Noam Chomsky: Foreword to “Howard Zinn: A Radical American”

Noam Chomsky’s Foreword to Howard Zinn’s biography:
Howard Zinn: A Radical American, Prometheus Books, 2003
[Published with Noam Chomsky’s permission]

Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky

The country has changed a great deal since Howard Zinn boarded his “moving train” a half-century ago.  It has changed along very different trajectories.  Some have been rich in achievement, often exhilarating, and full of promise for a  better future.  Others, in part in reaction to them, are ugly and ominous in their import.  Which will prevail?  It’s hard to overestimate the significance of the question.  It’s hard to think of a better way to gain a clear understanding of what is at stake, and what can be done about it, than by reading, and pondering, the fascinating story of Howard Zinn’s crucial and intimate participation at every point, in thought and action.

One trajectory is illuminated by warnings from prominent figures, in the leading establishment journal Foreign Affairs, that for much of the world – probably most of it – the U.S. is “becoming the rogue superpower,” which they consider to be “the single greatest external threat to their societies” (Samuel Huntington, 1999); “in the eyes of much of the world, in fact, the prime rogue state today is the United States” (Robert Jervis, then chair of the American Political Science Association, Summer 2001).  That was well before the Bush administration announced a doctrine that sent many shudders around the world, including substantial sectors of the foreign policy elite at home: that the US intends to rule the world by military force, the dimension in which it reigns supreme, and to rely on aggressive war  (mislabeled “preemption”) to bar any potential challenge to its domination.  Many analysts warned at once that the “new imperial grand strategy” announced in September 2002 threatens to “leave the world more dangerous and divided – and the United States less secure” (John Ikenberry, Foreign Affairs).  One indication, revealed by public opinion research a few months later, was a sharp increase in fear of the United States around much of the world, and dislike or even loathing for its political leadership.  Another was a reported increase in recruitment for al Qaeda-style terrorist organizations as a result of the Iraq invasion, and apparent acceleration of moves towards proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.  These were widely-predicted reactions to the aggressive unilateralism that was brazenly declared and violently implemented; the motivation might be revenge, or more broadly deterrence by the only means available to those who are targeted.  Closely integrated with Bush administration global planning is the dedicated effort at home to accelerate the Reaganite program of dismantling the progressive legislation of the 20th century, which grew out of the popular struggles of the conflicting trajectory.

Changes resulting from the activism of the past half century are indeed dramatic.  The country has become far more civilized as a result.  The driving force in the early years was the civil rights movement, spearheaded by the young people for whom Zinn was a mentor, and a participant in their courageous initiatives – the “new abolitionists” of SNCC, whose triumphs and travail he recorded memorably, in part from first-hand experience.  Atlanta, where he began to teach in an African-American women’s college in 1956, underwent a remarkable transformation, as did the South in general, with effects throughout the country.  Just to give one personal illustration, at about the time Zinn began his teaching career at Spelman College in Atlanta, I joined the faculty at MIT in Cambridge.  Walking through the halls at the time, one saw neatly-dressed white males.  In the same halls today half the students are women, the undergraduate student body is fairly diverse, formalities have been replaced by much easier interactions throughout the institution.  As I write, the first woman and the first African American have been appointed to head departments of science and engineering.  The experience is replicated throughout much of the country.  There is a long way to go, but the accomplishments are real, and instructive.

In the 1960s there were only the bare beginnings of the women’s and environmental movements, which became major forces in the following years, with far-reaching effects on the society and culture, and on prospects for decent survival.  Attitudes towards the resort to violence have also been transformed.  Forty years ago, John F. Kennedy was able to attack South Vietnam, arousing little interest or concern.  It is scarcely even remembered that in 1962, his government initiated the bombing of South Vietnam that demolished much of the country, along with chemical warfare to destroy crops and ground cover and programs to drive millions of villagers into what amounted to concentration camps, in which they would be “protected” from the indigenous guerrillas who, the administration knew, they were willingly supporting.  Protest was virtually non-existent.  It did not reach a substantial scale until years later.  By then, hundreds of thousands of US troops had invaded the country, the war had spread to the rest of Indochina, and the consequences had become so horrendous that the leading Indochina specialist and military historian Bernard Fall – no dove — warned that “Vietnam as a cultural and historic entity…is threatened with extinction…[as]…the countryside literally dies under the blows of the largest military machine ever unleashed on an area of this size.” He was referring to South Vietnam, always the main target; shortly after he penned this warning he was killed there, observing combat.

Opposition to the Vietnam war, much of it stimulated by the civil rights movement, was slow in coming, but finally became a considerable force.  Throughout, Zinn was a constant, indefatigable, inspiring presence.  His book on “the logic of withdrawal” – which appeared at the same time as Fall’s grim warnings — provided the first careful, sustained argument for commitments that were just coming to animate sectors of the popular activist movements, and was an important stimulus for them.  A year later, after the January 1968 Tet offensive, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were reluctant to respond to the President’s request to send more troops to Vietnam because of they were uncertain that “sufficient forces would still be available for civil disorder control” as protests mounted against the war, joining with other rising popular movements.  The Department of Defense feared that further troop deployments might provoke “a domestic crisis of unprecedented proportions.” By 1969, 70% of the population described the war as “fundamentally wrong and immoral,” not “a mistake,” departing sharply from the elite consensus; the figures have remained fairly stable to the present, even though they receive virtually no articulate support within the mainstream.

Influential radical nationalist (“neocon”) commentators deplored “the sickly inhibitions against the use of military force” that were hobbling policy-makers (Norman Podhoretz).  As it took office in 1981, the Reagan administration, in a triumphalist mood, assumed that the sickly inhibitions had faded, but quickly learned otherwise.  Facing a serious threat to traditional centers of violence and repression in Central America, they attempted to follow the Kennedy model of South Vietnam.  But they drew back in the face of an unanticipated public reaction, resorting instead to clandestine terror: “clandestine,” in the sense that it could be more or less concealed from the American public.

But not completely concealed.  Popular opposition to terrible Central American atrocities organized or supported by Washington was broad-based, more so on Main Street than in elite centers.  It also opened new paths in the history of opposition to imperial violence.  Many thousands of people, often from generally conservative social sectors, were not satisfied with educational efforts, protest, and resistance, but went to live with the victims, to offer help, and also, by their presence, to offer at least some limited protection against state and paramilitary terror.  Few had ever contemplated living in a Vietnamese or Algerian village under brutal attack by their own state, just to take a few recent examples; or before.  The international solidarity movements that developed from these roots have since spread to large parts of the world, compiling a very honorable record of courage and dedication.  In the same years, popular movements concerned with the threat of possibly terminal nuclear war became a force that could no longer be ignored.

When Bush #1 took office in 1989, his administration was presented with an intelligence analysis advising that in conflicts with “much weaker enemies” – any imaginable case — the US must “defeat them decisively and rapidly,” or “political support” would erode.  It was no longer the 1960s.  Tolerance for aggression and terror had sharply declined among the general public.  Forty years after Kennedy’s war against South Vietnam was publicly launched,  there were huge and unprecedented protests against a war even before it was officially announced, not delayed until many years later when the targeted country was “threatened with extinction.”

By the 1990s, solidarity movements were taking new forms.  In the US, and throughout much of the industrial world, large-scale global justice movements were forming, and joined with mass-based popular movements in the South to work for new directions in global economic integration, shifting priorities from investor and corporate rights —  the policies called “globalization” within the doctrinal system – to the needs of the general population for freedom, democracy, and equitable and sustainable development.  These and related popular movements, bringing together many concerns of prime significance and drawing from many social sectors, began to gain some institutional form in the World Social Forum that has met annually in Brazil, by now with many regional offshoots and with participation rising steadily in scale, energy, and enthusiasm.

There is, of course, no single source for these complex and multifaceted historical processes.   They grow from the sources that Howard Zinn has highlighted and brought to general awareness in his historical work, and contributed to so impressively in his life of engagement and dedication: in his words, “the countless small actions of unknown people” that lead to “those great moments” that enter the historical record – a record that will be profoundly misleading, and seriously disempowering, if torn from its roots.  For the most part sources are not even easily detectable, except to direct participants in these countless actions, though some are: Spelman college, to mention one of the most significant.

There are people whose words have been highly influential, and others whose actions have been an inspiration to many.  It is a rare achievement to have interwoven both of these strands in one’s life, as Howard Zinn has done.  His writings have changed the consciousness of a generation, and helped open new paths to understanding history and its crucial meaning for our lives.  He has always been on call, everywhere, a marvel to observe.  When action has been called for, one could always be confident that he would be in the front lines, an example and trustworthy guide.

It has been a wonderful privilege to have been able to join Howard on his “moving train” on many occasions over these years of challenge, inspiration, torment, and persistent concern over impending catastrophe.   Like everyone who knows him, I too have been struck by his enduring optimism, which goes well beyond “optimism of the will” and challenges us also to question the “pessimism of the intellect” that complements it in the slogan that Gramsci made famous: “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” Howard’s life and work are a persistent reminder that our own subjective judgments of the likelihood of success in engaging human problems are of little interest, to ourselves or others.  What matters is to take part, as best we can, in the small actions of unknown people that can stave off disaster and bring about a better world, to honor them for their achievements, to do what we can to ensure that these achievements are understood and carried forward.  In brief, to follow the model provided for us by the subject of this welcome biography.

Back to Top

Readers are welcome to discuss IOA content on our Facebook page. To participate, please click HERE.