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Transition to Democracy Rare Under Occupation

Between the Lines Q&A
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release Feb. 7, 2005

Throughout History, Transition to Democracy Rare Under Military Occupation

Interview with historian Howard Zinn, conducted by Scott Harris

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While many political observers in the U.S. are trumpeting the success of Iraq's Jan. 30 election as a first concrete step toward democracy and stability, others caution that the strength of the insurgency will not soon diminish and the war will likely continue. President Bush has cited his invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq that brought elections to those nations as an example of what he says is among his administration's top priorities: the democratic transformation of the Middle East and other authoritarian countries across the world.

But people living in Arab nations had mixed reactions to the vote. Many are skeptical that a credible election can take place under a military occupation, while others are concerned that the divisions inside Iraq will be exacerbated by the vote and could lead to civil war. Still, some citizens living under one-party rule expressed hope that a democratic change would take hold in their countries and improve their own lives.

Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with historian and activist Howard Zinn, who examines the Iraq election by looking at the track record of establishing democracies under military occupations throughout history.

HOWARD ZINN: I'm sure a lot of Iraqis were glad to be able to vote, but to vote under conditions of a military occupation can hardly be called a free vote, can hardly be called a democratic process, and the crucial question in Iraq is, When will the occupation end? And when will the Iraqis be able to truly determine their own destiny, truly work out their own political future, without the presence of an American army? Historically, we've had many, many instances in which elections have been held in other countries, but under the shadow of bayonets and machine guns. And when elections were held like that in other places, the United States did not look upon that as a democratic election, except of course, when the machine guns and bayonets were American.

And as for this leading into the making of a constitution, we also have a history of constitutions being drafted while a country is being occupied by the United States. These constitutions can hardly be called examples of democratic self-determination. The United States, back 100 years ago, invaded Cuba to drive the Spanish out and presumably to liberate the Cuban people. The constitution was created for the Cuban people, but the constitution was created in the conditions of American occupation and under American coercion. The constitution was one that was drafted to please the American occupiers and not to bring benefits to the people of Cuba. That constitution gave the United States the right to send military forces into Cuba any time it wanted.

Some years later, after World War I, the United States invaded Haiti -- occupied Haiti ?- and drafted a constitution for Haiti. Those instances do not give us confidence when you consider that all those votes taken; constitutions written did not lead to democracy in those countries. They led to American control and they led to dictatorship.

BETWEEN THE LINES: In a lot of the analysis that we're hearing, Howard Zinn, U.S. officials quite often after this election, talk about moving Iraq toward a stable democracy that will necessitate "staying the course," that the U.S. can't "cut and run," at this time -- echoes of the "peace with honor" slogan that we heard during the Vietnam War years. Do you want to comment?

HOWARD ZINN: Well, you know, it's interesting that you mention the Vietnam War years, because we faced the same situation when we invaded Vietnam. When it soon became evident that we were doing terrible damage to the people of Vietnam, and our troops were increasing year by year in Vietnam and when they had reached a level after a couple of years of about 300,000 or 400,000, a number of Americans began to suggest that maybe the United States should withdraw from Vietnam because we obviously weren't doing the Vietnamese any good. We were bombing their villages; we were taking over their country; huge numbers of people were being killed and of course American GIs were being killed. And when some of us called for withdrawal -- I had written a book published in 1967, two years after the escalation of the war in Vietnam -- called "Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal," and when we called for withdrawal, people said exactly the same things that are being said today, "We mustn't cut and run; "We must stay the course." Well ,we did stay the course in Vietnam. After 1967, we stayed the course for six more years, and what was the result? The result was 2 million Vietnamese killed; the result was 58,000 American GIs coming home in body bags. That was the result of staying the course.

We did not bring democracy to Vietnam by our military occupation and we are not bringing democracy to Iraq by what we are doing there. Therefore, the most reasonable and moral thing to do is for the United States to end this occupation, to withdraw from Iraq as quickly as it possibly can and let the Iraqis determine their own destiny with whatever difficulties they may have. But whatever difficulties they may have would not be as bad as what they are facing now, with an American army barging into their homes, bombing them, killing people on such a scale that the British medical journal Lancet said that perhaps 100,000 civilians in Iraq had been killed in the course of this war.

Vietnam is an example for us. When we did finally leave Vietnam, all those horrible consequences that were predicted did not come about. The only thing is that all those people lost their lives and Vietnam was a destroyed country and the reputation of the United States in the world had really declined precipitously just as the reputation of the U.S. in the world today has gone way, way, down because of the war in Iraq.

Howard Zinn's best-known work is titled, "A People's History of the United States." Learn more about his work by visiting the website:


Scott Harris is executive producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 35 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. 11, 2005. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Scott Harris and Anna Manzo.



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