Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein and
Alice Walker Reflect on the Death of Howard Zinn
By Amy Goodman, Democracy Now!
Posted on January 28, 2010, Printed on February 3, 2010
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Amy Goodman is the host of the nationally syndicated radio news
program, Democracy Now!
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