Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Howard Zinn

American Historian and Author

"Democracy is not just a counting up of votes – it is a counting up of actions. Without those on the bottom acting out there desires for justice – as the government acts out its needs, and those with power and privilege act out theirs – the scales of democracy will be off. That is why civil disobedience is not just to be tolerated – if we are to have a truly democratic society it is a necessity."

"Everyone is biased, whether they know it or not, in possessing fundamental goals, purposes, and ends. If we understand that, we can be properly skeptical of all historians (and journalists and anyone who reports on the world) and check to see if their biases cause them to emphasize certain things in history and omit or give slight consideration to others."

"The "war on terror" is being used to create an atmosphere of hysteria, in which the claim of "national security" becomes an excuse to throw aside the guarantees of the Bill of Rights and to give new powers to the FBI."

"I’m supposing – or perhaps only hoping – that our future may be found in the past’s fugitive moments of compassion, rather than the solid centuries of warfare."

"Here in the United States, we are brought up to believe that our nation is different from others, an exception in the world, uniquely moral; that we expand into other lands in order to bring civilization, liberty, democracy. But if you know some history you know that's not true."

"If Thomas Jefferson were in Washington yesterday walking down the street, he would have been arrested. He was too young, and he had long hair! And if Jefferson had been carrying the Declaration of Independence with him yesterday, he would have been indicted for conspiring to overthrow the government, along with his co-conspirators George Washington and John Adams and Tom Paine and a lot of others."

"In the heat of [social] movements brains are set stirring with new ideas which live on through quieter times, waiting for another opportunity to ignite into action and change the world around us."

"Human beings do not naturally support violence and terror. They do so only when they believe their lives or country are at stake."

"Instead of sending troops and planes and aircraft carriers, we could send food and medicine. That's what I mean by our becoming a humanitarian superpower instead of a military superpower."

"It isn’t a population that demands war… it is the leaders who demand war and who prepare the population for war… If there was a spontaneous urge to kill, why would we need a draft!"

"Missing from [history] are the countless small actions of unknown people that led up to those great moments. When we understand this, we can see that the tiniest acts of protest in which we engage may become the invisible roots of social change."

"Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world, in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country. That's our problem. We recognize this for Nazi Germany, that the people obeyed Hitler. People obeyed; that was wrong."

"Most want the wealth of this country to be used for human needs--health, work, schools, children, decent housing, a clean environment--rather than for billion-dollar nuclear submarines and four billion-dollar aircraft carriers."

"Nonviolence does not mean acceptance, but resistance - not waiting, but acting. It is not at all passive. It involves strikes, boycotts, non-cooperation, mass demonstrations, and sabotage, as well as appeals to the conscience of the world, even to individuals in the oppressing group who might break away from their past."

"Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world."

"The law is not a holy thing. … The law is made by very mortal people, very limited people, very opinionated people, and people who have very special interests. They make the law, they tell us what the law is, and then they tell us its holy writ."

"Should we welcome the huge growth of the military budget at the expense of health, education, the needs of children, one fifth of whom grow up in poverty? I suggest that a patriotic American who cares for his or her country might act on behalf of a different vision. Instead of being feared for our military prowess, we should want to be respected for our dedication to human rights."

"The money, technology, and human energy now devoted to the military could perform miracles in cleaning up the earth we live on. But the cost of the arms race is not only the enormous waste of resources. There is a psychic cost - the creation of an atmosphere of fear all over the world."

"The pretense of objectivity conceals the fact that all history, while recalling the past, serves some present interest."

"The unique ability of humans to imagine gives enormous power to idealism, an imagining of a better state of things not yet in existence. That power has been misused to send young men to war. But the power of idealism can also be used to attain justice, to end the massive violence of war."

"There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people."

"There were themes of profound importance to me which I found missing in the orthodox histories that dominated American culture. The consequence of those omissions has been not simply to give a distorted view of the past but, more important, to mislead us all about the present."

"To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history of not only cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, and kindness…The future is an infinite succession of "presents," and to live now as we think that human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory."

"This is a very important thing to keep in mind: all movements look small and hopeless at the beginning, but they grow because they appeal to people's sensibilities. They concentrate on such simple truths that people understand."

"To establish the principles of the Declaration of Independence, we are going to need to go outside the law, to stop obeying the laws that demand killing or that allocate wealth the way it has been done, or that put people in jail for petty technical offense and keep other people out of jail for enormous crimes."

"Violence is not the only form of power. Sometimes it is the least effective. Always it is the most vicious."

"We should take our example not from our political and military leaders shouting “Retaliate!” and “War!” but from the doctors and nurses and medical students and firefighters and police officers who have been saving lives in the midst of mayhem – whose first thoughts are not violence, but healing; not vengeance, but compassion."

"War doesn't solve fundamental things."

"Yes, we have in this country, dominated by corporate wealth and military power and two antiquated political parties, what a fearful conservative characterized as “a permanent adversarial culture” challenging the present, demanding a new future. It is a race in which we can all choose to participate, or to just watch. But we should know that our choice will help determine the outcome."

"We should remember that the social utility of free speech is in giving us the informational base from which we can then make social choices. To refrain from making social choices is to say that beyond the issue of free speech we have no substantive values which we will express in action. If we do not discriminate in the actions we support or oppose, we cannot rectify the terrible injustices of the present world."

"Most wars, after all, present themselves as humanitarian endeavors to help people. "

"Dissent is the highest form of patriotism. "

"If those in charge of our society — politicians, corporate executives, and owners of press and television — can dominate our ideas, they will be secure in their power. They will not need soldiers patrolling the streets. We will control ourselves."

"One certain effect of war is to diminish freedom of expression. "

"If patriotism were defined, not as blind obedience to government, nor as submissive worship to flags and anthems, but rather as love of one's country, one's fellow citizens (all over the world), as loyalty to the principles of justice and democracy, then patriotism would require us to disobey our government, when it violated those principles."

"War itself is the enemy of the human race. "

"We need to decide that we will not go to war, whatever reason is conjured up by the politicians or the media, because war in our time is always indiscriminate, a war against innocents, a war against children."

"The term "just war" contains an internal contradiction. War is inherently unjust, and the great challenge of our time is how to deal with evil, tyranny, and oppression without killing huge numbers of people."

"To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places — and there are so many — where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory."

"History is instructive. And what it suggests to people is that even if they do little things, if they walk on the picket line, if they join a vigil, if they write a letter to their local newspaper. Anything they do, however small, becomes part of a much, much larger sort of flow of energy. And when enough people do enough things, however small they are, then change takes place."

"Capitalism has always been a failure for the lower classes. It is now beginning to fail for the middle classes."

"There is the past and its continuing horrors: violence, war, prejudices against those who are different, outrageous monopolization of the good earth's wealth by a few, political power in the hands of liars and murderers, the building of prisons instead of schools, the poisoning of the press and the entire culture by money. It is easy to become discouraged observing this, especially since this is what the press and television insist that we look at, and nothing more. But there is also the bubbling of change under the surface of obedience: the growing revulsion against endless wars, the insistence of women all over the world that they will no longer tolerate abuse and subordination… There is civil disobedience against the military machine, protest against police brutality directed especially at people of color."

"One percent of the nation owns a third of the wealth. The rest of the wealth is distributed in such a way as to turn those in the 99 percent against one another: small property owners against the propertyless, black against white, native-born against foreign-born, intellectuals and professionals against the uneducated and the unskilled. These groups have resented one another and warred against one another with such vehemence and violence as to obscure their common position as sharers of leftovers in a very wealthy country."