MIA: History: ETOL: Newspapers & Periodicals: International Socialist Review: Issue 20

International Socialist Review, November–December 2001

Howard Zinn speaks to anti-war teach-in

(October 2001)


From International Socialist Review, Web Exclusive, Issue 20, November–December 2001.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.


This speech was given in early October to a packed crowd at the University of Vermont in Burlington.

Let me first talk about the necessity to speak out, to speak your mind. I’m concerned with our taking initiative to speak out even though a certain blanket of intimidation has been spread across the country. Isn’t it intimidating when everyone – everyone in high political circles, and the people who are in the higher reaches of the media – when they all cry for unity and supporting the president, and when editors of the New Republic say “the people on the left who oppose the war may be considered as a fifth column”?

Do you know what a fifth column is? It goes back to the Spanish Civil War. The fifth column was a column of traitors, people working from inside to overthrow the government. People may be considered traitors for speaking out. And so the word is unity and support the president, and major television commentators all talk in that way.

Television programs are festooned with flags. Now I know flags can mean something nice and gentle and good – they can. But there are times when flags have a kind of unmistakable aura that bespeaks drums and bugles and war, and support for war. There’s something intimidating about that omnipresent symbol.

Then you have Dan Rather, the anchorman. What is he anchored to? He’s anchored to the establishment. That’s what an anchorman is. He said on national television, “George Bush is the president, he makes the decisions, and, you know, as just one American, he wants me to line up, just tell me where.”

Well, this is strange. The idea of journalism is to be an independent voice, an independent critic, not a handmaiden of government, but someone who represents the public and does not immediately say “yes, we’re together.” That’s what happens in a totalitarian state, not a democracy. It’s a kind of spurious unity.

Al Gore – do you remember Gore? – said, “Bush is my commander in chief.” Really? He hasn’t read the constitution lately. The constitution says that the president is the commander in chief of the armed forces, not the commander in chief of us.

It seems to me the essence of democracy for people not to get in line if they don’t want to get in line, not to listen to the president as if he’s our commander in chief, but to think independently and do independently what we want – that’s what democracy is. That democracy is being attacked on all sides by this great atmosphere of intimidation that’s created.

Yes, they say in times of war the nation must be united, which of course begs the question, but why must we be at war? We have a long tradition in this country of stifling dissent exactly at those moments when descent is badly needed. That is, when it’s a matter of life and death.

Congress passed a sedition act in 1798, and then again in World War I passed an espionage and sedition act, and sent 1,000 people to jail. Historically that’s what happens. Not only does Congress pass such laws, but the Supreme Court affirms them. The historical reality is that it’s the job of the Supreme Court to see if in fact Congress has violated the first amendment of the constitution – which says that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech – but the Supreme Court has failed in it’s job again and again.

The court failed in 1798 and it failed in 1917–1918, when it put Eugene Debs and 1,000 others in jail for speaking out against the war. The court amended the first amendment. Maybe there are times when you can’t allow freedom of speech because there is a “clear and present danger.” What was the clear and present danger that the Supreme Court was facing? The clear and present danger was a guy distributing leaflets on the streets of New York opposing the draft. He was a clear and present danger to the nation.

After the war more people began to think, no, Woodrow Wilson was a clear and present danger to the nation. There’s this irony that exactly when you need free speech – when the lives of the young people in the armed forces are at stake, the lives of people overseas who may be the victims of our armed actions – exactly when it’s a mater of life and death, that’s when you should shut up. Exactly when you need debate most. So you have free speech for trivial issues, and no free speech for life and death issues, and that’s called democracy.

No, we can’t accept that. We have a responsibility to speak out, to speak our minds, especially now, and no matter what they say and how they cry for unity and supporting the president and getting in line. We have a democratic responsibility as citizens to speak out and say what we want to say.

One of the other things we need to do is to take a look at history, because history may be useful in helping us understand what is going on. The president isn’t giving us history and the media aren’t giving us history. They never do. Here we have this incredibly complex technologically developed media, but you don’t get the history that you need to understand what is going on today. There is one kind of history that they will give you, because history can not only be used for good purposes, but history can be abused.

History can’t give you definitive and positive answers to the issues that come up today, but it can suggest things. It can suggest skepticism about certain things. It can suggest probabilities and possibilities. There are some things you can learn from historical experience. One thing you can learn is that there is a long history of deception of the public by the government in times of war, or just before war, or to get us into war, going back to the Mexican war, when Polk lied to the nation about what was happening on the boarder between the Oasis River and the Rio Grande River.

The Vietnam War started with a lie about the Gulf of Tonkin. Immediately after the Gulf of Tonkin, and the president says this is what the Vietnamese did to us, and it all turns out to be lies. The congress passes the Gulf of Tonkin resolution unanimously in the House, with two dissenting votes in the senate, giving the president full authority to do what he wants. And then we are at war for nine years with 58,000 Americans dead and 2 million Vietnamese dead.

Now we have just seen this same thing reenacted. Yes, this terrible terrorist act just happened in New York, and Washington, and Bush goes before Congress, and no need to think and to ask questions about what we should do. They vote unanimously in the senate and almost unanimously in the house, except for one dissenting vote. I thought, oh that must be Bernie Sanders, but no it wasn’t. It was Barbara Lee.

The history of deception has been going on for a long time. Some of you may have heard of the journalist I.F. Stone. He was one of the great journalists of the 20th century. He worked for the mainstream newspapers, but then decided that he couldn’t write what he wanted, so he set up his own newsletter. He’d gather all sorts of information from all over that no one else was printing and he’d put them in his newsletter, until people understood that if you want to get stuff that your local newspaper won’t give you and your government won’t give you, go to I.F. Stone’s newsletter.

Stone would go and speak to journalism classes and speak to young people that were going to be reporters and he’d say, I’m going to tell you a number of things about being a reporter, but of all the things I’m going to tell you, remember two words. Governments lie. It’s a good starting point.

I’m not saying governments always lie, no they don’t always lie. But it’s a good idea to start off with the assumption that governments lie, and therefore whatever they say, especially when it comes to matters of war and foreign policy. Because when it’s a matter of domestic policy, there are things that you may be able to check up on, because its here and in this country, but something happening very far away, people don’t know very much about foreign policy. We depend on them because they’re supposed to know. They have the experts.

We learned during Vietnam what it means to depend on them in the White House, and there experts, there Phi Beta Kappas, advising the president, the Harvard, Yale, and Princeton people all around the president, I mean how could you get more intelligent then that?

You must examine the government’s claims closely. One of the things I examine closely is when the government says we are only bombing military targets. That’s an old story, a real old story. There’s a half-truth to that. You may aim at military targets, but it’s in the nature of bombing, that if you aim at military targets that a good part of the time your bombs will fall on places near military targets where people live. Sometimes even far away from military targets where people live.

And this is with the smartest of bombs. There’s no such thing as a smart bomb. Remember them telling us about smart bombs during the Gulf War. It turns out that 93 percent of them were dumb.

I emphasize this because we have to understand what we are doing in Afghanistan to end terrorism. Because we absolutely need to end terrorism. We have to think carefully about what we have to do to end terrorism. We have to think about whether bombing Afghanistan is going to end terrorism.

Well, people say, but you must do something. I agree. People say, you can’t do nothing. I agree. You must do something, therefore, bomb. I don’t get it. I mean that’s the only possible thing you can do if you must do something?

Lets start off with the Hippocratic oath. First do no harm. We are doing great harm. And if you think we’re not, try to imagine. You say, well, we’re not killing that many people. But we don’t know how many people we’re killing. First of all, because you can’t believe the government – I’m not saying that you can believe the Taliban, no, all governments lie. But it’s just a matter of common sense, and knowing the history of bombing, and just the little reports that come through the filter of control.

A Red Cross compound was hit on the same day that Bush was asking people to contribute to the Red Cross. Well if we’re going to contribute to the Red Cross, first assure us that you’re not going to bomb the Red Cross.

If you think that what we’re doing in Afghanistan is not very much, consider that there are hundreds of thousands of people in Afghanistan who are fleeing the cities and towns in which they live. Have you seen the pictures of Afghan refugees? It started as soon as Bush promised to bomb. There are certain American promises that they can count on, and that’s one of them. So the refugees immediately began moving.

You see the pictures of these families with all their possessions, or as many as they can carry on their backs and wagons, and there are hundreds of thousands of them. We are terrorizing Afghanistan. I’m not exaggerating. The people who are in Kabul, and other places have to live with the fear of these bombs.

Have you lived under bombs? Can you imagine what it’s like when you’re in a very backward, technologically undeveloped country, and there are these monster machines coming over with this ferocious noise and lights flashing and explosions? Yes, we are terrorizing people in Afghanistan.

It’s not right to respond to the fact that we have been terrorized, as we have, by terrorizing other people. And furthermore, it’s not going to help.

You might say that maybe it’s worth doing because it will end terrorism. How much common sense does it take to know that you cannot end terrorism by indiscriminately dropping bombs on Afghanistan? “We have now destroyed three of their camps.” Who are they kidding? How many hours does it take to set up a training camp? How easy is it to move from one place to another? The history of bombing is mostly a history of futility.

We saw those scenes in New York, and that horrified us. We saw people in panic running, running from those explosions and that enormous pile of debris, and we were horrified. These were real people to us. But then when we bomb other countries those people are not real to us.

If there is anything that we might get out of this experience, it’s that we should take that horror that we have felt looking at those scenes in New York and the compassion that we have felt for the people who have endured this and their families, and extend this to people in other parts of the world who have been enduring this for a very long time. And that means examining the U.S. and our policies.

When you do that and suggest that maybe we ought to look at ourselves, and our policies, people say, oh you’re just trying to justify what happened. No absolutely not. To explain is not to justify. But if you don’t try to explain anything, you will never learn anything. You have to understand. You have to explain without justifying. You have to dig down and see if you can figure out what is at the root of this terrorism. Because there’s something at the root besides irrational murderous feeling.

We need to think about combating terrorism, because terrorism does need to be combated, but we have to get to the roots of it and be honest and willing to look at our policies and ourselves self-critically. Otherwise we will never learn anything and we will never get out of this.

If we don’t do that, then the Twin Towers will only be the beginning of a succession of blows that we will face because we will never diminish the amount of hostility in the world. By going to war and bombing people we will be increasing the amount of hostility in the world.

People say, yes but what shall we do? We want quick fixes. That’s what war is about. You go to war because you want to do something fast. That’s what violence is about in general. You use violence because you don’t want to wait, you don’t want to work things out, you don’t want to use your mind, your intelligence, your wit, you don’t want to use those things that a human being is especially endowed with.

We need to think for ourselves, investigate for ourselves, use history in a sensible way, and appeal to people’s good sense, because I think that the American people have good sense. I don’t believe that 90 percent of the public support war, except as something that will last five minutes as the people are apprised of three facts and asked two questions, because I’ve seen that happen already. I’ve seen people’s support for the government change over a period of time as it did during the Vietnam War, as people learned more about what was really going on.

So we have a lot to do. We are all teachers, communicators. We all have contacts, we all have neighbors, we all work someplace, we can all write letters to the editor, we can organize rallies, we can do what was done at other times in American history when it was necessary to build a national movement to say to the government, no, you don’t speak for us, you’re not doing this for us.

Many thanks to Erik Wallenberg for transcribing his speech.

Last updated on 8 August 2022