Tikkun Magazine, November/December 2004

On Howard Zinn 

By Noam Chomsky

The country has changed a great deal since Howard Zinn boarded his "moving train" a half-century ago. It has changed along very different trajectories. Some have been rich in achievement, often exhilarating, and full of promise for a better future. Others, in part in reaction to them, are ugly and ominous in their import. Which will prevail? It's hard to overestimate the significance of the question. It's hard to think of a better way to gain a clear understanding of what is at stake, and what can be done about it, than by reading, and pondering, the fascinating story of Howard Zinn's crucial and intimate participation at every point, in thought and action.

One trajectory is illuminated by warnings from prominent figures, in the leading establishment journal Foreign Affairs, that for much of the world--probably most of it—the United States is "becoming the rogue superpower," which they consider to be "the single greatest external threat to their societies" (Samuel Huntington, March/April 1999); "in the eyes of much of the world, in fact, the prime rogue state today is the United States" (Robert Jervis, then chair of the American Political Science Association, July/August 2001). That was well before the Bush administration announced a doctrine that sent many shudders around the world, including substantial sectors of the foreign policy elite at home: that the United States intends to rule the world by military force, the dimension in which it reigns supreme, and to rely on aggressive war (mislabeled "preemption") to bar any potential challenge to its domination. Many analysts warned at once that the "new imperial grand strategy" announced in September 2002 threatens to "leave the world more dangerous and divided—and the United States less secure" (John Ikenberry, September/October 2002). One indication, revealed by public opinion research a few months later, was a sharp increase in fear of the United States around much of the world, and dislike or even loathing of its political leadership. Another was a reported increase in recruitment for al Qaeda-style terrorist organizations as a result of the Iraq invasion, and apparent acceleration of moves toward proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Closely integrated with Bush administration global planning is the dedicated effort at home to accelerate the Reaganite program of dismantling the progressive legislation of the twentieth century, which grew out of the popular struggles of the conflicting trajectory.

Changes resulting from the activism of the past half-century are indeed dramatic. The country has become far more civilized as a result. The driving force in the early years was the Civil Rights movement, spearheaded by the young people for whom Zinn was a mentor and a participant in their courageous initiatives—the "new abolitionists" of SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee], whose triumphs and travails he recorded memorably, in part from firsthand experience. Atlanta, where he began to teach in an African American women's college in 1956, underwent a remarkable transformation, as did the South in general, with effects throughout the country.

Attitudes toward the resort to violence have also been transformed. Forty years ago John F. Kennedy was able to attack South Vietnam, arousing little interest or concern. It is scarcely even remembered that in 1962, his government initiated the bombing of South Vietnam that demolished much of the country, along with chemical warfare to destroy crops and ground-cover and programs to drive millions of villagers into what amounted to concentration camps, in which they would be "protected" from the indigenous guerrillas who, the administration knew, they were willingly supporting.

Opposition to the Vietnam War, much of it stimulated by the Civil Rights movement, was slow in coming, but finally became a considerable force. Throughout, Zinn was a constant, indefatigable, inspiring presence. His book on "the logic of withdrawal" provided the first careful, sustained argument for commitments that were just coming to animate sectors of the popular activist movements, and was an important stimulus for them. A year later, after the January 1968 Tet offensive, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were reluctant to respond to the president's request to send more troops to Vietnam because they were uncertain that "sufficient forces would still be available for civil disorder control" as protests mounted against the war, joining with other rising popular movements. The Department of Defense feared that further troop deployments might provoke "a domestic crisis of unprecedented proportions." By 1969, 70 percent of the population described the war as "fundamentally wrong and immoral," not "a mistake," departing sharply from the elite consensus; the figures have remained fairly stable to the present, even though they receive virtually no articulate support within the mainstream.

Influential radical nationalist ("neocon") commentators deplored "the sickly inhibitions against the use of military force" that were hobbling policymakers (Norman Podhoretz, New York Times, October 30, 1985). As it took office in 1981, the Reagan administration, in a triumphant mood, assumed that the sickly inhibitions had faded, but quickly learned otherwise. Facing a serious threat to traditional centers of violence and repression in Central America, they attempted to follow the Kennedy model of South Vietnam. But they drew back in the face of an unanticipated public reaction, resorting instead to clandestine terror: "clandestine," in the sense that it could be more or less concealed from the American public.

But not completely concealed. Popular opposition to terrible Central American atrocities organized or supported by Washington was broad-based, more so on Main Street than in elite centers. It also opened new paths in the history of opposition to imperial violence. Many thousands of people, often from generally conservative social sectors, were not satisfied with educational efforts, protest, and resistance, but went to live with the victims, to offer help, and also, by their presence, to offer at least some limited protection against state and paramilitary terror. Few had ever contemplated living in a Vietnamese or Algerian village under brutal attack by their own state, just to take a few recent examples; nor had this been considered before. The international solidarity movements that developed from these roots have since spread to large parts of the world, compiling a very honorable record of courage and dedication. In the same years, popular movements concerned with the threat of possibly terminal nuclear war became a force that could no longer be ignored.

When Bush #1 took office in 1989, his administration was presented with an intelligence analysis advising that in conflicts with "much weaker enemies"—any imaginable case—the United States must "defeat them decisively and rapidly," or "political support" would erode. It was no longer the 1960s. Tolerance for aggression and terror had sharply declined among the general public. Forty years after Kennedy's war against South Vietnam was publicly launched, there were huge and unprecedented protests against a war even before it was officially announced, not delayed until many years later when the targeted country was "threatened with extinction."

By the 1990s, solidarity movements were taking new forms. In the United States, and throughout much of the industrial world, large-scale global justice movements were forming, and joined with mass-based popular movements in the South to work for new directions in global economic integration, shifting priorities from investor and corporate rights—the policies called "globalization" within the doctrinal system—to the needs of the general population for freedom, democracy, and equitable and sustainable development. These and related popular movements, bringing together many concerns of prime significance and drawing from many social sectors, began to gain some institutional form in the World Social Forum that has met annually in Brazil, by now with many regional offshoots and with participation rising steadily in scale, energy, and enthusiasm.

There is, of course, no single source for these complex and multifaceted historical processes. They grow from the sources that Howard Zinn has highlighted and brought to general awareness in his historical work, and contributed to so impressively in his life of engagement and dedication: in his words, "the countless small actions of unknown people" that lead to "those great movements" that enter the historical record—a record that will be profoundly misleading, and seriously disempowering, if torn from its roots.

There are people whose words have been highly influential, and others whose actions have been an inspiration to many. It is a rare achievement to have interwoven both of these strands in one's life, as Howard Zinn has done. His writings have changed the consciousness of a generation, and helped open new paths to understanding history and its crucial meaning for our lives. He has always been on call, everywhere, a marvel to observe. When action has been called for, one could always be confident that he would be on the front lines, an example and trustworthy guide.

It has been a wonderful privilege to have been able to join Howard on his "moving train" on many occasions over these years of challenge, inspiration, torment, and persistent concern over impending catastrophe. Like everyone who knows him, I, too, have been struck by his enduring optimism, which goes well beyond "optimism of the will" and challenges us also to question the "pessimism of the intellect" that complements it in the slogan that Antonio Gramsci made famous: "Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will." Howard's life and work are a persistent reminder that our own subjective judgments of the likelihood of success in engaging human problems are of little interest, to ourselves or others. What matters is to take part, as best we can, in the small actions of unknown people that can stave off disaster and bring about a better world, to honor them for their achievements, to do what we can to ensure that these achievements are understood and carried forward.

Excerpted from HOWARD ZINN: The People's History Project--Volume One. AK Press/Alternative Tentacles Records, 2004. (www.akpress.org). [c] Copyright AK Press, 2004.

Noam Chomsky is a renowned scholar, founder of the modern science of linguistics, political and social analyst, media critic, tireless lecturer and author of more than 100 books, CDs and DVDs. He is Professor of Linguistics and Philosophy at MIT.

tags: US Politics  
Tip Jar Email Bookmark and Share RSS Print
Get Tikkun by Email -- FREE

COMMENT POLICY Please read our comments policy. We invite constructive disagreement but do not accept personal attacks and hateful comments. We reserve the right to block hecklers who repost comments that have been deleted. We do have automated spam filters that sometimes miscategorize legitimate comments as spam. If you don't see your comment within ten minutes, please click here to contact us. Due to our small staff it may take up to 48 hours to get your comment posted.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *