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National Educational Radio presents "As We See It: Vietnam 68", a series of appearances of noted spokesmen presenting their various views on the war in Vietnam. "As We See It: Vietnam 68" was conducted over a period of five weeks last spring on the campus of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, under the sponsorship of the Miami University Student Senate. Because of the time period that has elapsed between the time these discussions were presented, and the president, these speeches should be taken to represent the views of the speakers at that time. Nevertheless, even with the current events concerning the South-East Asian area, these speeches represent valuable background on the Vietnam situation. The speaker for this program is Dr. Howard Zinn, associate professor of Government at Boston University. Dr. Zinn was a fellow at the Harvard University Center for East Asian studies, and was director of the Non-Western Studies program at Atlanta University before moving to Boston University. Speaking in "As We See It: Vietnam 68", here is Dr. Howard Zinn.
[Applause] [Applause] Before getting specific about Vietnam, I'd like to get a little abstract and historical. It's just what you love about the academic world. Seems to me that something is happening, and not only in this country, but in other parts of the world. It has significance beyond Vietnam. I see it in the... the sit-in at Howard University in Washington, and I see it in a sit-in in Warsaw University, I see it in developments in Czechoslovakia. I see in meetings like this taking place in Vietnam all over the country. And it seems to me that what is happening is that a new generation
and by new generation, I don't just mean this college generation, but I mean a new generation ideologically, not just chronologically, but I suspect it's true also of older people who now are thinking anew about events in the world I think a new- new generation is somehow trying to break out of the bounds, out of the boundaries, out of the- well out of- out of places like this Out of the strategic hamlets that society creates for us physically and ideologically. And people are somehow trying to get back to the- well, of the essence of things, of what people are, what they want. Of human need, of way back there at the beginning of what it's all supposed to be about and what we're supposed to be living for,
And it means somehow getting past the objects, the symbols, the totems, the taboos. that civilization erects between us and that ultimate something that we want and that we think i-is the essence of being human. I think that what we're trying to do is to resolve the ambiguity of being human which is an ambiguity around the whole problem of symbols and things and representations. Uh- because on the one hand, it is precisely this, the manipulation of symbols, of words and figures, which is enabled man to manipulate, control, mold his environment and create all of those marvelous
things. Sometimes we wonder. All of those things that represent, you know, progress uh And on the other hand it is also symbols, words, things, which somehow imprison us, and don't allow us to take full advantage of that which the other kind of symbolic manipulation has enabled us to do. And it seems to me that to get just a little less abstract, you know, I figure I'll work myself towards the real, you know, and ?be back?. In a few days, I'll be there. But to get a little just a little less abstract, it seems to me that war's
?are? single singular or plural. War represents this dilemma probably more sharply than any other phenomenon we have. War. is presented and accepted on the basis of symbols. War represents... mass killing. killing. It represents impersonal killing, as animals need some some very specific reason for committing violence. They need a visible, tangible, immediate committing violence, it is to man
It is to man's great credit, a sign of his civilization, and a sign of his superiority, that he doesn't need a visible and tangible reason for committing violence. It is of the nature of war that huge amounts of violence can be dispensed against objects which are not visible and for causes which are hardly as attainable and certainly not measurable, so that wars represent this problem of symbols at the most acute point. Through history, for as long as we can remember, the rulers of nations have sent the young people to war, And generally for no good reason other than their own wealth or their
own power or their own prestige, their own pride. And they've always used two methods one was compulsion and the other was words. And these words were either frightening words like "The Muslims are about to take over the world" or "the Huns are about to take over the world" or "the Jews are about to take over the world" or "the Catholics are about to take over the world" or "the communists are about to take over the world" or these were inspiring words like, we need to make the world safe for democracy, Christianity, Western civilization, the motherland.
Well, all sorts of other things, including apple pie. And you wonder what makes, what makes it possible for this to happen again and again for a very long time throughout history. Well, for one thing, it seems hard to trace from that symbol, from the word, from the phrase, to what it is supposed to represent. This is a very difficult and complex process and people don't have the time or the where with all the ability to do this. And so others do it for them, while others pretend to do it for them. Maybe it turns out that nobody really traces it back, But the average person doesn't feel it is his job to look beyond the symbol to see what it really represents.
Then there's another factor, and that is that symbols have this marvelous quality. They represent infinite amounts of good or evil So that everything else, which you need to measure against the value of the war. Let us say the cost of the war. Let us say the number of people killed in the war, The number of people injured, the number of people homeless. The amount of pain caused by a war. And this is all finite. It may be a large number but it is a finite number. It may be a hundred thousand people or a million people or ten million people, but it's a finite number.
Liberty is infinite. Democracy is infinite. So that if 10 million die in World War One on the battlefield and if they died to make the world safe for democracy, then you measure that finite quantity of ten million deaths against the infinite good of democracy and it's so clear that it was all worth it. Now this is what happens when we deal with democracy, with liberty. And also when we deal with the anti-symbols, with the enemy, with evil, because evil is always represented as infinite evil
and if evil is infinite, there is no amount of human suffering that is not worth fighting against this evil. This is the marvelous, Marvelous quality. that symbols have. There is another factor that makes us, subservient to the coming of war and the acceptance of war, And every once in a while in human history, a war comes along which can be in some way linked to a social good in a visible way. As this seems to be some at least very rough Congruence alliance between the war and a social goal, more concrete than just the general statement about freedom or democracy.
Well, the nice thing about this is that because this happens every once in a while, it happens just often enough to cast a very warm glow around all the other wars that take place where you can't find any possible social goal, and so if you have a revolutionary war with whatever social good is embodied in the idea of independence from England. Then this casts a very nice light over the War of 1812 which no one has ever been able to explain, or the Mexican War or the Mexican War, for which nobody can really find any good reason, and just about the time you begin The Civil War comes along
the Civil War comes along which is tied to slavery, "Sure, 600000 men died" but there it seems quite cl- the war ends and the 13th Amendment's passed and slavery is gone. Well that's very convenient, because then when the Spanish-American War Spanish-American War comes along, can say "remember how we fought for freedom in the old days?" Well, it's the same thing now. It's, it's People don't check up on analogies. I mean all you have to do is throw 'em out And all you have to do is say remember freedom, Civil War Spanish-American War, freedom, remember... slavery? Now, the Cubans Now the Cubans, they're slaves under this, we're going to help them. Explain then why you also, in the process of freeing the Cubans, pick up the Philippine Islands, which are, after all, on the other side of the Pacific
of the Pacific, the whereabouts of which McKinley did not know until he [audience laughs] You remember You know, McKinley said that he didn't know what to do with the Philippines but that he got down on his knees and prayed and God told him to take the Philippines. God was a political scientist in those days and he analyzed the entire international situation and he came to the conclusion that that nobody in the world deserved to own the Philippines more than the United States [audience laughs] and the [pause] of course, the Filipinos did of course, the Filipinos did not get the same message from God, and so they rebelled against the United States and fought bitterly for several divine message, against McKinley desire to Christianize and civilize Christianize and civilize them, but
about things like that. But there was still, y'know, that aura of a Civil War, may have lasted even as far as World War 1, although it was wearing thin by this time you know to this- to this day historians, American historians American historians, are trying to explain why the United States entered World War 1. World War 1, uh... [silence] and yet we would just, remember there's a very, very severe disillusionment after World War 1, and there were, in the 20s, there were all the anti-war novels and poems. People were beginning to decide that war was just no good, period period, Hitler came along and we had him to
thank, for once again, making war are a noble venture because since we engaged in that and, then, a more visible, evil than Hitler and Nazism, all the trappings of it if you stretched your imagination to find the embodiment of evil and tried to stage it, you still couldn't match what Nazism couldn't match what Nazism and Hitler did, the way they the kids who see the old movies don't think that these must be actors, it can't be true. Well, after Well, after that, after World War 2, a little easier to talk about wars for freedom, and now any war that we fight
can be invested with that same soft glow that World War 2 had. No matter what the specific circumstances of the new war and that's why you see so much talk in Vietnam issues and Vietnam debates, about the Munich analogy and th-that's why, uh Chamberlain and Munich and Churchill, and 'member LB- J compared Marshall Kỳ to Churchill, no he compared Diệm to Churchill Now, we compared ZM to Churchill he compared Marshall Kỳ to Tugwell, that's right. And what happened is that people forgot that war, at its best y'know, admitting, let's say admitting, we'll say, for the moment that war has its best, that war at has always meant an unfocused, indiscriminate and massive
amount of violence, even where some social good was involved, some social good was involved, the romance of defeating Hitler, you have to accept the reality of Hiroshima... and that's war at its best. and that's war at its best. worst is war without any visible any visible, understandable, tangible social reason. Vietnam. And that's why the administration is having such a hard time convincing the American people, who after American people, who after all are always ready to be convinced, and we are a patriotic bunch, and we did go to fight in World War Two But if the President of the United
States and the Secretary of State and the Vice President and the Secretary of Defense and and all of the big guns of the administration, with all their TV time and press interviews and so on. If they have a hard time convincing the patriotic American people the patriotic American people, so ready always in history to be convinced of the rightness of the war. Then... there must be something wrong here something wrong here. At least something worth investigating. Symbols which once stood for something we thought we knew about: life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, uh, democracy, freedom, self-determination. We had some vague notion but what happens, we begin to substitute secondary symbols for those
original, uh s- abstract symbols, secondary symbols which Secondary symbols which are even harder to trace, which become substitutes, which then stand for that which we originally wanted, and then finally stand on their own and are untested. And so we use And so we use symbols removed by one or more degrees from that value which we originally held and which we don't check up on anymore and we make absolutes of these symbols. We don't question them, we don't question what's behind them. And so if you read that 200 of the enemy were killed yesterday, you don't have to look any further, you don't you don't have to look any further,
you don't have to know whether to feel, you don't have to inspect that to see whether you You should know that anybody called the enemy, if he is killed, then you should feel a glow of pride. We're winning. We're winning, something good happened 200 of the enemy were killed. Now nobody looks behind that. In order to see who these people are who were killed you would have to go out there to the villages of Vietnam. villages of Vietnam, and you'd have to take a look. Now the people who have taken a look tell us that a lot are just people. That is they're just That is they just farmers, were just peasants, or just wives of farmers or just children or Jonathan Shell, who told us about the destruction of the village of Ben Suc. about the destruction of the village of Ben Suc. The enemy were two
picnic when an American helicopter pilot decided that they were the enemy. Or a man riding a bicycle out of the village was the enemy because he was riding the bicycle west when he should have been riding it east. I don't know how many of you read uh, Joseph Heller's book, "Catch 22" Heller's book "Catch 22" but there's a marvelous scene in that. The mad Bombardier. What makes him mad is that he's decided he doesn't want to die. Anybody who's in war and decides he doesn't want to die must be mad. He's flown too many missions. and he wants to stop. So he becomes what you might call unpatriotic. And his friend Clevenger,
the, uh, Harvard man, the gung-ho patriot, is annoyed at Yossarian and he doesn't like the things that Yossarian is beginning to say and he said, you know, Yossarian, he says you shouldn't talk that way. You are giving aid and comfort to the enemy. And Yossarian says, look here, And Yossarian says, look here, Clevenger. He picked up look here Clevenger, [audience laughs] uh, the enemy... The enemy, the enemy is whoever wants to whichever side they're on. [audience laughs then claps.] He said, "now, You said. Now, you better remember that Clevenger, or one of these days you'll be dead." And you remember the line that came
after that. And it was one of those things that, in a way, that Joseph It was one of those things that, in a way, that Joseph Heller dropped these lines into this novel and Clevenger forgot that and soon he was dead. [audience laughs] I remember that sometimes I think that one of the reasons that Benjamin Spock has been indicted, instead of lots of other indicted, instead of lots of other people they could have picked, Dr. Spock had the nerve to say on national television that the enemy of the American people was Lyndon Johnson. Now we're not used to hearing that and we don't like to hear things like that because the enemy is always somebody else, the enemy can't be a real two-fisted American born in Texas. He can't be that...our enemy. An enemy must speak with a foreign accent,
not a Texas accent. A foreign He must look different, be different, then he is the enemy, no matter what he's really like. But I think that's what got Dr. Spock But I think that's what got Dr. Spock Among other things, of course. [audience laughs] Among other things, of course. Another is communism. Communism has become to us what the word Catholic or the word Protestant was Protestant in the Thirty Years War, in the in the Thirty Years War, in the religious wars, what Jew was in Germany, or nigger, I started saying in the South, but I really mean I started staying in the South, but I really mean everywhere, and that is
requires examination of human beings, as once that word is uttered everything is clear. This word tells you immediately where you... what side you are on and who to kill. But the headline says 250 communists were killed yesterday. This is cause for rejoicing. But when you think about it, how do they decide these 250 people who were killed were communists? And what is a communist anyway? And how many different kinds of communists are there in the world and how many different kinds of people are there in the world? And it's hard enough to take a body And it's hard enough to take a body count, Communism is not a single, easily identifiable kind of object. Young people demonstrating in Poland and Czechoslovakia, many of them are communists.
The manager of the collective farm who wrote to Kosygin protesting against the jailing of Soviet intellectuals was a communist. intellectuals was a communist. There are Chinese communists and there are Czech communists and there are Russian communists and there are 97 different varieties of each and then there are Vietnamese Communists and there is Russian communism and there is Yugoslav communism and there's Albanian communism and there is Vietnamese communism. And how can we decide And how can we decide just on the basis of knowing these are without looking behind the symbol and inspecting who are these people and what are they doing and what have they done and what do they stand for? they done If we are only going to accept symbols and not try to look behind them, and not try to look behind them, then we are
removing from the realm of human possibility certain things which might be true. It is conceivable that somewhere on Earth, at some time in human history, at some time in human history, Communists might stand for the independence of their country against foreign control. against foreign control.
As we see it: Vietnam '68
Dr. Howard Zinn
Producing Organization
Miami University (Oxford, Ohio)
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University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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For series info, see Item 3509. This prog.: Dr. Howard Zinn, assoc. prof. of government, Boston U.; former director, Non-Western Studies Program, Atlanta U.
War and Conflict
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Producing Organization: WMUB
Producing Organization: Miami University (Oxford, Ohio)
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University of Maryland
Identifier: 68-28-10 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Duration: 00:30:01
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Chicago: “As we see it: Vietnam '68; Dr. Howard Zinn,” 1968-07-01, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed February 26, 2024,
MLA: “As we see it: Vietnam '68; Dr. Howard Zinn.” 1968-07-01. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. February 26, 2024. <>.
APA: As we see it: Vietnam '68; Dr. Howard Zinn. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from