Howard Zinn was born in August 1922 to Jewish immigrant parents (both factory workers) in Brooklyn, New York. He joined the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II and was assigned as a bombardier in the 490th Bombardment Group, which targeted sites in Berlin, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. After the war, Zinn attended New York University (NYU) on the GI Bill, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1951.
Member of the Communist Party & Related Organizations
In the late 1940s, Zinn served as vice-chairman for a Brooklyn branch of the American Labor Party (ALP), an organization run and dominated by Communists. As historian Ronald Radosh writes, “The ALP was but the first of many Communist-led groups with which Zinn would lend both his name and his active participation.” Among these were the American Veterans Committee, the American Peace Mobilization, and the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee.
In 1949, the FBI opened a domestic security investigation on Zinn (the 423-page FBI File #100-360217) because of his involvement with Communist front groups like ALP and his status as an active — though secret — member of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). (Zinn’s membership in the party lasted from 1948 until at least 1953, and perhaps as late as 1956; he was known to attend party meetings as often as five times per week.) Notably, however, he never acknowledged his Communist Party membership, and whenever he was asked about it, he denied it.
In 1951 Zinn taught a “Basic Marxism” class at the CPUSA’s Brooklyn, New York headquarters, where he emphasized that “the basic teaching[s] of Marx and Lenin were sound and should be adhered to by those present.”
The FBI again scrutinized Zinn’s activities in the 1960s on account of his criticism of the Bureau’s civil-rights investigations. At that time, Zinn was a pro-Castro activist and a supporter of such organizations as the Black Panther Party, the (Maoist) Progressive Labor Party, the (Trotskyist) Socialist Workers Party, and the Students for a Democratic Society. A 1964 FBI memorandum says that in 1962, Zinn “publicly protested United States demand for withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba”; i.e., he was in favor of the U.S. being vulnerable to a Soviet nuclear attack. Moreover, Zinn was named on the FBI’s “Security Index” and “Communist Index”; the former included individuals who were judged to represent a high enough risk that they could be detained by the government in the event of a national emergency.
In February 1969, Zinn was listed as a sponsor of the Massachusetts Committee to Abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee, a Communist Party front group.
The FBI investigated Zinn still further in 1974 when he traveled to North Vietnam with Daniel Berrigan to publicize his anti-war positions and his desire to see America’s Communist enemies win the Vietnam War. That same year, the Bureau ended all its investigations of Zinn.
Career in Academia
After graduating from NYU, Zinn attended Columbia University, where he earned a master’s degree in 1952 and a Ph.D. in history (with a minor in political science) in 1958.
From 1956-63, Zinn was Professor of History at the all-female, all-black Spelman College in Atlanta. According to one of his pupils there, author Alice Walker, Zinn—at the very height of the Communist takeover of China—once told a local white audience: “I stand to the left of Mao Zedong.” Eventually, Zinn was forced to leave the school because of his political radicalism. He went on to teach in the political science department at Boston University in 1964—a post he would hold until 1988.
A People’s History of the United States
The author of more than twenty books, Zinn is best known for writing A People’s History of the United States (1980), a Marxist tract that describes America as a predatory and repressive capitalist state—sexist, racist, imperialist—that is run by a corporate ruling class for the benefit of the rich. The book claims to present American history through the eyes of the nation’s many victim groups: workers, American Indians, slaves, women, blacks, and populists. A People’s History has sold more than a million copies, making it one of the best-selling history books of all time. Despite its lack of footnotes and other scholarly apparatus, it is one of most influential texts in college classrooms today—not only in history classes, but also in such fields as economics, political science, literature, and women’s studies.
Professor Zinn announced the overtly political agenda of A People’s History in an explanatory coda to the book’s 1995 edition: “I wanted my writing of history and my teaching of history to be a part of social struggle. I wanted to be a part of history and not just a recorder and teacher of history. So that kind of attitude towards history, history itself as a political act, has always informed my writing and my teaching.” Zinn’s ultimate goal was to influence new generations of young students into becoming revolutionaries whose hatred for the United States would impel them to work toward “a transformation of national priorities” and a comprehensive “change in the system.” “The prisoners of the system will continue to rebel,” Zinn said in hopes that someday “our grandchildren, or our great grandchildren, might possibly see a different and marvelous world.”
In A People’s History, Zinn’s projection of Marxist theory upon historical reality begins with Christopher Columbus. According to Zinn, Columbus and those explorers who followed him to the New World did so for essentially one overriding reason: financial gain. “Behind the English invasion of North America, behind their massacre of Indians, their deception, their brutality, was that special powerful drive born in civilizations based on private profit,” Zinn asserted.
The Pilgrims who came to New England, Zinn’s book says, were white invaders of a vast “territory inhabited by tribes of Indians” which the author portrays as a mostly peaceful network of brothers who had theretofore lived in idyllic harmony with one another.
A People’s History describes the founding of the American Republic as an exercise in tyrannical control of the many by the few, mainly for greed and profit: “The American Revolution … was a work of genius, and the Founding Fathers … created the most effective system of national control devised in modern times, and showed future generations of leaders the advantages of combining paternalism with command.” By Zinn’s reckoning, the Declaration of Independence was not so much a revolutionary statement of rights, as it was a cynical means of manipulating popular groups into overthrowing the King to benefit the rich. The rights which the Declaration appeared to guarantee were “limited to life, liberty and happiness for white males”—and actually for wealthy white males—because they excluded black slaves and “ignored the existing inequalities in property.” (In other words, they were not socialist rights). Regarding America’s separation from Great Britain, Zinn informs: “Around 1776, certain important people in the English colonies … found that by creating a nation, a symbol, a legal unity called the United States, they could take over land, profits, and political power from the favorites of the British Empire. In the process, they could hold back a number of potential rebellions and create a consensus of popular support for the rule of a new, privileged leadership.”
Zinn proceeds to paint the antebellum South as a uniquely cruel slaveholding society that mercilessly subjugated man for profit. Yet he offers a similarly negative assessment of the North: “It is money and profit, not the movement against slavery, that was uppermost in the priorities of the men who ran the country.” Thus, both slavery and emancipation, according to Zinn, were caused by the same thing: greed. Whether the U.S. tolerated or eradicated the institution of slavery, the country’s nefarious motives remain the same.
Zinn again cites greed as the cause for America’s entry into World War I: “American capitalism needed international rivalry—and periodic war—to create an artificial community of interest between rich and poor, supplanting the genuine community of interest among the poor that showed itself in sporadic movements.”
Vis-a-vis World War II, Zinn suggests not only that America’s unnecessary provocations were to blame for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, but that the U.S.’s fight against fascism was itself an illusion, with the real goal being empire:
“Quietly, behind the headlines in battles and bombings, American diplomats and businessmen worked hard to make sure that when the war ended, American economic power would be second to none in the world. United States business would penetrate areas that up to this time had been dominated by England. The Open Door Policy of equal access would be extended from Asia to Europe, meaning that the United States intended to push England aside and move in.”
Regarding the mid- to late 20th century, Zinn’s book contends that Maoist China was “the closest thing, in the long history of that ancient country, to a people’s government, independent of outside control”; that Castro’s Cuba “had no bloody record of suppression”; and that the Marxist dictators of Nicaragua in the 1980s were “welcomed” by the people, while the opposition Contras, whose candidate triumphed when free elections were held as a result of U.S. pressure, were a “terrorist group” that “seemed to have no popular support inside Nicaragua.”
Radical Ties, 1988-95
In the fall of 1994, a publication of the New Party (NP)—a socialist political coalition—listed listed Zinn as one of the more than 100 activists “who are building the NP.” Other notable names on the list included: John Cavanagh, Noam Chomsky, Barbara Ehrenreich, Randall Forsberg, Maude Hurd, Manning Marable, Frances Fox Piven, Zach Polett, Wade Rathke, Mark Ritchie, Gloria Steinem, Cornel West, and Quentin Young.
By the mid-1990s, Zinn was openly allying himself with such groups as ACORN, the Committees of Correspondence for Socialism and Democracy, and the Democratic Socialists of America.
Zinn also became a vocal supporter of convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu Jamal, claiming that it was Mumia’s “race and radicalism,” as well as his “persistent criticism of the Philadelphia police,” that had landed him on death row in the early 1980s.
Zinn and 9/11
In a pamphlet titled Terrorism and War, which he penned after 9/11, Zinn depicted America as a veritable terrorist state, while painting its jihadist enemies as freedom fighters who were bravely defending themselves against the ravages of U.S. imperialism. He strongly opposed the post-9/11 U.S. invasions of both Iraq and Afghanistan, and he condemned the Patriot Act as an assault on civil liberties. Among the many anti-American statements Zinn made soon after 9/11 were the following:
On September 20, 2001, Zinn was a guest speaker at a New York City event where some 500 people gathered to remember the life of the recently deceased Richard Cloward, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and an originator of the Cloward-Piven Strategy. Other speakers at the event included Barbara Ehrenreich, Gus Newport (a community activist and a member of the Committees of Correspondence), Frances Fox Piven (Cloward’s widow and his collaborator on the Cloward-Piven Strategy), former SDS radical Miles Rapoport, New Party co-founder Joel Rogers, and Cornel West.
In January 2002, Zinn endorsed the founding of War Times, an anti-Iraq War newspaper established by a coterie of San Francisco leftists affiliated with the Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement (STORM); one of the publication’s more noteworthy founders was the revolutionary communist Van Jones, who would later become President Barack Obama‘s “green jobs czar” in 2009.
Zinn was a signatory to a February 20, 2002 document condemning military tribunals and the detention of immigrants apprehended in connection with post-9/11 terrorism investigations. Titled “National Day of Solidarity with Muslim, Arab and South Asian Immigrants,” the document read, in part:
“[T]hey [the U.S. government] are coming for the Arab, Muslim and South Asian immigrants. Based on their racial profile, over 1500 have been rounded up and the government refuses to say who they are, where they are jailed and what the charges are!!! Already, a Pakistani man has died in custody. Who will be next? The recent ‘disappearances,’ indefinite detention, the round-ups, the secret military tribunals, the denial of legal representation, evidence kept a secret from the accused, the denial of any due process for Arab, Muslim, South Asians and others, have chilling similarities to a police state. We will not allow our grief for the tragedy of September 11 to be used to justify this new repression. We are clear that being an immigrant is not a crime; Muslims, Arabs and South Asians are not terrorists.”
In a 2003 interview, Zinn defended his own collaboration with International ANSWER, an anti-war organization controlled by the communist Workers World Party. Praising ANSWER’s “good organizing work,” he said: “A broad movement must include all sorts of groups, including anarchists.”
In 2004, Zinn and Anthony Arnove published Voices of A People’s History of the United States as a follow-up to Zinn’s original 1980 work; this latter book was a collection of first-hand accounts, journal entries, speeches, personal letters, and published opinion pieces culled from various times and places in American history.
Zinn wrote the introduction for Dear President Bush, a book released by anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan in April 2004.
In May 2004, Marx in Soho, a play that Zinn wrote as a medium to revive Karl Marx for the new millennium, premiered in Havana. On the occasion of that premier, Zinn told the Cuban publication La Jiribilla:
“Marx is not dead, and I am going to try to prove it by bringing him back on the scene. And from there I’ll show difference the U.S. public what Marxism is really about. Marx himself would explain the difference between Stalinism and Marxism. I’ll remind people what Marx’s criticism of capitalism was. I would demonstrate that these ideas have much to with the United States today. In other words, that Marxist criticism today is exact and current.”
In August 2004, outside the site of the Republican National Convention in New York, Zinn endorsed an Anti- “Bush Team” Protest organized by Not In Our Name, an entity with close ties to the Revolutionary Communist Party.
In October 2004 Zinn was a signatory to a statement circulated by the organization 911Truth.org, calling on the U.S. government to investigate the possibility that the September 11 attacks were an “inside job” that had been allowed (by the Bush administration) to take place in order to serve as a pretext for America waging war in the Middle East.
In 2006, Zinn served as an original board member of the Movement for a Democratic Society (MDS), an organization established to support the newly re-founded Students for a Democratic Society. Other MDS board members included Noam Chomsky, Carl Davidson, Angela Davis, Bernardine Dohrn, Barbara Ehrenreich, Bill Fletcher, Tom Hayden, Jeff Jones, Rashid Khalidi, Mike Klonsky, and Mark Rudd.
In a 2006 interview published in AlterNet, Zinn suggested that Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman would make a better presidential candidate than either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, stating: “She’s the epitome of what we need. A very smart black woman who deals with children, poverty…. She’s in the trenches, and she ties it in with militarization.”
In a 2006 interview with conservative commentator Dennis Prager, Zinn was asked whether the U.S. had done more bad or more good during the course of its history. He replied:
“Probably more bad than good. We’ve done some good, of course; there’s no doubt about that. But we have done too many bad things in the world. You know, if you look at the way we have used our armed forces throughout our history: first destroying the Indian communities of this continent and annihilating Indian tribes, then going into the Caribbean in the Spanish-American War, going to the Philippines, taking over other countries, not establishing democracy but in many cases establishing dictatorship, holding up dictatorships in Latin America and giving them arms, and you know, Vietnam, killing several million people for no good reason at all, certainly not for democracy or liberty, and continuing down to the present day with the war in Iraq….”
During the same interview, Zinn stated that George W. Bush had needlessly caused many innocent Iraqi and Afghani civilians to be killed in wars that were unjustified. Prager then asked, “So do you feel that, by and large, the Zarqawi-world [a reference to al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi] and the Bush-world are moral equivalents?” Zinn replied: “I do. I would put Bush on trial along with Saddam Hussein, because I think both of them are responsible for the deaths of many, many people in Iraq, and so, yes, I think that. Killing innocent people is immoral when Iraqis do it, and when we do it, it is the same thing.”
Throughout his adult life, Zinn—wherever he looked—saw evidence of American evil; e.g., a nation engaged in “the poisoning of the air, the seas and rivers”; a nation beset by profound economic injustice; a nation that spent far too much money on its weapons of war, but far too little on the teeming masses who had been dealt a most unfortunate hand by capitalism’s unpredictable caprices; a nation overrun by “a class of criminals” who had been “bred by economic inequity” and “the contrasts of wealth and poverty” that epitomized America’s “culture of possession”; a nation “stratified by financial and educational inequities that led “naturally to envy and class anger”; and a nation infested with injustice against “poor and non-white” people.
In April 2007, Zinn produced a “Statement in Support of Professor Ward Churchill,” the University of Colorado professor who had authored a controversial essay suggesting that the 9/11 attacks were reprisals for unjust U.S. foreign-policy measures, and that no U.S. citizen could be considered genuinely innocent of harming the peoples of other nations. Churchill also had recently been fired because of academic misconduct, including plagiarism. In his Statement, Zinn wrote:
“I have declared my support of Ward Churchill because to defend him is to defend the principle of academic freedom, the idea that no one should lose his or her job or status in education because of factors outside of teaching and scholarship. Those factors — political, ideological — are evident in his case, and they are joined by a mean-spiritedness which does not belong in an academic or any other environment. The attack on Ward Churchill comes at a time in our nation’s history when constitutional rights are under attack by the national government, when war threatens the lives and well-being of all, and therefore we need the marketplace of ideas to be as open as possible. If we want to live in a democracy we must protect that openness. That is why defending Ward Churchill has an importance far beyond his particular situation.”
Zinn and Israel
Just as Zinn held the United States in contempt, so did he despise America’s closest ally in the Middle East, Israel. In 2001 he lamented that “in the occupied territories … a million and more Palestinians live under a cruel military occupation, while our [U.S.] government supplies Israel with high-tech weapons.”
In 2008 Zinn wrote that Israel’s creation in 1948 “meant the dispossession of the Arab majority that lived on that land,” and led not only to “the occupation and subjugation of several million Palestinians,” but also to “what we would today call ‘ethnic cleansing.’” He further recounted that “after the Six-Day War of 1967 and Israel’s occupation of territories seized in that war (the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, the Sinai peninsula),” he personally “began to see Israel not simply as a beleaguered little nation surrounded by hostile Arab states, but as an expansionist power.” With regard to the ongoing Mideast conflict, the professor placed most of the blame for “the cycle of violence” on Israel’s allegedly provocative use of disproportionate force—e.g., “a rock-throwing [Palestinian] intifada met by [Israeli] over-reaction in the form of broken bones and destroyed homes, [Palestinian] suicide bombers killing innocent Jews followed by [Israeli] bombings which killed ten times as many innocent Arabs.” And according to Zinn, Israeli society was replete with deep-seated “xenophobia, militarism, [and] expansionism.” “Some of the wisest Jews of our time—Einstein, Martin Buber—warned of the consequences of a Jewish state,” he added. “Einstein wrote, at the very inception of Israel: ‘My awareness of the essential nature of Judaism resists the idea of a Jewish state with borders, an army, and a measure of temporal power, no matter how modest. I am afraid of the inner damage Judaism will sustain….’”
In February 2009, when Hampshire College (in Amherst, Massachusetts) became the first American college or university to divest its financial holdings in U.S.-based companies because of their alleged role in promoting Israeli injustice against Palestinians in the Middle East, Zinn endorsed the measure along with such notables as Mustafa Barghouti (a Palestinian political figure who founded the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees), Noam Chomsky, Rashid Khalidi, Cynthia McKinney, and Ilan Pappe. Resulting directly from the efforts of the campus group Students for Justice in Palestine, the Amherst divestment targeted a total of six corporations, on grounds that they were providing equipment and services for Israeli military personnel stationed in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Those corporations were Caterpillar, General Electric, ITT Corporation, Motorola, Terex, and United Technologies.
In September 2009, Zinn was one of 59 clients of a multi-billion-dollar financial services and retirement firm (Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association, College Retirement Equities Fund) to sign a letter calling on the firm to divest the $257,000 in stocks it held in the company Africa-Israel. The signatories objected to Africa-Israel’s role in funding the construction of Israeli settlements in disputed territories in or near the West Bank. Also signing the letter were such professors as Joel Beinin, George Bisharat, Noam Chomsky, and Juan Cole.
The Zinn Education Project
Asserting that “There is no such thing as pure fact,” Zinn maintained that the proper role of educators was not to teach objective truths but rather to lead “social struggle” by promoting student collectivism and emphasizing “the role of working people, women, people of color and organized social movements.” In 2008 he helped launch the so-called Zinn Education Project (ZEP), a collaboration between Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change. The initiative was designed to incorporate Zinn’s writings and worldview into all aspects of K-12 school curricula.
The ZEP lessons reinforce Zinn’s presentation of the United States as redeemable only through a socialist revolution. Major historical events are replaced with instances demonstrating relentless oppression. For example:
“Obama has become president at a very special time, when the American capitalist system is falling apart. And good! I’m glad it’s falling apart, because unless the system falls apart, we’re not going to do anything about it. We’re not going to fix it…. The market system—be wary when you hear about the glories of the market system. The market system is what we’ve had. Let the market decide, they say. The government mustn’t give people free health care; let the market decide. Which is what the market has been doing—and that’s why we have 45 million people without health care. The market has decided that. Leave things to the market, and there are 2 million people homeless. Leave things to the market, and there are millions and millions of people who can’t pay their rent. You can’t leave it to the market.”
On January 27, 2010, Zinn died of a heart attack in Santa Monica, California, where he was traveling at the time.
For additional information on Howard Zinn, click here.
Aside from That, He Was Also a Red
By Ron Radosh
August 16, 2010
Howard Zinn’s FBI File: What It Reveals
By Ron Radosh
Zinns of Omission
By Bruce Bawer
September 3, 2019
Howard Zinn and the Book That Poisoned a Generation
By Mary Grabar (Prager University)