I had been invited to give a talk in Kalamazoo Michigan. It was
the night of the final televised presidential debate of the 1992
campaign, and to my surprise (did they need a break from election
madness?) there were several hundred people in the audience. This
was the quincentennial year of the Columbus landing in the Western
Hemisphere and I was speaking on "The Legacy of Columbus,
Ten years earlier, in the very first pages of my book
People's History of the United States, I had written about
Columbus in a way that startled my readers. They, like me, had
learned in elementary school (an account never contradicted,
however far their education continued) that Columbus was one of
the great heroes of world history, to be admired for his daring
feat of imagination and courage. In my account, I acknowledged
that he was an intrepid sailor, but also pointed out (based on his
own journal and the reports of many eyewitnesses) that he was
vicious in his treatment of the gentle Arawak Indians who greeted
his arrival in this hemisphere. He enslaved them, tortured them,
murdered them, all in the pursuit of wealth. He represented, I
suggested, the worst values of Western Civilization: greed,
violence, exploitation, racism, conquest, hypocrisy (he claimed to
be a devout Christian).
The success of the People's History took both me and
my publisher by surprise. It went through twenty-four printings,
sold 300,000 copies, was nominated for an American Book Award, and
was published in Great Britain and Japan. I began to get letters
from all over the country, and a large proportion of them were in
excited reaction to my opening chapter on Columbus.
Most of the letters thanked me for telling an untold story. A
few were skeptical and indignant. One high school student in
Oregon, assigned my book by his teacher, wrote: "You've said that
you have gained a lot of this information from Columbus' own
journal. I am wondering if there is such a journal, and if so, why
isn't it part of our history? Why isn't any of what you say in my
A mother in California, looking into a copy of the People's
History her daughter brought home from school, became
enraged, demanded that the school board investigate the teacher
who used my book in her classes.
It became clear that the problem (yes, I had become a problem)
was not just my irreverence toward Columbus, but my whole approach
to American history. I insisted, in A People's History,
as one reviewer put it, on "a reversal of perspective, a
reshuffling of heroes and villains." The Founding Fathers were not
just ingenious organizers of a new nation (though they certainly
were that), but also rich white slaveholders, merchants,
bondholders, fearful of lower-class rebellion, or, as James
Madison put it, of "an equal division of property."
Our military heroes--Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt--were
racists, Indian killers, war-lovers, imperialists. Our most
liberal presidents--Jefferson, Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt,
Kennedy--were more concerned with political power and national
aggrandizement than with the rights of non-white people.
My heroes, on the other hand, were the farmers of Shays'
Rebellion; the black abolitionists who violated the law to free
their brothers and sisters; the people who went to prison for
opposing World War I; the workers who went on strike against
powerful corporations, defying police and militia; the Vietnam
veterans who spoke out against the war; the women who demanded
equality in all aspects of life.
There were historians and teachers of history who welcomed my
book. A number of people were upset; to them I was clearly out of
order. If there were criminal penalties, I might have been charged
with "assault with a deadly weapon--a book," or "disorderly
conduct--making unseemly noises in an exclusive club," or
"trespassing--on the sacred domain of historiographical
To some people, not only was my book out of order, my whole
life was out of order--there was something unpatriotic,
subversive, dangerous, in my criticism of so much that went on in
this society. During the Gulf War of 1991, I gave a talk to a high
school assembly in Massachusetts, a private school where the
students came from affluent families and were said to be "95
percent in favor of the war." I spoke my mind, and to my surprise
got a great round of applause. But in a classroom afterward,
meeting with a small group of the students, a girl who had been
staring at me with obvious hostility throughout the discussion,
suddenly spoke up, her voice registering her anger: "Why do you
live in this country?"
I felt a pang. It was a question I knew was often thought, but
unspoken. It was the issue of patriotism, of loyalty to
one's country, which arises again and again, whether someone is
criticizing foreign policy, or evading military service, or
refusing to pledge allegiance to the flag.
I tried to explain, that my love was for the country, for the
people, not for whatever government happened to be in power. To
believe in democracy was to believe in the principles of the
Declaration of Independence--that government is an artificial
creation, established by the people to defend the equal right of
everyone to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I
interpreted "everyone" to include men, women, children all over
the world, who have a right to life, not to be taken away by their
own government or by ours.
When a government betrays those democratic principles, it is
being unpatriotic. Love of democracy would then require opposing
your government. It would require being "out of order."
The publication of A People's History led to requests
from around the country for me to speak. And so, there I was in
Kalamazoo, that evening in 1992, speaking, not just on Columbus,
but on why telling the truth about Columbus was important for us,
here and now, 1992, Kalamazoo. I was really not interested in
Columbus, but in the issues raised by his interaction with the
native Americans: is it possible for people, overcoming history,
to live together, with equality, with dignity, today?
At the end of my talk, someone asked a question which has been
put to me many times in different ways. "Given the depressing news
of what is happening in the world, you seem surprisingly
optimistic. What gives you hope?"
I attempted an answer. I said I could understand being
depressed by the state of the world, but the questioner had caught
my mood accurately. To him and to others, mine seemed an absurdly
cheerful approach to a violent and unjust world. But to me what
was often disdained as romantic idealism, as wishful thinking, was
justified if it prompted action to fulfill those wishes, to bring
to life those ideals.
The willingness to undertake such action cannot be based on
certainties, but on those possibilities glimpsed in a reading of
history different from the customary painful recounting of human
cruelties. In such a reading we can find not just war but
resistance to war, not just injustice but rebellion against
injustice, not just selfishness but self-sacrifice, not just
silence in the face of tyranny but defiance, not just callousness
Human beings show a broad spectrum of qualities, but it is the
worst of these which are usually emphasized, and the result, too
often, is to dishearten us, diminish our spirit. And yet,
historically, that spirit refuses to surrender. History is full of
instances where people, against enormous odds, have come together
to struggle for liberty and justice, and won--not often enough, of
course, but enough to suggest how much more is possible.
The essential ingredients of these struggles for justice are
human beings who, if only for a moment, if only while beset with
fears, still step out of line and do something, however small. And
even the smallest, most unheroic of acts adds to the pile of
kindling that may be ignited by some surprising circumstance into
Individual people are the necessary elements, and my life has
been full of such people, ordinary and extraordinary, whose very
existence has given me hope. Indeed, the people there in that
audience in Kalamazoo, the questioner himself, clearly concerned
with the world beyond the election returns, were living proof of
possibilities for change in this difficult world.
Though I didn't say it to my questioner, I had met such people
that evening, in that city. At dinner before my talk I was with
the campus parish priest, a man built like a football linebacker,
which in fact he had been years before. I asked him the question I
often ask people I like: "How did you come by the peculiar ideas
you now have?"
It was a one-word answer, the same one-word answer given by so
many: "Vietnam." To life-probing questions there seems so often to
be a one-word answer: Auschwitz...Hungary...Attica...Vietnam. The
priest had served there as a chaplain. His commanding officer was
Colonel George Patton III. Son of his father, Patton liked to talk
of his soldiers as "darn good killers," hesitating to use the word
"damn" but not the word "killers." Patton ordered the chaplain to
carry a pistol while in the combat zone. He refused, and despite
threats, continued to refuse. He came out of Vietnam against not
just that war, but all wars. And now he was traveling back and
forth to El Salvador to help people struggling against death
squads and poverty.
Also at dinner was a young teacher of sociology at Michigan
State University. Raised in Ohio by working-class parents, he too
had come to oppose the war in Vietnam. Now he taught criminology,
doing research, not about robbers and muggers, but about high
crime, about government officials and corporate executives, whose
victims were not individuals but the whole of society.
It's remarkable how much history there is in any small group.
There was also at our dinner table a young woman, a recent
university graduate, who was entering nursing school so that she
could be of use to villagers in Central America. I envied her. As
one of those many who write, speak, teach, lawyer, preach, whose
contribution to society is so indirect, so uncertain, I thought of
those who give immediate help--the carpenters, the nurses, the
farmers, the school bus drivers, the mothers. I remembered the
Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, who wrote a poem about his lifelong
wish that he could do something useful with his hands, that he
could make a broom, just a broom.
@PAR SUB = I didn't say this to my questioner in Kalamazoo. In
fact, to really answer him I would have to say much more about why
I was so curiously hopeful in the face of the world as we know it.
I would have to go back over my life.
I would have to tell about going to work in a shipyard at the
age of 18, and spending 3 years working out on the docks, in the
cold and heat, amidst deafening noise and poisonous fumes (it's
impossible to describe the smell created by a welder's torch
burning the zinc of galvanized steel), building battleships and
landing ships in the early years of the second World War.
I would have to tell about enlisting in the Air Force at 21,
being trained as a bombardier, flying combat missions in Europe,
and later asking myself troubling questions about what I had done
in the war.
And about getting married, becoming a father, going to college
under the GI Bill while loading trucks in a warehouse, with Roz
and our two children in a charity day-care center, and all of us
living in a low-income housing project on the lower East Side of
And about getting my PhD from Columbia and my first real
teaching job (I had a number of unreal teaching jobs), going to
live and teach in a black community in the deep South for seven
years. And about my students at Spelman College who one day
decided to climb over a symbolic and actual stone wall surrounding
the campus to make history in the early years of the civil rights
And about my experiences in that Movement, in Atlanta, in
Albany, Georgia, and Selma, Alabama, and Hattiesburg and Jackson
and Greenwood, Mississippi.
I would have to tell about moving North to teach in Boston, and
joining the protests against the war in Vietnam, and being
arrested a half-dozen times (the official language of the charges
was always interesting: "sauntering and loitering""...disorderly
conduc""...failure to quit..."etc.). And traveling to Japan, and
to North Vietnam, and speaking at hundreds of meetings and
rallies, and helping a Catholic priest stay underground in
defiance of the law.
I would have to recapture the scenes in a dozen courtrooms
where I testified in the 1970s and 1980s, mostly for people who
had been arrested in protests against the war. I would have to
tell about the prisoners I have known, short-timers and lifers,
and how that affected my view of imprisonment.
When I became a teacher, I could not possibly keep out of the
classroom my own experiences--growing up, working, going to war,
becoming involved in the civil rights movement and the anti-war
movement, my time in jails and courtrooms. I have often wondered
how so many teachers manage to spend a year with a group of
students and never reveal who they are, where they came from, what
kind of lives they have led, where their ideas come from, what
they believe in, what they want for themselves, for their
students, for the world.
Does not the very fact of that concealment teach something
terrible to their students--that you can separate the study of
literature, history, philosophy, politics, the arts, from your own
life, your deepest convictions about right and wrong?
In my teaching I never concealed my political views: my
detestation of war and militarism, my anger at racial inequality,
my belief in a democratic socialism, in a rational and just
distribution of the world's wealth. I made clear my abhorrence of
any kind of bullying, whether by powerful nations over weaker
ones, or governments over its citizens, or employers over
employees, or by anyone, on the Right or the Left, who thought
they had a monopoly of the truth.
This mixing of activism and teaching, this insistence that
education cannot be neutral on the crucial issues of our time,
this movement back and forth from the classroom to the struggles
outside, by teachers who hope their students will do the same, has
always frightened the guardians of traditional education. They
prefer that education simply prepare the new generation to take
its proper place in the old order, not to challenge that order.
I would always begin a course by making it clear to my students
that they would be getting my point of view, that I didn't pretend
to an "objectivity" that was neither possible nor desirable. But I
would try to be fair to other points of view. I encouraged my
students to disagree with me. They had a long period of political
indoctrination before they arrived in my class--in the family, in
high school, in movies and television. Into a marketplace of ideas
so long dominated by orthodoxy I wanted only to wheel my little
pushcart, offering my wares along with the others, leaving
students to make their own choices.
The thousands of young people in my classes over the years gave
me hope for the future. Through the 1970s and 1980s, everyone
outside seemed to be groaning about how "ignorant" and "passive"
was the current generation of students. But listening to them,
reading their journals and papers, their reports on the community
activity that was part of their assigned work, I was impressed
with their sensitivity to injustice, their eagerness to be part of
some good cause, their potential to change the world.
The student activism of the 1980s was small-scale, but in that
time there was no great national movement to join, and there were
heavy economic pressures from all side to "make good," to "be
successful," to join the world of prosperous professionals. Still,
so many of them were yearning for something more, and so I did not
despair. I remembered how in the 1950s haughty observers talked of
the "silent generation" as an immovable fact, and then, exploding
that notion, came the 1960s.
And yet, I am not oblivious to the bad news we are constantly
confronted with. That surrounds me, inundates me, depresses me
intermittently, angers me.
I think of the poor today, so many of them in the ghettos of
the non-white, often living a few blocks away from fabulous
wealth. I think of the hypocrisy of political leaders, of the
control of information through deception, through omission. And
all over the world, governments play on national and ethnic
I am aware of the violence of everyday life for most of the
human race. All represented by the images of children. Children,
hungry children with missing limbs. The bombing of children
reported officially as "collateral damage."
@PAR SUB = As I write this, in the summer of 1993, there is a
general mood of despair. The end of the cold war between the
United States and the Soviet Union has not resulted in world
peace. In the countries of the Soviet bloc, there is desperation
and disarray. There is a brutal war going on in the former
Yugoslavia, and more violence in Africa. The prosperous elite of
the world finds it convenient to ignore starvation and sickness in
the poverty-ridden countries. The United States and other powers
continue to sell arms wherever it is profitable, whatever the
In this country, the euphoria that accompanied the election of
1992 of a young and presumably progressive president has
evaporated. The new political leadership of the country, like the
old, seems to lacks the vision, the boldness, really the will, to
break from the past. It maintains a huge military budget which
distorts the economy and makes possible no more than puny efforts
to redress the huge gap between rich and poor. Without such
redress, the cities must remain riddled with violence and despair.
And there is no sign of a national movement working to change
Only the corrective of historical perspective can lighten our
gloom. Note how often in this century we have been surprised by
the sudden emergence of a people's movement, the sudden overthrow
of a tyranny, the sudden coming to life of a flame we thought
extinguished. We are surprised because we have not taken notice of
quiet simmering of indignation, of the first faint sounds of
protest, of the scattered signs of resistance that, in the midst
of our despair, portend the excitement of change. The isolated
acts begin to join, the individual thrusts blend into organized
actions, and one day, often when the situation seems most
hopeless, there bursts onto the scene...a Movement.
We are surprised because we don't see that beneath the surface
of the present there is always the human material for change: the
suppressed indignation, the common sense, the need for community,
the love of children, the patience to wait for the right moment to
act, in concert with others. These are the elements that spring to
the surface when a Movement appears in history.
People are practical, they want change but feel powerless,
alone, do not want to be the blade of grass that sticks up above
the others and is cut down. They wait for a sign, from someone
else who will make the first move, or the second. And there are
intrepid people who, at certain times in history, take the risk,
that if they make that first move others will follow quickly
enough to prevent their being cut down. And if we understand this,
we might make that first move.
This is not a fantasy. This is how change has occurred again
and again in the past, even the very recent past. We are so
overwhelmed by the present, the flood of pictures and stories
pouring in on us every day, drowning out this history, that it is
no wonder we lose hope. I realize, too, it is easier for me to
feel hopeful because in many ways I have just been lucky.
Lucky. for one thing, to have escaped my upbringing. There are
memories of my father and mother, who met as immigrant factory
workers, who worked hard all their lives, and never got out of
poverty (I always feel some rage when I hear the voice of the
arrogant and affluent: "We have a wonderful system; if you work
hard you will make it." How hard they worked, how brave they were
just to keep four sons alive in the cold-water tenements of
Lucky, after stumbling around from one bad job to another, to
find work that I loved. Lucky to encounter remarkable people
everywhere, to have so many good friends.
And also, lucky to be alive, because my two closest Air Force
Friends--Joe Perry, 19 and Ed Plotkin, 26--died in the last weeks
of the war. They were my buddies in basic training at Jefferson
Barracks, Missouri. We suffered the summer heat together on
"forced marches with full field-pack and equipment." We went out
on weekend passes together. We learned to fly Piper Cubs in
Vermont, and played basketball in Santa Ana, California, while
waiting to be assigned. Then Joe went to Italy as a bombardier, Ed
to the Pacific as a navigator, I to England as a bombardier. Joe
and I would write to one another, and I kidded him, as we, who
flew B-17s, kidded those who flew B-24s--we called them B Dash Two
The night the European war ended, my crew drove to Norwich, the
main city in East Anglia, where everybody was in the streets, wild
with joy, the city ablaze with lights that had been out for six
years. The beer flowed, enormous quantities of fish and chips were
wrapped in newspapers and handed out to everyone, people danced
and shouted and hugged one another.
A few days after that, my most recent letter to Joe Perry came
back to me, with a penciled notation on the envelope:
"Deceased"--too quick a dismissal of a friend's life.
My crew flew our old battle-scarred B-17 back across the
Atlantic, ready to continue bombing in the Pacific. Then came the
news about the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and we were
grateful--the war was over. I had no idea that one day I would
visit Hiroshima and meet blinded, maimed people who had survived
the bomb, and that I would rethink that bombing and all the
When the war ended and I was back in New York, I looked up Ed
Plotkin's wife--he had stolen out of Fort Dix the night before he
was being shipped overseas, to spend a last night with his wife.
She told me Ed crashed in the Pacific and died just before the war
ended, and that a child was conceived the night he went AWOL.
Years later, when I was teaching in Boston, someone came up to me
after a class with a note: "Ed Plotkin's daughter wants to meet
you." We met and I told her whatever I could remember about the
father she never saw.
@PAR SUB = So I feel I have been given a gift--undeserved, just
luck--of almost 50 years of life. I am always aware of that. For
years after the war, I had a recurrent dream. Two men would be
walking in front of me in the street. They would turn, and it
would be Joe and Ed.
Deep in my psyche, I think, is the idea that because I was so
lucky and they were not I owe them something. I owe them not to
waste my gift, to use these years well, not just for myself
(although I insist on having some fun; I am not a martyr, though I
know some and admire them), but for that new world we all thought
promised by the war that took their lives.
And so I have no right to despair. I insist on hope.
It is a feeling, yes. But it is not irrational. People respect
feelings, but still want reasons. Reasons for going on, for not
surrendering, for not retreating into private luxury or private
desperation. People want evidence of those possibilities in human
behavior I have talked about. I have suggested that there are
reasons. I believe there is evidence. But too much to give to the
questioner in Kalamazoo. It would take a book.
So I decided to write one.