Dr Howard Zinn and H.A.W. Antiwar Conference at University of Texas

Re link: Dr Zinn is at the top right.

The Historians Against the War conference at the University of Texas was a magnificent blend of scholarship and activism. This initial “report” assesses the keynote address and my first encounter with Dr Howard Zinn, Boston University, since my undergraduate days at B.U. At a reception prior to his speech before an audience of perhaps 1,000 people, I introduced myself as a former student. I told him I had wanted to thank him for the inspirational and lifelong impact he had upon me. I told him he was a role model for me as both a teacher and scholar. I recalled little vignettes in the many courses I had with him and he seemed touched by this former student almost genuflecting before the great sage. I remember what he used to wear; the office appointments I had with him and of course his reading lists. I said you assigned, Marcuse, One Dimension Man and Machiavelli, The Prince. I recalled he brought to class as a guest speaker the great scholar and progressive, Herbert Aptheker. He said “oh yes, and after you graduated, I had Daniel Ellsberg and others come to class.”

In one of his more poignant comments to me and he could see I was deeply moved by this, he said, “Stick to your values. Don’t let them intimidate you.” I told him I was debating Mr David Horowitz on the Iraq war and he indicated he had debated Mr Horowitz on the radio and I assumed it was on the war, although, I don’t recall he specified the topic. As I told him I was included in the Horowitz 101 most dangerous professors list, he said, “Oh, you are among that list too?” I said “we share this together Dr Zinn.” Everyone called him “Howard” but I called him what I did at B.U., “Dr Zinn.” In his 80s, I asked him what his secret was for such an activist and amazingly productive and long career. He said, “bananas, I eat lots of bananas.”

His talk was more of a peroration than a typical speech. It was one of the greatest moments I have ever experienced as an academician. I must say it is a positive commentary on America that the nation’s leading antiwar historian was allowed to give his lecture in the L.B.J. Auditorium at the Lyndon B. Johnson presidential library at the University of Texas at Austin. Many of us noted the irony of this due to the president’s expansion and murderous application of force during the Vietnam War. He chronicled “presidential lies” from war to war. He gave example after example of presidential misconduct and distortion of why America’s fighting men and women were sent into deadly combat.

Dr Zinn said we need a new history. He gave a startling example which the sold out crowd applauded. To paraphrase in conversational patois: “You are told that we have this balance of power, these checks and balances. Aren’t you? That this president, this Supreme Court, this Congress just keep checking and balancing. Some checks and balances among the elites. No, the only checks and balances is when the people, the people, check and balance.”

The great historian said and I again paraphrase: “War, war, we are always told how we fight wars to help people. To spread liberty and democracy. Our government and governments always want people to believe that wars serve THEIR interests, the people’s interest. They trick us into believing that war is good for America and that our freedoms and liberties necessitate it. That the common people benefit from war. But they don’t. Wars are fought to advance the interest of the elites.”

Since we were in Texas, Dr Zinn chronicled how President Polk “lied” about the alleged Mexican aggression that was used to steal “45% of Mexico.” To paraphrase. “It is something how an incident, a pretext is frequently used to get us into war so we can steal and colonise.” He noted how President McKinley during the Spanish American War described spreading democracy and civilisation into the Philippines where we proceeded to slaughter 100,000 of the indigenous Filipino people. Again to paraphrase: “Look how we were told that World War II was to defeat fascism, and the biggest lie, the worse presidential lie was President Truman telling us that the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was a military target!! The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was predicated on a lie to expand the Vietnam War. We said in 1990 that we invaded Iraq to punish Saddam for invading Kuwait, and what do we do, what do we do, but invade Iraq ourselves under Bush?”

As I was driving to school today, WBBM, Chicago’s leading AM news station, had its morning quiz and since it is “Presidents Day,” it asked which president “acquired California from Mexico and was a workaholic and died just a few months after he left the presidency due to exhaustion.” Polk stole California from Mexico as he did much of the Southwest. Presidents Day is absurd. It merely creates cults of personality for slaveowners, war criminals and power maximizers. Yes some presidents have been positive for America but to have a national holiday to celebrate them is part of the challenge for academicians to teach real history and not propaganda.

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