Between the Lines Q&A

A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release Feb. 24, 2010

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Historian Howard Zinn Remembered
as a People's Hero

 RealAudio  MP3

Interview with Daniel Ellsberg,
a former U.S. government military analyst and "The Pentagon Papers" whistleblower
conducted by Scott Harris


Historian and activist Howard Zinn, author of "A People's History of the United States," which has sold nearly 2 million copies, died on Jan. 27. Throughout his career, Zinn chronicled the history of our nation from a perspective that discarded the jingoism and triumphalism that characterizes most other standard works of American history. What made his writing so compelling is that he wrote about world events, not from the perspective of kings, queens, presidents, and corporate CEOs, but from regular people who are the true engines of history. MIT professor Noam Chomsky, a longtime friend, said Zinn's writings changed the perspective and understanding of history for a whole generation.

Professor Zinn not only wrote about history, he was a participant in shaping history through his uncompromising advocacy for peace and social justice. After serving in the Army Air Forces as a bombardier during World War II, he became chairman of the history department at Spelman College, a historically black institution for women in Atlanta, where he planned and participated in civil rights protests. From the Vietnam War era to Ronald Reagan's covert wars in Central America to the Bush (father and son's) wars in the Persian Gulf, Zinn was no stranger to activism, police batons, tear gas and jail cells, often putting himself at risk for his beliefs.

Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Daniel Ellsberg a former government military analyst who in 1971 leaked the now-famous Vietnam war era "Pentagon Papers" to the press. The documents chronicled the lies and deceit employed by the government to justify U.S. military intervention in Southeast Asian wars. Here, Ellsberg reflects on the life and work of his late friend Howard Zinn whom he describes as his hero.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: He is known now I think among many people for talking more about the dark side of American history than others do -- certainly than other historians do -- but that was in the interest of, I believe, encouraging people to realize the difference between our ideals -- which we're taught, and which are very admirable ones -- the ideals of freedom, and justice in this country, independence, and decency, and how far those are often from our practice and the interest of getting Americans to be responsible, to feel responsible to act responsibly, to change that we were doing wrong when we're "My country right or wrong," as someone said, when it's wrong to be set right. That was Howard's career in life; in particular, to not just celebrate the things we do right, but to recognize the things we do wrong now and in the past, and realize that we are able as American citizens, more than people in many other countries to act together, freely, to set the country right.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Daniel Ellsberg, in a piece you wrote shortly after Howard Zinn's death entitled "The Memory of Howard," you said that Howard Zinn was your hero, that he was the best human being you've ever known. Tell us about the personal side.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Of course, that's a very strong statement; I've never made it before about anybody, I would say. I was just thinking about it because, as of course, several times recently in this documentary film, a documentary film that he's in, and thinking about how I felt about him (laughs). I think the thing I said at the beginning, I have a lot of heroes -- and he's not the only one -- but, and yet, he was the first thing that came to my mind when somebody asked me recently who my heroes were. Howard was an advocate of nonviolent civil disobedience; took part with me in a number of actions and many others where I was not involved, and he believed that that was part of our democracy, that the regular ordinary processes of voting and lobbying and writing letters and what not did not exhaust our responsibilities as citizens and the system didn't work itself without a kind of pressure that would recall people to their consciences or that would recall their consciences to them.

When I had to, when I did expect the FBI to be coming after me because the Pentagon Papers were coming out in the New York Times that evening on June 12th, 1971, and I had just gotten word that they were coming out so I found myself with a copy of the Pentagon Papers -- these top secret documents in my apartment -- and I had been very careful not to have them in my own apartment for months, or ever really. I'd kept them elsewhere lest they be snatched away by the FBI, so here I have these things and I had to get rid of them quickly and Howard was the person I knew. I could have turned to Noam Chomsky, I think. But Howard ... I was going to see that night to see Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid in Harvard Square, so I called him up and said I had something I wanted to stash with him and, in fact, I ha already given him a large part of it to read. He was a historian and I thought he ought to have these documents for his own information. So, that was another set. So, of course, he agreed right away.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What is the legacy that he leaves behind? And what is the inspiration he leaves current generations?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Of course, his book. I will remember when I asked him years ago around 1980 or so what he was working on, he said, "Well it's something very modest; I'm writing a history of the United States." (laughs) I remember he said, "I'm going to call it 'A People's History of The United States." Well, he ended up of course with a book that has sold two million copies around the world. He leaves a legacy of this people's history which is a history above all, of resistance struggles of showing that people can even without much reason for hope, can get together and act to change things nonviolently.

Daniel Ellsberg's release of the "Pentagon Papers" in 1971 bolstered opposition to the Vietnam War. Read more about the life and work of professor Zinn at

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Scott Harris is an executive producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 45 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending Feb. 12, 2010. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Melanie Muller and Anna Manzo.

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