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Renowned Historian Howard Zinn on the History of Government and Media Lies in Time of War

StoryFebruary 13, 2003
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We go now to historian Howard Zinn. Howard Zinn is a historian and professor emeritus of political science at Boston University. He is the author of 14 books, including “A People’s History of the United States” and “You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train.” He talks about the history of government propaganda, as well as mainstream media propaganda in times of war.

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AMY GOODMAN: We go now to historian Howard Zinn, professor emeritus of political science at Boston University, well before that, Spelman College in Atlanta, author of 14 books, including A People’s History of the United States, talking about the history of government propaganda and mainstream media propaganda in times of war.

HOWARD ZINN: Sort of step back from the immediate, which is hard, right? Because the immediate is what we’re seeing on television. The immediate is what they want us to concentrate on. They want to sort of build a wall around Iraq and Saddam Hussein, and not look anywhere else in the world and not look back into history, just now, today. You know, inspections, U.N. resolutions, Colin Powell’s report, weapons of mass — that what we’re supposed to concentrate on, because it’s dangerous to let people look back into history, and it’s dangerous to let them extend their vision beyond where you want them to see, beyond the Iron Curtain. Let’s bring back that phrase, the Iron Curtain, which they have built around this little country in the Middle East, and we’re not supposed to look anywhere else.

When I say “they want,” you know who I mean by “they.” There is a “they,” right? You know, they are the ones who have taken over our country. Really. Do you ever wake up in the morning and look at the headlines and feel that you live in an occupied country? Really. Really. You know, yeah. So, they are the politicians and the generals and the press, the media, and sometimes the university presidents, whoever. Yeah, yeah. I don’t know why that excited people.

But so, I suggest we look a little back into history, a little diversion from the headlines and television and CNN and all of that. And one of the first things — it’s not that history can tell us definitively what is right and wrong in a present situation. It can’t. There’s always a possibility of something unique, right? But history can be suggestive. History can show persistencies, not inevitabilities, but persistencies. It can show probabilities. It can make you skeptical.

If you don’t know history, it’s as if you were born yesterday. And if you were born yesterday, anybody can get up there before the microphone, especially the leaders of the country, the authorities — anybody can get up there before the microphone and tell you we must go to war, for freedom, for democracy, for this, for that, for self-determination, for — to cement our alliances, you know, to win the Super Bowl, to — I mean, there’s always — you know, there are reasons, but anybody can get up there and give you any reasons. And if you don’t know any history, you don’t have any basis for questioning, really questioning what they do. So, yes, it’s good to go back, and it’s good to try to see patterns.

One of the patterns you see immediately is that governments lie. You know, I.F. Stone — some of you may remember that great journalist, one of the great journalists of the 20th century, I.F. Stone. He left these establishment newspapers that he worked for, and put out his little newsletter, I.F. Stone’s Weekly, and he would tell you things that you couldn’t read anywhere else. And his little newsletter became, you know, rather famous for getting information that you couldn’t get anywhere else. And he would be, after a while, invited to schools of journalism. And he’d speak to young people who were going to be journalists. And he would say, “Look, whatever else you remember from what I say, just remember two words: Governments lie.” A good starting point for any citizen, because what you find when you go back, especially when you go back to the history of wars and military interventions, you find a pattern of deception and lies, you know, going all the way back and coming down to the present.

You know, let’s go back to the Mexican War. I’m doing that because nobody goes back to the Mexican War, and I’d like to do something fresh and different. The Mexican War, some of you may remember it. Some of you may have been there, 1846. And President Polk said — I have to read his words, because, you know, they’re — they’re good. As we’re about to go to war with Mexico, right? “The cup of forbearance has been exhausted.” Sounded familiar to me, except that the language now is not as elegant. You know, now Bush is saying, “Oh, we can’t wait.” You know, I would welcome some really elegant language like “The cup of forbearance has been exhausted.” No, we’re not getting that, you see. And then he said, “American blood has been shed on American soil.” Well, actually, nobody knew what had happened there on that border between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande river in 1846, a clash between American soldiers and Mexican soldiers, disputed territory, not exactly American soil. But who knows? You know, the president tells you something. You weren’t there. OK, we’re ready to go.

Now, of course, there were other motives. It wasn’t just that there had been a clash, right? In fact, you know, before the Mexican War started, Polk had confided to his diary, “We need war with Mexico.” He probably said it more elegantly than I’m saying it now, because in those days people just spoke more elegantly. You know, even the bad guys spoke well, you see? Now the bad guys speak badly. But, of course, the real motives were the United States simply wanted Mexican territory. And when the war ended, we took, you know, like 40 to 50% of Mexican land — California, beautiful land, Arizona, New Mexico. Now we — of course, we don’t want them to come back into old Mexican territory. Now we build walls and set up barbed wire and have immigration guards to keep them from the territory we stole from them in 1848. But, you know, that’s the way things work, you know, in the world of international crime. So, lies and deception.

And there’s a Spanish-American War. Do you remember? 1898, Spanish-American War. And again, a precipitating event. You know, in the Mexican War, a clash on the border. In the Spanish-American War, the battleship Maine has blown up. Well, a terrorist act. They’ve done it to us. Nobody asks, “Hey, what was our battleship Maine doing in Havana Harbor?” Have you noticed that when something happens to one of our things, one of our destroyers or the USS Cole, you know, off the coast of Yemen or somewhere like that, you know, and something happens to it, and the question is: “Who did it, and why, and where are they?” And nobody asks, “What were we doing there?” And so, nobody asked, “What was the battleship Maine doing in Havana Harbor?”

But it blew up. Obviously, Spain did it. Well, there was no proof that Spain did it, but you don’t need proof, you see. And so, it’s one of those precipitating events that’s nice to have when you want to go to war. Of course, it turned out later, many, many, many years late, in fact, not until the 19— oh, I think ’60s or ’70s, that an investigating commission was set up under Admiral Rickover, and they discovered that the battleship Maine was blown up by a defect in the engine room. A little late, you see.

But we — so we went into Cuba. We also said, not only did the battleship Maine blow up to make us angry, but we also needed to liberate the Cubans from Spain, because this is what we do. We liberate people. And so we liberated Cuba from Spain. In fact, we did. It’s true. But we didn’t liberate Cuba from ourselves. We got Spain out, and we got American corporations in — American railroads, American banks, American investments, United Fruit, all of that, you know.

Shortly after the Spanish-American War, we’re — somehow we find that we have naval vessels and troops in the Philippines. Cuba is close. The Philippines is far. Hardly anybody knows where they are. When you talk about them, people think, “They must be off the coast of San Francisco.” No, no, they’re not. They’re really far away, the Philippines, you see. At this point, in 1899, shortly after the Spanish-American War, the secretary of war, Elihu Root, says, “The American soldier is different from all other soldiers of all other countries since the world began. He is the advance guard of liberty and justice, of law and order, and of peace and happiness.” It’s comforting to read that, if you knew nothing else.

Is it 1899 — but the American soldiers are in the Philippines, and there follows, from 1899, for the next several years, a long and bloody war to conquer the Philippines, in which almost a million Filipinos are killed, in which massacres take place, in which atrocities take place, in which 600 Moros in a southern Philippine island are totally wiped out, men, women and children, by an American regiment commanded by a general. And after that happens, Theodore Roosevelt congratulates the general for a great military victory, leading Mark Twain to comment acidly about Theodore Roosevelt and that great military victory.

But, no, our soldiers are different. There’s always this business of America is different. You know, we’re hearing that today. You know, we are different. If we are going to be an imperial power, we’re going to be a different imperial power. We’re not going to be like England and Belgium and France and Germany and all the other imperial powers. No, America is different. Except that when you look at what we do, after we parade our claim of difference, you find that we behave as all the other imperialists behave: We lie, and we commit atrocities. Even — well, I didn’t quite expect it from him, but Kipling said at one point, “If any question why we died/Tell them, because our fathers lied.” These are not little lies. These are lies that lead to deaths. These are lies that lead to huge numbers of deaths.

And so, the march of lies, the march of deception goes on as we get into war after war. You know, it happens in World War I. Presumably, we’re going into that war to — why? To save the world for democracy, to — the war to end all wars, or we’re going in just because the submarines are attacking merchant vessels. Well, of course, when somebody introduces a resolution in Congress suggesting that we should withdraw our merchant vessels from the area, oh, no, American honor is involved. Let’s keep the merchant vessels going. We need — well, they didn’t say that. It would be good to have the merchant vessels there. It would be good to have reason to go to war. And so we entered that slaughterhouse which was Europe in 1917, a war in which 10 million people died. Ten million soldiers died. Ten million civilians died of the after effects of malaria after the war. And after that, people looked around and asked, “What in the world were we fighting for?What was it — what was it all about?” Lies and deceptions again and again.

You know, and if you move more recently, of course, Vietnam. Read Daniel Ellsberg’s memoir of his his life in the United States State Department, Defense Department, U.S. Marines, RAND Corporation, and then his departure from that, and his release of these top-secret documents, which reveal American lies. But in his book, Secrets, he tells you very specifically all the instances in which the government of the United States lied, not just Republicans, Democrats. You know, lying is bipartisan.

So, and this goes — you know, this goes on, and always claims made. What did we claim that we were in Vietnam for? To stop communism. Sort of, if somebody thought for a minute: Are we worried that this little, little piece of Southeast Asia, this little peninsula, is going to go communist? That’ll be a really terrifying thing. Just north of that, a billion people have just gone communist. Right? Well, but no. Well, the truth is, precisely because a billion people have just gone communist, we really want a little corner of Southeast Asia, where we can have troops, where we can have a base. We need bases.

And although we’re telling the world and telling — certainly, telling the American people that we’re there for all sorts of reasons — self-determination of the Vietnamese, sort of an ironic thing. In order for the Vietnamese to have self-determination, we are sending 500,000 troops over there. And we’re telling them it’s for democracy, it’s for liberty, it’s for this, it’s for that. But when you look at the memos that go back and forth between the State Department and the National Security Council in the '50s, when the United States is first getting involved in Southeast Asia, and the memos are discussing why we are interested in Southeast Asia, what the memos talked about is tin, rubber and oil. Well, that's not — that’s not what the public is told, tin, rubber and oil. That’s embarrassing, to think that we are going to be in a war for years and years and years and kill lots of people and have lots of our own people killed for tin, rubber and oil. You’re not supposed to talk about that.

AMY GOODMAN: Howard Zinn, historian, speaking at The New School in New York just two nights ago. We’re going to come back to that speech in just a minute. But if you are going to be at a protest anywhere this weekend, we would like to ask you to email us your name, your cellphone number and what city you’ll be in. We’re going to be covering protests around the country and the world in our national broadcast on Saturday from the New York major demonstration, The World Says No to War. Our email address is That’s Also tell us what you’re doing in this time of war. You can call us. We’ll be playing comments, 212-209-2999, 212-209-2999. Just back in a moment.


AMY GOODMAN: You are listening to Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. By the way, we’re looking for volunteers to help us at the rally on Saturday. Please email us at Back to historian Howard Zinn speaking at New School University on Tuesday night.

HOWARD ZINN: At one point, President John F. Kennedy said Vietnam is an important piece of real estate. Well, and American people didn’t — weren’t actually — you see, he didn’t say this, you know, in a public address. But so there was a — what was told to the public was one thing, and what the reality was, you know, was something else.

And so, we still have this pattern. We have precipitating events. Of course, in the Vietnam case, the precipitating event was the Gulf of Tonkin incident in the summer of 1964. You know, they fired on our — right? — destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. Again, where is the Gulf of Tonkin? And what are our destroyers doing in the Gulf of Tonkin? Nobody asked that question. But they fired on our — of course, it turns out to be full of lies. I mean, I think McNamara made one statement about the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and in that one statement, they were like four separate lies. That’s an achievement.

So, yeah, precipitating incidents. Even when we invaded Panama, which hardly anybody remembers, because, you know, it’s no big deal. Right? It’s just Panama. It’s virtually ours. I mean, we can do what we want with Panama. And, you know, so what? How many people died? Not a lot, maybe a thousand or 2,000. Some neighborhoods destroyed. A lot of people displaced. But it’s something you do very quickly and get rid of, because — well, there was some precipitating event, as I recall, had something to do with an American sergeant who was insulted by a Panamanian, one of those very shadowy — you know, and our honor was at stake. And, of course, what we said we were doing, we were going after Noriega, this drug person, right? The man who was responsible for drug trade there, because, as you know, the United States government has always been against the drug trade — except when it was involved in the drug trade, you know. And so, that mayhem was done in Panama, and, sure enough, Noriega is captured, and he’s put on trial and so on. And then it’s forgotten about.

And then we have the Gulf War. And again, why are we going to the Gulf War? Because Kuwait has been taken over by Iraq. And, in fact, this is true. I mean, some of these precipitating events are real. This was real. Kuwait really was taken over by Saddam Hussein. But the question is: Is that why we went to war? Do we go to war every time one country invades another country? No, we had lots of invasions of one country by another country, we haven’t gone to war. There must have been something special about Kuwait. Could it have been the oil? Hard, hard to believe that. Hard to believe we’d go to war over oil. But it’s also hard to believe that the Bush Sr. was so heartbroken over the invasion of Kuwait that he decided something must be done. You know, his compassion led us into war, a war in which we don’t know how many people were killed in the Gulf War. The casualty lists were never counted. The reporters were not allowed to watch what was going on. The massacres of Iraqi troops who were retreating from Kuwait and gunned down and buried by American machinery into — buried alive into these graves. I mean, these things, reporters were not allowed to see what was happening. Huge numbers of people were killed in this war, presumably for the freedom of Kuwait. And then, of course, came the sanctions, and then hundreds of thousands of more people dead as a result of that. And so, it must have been something more, more than Kuwait.

And there, too, you know, the history of American policy in the Middle East suggests that American policy in the Middle East has been dominated by one concern ever since the end of World War II, ever since President Roosevelt met with Ibn Saud, the Saudi Arabian monarch. And they met in 1945, and they came to some kind of deal, where, OK, the United States is going to become the big player in the oil fields of the Middle East, and, in return, the Saudi monarchy is going to be protected by American power — which American power, in fact, has done since then, no matter how brutal this monarchy is. I mean, you talk about tyranny. You talk about the treatment of women. I mean, Saudi Arabia is the classic example. You talk about torture. You talk about executions. But, no, we made a promise to Saudi Arabia, and we’re keeping it, because of oil.

So, today, there’s no precipitating event. It would be easier for the Bush administration to go to war if there were a precipitating event. They may find one. You know, something may happen. But they don’t need one. They don’t need anything. They’re determined to go to war. That’s obvious, isn’t it? You see the news items over — and you go back. “Look, they have to agree to inspections.” OK, they agree to inspections. “They had better agree that we can inspect the palaces.” OK, you can inspect the palaces. You know. And one after one — of course, you can understand the Iraqis are doing this not because, you know, this lovely, the government is, you know, cooperative and beautiful. No, you know, they don’t want to be attacked by the United States. And so, the latest thing, the United States has demanded that it be allowed to have U-2 flights over Iraq. OK. They say yes. No, it’s not — nothing is enough. The Bush administration is determined to go to war.

And its only problem is that there are huge number of people in the world who are determined to stop that. And it’s a race to see whose determination is going to win out in the end. We may not have the time.

Let me say something else about the use of history in order to understand what’s going on now. I really expect us to go to war. I don’t think it’s inevitable, but I think it’s very, very likely. And we have to be prepared for that, even as we not stop our efforts to build up a huge antiwar movement, must never accept war as inevitable if it hasn’t started yet. And we’ve never had an antiwar movement that has moved as fast, grown as fast as this one in the United States in this time, before even the war has started. Never had such an experience. But I think we ought to be prepared.

Almost, in a sense, almost everything I have to say to you is a way of saying, because we have an enormous job of education and information to do, we have an enormous job of speaking to our fellow citizens, to our people in the workplace, to people in our neighborhood, wherever we can, we have an enormous job of spreading information that they can’t get from the Bush administration and from the TV networks. And so, I guess I’m talking to you and saying, you know, this is what we have to do. We have to reach out beyond the present. And we have to break down that wall that surrounds Iraq and look what’s — look what happened before, look what happened in Vietnam, look what happened in the first Gulf War, look around, look what’s happening in the rest of the world.

I suggest something else, that one of the things we can learn from history, so as to be prepared when this war does start, be prepared for the claims, because it’s going to be the most intensive bombing in history. You know that. The idea is to try to save as many American lives as possible. In order to save as many American lives as possible, you have to kill as many Iraqis as possible. You have to send the missiles into Baghdad, you know, in the first few days in the greatest barrage of destruction that has been seen in any war.

And what you will hear again and again, because there will be reports — despite the attempt of the administration to control the news, there will be reports coming through about people being killed, not just soldiers, not just the elite guard and the — no, just ordinary people, men, women and children. Reports are going to come through, and then Rumsfeld will get up before the television, or Bush will get up before the television, if they let him, and he’ll say, “Well, we’re sorry. We didn’t mean it. It was an accident.” Because you’ll hear this again and again. This is an accident, and that’s an accident, and the other is an accident, and the accidents will pile up. When the accidents pile up enough, you’ll begin to suspect, you know, that the nation is accident-prone. And you’ll begin to think about whether it really is an accident.

You know, yeah, I was a bombardier in the Air Force. And so, since then, I’ve always been interested in bombing. I’ve always been interested in the claims of, “well, we have smart bombs,” “we only bomb military targets,” “this is an accident.” When civilians are killed in bombing, it is not an accident. By that, I don’t mean that the pilot goes out and searches for civilians and deliberately kills civilians, although sometimes that happens. But I mean that when you bomb, no matter how smart the bombs — and don’t let them kid you about the smartness of bombs: Smart bombs are sent by dumb people. And, you know, they’re given coordinates to bomb by dumb intelligence agents. But these are not accidents, because when you bomb, you inevitably kill large numbers of innocent people. Inevitably. If it’s inevitable, it’s not an accident. If it’s inevitable, you cannot claim innocence. You cannot claim, you know, that, “Well, you have to accept this, because we didn’t mean it.” But you’re going to hear that again and again, have to be prepared for that again and again, and have to be prepared to explain to people — and it’s not hard to explain to people that if you drive a car at 80 miles an hour down a street crowded with children, and children die, and you say, “I didn’t mean to kill any children.” You know, you can’t — no, that cannot be accepted.

And they will tell you, “We only bomb military targets,” which is a lie. Of course, there are two elements to that lie. One is, they don’t only bomb military targets. And two is, they have strange definitions about what military targets are. For instance, Harry Truman said, really, Hiroshima was a military target. Really. Hiroshima was a military target. They think that all they have to do is declare something a military target, and it’s a military target. You know. And so, you have to be very careful about what a military target is. And a military target is, you know, well, this sewage treatment plant, this electrical system, this — all these things that, if they’re destroyed, will lead to the deaths of people, will lead to hospitals not being able to function, with babies dying when they don’t have to die. You know, but these are considered military targets.

AMY GOODMAN: Howard Zinn, historian, speaking at New School University just a few nights ago. And that does it for today’s program. If you’d like to get a video or audio copy of today’s show, you can call 1-800-881-2359, 1-800-881-2359. Democracy Now! is produced by Kris Abrams, Mike Burke, Angie Karran, Ana Nogueira, Alex Wolfe. Mike Di Filippo is our engineer. Our website is That’s Our email address, That’s I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for listening.

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