Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein and Alice Walker Reflect on the Death of Howard Zinn
AMY GOODMAN: [Howard Zinn] died suddenly Wednesday of a heart attack at the age of eighty-seven.
After serving as a bombardier in World War II, Howard Zinn went on to become a lifelong dissident and peace activist. He was active in the civil rights movement and many of the struggles for social justice over the past fifty years.
He taught at Spelman College, the historically black college for women. He was fired for insubordination for standing up for the students. While at Spelman, he served on the executive committee of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. After being forced out of Spelman, Zinn became a professor at Boston University.
In 1967 he published Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal. It was the first book on the war to call for immediate withdrawal, no conditions. A year later, he and Father Daniel Berrigan traveled to North Vietnam to receive the first three American prisoners of wars released by the North Vietnamese.
When Daniel Ellsberg needed a place to hide the Pentagon Papers before they were leaked to the press, he went to Howard and his late wife Roz.
In 1980, Howard Zinn published his classic work, A People’s History of the United States. The book would go on to sell over a million copies and change the way we look at history in America. The book was recently made into a television special called The People Speak.
Well, in a moment, we’ll be joined by Noam Chomsky, Alice Walker, Naomi Klein, Anthony Arnove. But first, I want to turn to a 2005 interview I did with Howard Zinn, in which he talked about his time as an Air Force bombardier in World War II.
HOWARD ZINN: Well, we thought bombing missions were over. The war was about to come to an end. This was in April of 1945, and remember the war ended in early May 1945. This was a few weeks before the war was going to be over, and everybody knew it was going to be over, and our armies were past France into Germany, but there was a little pocket of German soldiers hanging around this little town of Royan on the Atlantic coast of France, and the Air Force decided to bomb them. Twelve hundred heavy bombers, and I was in one of them, flew over this little town of Royan and dropped napalm—first use of napalm in the European theater.
And we don’t know how many people were killed or how many people were terribly burned as a result of what we did. But I did it like most soldiers do, unthinkingly, mechanically, thinking we’re on the right side, they’re on the wrong side, and therefore we can do whatever we want, and it’s OK. And only afterward, only really after the war when I was reading about Hiroshima from John Hersey and reading the stories of the survivors of Hiroshima and what they went through, only then did I begin to think about the human effects of bombing. Only then did I begin to think about what it meant to human beings on the ground when bombs were dropped on them, because as a bombardier, I was flying at 30,000 feet, six miles high, couldn’t hear screams, couldn’t see blood. And this is modern warfare.
In modern warfare, soldiers fire, they drop bombs, and they have no notion, really, of what is happening to the human beings that they’re firing on. Everything is done at a distance. This enables terrible atrocities to take place. And I think, reflecting back on that bombing raid and thinking of that in Hiroshima and all the other raids on civilian cities and the killing of huge numbers of civilians in German and Japanese cities, the killing of 100,000 people in Tokyo in one night of fire-bombing, all of that made me realize war, even so-called good wars against fascism like World War II, wars don’t solve any fundamental problems, and they always poison everybody on both sides. They poison the minds and souls of everybody on both sides. We’re seeing that now in Iraq, where the minds of our soldiers are being poisoned by being an occupying army in a land where they are not wanted. And the results are terrible.
AMY GOODMAN: After returning from the war, Howard Zinn attended New York University on the GI Bill. He then received his master’s and doctoral degrees in history from Columbia University.
In the late ’50s, Howard Zinn moved to Atlanta to teach at all-black women’s school Spelman, where he became deeply involved in the civil rights movement. We’re joined now by one of his former students, the author and poet Alice Walker. She’s joining us now from her home in Mexico.
Alice, welcome to Democracy Now! So sad to talk to you on this day after we learned of the death of Howard Zinn.
ALICE WALKER: Thank you very much for inviting me to talk.
AMY GOODMAN: But talk about your former teacher.
ALICE WALKER: Well, my former teacher was one of the funniest people I have ever known, and he was likelier to say the most extraordinary things at the most amazing moments.
For instance, in Atlanta once, we get to this very staid, at that time, white college, all these very staid, upper-class white girls there and their teachers, and Howie got up—I don’t know how they managed to invite him, but anyway, there we were. And this was even before any of the changes in Atlanta. We were still battling to get into restaurants. So Howie gets up, and he goes up to the front of the room, and this large room is full of people, and he starts his talk by saying, “Well, I stand to the left of Mao Zedong.” And it was just—it was such a moment, because the people couldn’t imagine anyone in Atlanta saying something like that, when at that time the Chinese and the Chinese Revolution just meant that, you know, people were on the planet who were just going straight ahead, a folk revolution. So he was saying he was to the left of that. So, it’s just an amazing thing.
I think I felt he would live forever. And I feel such joy that I was lucky enough to know him. And he had such a wonderful impact on my life and on the lives of the students of Spelman and of millions of people. We’ve just been incredibly lucky to have him for all these years, eighty-seven. That’s such a long time. Not long enough. And I’m just so grateful.
AMY GOODMAN: Alice, Howard Zinn was thrown out of Spelman College—right?—as a professor, for insubordination, although recently they gave him an honorary degree, and he addressed the graduating class. Why was he thrown out?
ALICE WALKER: Well, he was thrown out because he loved us, and he showed that love by just being with us. He loved his students. He didn’t see why we should be second-class citizens. He didn’t see why we shouldn’t be able to eat where we wanted to and sleep where we wanted to and be with the people we wanted to be with. And so, he was with us. He didn’t stay back, you know, in his tower there at the school. And so, he was a subversive in that situation.
And, of course, the administration could expel the students for activism. And I left Spelman because I sort of lost my scholarship, but I had stayed. That was one of the ways they controlled us. And they tried to control him, but of course you couldn’t control Howie. And so, they even waited until he had left for the summer vacation to fire him, to fire him. They didn’t fire him face to face. But, yeah, he was, you know, a radical and a subversive on the campus, as far as they were concerned. And our freedom was just not that important to the administration. What they needed was for us not to rock the boat.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Noam Chomsky, who’s still with us on the phone from Boston. Noam, I wanted to ask you about Howard Zinn’s role in the antiwar movement in the ’60s. In 1968, Howard Zinn traveled to North Vietnam with Father Daniel Berrigan to bring home three US prisoners of war. They became two of the first Americans to visit North Vietnam during the war. This is Howard Zinn speaking in 1968 after he returned to the United States.
HOWARD ZINN: Father Berrigan and I, on our way back—this may seem presumptuous on our part, but when—on our way back in from Paris, we sent a wire, I think with our last fifteen bucks, to the White House, saying something like, “We’d like to talk to you, President Johnson. You know, would you please meet with us? We’ve just come back from Hanoi. We’ve just talked with the premier, Pham Van Dong. But we just read in the newspaper that you say the North Vietnamese are not ready to negotiate. What we learned from Pham Van Dong seems to contradict that. We’d like to talk with you about this and about the prisoner release, which we think has been mishandled.” But we have not, so far, seen an answer from LBJ.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Howard Zinn. Noam Chomsky, talk about this period. Talk about the time Howard Zinn went with Father Dan Berrigan to North Vietnam and what it meant.
NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, that was a breakthrough at recognizing the humanity of the official enemy. Of course, the main enemy were the people of South Vietnam, who were practically destroyed. South Vietnam had been devastated by then. And that was important.
But, at least in my view, the most—the more important was his—the book you mentioned before, The Logic of Withdrawal. And there was, by then—so I think this must have been 1967—you know, a substantial antiwar movement, but it was keeping to palliatives, you know, stop doing these terrible things, do less, and so on. Howard really broke through. He was the first person to say—loudly, publicly, very persuasively—that this simply has to stop; we should get out, period, no conditions; we have no right to be there; it’s an act of aggression; pull out.
Actually, he—that was so surprising at the time—it became more commonplace later—that he couldn’t even—there wasn’t even a review of the book. In fact, he asked me if I would review it in Ramparts just so that—which, you know, left-wing journal I was running then—just so somebody—people would see it. So I did that.
But it sank in pretty quickly, and it just changed the way people looked at the war. And in fact, that was one of his fabulous achievements all along. He simply changed people’s perspectives, both by his argument and his courage and his integrity and his willingness to be on the front line all the time and his simplicity and, as Alice Walker said, his humor. This is one case, the war. His People’s History is another case. I mean, it simply changed the conscience of a whole generation.
There had been some studies, you know, of the sort of actions from below, but he raised it to an entirely new plane. In fact, the phrase of his that always rings in my mind is his reverence for and his detailed study of what he called “the countless small actions of unknown people” that lead to those great moments that enter the historical record, a record that you simply can’t begin to understand unless you look at those countless small actions.
And he not only wrote about them eloquently, but he participated in them. And he inspired others to participate in them. And the antiwar movement was one case, civil rights movement before it, Central American wars in the 1980s. In fact, just about any—you know, office worker strikes—just about anything you can—any significant action for peace and justice, Howard was there. People saw him as a leader, but he was really a participant. His remarkable character made him a leader, even if he was just sitting on the—you know, waiting for the police to pull people away like everyone else.
AMY GOODMAN: Noam, in 1971—you may remember this; in fact, you may have been there, but Howard Zinn and Daniel Ellsberg were both beaten by police in Boston at a protest against the Vietnam War. One day before the beating, Zinn spoke at a large rally on Boston Common. This is an excerpt from the documentary You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train.
HOWARD ZINN: A lot of people are troubled by civil disobedience. As soon as you talk about committing civil disobedience, they get a little upset. That’s exactly the purpose of civil disobedience: to upset people, to trouble them, to disturb them. We who commit civil disobedience are disturbed, too, and we mean to disturb those who are in charge of the war.
DANIEL ELLSBERG: He said at the end of his speech, I remember, he said, “Now let me address the secret police in this crowd.”
HOWARD ZINN: You agents of the FBI who are circulating in the crowd, hey, don’t you see that you’re violating the spirit of democracy by what you’re doing? Don’t you see that you’re behaving like the secret police of a totalitarian state?
DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, that cost him a bit, I think, the next day when we were sitting in front of the Federal Building, I have a feeling, because, again, the police chose in the end to arrest almost no one. They didn’t want arrests. They didn’t want a trial. They didn’t want the publicity that would be associated with that. They only arrested a couple of ring leaders, and one of those was Howard.
HOWARD ZINN: And so, let the spirit of disobedience spread to the war factories, to the battlefield, to the halls of Congress, to every town and city, until the killing stops, until we can hold up our heads again before the world. And our children deserve a world without war, and we ought to try to give them that.
DANIEL ELLSBERG: And at that point, the batons were raised, and they began clubbing us very heavily. Howard was pulled up, as I say. His shirt was ripped apart. He was taken away. And I saw blood coming down his chest as he left.
AMY GOODMAN: That was an excerpt of the documentary You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, was also the title of Howard Zinn’s autobiography.
Noam, we just have a minute left in this segment, but talk about that activism.
NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, that case is very similar to what Howard described about his bombing attack. I mean, the police were actually sympathetic, the individual policemen. They were coming over to demonstrators, you know, speaking supportively. And in fact, when they were given the order to move forward, they were actually telling people, Howard and others, “Look, please move, because we don’t want to do this.” But then, when the order came, they did it. I don’t know who. But it’s much like he said: when you’re in uniform, under arms, an automaton following orders, you do it.
And as Dan pointed out, they went right after Howard, probably in reaction to his comments the day before. And he was dragged away and beaten.
But he was constantly involved with civil disobedience. I was many times with him, as Dan Ellsberg was and others. And he was just—he was fearless. He was simple. He was straightforward. He said the right things, said them eloquently, and inspired others to move forward in ways they wouldn’t have done, and changed their minds. They changed their minds by their actions and by hearing him. He was a really—both in his life and in his work, he was a remarkable person, just irreplaceable.
AMY GOODMAN: Noam, you were personal friends with Howard, too. You and Carol, Howard and Roz spent summers near each other on the Cape.
NOAM CHOMSKY: Yeah, we were personal friends, close personal friends for many years, over forty years. So it’s, of course, a personal loss. But it’s beyond—even beyond his close friends and family, it’s just a tragic loss to the millions of people—who knows how many endless numbers?—whose lives he touched and changed and helped them become much better people.
The one good thing is that he understood and recognized them, sure, especially in those last remarkable, vibrant years of his life, how much his incredible contributions were welcomed, admired, how much he was loved and admired, and he could look back on a very satisfying life of real unusual achievement.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Noam Chomsky, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Noam is a linguist, a world-renowned dissident and a close friend of Howard Zinn. And Alice Walker, thanks, as well, for joining us from Mexico, former student and friend of Howard Zinn.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’ll hear more of Howard in his own words, and we’ll be joined by Anthony Arnove, his co-editor and colleague. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: We’ll be joined by Anthony Arnove and Naomi Klein, but on this sad day, the day after the news of Howard Zinn’s death, I want to turn to one of the last interviews we did with him. It was May 2009. He came to New York to promote his latest book.
AMY GOODMAN: You write in the introduction to A Young People’s History of the United States, “Over the years, some people have asked me: ‘Do you think that your history, which is radically different than the usual histories of the United States, is suitable for young people? Won’t it create disillusionment with our country? Is it right to be so critical of the government’s policies? Is it right to take down the traditional heroes of the nation, like Christopher Columbus, Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt?’”
HOWARD ZINN: Yeah, it’s true that people have asked that question again and again. You know, should we tell kids that Columbus, whom they have been told was a great hero, that Columbus mutilated Indians and kidnapped them and killed them in pursuit of gold? Should we tell people that Theodore Roosevelt, who is held up as one of our great presidents, was really a warmonger who loved military exploits and who congratulated an American general who committed a massacre in the Philippines? Should we tell young people that?
And I think the answer is: we should be honest with young people; we should not deceive them. We should be honest about the history of our country. And we should be not only taking down the traditional heroes like Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt, but we should be giving young people an alternate set of heroes.
Instead of Theodore Roosevelt, tell them about Mark Twain. Mark Twain—well, Mark Twain, everybody learns about as the author of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, but when we go to school, we don’t learn about Mark Twain as the vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League. We aren’t told that Mark Twain denounced Theodore Roosevelt for approving this massacre in the Philippines. No.
We want to give young people ideal figures like Helen Keller. And I remember learning about Helen Keller. Everybody learns about Helen Keller, you know, a disabled person who overcame her handicaps and became famous. But people don’t learn in school and young people don’t learn in school what we want them to learn when we do books like A Young People’s History of the United States, that Helen Keller was a socialist. She was a labor organizer. She refused to cross a picket line that was picketing a theater showing a play about her.
And so, there are these alternate heroes in American history. There’s Fannie Lou Hamer and Bob Moses. They’re the heroes of the civil rights movement. There are a lot of people who are obscure, who are not known. We have in this Young People’s History, we have a young hero who was sitting on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to leave the front of the bus. And that was before Rosa Parks. I mean, Rosa Parks is justifiably famous for refusing to leave her seat, and she got arrested, and that was the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and really the beginning of a great movement in the South. But this fifteen-year-old girl did it first. And so, we have a lot of—we are trying to bring a lot of these obscure people back into the forefront of our attention and inspire young people to say, “This is the way to live.”
AMY GOODMAN: Yes, that was Howard Zinn. We’re joined now by Anthony Arnove in New York, by Naomi Klein here at Sundance, where Howard Zinn was last year, premiering The People Speak. He was here with Anthony Arnove, who’s co-author of Voices of a People’s History of the United States with Anthony.
Anthony, we just have a few minutes, but share your reflections on the latest work of Howard Zinn. I know this is a tremendous personal loss for you, as well as for everyone.
ANTHONY ARNOVE: Well, you know, Howard never rested. He had such an energy. And over the last few years, he continued to write, continued to speak, and he brought to life this history that he spoke about in that segment that you just aired. He wanted to bring a new generation of people into contact with the voices of dissent, the voices of protest, that they don’t get in their school textbooks, that we don’t get in our establishment media, and to remind them of the power of their own voice, remind them of the power of dissent, the power of protest. And he wanted to leave a legacy of crystallizing those voices, synthesizing those voices.
And he actively worked to bring together this remarkable documentary, The People Speak, which he narrated. He worked so tirelessly to bring that about. And, you know, I just felt so privileged to have had the opportunity to work with him at all, let alone on this project, and to see that realized.
But, you know, Alice Walker talked about his humor, his sense of joy in life, and that was infectious. He really conveyed to everyone he came into contact with that there was no more meaningful action than to be involved in struggle, no more fulfilling or important way of living one’s life than in struggle fighting for justice. And so many people, myself included, but, you know, millions of people around the world, countless number of people, they changed their lives by encountering Howard Zinn—Howard changed their lives—reading A People’s History of the United States, hearing one of his lectures, meeting him, hearing him on the radio, reading an article he wrote. He really inspired people to create the kinds of movements that brought about whatever rights, whatever freedoms, whatever liberties we have in this country. And that really is the legacy that it’s incumbent upon all of us to extend and keep alive and keep vibrant.
AMY GOODMAN: Anthony, I wanted to bring Naomi Klein back into this discussion. I think it’s very touching we’re here at Sundance, where you were with Howard Zinn last year, as he premiered People Speak. But last night, after Howard died, we saw the New York Times put up the AP, the Associated Press, obit. The Times has something like 1,200 obits already prepared for people. They didn’t have one prepared for Howard Zinn. And this Associated Press obit very quickly went to a quote of Arthur Schlesinger, the historian, who once said, “I know”—he’s talking about Howard Zinn—“I know he regards me as a dangerous reactionary. And I don’t take him very seriously. He’s a polemicist, not a historian.” Naomi Klein, your response?
NAOMI KLEIN: I don’t think that would have bothered Howard Zinn at all. He never was surprised when power protected itself. And he really was a people’s historian, so he didn’t look to the elites for validation.
I’m just so happy that Anthony and the incredible team from People Speak gave Howard this incredible gift at the end of his life. I was at Lincoln Center at the premiere of People Speak and was there when just the mention of Howard’s name led thousands of people to leap to their feet and give him the standing ovation that he deserved. So I don’t think he needed the New York Times. I don’t think he needed the official historians. He was everybody’s favorite teacher, the teacher that changed your life, but he was that for millions and millions of people. And so, you know, that’s what happened. We just lost our favorite teacher.
But the thing about Howard is that the history that he taught was not just about losing the official illusions about nationalism, about the heroic figures. It was about telling people to believe in themselves and their power to change the world. So, like any wonderful teacher, he left all of these lessons behind. And I think we should all just resolve to be a little bit more like Howard today.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s end with Howard Zinn in his own words, from one of his last speeches. He spoke at Boston University just two months ago in November.
HOWARD ZINN: No matter what we’re told, no matter what tyrant exists, what border has been crossed, what aggression has taken place, it’s not that we’re going to be passive in the face of tyranny or aggression, no, but we’ll find ways other than war to deal with whatever problems we have, because war is inevitably—inevitably—the indiscriminant massive killing of huge numbers of people. And children are a good part of those people. Every war is a war against children.
So it’s not just getting rid of Saddam Hussein, if we think about it. Well, we got rid of Saddam Hussein. In the course of it, we killed huge numbers of people who had been victims of Saddam Hussein. When you fight a war against a tyrant, who do you kill? You kill the victims of the tyrant. Anyway, all this—all this was simply to make us think again about war and to think, you know, we’re at war now, right? In Iraq, in Afghanistan and sort of in Pakistan, since we’re sending rockets over there and killing innocent people in Pakistan. And so, we should not accept that.
We should look for a peace movement to join. Really, look for some peace organization to join. It will look small at first, and pitiful and helpless, but that’s how movements start. That’s how the movement against the Vietnam War started. It started with handfuls of people who thought they were helpless, thought they were powerless. But remember, this power of the people on top depends on the obedience of the people below. When people stop obeying, they have no power. When workers go on strike, huge corporations lose their power. When consumers boycott, huge business establishments have to give in. When soldiers refuse to fight, as so many soldiers did in Vietnam, so many deserters, so many fraggings, acts of violence by enlisted men against officers in Vietnam, B-52 pilots refusing to fly bombing missions anymore, war can’t go on. When enough soldiers refuse, the government has to decide we can’t continue. So, yes, people have the power. If they begin to organize, if they protest, if they create a strong enough movement, they can change things. That’s all I want to say. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Yes, that was Howard Zinn. As we wrap up today, Naomi Klein, your final words?
NAOMI KLEIN: Well, we are in the midst of a Howard Zinn revival. I mean, this was happening anyway. And it’s so extraordinary for somebody at the end of their life to be having films made about them and played on television, and his books are back on the bestseller list. And it’s because the particular message that Howard relayed his whole life, devoted his whole life to, is so relevant for this moment. I mean, even thinking about it the day after the State of the Union address, Howard’s message was don’t believe in great men; believe in yourself; history comes from the bottom up.
And that—we have forgotten how change happens in this country. We think that you can just vote and that change will happen for us. And Howard was just relentlessly reminding us, no, you make the change that you want. And that message was so relevant for this moment. And I just feel so grateful to Anthony and, once again, the whole team that facilitated this revival, because we need Howard’s voice more than ever right now.