By Howard Zinn
25 April, 2006
Now that most Americans no longer
believe in the war, now that they no longer trust Bush and his Administration,
now that the evidence of deception has become overwhelming (so overwhelming
that even the major media, always late, have begun to register indignation),
we might ask: How come so many people were so easily fooled?
The question is important
because it might help us understand why Americans -- members of the
media as well as the ordinary citizen -- rushed to declare their support
as the President was sending troops halfway around the world to Iraq.
A small example of the innocence
(or obsequiousness, to be more exact) of the press is the way it reacted
to Colin Powell's presentation in February 2003 to the Security Council,
a month before the invasion, a speech which may have set a record for
the number of falsehoods told in one talk. In it, Powell confidently
rattled off his "evidence": satellite photographs, audio records,
reports from informants, with precise statistics on how many gallons
of this and that existed for chemical warfare. The New York Times was
breathless with admiration. The Washington Post editorial was titled
"Irrefutable" and declared that after Powell's talk "it
is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons
of mass destruction."
It seems to me there are
two reasons, which go deep into our national culture, and which help
explain the vulnerability of the press and of the citizenry to outrageous
lies whose consequences bring death to tens of thousands of people.
If we can understand those reasons, we can guard ourselves better against
One is in the dimension of
time, that is, an absence of historical perspective. The other is in
the dimension of space, that is, an inability to think outside the boundaries
of nationalism. We are penned in by the arrogant idea that this country
is the center of the universe, exceptionally virtuous, admirable, superior.
If we don't know history,
then we are ready meat for carnivorous politicians and the intellectuals
and journalists who supply the carving knives. I am not speaking of
the history we learned in school, a history subservient to our political
leaders, from the much-admired Founding Fathers to the Presidents of
recent years. I mean a history which is honest about the past. If we
don't know that history, then any President can stand up to the battery
of microphones, declare that we must go to war, and we will have no
basis for challenging him. He will say that the nation is in danger,
that democracy and liberty are at stake, and that we must therefore
send ships and planes to destroy our new enemy, and we will have no
reason to disbelieve him.
But if we know some history,
if we know how many times Presidents have made similar declarations
to the country, and how they turned out to be lies, we will not be fooled.
Although some of us may pride ourselves that we were never fooled, we
still might accept as our civic duty the responsibility to buttress
our fellow citizens against the mendacity of our high officials.
We would remind whoever we
can that President Polk lied to the nation about the reason for going
to war with Mexico in 1846. It wasn't that Mexico "shed American
blood upon the American soil," but that Polk, and the slave-owning
aristocracy, coveted half of Mexico.
We would point out that President
McKinley lied in 1898 about the reason for invading Cuba, saying we
wanted to liberate the Cubans from Spanish control, but the truth is
that we really wanted Spain out of Cuba so that the island could be
open to United Fruit and other American corporations. He also lied about
the reasons for our war in the Philippines, claiming we only wanted
to "civilize" the Filipinos, while the real reason was to
own a valuable piece of real estate in the far Pacific, even if we had
to kill hundreds of thousands of Filipinos to accomplish that.
President Woodrow Wilson
-- so often characterized in our history books as an "idealist"
-- lied about the reasons for entering the First World War, saying it
was a war to "make the world safe for democracy," when it
was really a war to make the world safe for the Western imperial powers.
Harry Truman lied when he
said the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima because it was "a
Everyone lied about Vietnam
-- Kennedy about the extent of our involvement, Johnson about the Gulf
of Tonkin, Nixon about the secret bombing of Cambodia, all of them claiming
it was to keep South Vietnam free of communism, but really wanting to
keep South Vietnam as an American outpost at the edge of the Asian continent.
Reagan lied about the invasion
of Grenada, claiming falsely that it was a threat to the United States.
The elder Bush lied about
the invasion of Panama, leading to the death of thousands of ordinary
citizens in that country.
And he lied again about the
reason for attacking Iraq in 1991-- hardly to defend the integrity of
Kuwait (can one imagine Bush heartstricken over Iraq's taking of Kuwait?),
rather to assert U.S. power in the oil-rich Middle East.
Given the overwhelming record
of lies told to justify wars, how could anyone listening to the younger
Bush believe him as he laid out the reasons for invading Iraq? Would
we not instinctively rebel against the sacrifice of lives for oil?
A careful reading of history
might give us another safeguard against being deceived. It would make
clear that there has always been, and is today, a profound conflict
of interest between the government and the people of the United States.
This thought startles most people, because it goes against everything
we have been taught.
We have been led to believe
that, from the beginning, as our Founding Fathers put it in the Preamble
to the Constitution, it was "we the people" who established
the new government after the Revolution. When the eminent historian
Charles Beard suggested, a hundred years ago, that the Constitution
represented not the working people, not the slaves, but the slaveholders,
the merchants, the bondholders, he became the object of an indignant
editorial in The New York Times.
Our culture demands, in its
very language, that we accept a commonality of interest binding all
of us to one another. We mustn't talk about classes. Only Marxists do
that, although James Madison, "Father of the Constitution,"
said, 30 years before Marx was born that there was an inevitable conflict
in society between those who had property and those who did not.
Our present leaders are not
so candid. They bombard us with phrases like "national interest,"
"national security," and "national defense" as if
all of these concepts applied equally to all of us, colored or white,
rich or poor, as if General Motors and Halliburton have the same interests
as the rest of us, as if George Bush has the same interest as the young
man or woman he sends to war.
Surely, in the history of
lies told to the population, this is the biggest lie. In the history
of secrets, withheld from the American people, this is the biggest secret:
that there are classes with different interests in this country. To
ignore that -- not to know that the history of our country is a history
of slaveowner against slave, landlord against tenant, corporation against
worker, rich against poor -- is to render us helpless before all the
lesser lies told to us by people in power.
If we as citizens start out
with an understanding that these people up there -- the President, the
Congress, the Supreme Court, all those institutions pretending to be
"checks and balances" -- do not have our interests at heart,
we are on a course towards the truth. Not to know that is to make us
helpless before determined liars.
The deeply ingrained belief
-- no, not from birth but from the educational system and from our culture
in general -- that the United States is an especially virtuous nation
makes us especially vulnerable to government deception. It starts early,
in the first grade, when we are compelled to "pledge allegiance"
(before we even know what that means), forced to proclaim that we are
a nation with "liberty and justice for all."
And then come the countless
ceremonies, whether at the ballpark or elsewhere, where we are expected
to stand and bow our heads during the singing of the "Star-Spangled
Banner," announcing that we are "the land of the free and
the home of the brave." There is also the unofficial national anthem
"God Bless America," and you are looked on with suspicion
if you ask why we would expect God to single out this one nation --
just five percent of the world's population -- for his or her blessing.
If your starting point for
evaluating the world around you is the firm belief that this nation
is somehow endowed by Providence with unique qualities that make it
morally superior to every other nation on Earth, then you are not likely
to question the President when he says we are sending our troops here
or there, or bombing this or that, in order to spread our values --
democracy, liberty, and let's not forget free enterprise -- to some
God-forsaken (literally) place in the world.
It becomes necessary then,
if we are going to protect ourselves and our fellow citizens against
policies that will be disastrous not only for other people but for Americans
too, that we face some facts that disturb the idea of a uniquely virtuous
These facts are embarrassing,
but must be faced if we are to be honest. We must face our long history
of ethnic cleansing, in which millions of Indians were driven off their
land by means of massacres and forced evacuations. And our long history,
still not behind us, of slavery, segregation, and racism. We must face
our record of imperial conquest, in the Caribbean and in the Pacific,
our shameful wars against small countries a tenth our size: Vietnam,
Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, Iraq. And the lingering memory of Hiroshima
and Nagasaki. It is not a history of which we can be proud.
Our leaders have taken it
for granted, and planted that belief in the minds of many people, that
we are entitled, because of our moral superiority, to dominate the world.
At the end of World War II, Henry Luce, with an arrogance appropriate
to the owner of Time, Life, and Fortune, pronounced this "the American
century," saying that victory in the war gave the United States
the right "to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence,
for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit."
Both the Republican and Democratic
parties have embraced this notion. George Bush, in his Inaugural Address
on January 20, 2005, said that spreading liberty around the world was
"the calling of our time." Years before that, in 1993, President
Bill Clinton, speaking at a West Point commencement, declared: "The
values you learned here ... will be able to spread throughout this country
and throughout the world and give other people the opportunity to live
as you have lived, to fulfill your God-given capacities."
What is the idea of our moral
superiority based on? Surely not on our behavior toward people in other
parts of the world. Is it based on how well people in the United States
live? The World Health Organization in 2000 ranked countries in terms
of overall health performance, and the United States was thirty-seventh
on the list, though it spends more per capita for health care than any
other nation. One of five children in this, the richest country in the
world, is born in poverty. There are more than 40 countries that have
better records on infant mortality. Cuba does better. And there is a
sure sign of sickness in society when we lead the world in the number
of people in prison -- more than two million.
A more honest estimate of
ourselves as a nation would prepare us all for the next barrage of lies
that will accompany the next proposal to inflict our power on some other
part of the world. It might also inspire us to create a different history
for ourselves, by taking our country away from the liars and killers
who govern it, and by rejecting nationalist arrogance, so that we can
join the rest of the human race in the common cause of peace and justice.
is the co-author, with Anthony Arnove, of “Voices
of a People’s History of the United States.”