15 December 2003 **** 5 July 2017 **** Front Page

American historian, playwright and social activist Howard Zinn died January 27, 2010, aged 87. His light will shine bright into the far off future. A new socially just world will owe a great debt to Howard and others like him who gave so much of themselves for us. -- ZNet Staff 

On the 4th of July this year many Americans paid tribute to Howard Zinn who helped people imagine a brighter future for their country. Here is my review of Zinn's best-selling book on US history.


Basic truths about US history

By Tapani Lausti

Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States: 1492 — Present. New Edition. HarperCollins Perennial Classics 2003.

As in many other countries these days, in Finland also attitudes towards the US have become a touchy subject. Ex-Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen complains about "resentment" shown towards the US by many Finns. Bizarrely he claimed that some Finns still seem to hold secretly allegiance to the Kremlin.

A prominent commentator on international affairs, Jaakko Iloniemi, recently expressed unhappiness about some anti-Bush comments. He admitted that there is much to be unhappy about with George W. Bush but stressed that the US president at least supports equality, democracy and human rights. Iloniemi also wanted to remind readers how much Europe is in debt to the US for its role in two world wars, the cold war and the Balkans. ("Kuka ymmärtäisi George W. Bushia", Suomen Kuvalehti, 21 November 2003)

To anyone following world events with open eyes it is obvious that Bush's speeches about democracy and human rights are shot through with hypocrisy and double standards. And all the current talk about Wilsonian idealism does not amount to much when compared to the real history of US foreign policy. In his excellent book, Howard Zinn offers this quote from Woodrow Wilson: "Concessions obtained by financiers must be safeguarded by ministers of state, even if the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged in the process.... the doors of the nations which are closed must be battered down." (p. 362) Indeed, history does not know any idealistic big powers.

Many commentators in Finland and elsewhere have treated Bush as someone who has broken with a benevolent American legacy. In fact, Bush's open contempt for democracy follows a long and unpleasant tradition. Zinn not only recounts the awful legacy of American foreign policy but also shows that everything which is decent about the US has been fought for by ordinary people who have tried to limit the rampant and destructive selfishness of the ruling political, economic and military elites.

Much progress has been made by popular opposition. Yet, "as the United States entered the nineties, the political system, whether Democrats or Republicans were in power, remained in the control of those who had great wealth. The main instruments of information were also dominated by corporate wealth. The country was divided, though no mainstream political leader would speak of it, into classes of extreme wealth and extreme poverty, separated by an insecure and jeopardized middle class."

Zinn continues: "Yet, there was, unquestionably, though largely unreported, what a worried mainstream journalist had called 'a permanent adversial culture' which refused to surrender the possibility of a more equal, more humane society. If there was hope for the future of America, it lay in the promise of that refusal." (p. 629)

One current myth in the Finnish NATO debate is that the US and the North Atlantic Alliance indirectly also saved Finland from Soviet aggression. Zinn quotes US diplomats and experts who tell a different tale. George Kennan — the former ambassador to the Soviet Union and one of the theoreticians of the cold war — said this fear of Soviet tanks rolling westwards had no basis in reality.

Harry Rositzke, a high-ranking CIA Soviet expert is quoted thus: "In all my years in government and since I have never seen an intelligence estimate that shows how it would be profitable to Soviet interests to invade Western Europe or to attack the United States." (p. 583)

It is probably safe to conclude that this reluctance to move West applies to Finland as well. Moscow's satellites were another matter because the Kremlin's grip on them was ideologically essential. No other "socialist" ways to future were allowed, i.e. developments like the Prague Spring.

So the picture emerges of a great power, the United States, bent on bullying the rest of the world and disciplining its own population by using manufactured threats to the country's security. This view is now fashionably described as "anti-American". This silly description makes it difficult to explain why so many eminent Americans have seen through US propaganda and are worried about their country's destructive role in the world.

Here is a random quote from Zinn's book: "When in 1974 the American ambassador to Chile, David Popper, suggested to the Chilean junta (which, with U.S. aid, had overthrown Allende) that they were violating human rights, he was rebuked by Kissinger, who sent word: 'Tell Popper to cut out the political science lectures.'" (p. 554)

Apologetics of US policies tend to view such ugly incidents as exceptions to a decent foreign policy record. Zinn's book shows that such policy choices are an integral part of US behaviour in the world. And as the recent attack against Iraq shows, the methods are becoming ever more reckless.


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