get emotional and not to get involved in what we do. Not long ago, I came across a book which was written for college professors called The Art and Politics of College Teaching. It’s a kind of a Machiavellian guide to success in the academic world. But it could also be a guide to success in the world of journalism. And it’s written in the form of questions. Question number nine: "Can I involve myself in causes, crusades and political activism?" Answer: "Be leery of introducing your political conclusions or social thought. Be on guard not to take sides. Play dumb." I tried. So we, all of us, are really not just journalists and historians, but, you know, all of us who are in the world, you know, always—whatever we’re doing, we’re urged to be neutral. And to be neutral in an unneutral world, that is, to be neutral in a world where thing are already happening—that is, children are already going hungry, wars are going on, and terrible things are going on—and you can’t—to be neutral in a world like that is to collaborate with whatever’s happening. And we don’t want to—the people we’re honoring here tonight have chosen not to collaborate.

We’re very often told that we must only give facts. I remember during the—I don’t know if you can remember back that far in history to that presidential race, and Dole spoke to the American Legion. Sometimes I mention the word "Dole," and people look at me quizzically. Dole? Who’s that? Dole? Yeah. Dole, pineapple, right? Dole. Dole spoke to the American Legion. He was very upset—which made me feel good, of course—and upset about the new history that’s being taught. You know, people are beginning to teach history in a new way. And he said, "Let’s not have these interpretations. Let’s just have facts. Just facts." Those of you who read Charles Dickens’ novel Hard Times may remember Gradgrind, the stereotype of a school teacher. Well, sometimes I wonder, was he really a stereotype, or was he a real school teacher? Which that thought bothered me. But he would say to his students, "Just give me facts, you know, only facts." But of course there’s no such thing as just a fact. Behind every fact is a judgment. And the judgment is made as to whether this fact is important enough to be presented. And at the same time, another judgment is made, and that is that there are facts that are not going to be presented. There are facts that, well, that lead people where they are, except maybe sleepier, and there are other facts that excite people to indignation and maybe to action.

Those are the facts that are exposed by the people whose stories are read by Project Censored and who are here tonight, and many who are not here tonight. So I’m very glad that tribute is being paid to them. They are really part of a long tradition of people who tell stories that have not been told. When I say a long tradition, I mean going back to the 15th century. It’s dangerous to invite a historian to speak. You know, he’ll start with Egypt, you know. You know, I remember—you know, I remember my high school teacher saying, "Why do we study history? To understand the present. Let me start with Egypt." You know, you’d get up to World War I. You know, but—forgive me.

I think of the Columbus story, and I think of what was omitted in the Columbus story that was told to generation after generation of students in this country, the same story over and over again, and of what was omitted. And Bartolomé de las Casas blew the whistle on Columbus. They didn’t use that phrase in those days, I guess, and especially Spanish priests didn’t use that phrase, but that’s what he did. He told the story of what Columbus and his men did to the natives of Hispaniola, told about the mutilations and the kidnappings and the murders. And the information has been available all these years, because las Casas wrote book after book after about this, but it was ignored. Well, recently, there’s begun to be a change in the telling of that story, and in 1992, when the quincentennial celebration took place, for the first time in Columbus Day celebrations, there were protests all over the country and counter-celebrations. And today, thousands of teachers are teaching the Columbus story in a different way, having broken through that censorship of the Columbus story. And I read the paper that a friend of mine who teaches on the West Coast and who is a sort of pioneer in spreading the word about Columbus to other teachers—I read a paper that one of his students wrote to him. Her name was Rebecca, and she said, "Now that I know all this about Columbus, I wonder what else have I been lied to about," you see. And that’s the important thing about bringing out stories that haven’t been told, that is, not only to inform people of something that is very, very significant and that they are not being told about, something that might lead them to make connections with other issues, you know, because the Columbus story is not just a matter of remedying the historical story about Columbus, it’s a matter of thinking about progress, thinking about dehumanization, thinking about greed, and thinking—and I guess maybe more important than anything, yes, thinking about what has been left out of all the stories that have been told to us.

And there are other examples like that. Well, there are many examples, and I’ll just list a few. But, oh, Peter mentioned Charles Beard. It’s interesting, I haven’t heard the name Charles Beard mentioned in a long time, and here I come here, you know, and I thought, "I’m going to spring the name of Charles Beard on this group." And Peter did it. But Beard, after all, there’s a story that was censored for a long time about the Constitution and the making of the Constitution and the Founding Fathers. And, well, you’re not supposed to say anything bad about the Founding Fathers. I mean, just to give them that title, "Founding Fathers," it makes any criticism of them seem like patricide, and so you’re not—I mean, the Founding Fathers—and, I mean, it’s true they were all very—they were smart, and also handsome and well dressed, you know. But when Beard, in 1913, wrote An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, he pointed out, just very calmly, having gone into the records of the Treasury Department and so on, that these 55 men did not simply, you know, out of the kindness of their heart, draw up a document that would be great for all people. No, these men had interests, and in writing this Constitution, they were serving the interests of the bondholders and slaveholders and manufacturers. And if they were writing a constitution, they would maintain the status quo. They were writing a constitution that was a reaction to Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts, a constitution that would keep things stabilized and prevent future insurrections.

And that process of omission of that story and trying to correct that omission has been going on throughout American history. In 1987, when we were celebrating the bicentennial of the Constitution, again, this enormous wave of self-congratulation of the Founding Fathers, the Constitution and, oh, Ronald Reagan. I keep mentioning these names that I thought maybe people have forgotten, and I always thought, well, maybe people will remember the airport. But Ronald Reagan wrote an essay that year of the bicentennial. Ronald Reagan wrote an essay about—it’s hard to believe, but he did—he wrote an essay, yeah, about the Constitution. It was published in one of the scholarly journals, a Parade Magazine. And in it, Reagan said, "This constitution, such a perfect work, it could only have been done by the guiding hand of God." Well, what can—you know, what can you say after that? During that bicentennial year, in this wave of adulation of this marvelous, marvelous document, there was one dissenting voice in higher circles, and that dissenting voice was a Supreme Court justice, the one black Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall, who, in the midst of all of this, spoke up and said, "Now, wait a while, about celebrating the Founding Fathers and the Constitution. You’re celebrating a document that legitimized slavery." He was trying to correct the record.

AMY GOODMAN: Historian Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States. We’ll be back with him in just a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!, The Exception to the Rulers. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue with a speech of historian Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States and his memoir, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train. He was speaking in New York City just a few weeks ago at the Project Censored Awards ceremony.

HOWARD ZINN: There was another story told over and over again in the history of this country told in classrooms, and that’s how I remember the story of the great economic miracle of the United States, the United States becoming a great industrial power. In that period between the Civil War and World War I, you know, the United States just did astounding things in the growth of the economy, of industry, and the railroads spanning the country, and the steel mills and the mines, and there were the heroes of this economic revolution. I remember we read about and heard about, again and again, Carnegie and Rockefeller and Vanderbilt and Harriman and Stanford and all the rest. But something was omitted. What was omitted was the story of the people who worked in those mills, the girls who went to work in the textile mills of New England at the age of 12 and died at the age of 25, or the Chinese and Irish immigrants who worked on the railroads and who got sick in the heat, and people who worked in Rockefeller’s oil refineries. That story was somehow left out.

And at the turn of the century, before the turn of the century, but—we began to get voices that tried to fill in that story, voices that tried to break through that censorship. We had 35,000 Populist orators going around the country trying to tell people about how, in the midst of this great economic miracle, the farmers of this country were suffering. And then we began to get the writings of Upton Sinclair and John Reed and Emma Goldman and Helen Keller, whose membership in the Socialist Party was censored out of the stories, those glorious stories told about her in all the classrooms of the country about this handicapped woman who had risen to great heights, but nothing about the fact that Helen Keller was a socialist and somebody who walked on picket lines and somebody who spoke out and wrote about what she called "social deafness" and "industrial blindness."

And that problem of filling in the story and counteracting the official story of economic miracles has continued throughout American history. In the 1920s, it was the Jazz Age and the age of prosperity, and everybody was doing fine. I mean, just recently, I saw on television, there was a program on the '20s, and the narrator said, "The road" — this is an exact quote, and I don't usually give exact quotes, but this was so dear to me — "The road to riches was wide open to everyone in the ’20s." And I had done work on Fiorello LaGuardia when he was congressman in the '20s in East Harlem, representing poor people in East Harlem. And I read the letters that his constituents from East Harlem wrote to him. And the letters were all about, "My husband is out of work. My kids don't have enough to eat. They’ve turned off the gas." But there were stories like this not only in East Harlem but all over the country. Under that surface of prosperity in the 1920s, there were people in distress all over the country. And, of course, that all came crashing down, as shaky edifices tend to do.

And today we’re going through the same thing. The President gets on before the television cameras and announces, "Oh, the country is in great economic shape," and he gives you the figures and, you know—and everybody—and the Dow Jones average has gone up, and it’s all—and the word is used again: the "economy" is good. And the economy is something that embraces everybody, you know. We all have the same interests, you know. I and Exxon have the same interests. You know. And, you know, the economy is sort of—Kurt Vonnegut used the word in one of his books, invented the word, I guess—strange that a writer should invent a word? A "granfalloon," a sort of a kind of great bubble of something which embraces everything and that needs to be sort of punctured in order to get at the complex truth. And, you know, today it’s the Dow Jones average. All you have to do is look at the Dow Jones average, which we’re told about every single day, every single night, as if that’s how you know how people are living. You want to know how people are living in Harlem? You want to know how people living in the Roxbury district of Boston, in the South Side of Chicago, in Appalachia? The Dow Jones average, yes.

But there are people today who are breaking through that and who are trying to tell the other story, the kind of people who are represented in the Project Censored Awards. And I think of—well, I think of people like Jim Hightower and, well, people like Barbara Ehrenreich and Frances Piven and Richard Cloward, people telling about the others, the others who are not represented in that very happy story about the economy.

There’s another kind of story that I became aware of—well, just—I was just thinking about it recently, because it’s a hundred years after the Spanish-American War. I don’t know if you’re celebrating. It was a great war, as you know. It was called "a splendid little war." Few casualties—does that sound familiar? Few American casualties; we don’t count the others, right? Only a few—really, only a few hundred American casualties in the military as the result of the war itself, which only lasted a few months. Thousands of American casualties due to poisoned beef supplied to the soldiers by the meat-packing companies of Chicago. I know we’re not accustomed to profit entering and leading to the loss of human life, but that’s what happened in Spanish-American War. But there’s an untold story. And because in school, in books in the classes, they told us about this great moment and Theodore Roosevelt riding up, you know, San Juan Hill with the Rough Riders, and then that took a certain amount of important space in the history books, and then a very tiny bit of space was allotted to one of the most censored stories of the 20th century: the story of the American conquest of the Philippines. The Spanish-American—the war on Cuba lasted a few months; the war on the Philippines lasted for eight years, and a brutal war, full of atrocities, in many ways a precursor of the Vietnam War. But there were people who had pointed this out, people who spoke up, people who tried to break through the censorship. One of them was Mark Twain. When a massacre took place in 1906 in the southern Philippines, a massacre of the Moros, the Muslims living in the southern islands of the Philippines, and the U.S. Army attacked these 600 Moros, who were sort of living in the hollow of a mountain, men, women and children, they attacked them, killed every single one of them. And Mark Twain pointed to this. He pointed to the congratulatory letter that President Theodore Roosevelt sent to the colonel who was in charge of this military operation. Theodore Roosevelt, of course, is up there on Mount Rushmore. I’ve tried to avoid South Dakota for years, [inaudible]. In the Soviet Union, they can actually knock down the statues of — right? — Lenin and Stalin. But what can you do to Mount Rushmore? You know, they really ought to make the statues of national leaders biodegradable, you know.

But there’s one—there’s one important set of stories that perhaps is the most censored kind of story in the United States today, and that is the story of those people who are resisting, those people all over the country who are not accepting what is going on, the people who know that there’s something corrupt and wrong about the political system, the people who know that beneath the talk of the sound economy, there’s a kind of sickness, which you can tell if you just look at the fact that one-fourth or one-fifth of the children in the country are living in poverty or that we have more people in prison than any other country in the world, that there must be some sickness in a society that is represented by that. And there are people who understand this, and there are people who are organizing, people who resist this.

I go around the country, and I—wherever I go, however small the town, there are always people, organized individuals, who are doing things, who are concerned, who are indignant about what is going on, who are acting. You know, you don’t hear about them, because they don’t appear in the media, and so people in one part of the country don’t know it’s happening in another part of the country. I mean, I go to Duluth, Minnesota, because I’m proud of having gone to Duluth, Minnesota—Duluth, Minnesota—and there are—you know, sort of it’s a gathering like this of 300 or 400 people in Duluth, Minnesota. And they’re in the back of the room. There are 12 tables, each representing a different organization in Duluth which is working on women’s rights or militarization or the problems of day care centers or—yeah, really. And you can multiply this around the country.

I go to Athens, Georgia, which I remember from when I lived in Atlanta as—I mean, Athens, the seat of the Confederacy. I mean, Athens, Georgia, was a place you talked about in hushed tones. And here, I was there when the bombing of Iraq seemed to be about to happen, and I spoke about that to a group of about 500 people in Athens, Georgia, and it seemed that everybody there agreed with me. And there in Athens, Georgia, there was a progressive bookstore, and there was a radical columnist on a major newspaper of Athens, Georgia, and there was an annual human rights festival in Athens.

I was in Asheville, North Carolina, and they told me about how, a few days before, the Ku Klux Klan had called a rally in Asheville. Twenty-eight people showed up for the Ku Klux Klan rally. A thousand citizens of Asheville showed up to protest the Ku Klux Klan rally, you see.

So, you know, I’m in Tallahassee, Florida, and the students there tell me that they have a project in which they are helping people in a nearby factory, you know, working in a mushroom factory and people who are immigrants and working for low wages and trying to unionize, and they are trying to help them unionize their plant. There are—all over this country, there are things like that going on that we don’t hear about and that the press doesn’t tell us about.

When I was in Olympia, Washington—I suddenly seem to be boasting about all the places that I’ve been at. You know, I don’t—all these glamorous places. Yeah, some people talk about going to Italy and, you know, Micronesia and so on, and, well, Duluth, it’s mine. But there is a kind of network of information, which—a kind of counter-media of community newspapers, of community radio stations, Radio Pacifica, David Barsamian’s Alternative Radio, you know, Roger Leisner and Radio Free Maine. And the—oh, I started to say I was in Olympia, Washington. And there, I learned—and you maybe learn about things years—they told me that during the Gulf War, 3,000 people in Olympia, which is the state capital of Washington—3,000 people in Olympia marched to the State Capitol, went inside and occupied the State Capitol in protest against the Gulf War. Nobody in any part of the country ever heard of it. However, they discovered that there had been an Italian television crew present that day, and four hours of that event appeared on Italian television, you see. But there are things happening in the culture which are not represented and—but which are there. And I think of Michael Moore’s films, you know, being seen by millions of people. I think of Our Bodies, Ourselves being read by millions of people in this country. And so, all of this is beneath that sort of nice surface of placidity and contentment and the Dow Jones average.

I was asked a couple of years ago—the Philadelphia Inquirer asked me to review a book on Vietnam. And, well, I was interested, because the book was written by a conservative who I knew was against the antiwar movement, and so, in a kind of state of masochism, I decided, yes, I’ll review the book. Well, it was interesting to me, because in this book, he said, well, President Bush thinks that the Vietnam syndrome—you know, the Vietnam syndrome, which is looked upon as a kind of sickness, that is, that people developed a revulsion against war that’s very sick, you know, and that the Vietnam syndrome—Bush had said, "The Vietnam syndrome is buried forever in the sands of the Arabian Peninsula." A real poet. And this writer said, "No, that’s not true. That’s not true at all." He wrote in a very worried way. He said, "There is a permanent adversarial culture in this country." And he was sort of warning his fellow conservatives about this, a permanent adversarial culture. And I think that’s true. And that culture, who knows where it will lead? Because that’s what happens. Before—before important changes take place, the things happen underneath the surface, and things develop, and at a certain point in history, and you don’t know when, things come together, and you get a national movement, and change takes place. The people we are honoring here tonight, and I would guess the people in this room and millions of people in this country, are part of that promising permanent adversarial culture. So, that’s something to feel good about. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Howard Zinn, historian and activist, he has authored numerous books, including A People’s History of the United States and his memoir, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train. He was speaking recently in New York City at the Project Censored Awards. You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

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