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The Left's Blind Spot

Let's start with Howard Zinn and then move on.

Zinn, rather unlikely for a historian, has been feted like a Hollywood celebrity, receiving encomiums from stars like Danny Glover, James Earl Jones, and of course, Matt Damon, whose character in Good Will Hunting famously brandishes a copy of Zinn's A People's History of the United States during a raucus encounter with Robin Williams. In 2003 a large crowd turned out at a celebration in Manhattan at the 92nd Street Y to mark the sale of the one millionth copy of the book. Recently, there was even a television series built around the book's themes.

Why is Zinn so popular (with the general public, if not with historians, many of whom have expressed reservations about his books)? The answer is that Zinn plays the role in a self-satisfied often-uncritical mainstream culture of the seemingly attractive dangerous rebel. "If you want to read a real history book, read Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States," Damon exclaims in the movie. "That book will knock you on your ass."

But just how dangerous is Zinn? Like many left-wingers he regularly calls attention to a long list of crimes American officials have committed against various groups and countries while celebrating the virtues of ordinary folks. But what he doesn't do is admit the obvious: that the ordinary people he is so eager to lionize have often turned a blind eye to what their government's leaders through the years have done in their name.  

That the people's responsibility for our foreign policy choices is seldom mentioned is strange. For many years now it has been a staple of the left-wing approach to history to draw attention to the people operating at the grassroots. History faculties, dominated by liberals at most schools, now include few professors who even care to do research into the papers of political leaders. The fashion instead is to do social and cultural history where the emphasis is on the masses. And yet in the context of foreign policy debates public opinion is relegated to the shadows, as if it were almost irrelevant.

Flip open A People’s History almost anywhere and what you are likely to find is a relentless focus, in all cases where the United States  acted badly in Zinn’s view, on our leaders. Consulting the index, I looked up Iran, which figures prominently in left-wing indictments of America. There on page 430 is the story of the CIA’s coup against Mossadegh: “In Iran, in 1953, the Central Intelligence Agency succeeded in overthrowing a government which nationalized the oil industry.” On this same page there are attacks on the Marshall Plan, criticisms of the invasions of Latin America, and even a denunciation of the Alliance for Progress. It is the standard left-wing laundry list of postwar American crimes, follies and hypocrisies:

●  The Marshall Plan comes in for criticism because its real purpose allegedly was to help create markets for the benefit of our corporations. As Secretary of State Dean Acheson stated, in what Zinn supposes is an admission of rank venality, “These measures of relief and reconstruction have been only in part suggested by humanitarianism. Your Congress has authorized and your Government is carrying out, a policy of relief and reconstruction today chiefly as a matter of national self-interest.”

●  The Alliance for Progress, JFK’s program to promote social reform in Latin America, is lambasted because “it turned out to be mostly military aid to keep in power right-wing dictatorships and enable them to stave off revolutions.”

●  Our support for the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 is castigated as a plot to replace an elected government -- the “most democratic Guatemala had ever known” -- with a military junta on behalf of United Fruit. (Arbenz had expropriated 234,000 acres of the company’s land.)

●  Our dispatch of thousands of troops to Lebanon in 1958 was designed “to make sure the pro-American government there was not toppled by a revolution.” We also wanted to “keep an armed presence in that oil-rich area.”

●  Finally, there is our support for the Cuban dictator Batista and our attempts to overthrow Fidel Castro.

Zinn’s chief theme in the book’s chapters on foreign affairs is that the United States has played the role of a bully on the world stage and has frequently done so at the behest of our corporations. Our leaders’ idealistic talk? So much claptrap. Dig a little, Zinn recommends, and what you find is that these leaders approved nefarious policies at odds with basic assumptions about America’s stated commitment to human rights. 

Our concern here is not with the content of Zinn’s indictment.  He may be right or he may be wrong. (I think he is right in some cases and dead wrong in others.) The concern at hand is rather with what he has not said than with what he has. And what he has not said is that the American people are associated with the policies to which he objects.

Indeed, it is the peculiar practice of Zinn to put The People front and center in his narrative only when they are doing good as he defines good. When The People are doing bad things -- as when they are allowing their leaders to adopt unsavory foreign policies -- they are largely invisible. The narrative subtext that runs throughout his book can be summed up this way. Leaders bad, ordinary people good. Or rather, white leaders bad, ordinary people good.

Not that The People are infallible. But in Zinn’s accounts he hastens always to indicate that their mistakes are owing to their manipulation by elites. In the notorious case of Vietnam, for example, he notes that LBJ “used a murky set of events in the Gulf of Tonkin, off the coast of North Vietnam, to launch full-scale war.” That ordinary people allowed themselves to be bamboozled by the president doesn’t occur to Zinn. I do not mean to suggest that ordinary people should have been able to pierce through LBJ’s lies -- and they were lies, as we now know -- about the events that transpired in the Tonkin Gulf.  But their attitude was passive. Whatever the president said they believed. This was not LBJ’s fault. This was their fault. 

In Zinn’s narrative of the Vietnam War ordinary people do eventually surface as noble actors in a movement of popular resistance. “Early in the war,” he writes,

there had been two separate incidents, barely noticed by most Americans. On November 2, 1965, in front of the Pentagon in Washington, as thousands of employees were streaming out of the building in the late afternoon, Norman Morrison, a thirty-two year old pacifist, father of three, stood below the third-floor window of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, doused himself with kerosene, and set himself afire, giving up his life in protest against the war. Also that year, in Detroit, an eighty-two-year-old woman named Alice Herz burned herself to death to make a statement against the horror of Indochina.

A “remarkable change” then took place, says Zinn. 

In early 1965, when the bombing of North Vietnam began, a hundred people gathered on the Boston Common to voice their indignation. On October 15, 1969, the number of people assembled on the Boston Common to protest the war was 100,000. Perhaps 2 million people across the nation gathered that day in towns and villages that had never seen an antiwar meeting.

Zinn’s purpose is to correct the imbalance he sees in other books which neglect the activities of The People altogether.  And to this extent his book is useful. It opens one’s eyes to a largely -- or once largely -- neglected aspect of history. But it leaves its readers unprepared. Framing history as a battle between malevolent elites and darling ordinary people is too limiting. History encompasses a broader range. There is about Zinn’s approach a kind of arch determinism that finds in the messy details of history a pattern of great simplicity. On its face this is suspect.

More to the point of this chapter, Zinn’s approach is self-contradictory. Many of the people who serve in top government posts have themselves emerged from the masses. When in their evolution should we therefore begin to say that they have made the transition from a blessed state of innocence to the ranks of the damned? Take Lincoln. In his years as a callow youth and unimportant political figure he fits Zinn’s ideal, one supposes. As a young soldier in a state militia he whiles away the time fighting a losing battle with mosquitoes, apparently indifferent to medals and the lure of military valor. Later in his single term in Congress he opposes President Polk’s war of aggression in Mexico. But he is already on the road to compromise with power. Unlike, says Zinn, the fiery Ohio antislavery orator, Congressman Joshua Giddings, Lincoln decides “he would not try to end the war by stopping funds for men and supplies.” By the time Lincoln is elected president he has become a sell-out: The war is not between two peoples, northerners versus southerners as most books declare. It is a war between elites. “The northern elite wanted economic expansion -- free land, free labor, a free market, a high protective tariff for manufacturers, a bank of the United States. The slave interests opposed all that.” Lincoln is the chosen representative of the northern elite. At first, he refuses even to commit the country to the abolition of slavery. But then “casualties mounted, desperation to win heightened, and the criticism of the abolitionists threatened to unravel the tattered [Republican] coalition.” Lincoln, in response to the pressure, finally moves left and commits the country to a policy of emancipation. Zinn quotes Wendell Phillips, who said that if Lincoln was able to grow as president “it is because we have watered him.”

One would think that readers would see through Zinn’s approach. But the book keeps selling like hotcakes. But why is it the object of such affection? One reason is that we have a soft spot in our hearts as Americans for the thirties and Zinn’s book is very much a product of the thirties. Reading his book is like stepping into a Frank Capra movie where The People battle the Bosses for control of Small Town USA. If his book were a painting it would look like those magnificent murals from the thirties that adorn the ceiling of the lobby of Rockefeller Center, the ones depicting Heroic Working People Confronting the Forces of Nature and Capitalism. But the chief reason his book sells -- and I say this in the full knowledge that my observation will be greeted with some astonishment -- is because Howard Zinn, self-described radical, has tapped into the hoary myth that suffuses The People in an almost divine burst of sunlight. That is, Zinn, the debunker of American myths, appeals not despite the classic American myth that underlies his approach, but because of it. Try as he does to escape from American assumptions to present something fresh he is actually beholden to one of the oldest assumptions there is. 

Lest it be thought that I am picking on Mr. Zinn, let me hasten to add that the list of left-wingers who share his rosy assumption about The People is long and distinguished. It includes many writers and scholars whose work I have been privileged to publish at the History News Network. But rather than get into the business of naming names, I prefer to broaden the indictment. Our problem is not that certain left-wing writers have let the public off the hook, it is that left-wing readers have. The writers can write what they will. The trouble is that their readers have not called into question the assumptions the writers have been making. 

Take as an example one of the familiar arguments made during the debate about the Iraq War. It was summed up by a handy photograph that surfaced on the eve of the war and was quickly distributed widely. The picture showed Saddam Hussein, Iraqi dictator, shaking hands with Donald Rumsfeld, when he was serving as an American envoy of President Reagan in the early 1980s. The Left loved the photograph.  Here was powerful visual evidence of the complicated and hypocritical history of the United States in Iraq. Contrary to President George W. Bush’s assertion that Saddam was a wily dictator so heinous we had to drop bombs on him, the picture suggested that he was a man with whom we could do business, as the diplomats say. But left-wingers failed to extend the argument as they properly should have to include the responsibility of ordinary Americans for our friendship with Saddam. It is the absence of an argument then that is at issue rather than the argument that was made. To be sure Rumsfeld was a hypocrite, shamelessly capable of pirouetting from support to hostility in an instant, as circumstances dictated, without regard to questions of morality. But was not the American public’s shameless switch also of interest? It is a peculiarity of our culture and the inadequacy of the Left’s approach that we could acknowledge Rumsfeld’s hypocrisy but not our own. 

The failure is not universal. In A Problem from Hell”: America in the Age of Genocide, which appeared in 2002, the sympathetic, intelligent and articulate leftist Samantha Power clearly writes of the American public’s complicity or at the least indifference to Saddam’s many crimes against humanity. By the end of her book it seems almost incredible that Americans have greeted revelations of genocide with apathy. Recounting the story of the 1988 gassing of the Kurds at Halabja, which President Bush used as Exhibit A in his indictment of Saddam’s evil rule, Power movingly shows how our indifference cost lives: 

"It was different from the other bombs," one witness remembered. "There was a huge sound, a huge flame and it had very destructive ability. If you touched one part of your body that had been burned, your hand burned also. It caused things to catch fire."

The official reaction of the American government at the time was embarrassingly weak. First the government downplayed the reports of the attack attributing them to suspect Iranian accounts. Then when the evidence mounted and became undeniable official spokespersons like Marlin Fitzwater denounced Saddam’s use of gas but not the attack itself. As Power observes, "The United States issued no threats or demands." Furthermore, a State Department spokesman muddied the waters by suggesting that both Iran and Iraq had possibly used gas. 

This terrible record cast a shadow over the leadership of the American government and obviously is further evidence of the hypocrisy of leaders like Rumsfeld. But it also suggests that Americans themselves were uninterested in the attack. The broad outline of what happened in Halabja was known. Our response as a country to the news of the attack was known. But by choice, both our leaders and our people preferred to respond -- maybe this is too harsh -- with a yawn.

Power herself indicts the public along with its leaders for their insouciance. She claims convincingly that the public responded apathetically time and again in the twentieth century to the most horrendous reports of man’s inhumanity to man, beginning with the Armenian Genocide, the century’s first. But if that is the case why did leftists reviewing the volume not focus their ire on public opinion?  Why did the New York Times book review, written by an editor at the liberal American Prospect, carry the headline, “Turning a Blind Eye/A human rights expert surveys a century of American policy toward mass killings,” as if the problem were with our leaders’ policy and not ourselves, and then devote not a single sentence out of 1,341 words to the question of the American public’s culpability? 

Curious to see if the Times’s review was representative, I checked the website of The Nation, the country’s leading left-wing publication, for comparison. In its 4,000 word review the public’s responsibility is alluded to just once. Admittedly it is easier to indict specific policymakers than it is to survey the response -- or non-response, as it were -- of the general public. But the conclusion I drew and I do not think it is an unreasonable one is that the Left is bored with the theme of democratic weakness. The public’s indifference is now so taken for granted on the Left that few seize the opportunity to comment on it. 

The result is that all sorts of rather incomplete statements parading as serious arguments have been advanced and accepted. The arguments are not so much wrong as they are inadequate, the propounders of the arguments unwilling to follow their premises to their logical conclusion, as if they were traveling along a speedy highway and suddenly decided to draw to a dead stop even though they had yet to reach their destination. Where they were going had seemed plain enough. But why on earth they had ceased to go forward no one bothers to say. 

Related Links

  • Howard Zinn - Tributes, Memorials, and Obituaries
  • Howard Zinn's show has been"hyped" says Ron Radosh in a highly critical review
  • Rick Shenkman: The Left's Blind Spot
  • Michael Kazin: Howard Zinn's Disappointing History of the United States
  • Joseph A. Palermo: Remembering Howard Zinn
  • Michael Honey: Howard Zinn's Disputed Legacy
  • Ron Briley: Thank You, Howard Zinn
  • Ron Radosh: America the Awful - Howard Zinn's History
  • Sheldon M. Stern: Howard Zinn Briefly Recalled
  • Staughton Lynd: The Howard Zinn I Remember
  • Eric Foner: Zinn's Critical History