What did Howard Zinn mean when he said, "in the long run, the oppressor is also a victim?"
When, early in his populist treatise on American history, A People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn wrote, "In the long run, the oppressor is also a victim. In the short run (and so far, human history has consisted only of short runs), the victims, themselves desperate and tainted with the culture that oppresses them, turn on other victims," he was in part mirroring an earlier observation by George Orwell that oppressive regimes ultimately dehumanize the strong as well as the weak. Zinn's purpose in writing his book was to illuminate the bad that came with the good, while arguing that the good wasn't really good after all. His iconoclastic tome, which focused on the negative ramifications of European and later American policies, demythologized for his intended readers, the optimistic and ultra-patriotic versions of U.S. history that came before him. While Christopher Columbus, he notes, is celebrated in American culture for having "discovered" America -- a huge continent that others had occupied before him -- what students had not been taught in earlier generations was that Columbus's arrival presaged the beginning of the end for indigenous cultures and populations. American students had been taught, for instance, that European settlers bravely traveled across the continent in defiance of hostile Indian assaults. What these students were not being taught, however, was that Manifest Destiny involved a genocidal campaign against the indigenous tribes that had lived on these lands long before Columbus and later English settlers set foot on North America.
Zinn's treatise begins with the above-quoted admonition against cavalierly ignoring the consequences of our actions as a nation and of providing students only the most glowing portrait of American history. He opens his book with the discussion of Columbus and what that explorer's arrival would eventually mean for hundreds of thousands of Native Americans. In his final chapter, he returns to this topic, further justifying his exceedingly negative depiction of U.S. history -- a depiction in which every government action or policy is presented without context -- by noting the following:
"From first grade to graduate school, I was given no inkling that the landing of Christopher Columbus in the New World initiated a genocide, in which the indigenous population of Hispaniola was annihilated. Or that this was just the first stage of what was presented as a benign expansion of the new nation . . . but which involved the violent expulsion of Indians, accompanied by unspeakable atrocities . . ."
Zinn's point in suggesting that, in the long run, the oppressor is also a victim," is warning against the dehumanizing nature of our actions as a nation. That is why, in his discussion of President Martin Van Buren's orders that the Cherokee be forcibly evicted from their land, Zinn included the text of a letter to the then-president from Ralph Waldo Emerson, including this sentence:
"The soul of man, the justice, the mercy that is the heart's heart in all men, from Maine to Georgia, does abhor this business . . ."
The policies of the United States Government, Zinn believed, were destructive of our collective conscience, and that was what he meant by his comment.