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The politics of war.

On the second anniversory of the Persian Gulf crisis, we consider the specter of imperialism that haunts our democracy

JACK McENANY: Professor Zinn, recurrent in your book, A People's History of the United States, are examples of working, class America fighting wars that it had no personal stake in. Was this true of the Gulf War?

HOWARD ZINN: Oh, yes, the Gulf War fits that pattern. War seldom, if ever, has a particular or personal stake in it for the people who do the fighting - the working classes. In fact, most soldiers' only stake in war is that their lives are in danger and they will be the ones who suffer the casualties. It's an old story and, unfortunately, it takes a while for the people who are the victims of war to catch on to it. Sometimes there is an immediate reaction; sometimes there's a delayed reaction.

If we go way back prior to independence - while the country was under English rule - the American colonists were expected to fight in wars that the British government was fighting with France. There were a number of these in the early and middle eighteenth century. But the colonists rebelled against conscription; they rebelled and attacked the people who were enlisting them forcibly in the wars.

When the American Revolution took place, most Americans might think, well, at last here's a war for a good purpose, a war in which the colonists could enlist thinking that this war is for them. But, in fact, there was an enormous amount of disaffection from the Revolutionary War. It was estimated by John Adams - who was a supporter of the war - that one-third of the population was against the war, one-third supported the war, and one-third was on the fence. And there were a number of instances of rebellion against the war. George Washington had to send troops down south because people in the Carolinas and Virginia were refusing to enlist and fight in the Revolutionary Army. He sent General Nathaniel Greene down there to - to put it crudely - kill a number of people in order to impress upon them that they had to fight in this war.

In New England, people protested the drafting of citizens for the Revolutionary War as some, thing that hit the working classes hardest. People with money could buy their way out. A lot of people know this about the Civil War - this business of rich people buying their way out of the draft, buying substitutes - but it happened during the Revolutionary War as well.

In the War of 1812, the government did not dare put a conscription act into effect because it knew there would be tremendous resistance to it. The War of 1812 was basically an expansionist war - to try to move into Canada, to try to move into western lands controlled by the English.

In the Mexican War (1846 to 1848), there was open desertion on the way to Mexico City. General Scott's troops rebelled; seven regiments, virtually half his entire force, simply scattered and went home. The soldiers who didn't desert returned home after the war embittered by their casualties and by the fact that they didn't know what in the world we were fighting Mexico for. The soldiers who returned to Massachusetts went to a welcome-home dinner-you might say a "yellow-ribbon dinner," but in 1848. At this dinner, the surviving Massachusetts volunteers - half of them had been killed - booed their commanding officer at their own welcome-home party to express how they felt about the war.

In the Civil War, the poor people of New York did not see it as a war against slavery. They saw only that they were being conscripted to fight and die in a very gruesome war. They saw that the rich - the Vanderbilts, the Morgans, the Astors - could buy their way out for $300. And, as so often working-class whites will do, they took out their resentment on black people. The draft riots of 1863 in New York were some of the most violent internal uprisings we've had in this country, and they-were directed against black people - the innocent victims of a violent outrage against a civil war that the white working class of New York saw as just dooming them for no reason.

In the Spanish-American War, there was some early enthusiasm from a buildup of propaganda. It was seen as a war to save Cuba from Spain, a humanitarian war, a just war - all of that. Fortunately for the United States government, the war ended quickly. But although there were very few battle casual, ties, there were thousands of other casualties. Soldiers were poisoned by beef sold to the army by the big meat-packing companies of Chicago - Swift and Armour. Imagine: thousands of dead soldiers as a result of poisoned beef, but only a few hundred battle casualties. It was a very quick war - a three-month war - with no chance for resentment to build up. But when the war was extended to the Philippines, then some resentment began to appear - especially among the black troops stationed there, who saw that they were fighting against dark-skinned Filipinos who simply wanted to run their own country.

In World War I, there was a very strong anti-war movement which the government had to suppress forcibly by sending people to jail. The U.S. government prosecuted 2,000 people with laws passed by Congress to prevent criticism of the war. It destroyed the Industrial Workers of the World, a radical trade union that was against the war, and sent its top leadership to jail. The government also destroyed the Socialist Party, sent its leadership to jail, and expelled socialists from state legislatures to which they had been legally elected. There was a real campaign of oppression and propaganda to persuade people to fight the war - to accept the war - which was not quite successful. When the war was over, tremendous disillusionment and anger set in.

Even during World War II, which was, I suppose - certainly in the twentieth century, anyway - the closest thing you can get to a popular war, there was a lot of early resistance. It was a war that could be presented to the public as a good war, a just war, a war against fascism, and so on. But even with all that going for it, World War II required an enormous amount of manipulation of the public. Even after the war had started in Europe, there was a very large section of the American public opposed to it, and a lot of work had to be done by the Roosevelt administration to propagandize America into accepting the idea of joining the fight. Thousands of people went to prison rather than fight in World War II.

So when we come to the Korean War and the Vietnam War - especially the Vietnam War - you find that one of the most powerful elements of the anti-war movement was the GI movement. The GI movement consisted mostly of working-class kids. Ron Kovic really is a typical example of a working-class kid who joined the Marines - imbued with the idea of adventure and fighting for his country, the stars and stripes, and all that - and then went to Vietnam and became totally disillusioned with what was going on over there, realizing that the young people of the working classes were the ones doing most of the fighting. I don't think that they thought of it in exactly that way - not strictly as a class phenomenon. But in a kind of general way, they knew that the kids from poor families - black and white - were the ones who fought in the war, and that they were the ones dying in the war. They formed the heart of the GI resistance to the war. Not just the overt resistance - not just the people who deserted, not just the GIs who refused to get on airplanes and go to Vietnam or the GIs who refused to go out on patrols in South Vietnam - but the many thousands of blacks and whites who simply didn't show up for the draft. Actually, there were too many people for the government to prosecute, and the result was that, though there were hundreds of thousands of people who resisted going into the service one way or another, there were only 8,000 GIs who were ultimately court-martialed and imprisoned for their views on the war.

One interesting fact, I think, should be noted: in surveys of public opinion during the war, it was inevitably shown that people with the highest education - college graduates - were the most supportive of the war. People who had not graduated from high school were the ones most against the war. This is a surprising figure because most people thought the anti-war movement consisted of intellectuals and students and college professors. While those people were most visible in the anti-war movement, public opinion against the war was concentrated in the least educated classes. They had some gut feeling that they were dying, that their kids were dying, in a war that the rich were escaping from and that there was nothing in it for them.

McENANY: White House media managers over the last ten years have blamed the American press corps and the anti-war movement for the plight of the Vietnam veteran. Is there any merit to that?

ZINN: For the plight of the Vietnam veteran? That's always been an interesting question - the way the media and the government have done such a good job of creating the impression that Vietnam veterans came back and were betrayed by the anti-war movement. As their most vivid point, they said that the GIs were spat upon when they came home; they were supposedly reviled by the anti-war movement. I've always been startled by this because I moved all throughout the anti-war movement, as a lot of people did, and I spoke an over the country. I took part in an infinite number of demonstrations, I knew thousands of people involved in the anti-war movement, I read a huge amount of the literature of the anti-war movement, and I cannot recall any instance in which, in any of its aspects, the anti-war movement - as a movement - reviled the American GI. The anti-war movement was very specifically a movement against the U.S. government's policies in Vietnam. And it was a movement that supported the GIs by working to bring them home. Of course, it should be kept in mind that an integral element of the anti-war movement was the GI anti-war movement. There wouldn't have been an anti-war movement among the GIs if they had felt betrayed by the anti-war movement at home. So this is one of the most successful propaganda ventures of the administration: to take the fact that GIs were sent into a stupid, needless, imperialist war to be wounded, to die, and to kill, and then to accuse the anti-war movement of betraying them. In fact, they were betrayed by the U.S. government when they came home to find that they did not have jobs, that they did not have homes, that they were not going to be taken care of and were treated like dirt in VA hospitals. To take the true facts and obscure them - and then turn the blame on the anti-war movement-to me is an extremely successful piece of propaganda and something the anti-war movement very much needs to overcome.

McENANY: When President Harry Truman ordered troops to Korea, he said that the conflict there was between "the rule of law and the rule of force." George Bush used that identical line of rhetoric when he committed American troops to the Persian Gulf. If Bush were to lose the next presidential election, would there be any fundamental differences in the way America conducts itself internationally?

ZINN: Well, you can point to differences in the domestic policies of the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, although those differences have been exaggerated. In foreign policy, you cannot really point to any fundamental differences.

If you look at the history of wars in this century, it was a liberal Democrat who pushed the United States into World War I; it was Roosevelt, a Democrat, who was president when we got involved in World War II; Truman, a Democrat, was president when we got into the Korean War; it was Democratic presidents Kennedy and Johnson who escalated the Vietnam War to the height it reached. I am not saying that the Republicans are absolved from this, because the Republicans all went along with it, but the government always uses the phrase bipartisan foreign policy and that's exactly right - we've always had a bipartisan foreign policy. This is not a democratic country when it comes to foreign policy; I mean, it's un-democratic enough in terms of domestic policy, but when it comes to foreign policy, we are living in a one-party state. Republicans and Democrats both engage in covert activities; they've both gotten us into wars.

When the Democrats dissent from the military budgets of Republican administrations, their dissent is feeble. They will argue over whether the military budget this year should be $300 billion or $296 billion. You'll see, for instance, the liberal Democrats - the Democrats you would most expect to oppose aggressive foreign policies - cave in at critical moments when the United States is intervening militarily in other countries. For instance, when the United States invaded Panama in 1989, John Kerry - a liberal Democratic senator from Massachusetts, who became famous as a leading GI opponent of the Vietnam War back in the 1960s and early 1970s (a liberal Democrat who, by the way, owes his election as senator to the fact that he was a dramatic spokesman against the Vietnam War) - this same Kerry supported the invasion of Panama.

The liberal Democrats supported Reagan's bombing of Libya and the invasion of Grenada. During the buildup of troops in the Persian Gulf, the Democrats were, at first, opposed to military action - at least enough of them were to spark the first spirited debate on foreign policy that we have ever had in the United States Congress. But they had already, in a sense, surrendered when they allowed Bush to beef up the American military presence in the Middle East to the point where war became inevitable. As soon as Bush gave the orders to start the military operations, the Democrats totally caved in.

McENANY: Are you saying that George Bush is correct when he says that the Vietnam syndrome is behind us?

ZINN: He fought the Gulf War in good part to put an end to that syndrome. He fought a winning war by taking on a third-rate military power and using the most modern technology against it. If, by Vietnam syndrome, he means fighting a war that is unpopular with the public, he overcame that by making sure that the war was won very quickly.

But there is a residual element of the Vietnam syndrome that cannot be overcome. And that is, just before the bombing started in Vietnam, public opinion polls showed that Americans were divided 50-50 on the question of whether or not we should use military force. After the Vietnam War, the public was overwhelmingly against American military operations abroad. The public was set against America intervening militarily in Central America, for example. There's a deeply held feeling on the part of the public - which I think comes from lessons learned in the Vietnam War - that we should not be intervening in foreign conflicts. This feeling was overcome briefly by the inundation of propaganda and by the swiftness of the Persian Gulf War. But when the war ended, I think, that quickly built enthusiasm began to recede. Public opinion once again moved back to a more deep-seated revulsion against sending our men and women overseas to fight in wars whose purposes are unclear.

People see that the results of the war in the gulf are not that clean. They see that we have restored a brutal government in Kuwait, a vicious government in Saudi Arabia, and created millions of refugees. Reports are coming out about Iraqi children dying in large numbers because of what we did to their water supply and electrical system. Fewer and fewer Americans believe that the war was a good thing. So, in that sense, the Vietnam syndrome - the feeling that the United States should avoid such wars - has not been laid to rest.

McENANY: If the congressional vote on the Persian Gulf War had gone the other way, what do you think the Bush administration would have done?

ZINN: It wouldn't have affected Bush's desire to go to war, but it would have made war more difficult for the Bush administration. My own feeling is that the Bush administration wanted the war - they wanted the war badly. Everything that they did indicated that they were determined to go to war. They rejected any possibility of negotiation with Saddam Hussein; all of the overtures coming from Iraq were ignored or rejected. The doubling of U.S. troops in the gulf in November 1990 and the change in strategy from a defensive to an offensive one made it clear that the Bush administration wanted war - which means that the only reason it allowed Congress to debate the war was that it was confident it had the votes. I'm sure the Bush administration made a very careful tally to determine whether or not it had the votes to go to war before it agreed that the vote should be submitted to Congress. In a way, it's a hypothetical question. The Bush administration was determined to go to war and only would have allowed the debate if it knew that the debate would end up the way it did.

McENANY: Historically, imperial powers have ruled abroad at a terrible cost to the home front. Rome, Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union - all were eventually dragged down by the financial burden of huge armies and navies. Can America hope to be different?

ZINN: I doubt it. In fact, we are already seeing the results in the United States. The American economy is already suffering from the several trillion dollars we have spent over the years on these huge military budgets. And the situation is becoming worse. No, I don't see the United States escaping. It has been able to escape longer than other countries because we have this vast industrial base to begin with. We're a very wealthy country. But I think we've reached the point where the maintenance of this military budget is dragging the entire economy down and causing more and more people to suffer.

Now, suffering in the working classes has always gone on whether we were in a so-called period of prosperity or depression. The 1920s - the Jazz Age, the so-called age of prosperity, as kids learn when they study history in high school - were a time when large numbers of people in this country were poor and hungry and experiencing severe hardships. What is happening now in the United States is that not only the 40 or 50 million people in the lower classes - the working classes and the marginal groups - are suffering, but even the so-called middle class - the class on which the elite has depended to be the buffer between it and the working classes - is feeling the crunch. You might say that there is a great American middle class that has been bribed - with jobs and fairly decent salaries and televisions and cars and homes and so on - to be supporters of the system. Now these people in the middle class are beginning to hurt. They're losing their jobs, they're not able to pay the mortgages on their homes, they are beginning to feel that there is something sick about the economy, and furthermore - and I think this is important and unique in our century - for the first time there is a serious danger to the environment. This was always true for the lower classes; they suffered from bad air and bad water. The children of Philadelphia died in huge numbers because the Schuylkill River, from which they drew their drinking water, was contaminated. The working classes have always died in large numbers from what they inhaled where they worked - whether it was in the mines or the textile mills or the shipyards. But now that blight has spread to the whole country. An our water, our beaches, our air is becoming polluted, and the money that could be used to clean them up is not there because of the military budget. So far it hasn't reached a crisis point where there is an enormous nationwide movement of rebellion, but I think we are moving toward that.

McENANY: Seventy years ago, Scott Nearing wrote: "The American people are not imperialists. They are proud of their country, jealous of their honor, willing to make sacrifices for their dear ones. They are today where the plain folk of Egypt, Rome, France, and England were before the will to power gripped the ruling classes of those countries" Does this still ring true or has the twentieth century somehow changed the plain folk of America?

ZINN: Well, Scott Nearing was speaking at the end of World War I and he was recognizing what I think is true: that although the American people fought in World War I and in a sense accepted it - they had all the patriotic parades to welcome home the troops and so forth - there was still a great deal of resistance to it. Before America joined the war, the Wilson administration had to overcome public opinion against the war with a huge propaganda effort, and after the war a great deal of disillusionment set in.

Scott Nearing believed that the American people were basically decent and peace-loving, that they had to be conned or coerced into war. And that basic fact is still true. People are not naturally warlike - the American people no more so than anybody else. But they can be propagandized, persuaded, coerced, threatened, and drafted into war. That can be done; it's happened again and again.

I believe, like Scott Nearing, that there is a fundamental revulsion to war. The task for the anti-war movement is to build on that natural revulsion in such a powerful way that it cannot be overcome by a lightning stroke of propaganda or a military action like the one in the Persian Gulf. It's a big job, but it does have the common sense of the American public as its base.

McENANY: Is America taking any leadership role in its foreign policy other than the military one?

ZINN: Leadership role? I don't see a leadership role other than by military means. In other policy areas - for instance, in environmental control - other nations have had to push and push and push to get the United States to take even the most minimal measures toward solving the problem of ozone-layer depletion, or any other area of the world environmental crisis. The United States has been very reluctant to end nuclear testing; it hasn't taken the lead in this area - even though now, presumably, the nuclear threat of the Soviet Union no longer exists. The United States still refuses to end the practice of testing nuclear weapons which contaminate the atmosphere and cost a lot of money. So aside from military activities, the United States lags far behind other countries in taking any initiative to clean up the environment, to do anything about world health problems, to solve the problem of starvation. It's very sad to think that the United States is first militarily and a backward nation when it comes to human values.
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Title Annotation:Howard Zinn, history professor
Author:McEnany, Jack
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Interview
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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