About Howard Zinn
"We were not born critical of existing society. There was a moment in our lives (or a month, or a year) when certain facts appeared before us, startled us, and then caused us to question beliefs that were strongly fixed in our consciousness-embedded there by years of family prejudices, orthodox schooling, imbibing of newspapers, radio, and television. This would seem to lead to a simple conclusion: that we all have an enormous responsibility to bring to the attention of others information they do not have, which has the potential of causing them to rethink long-held ideas." - Howard Zinn, 2005
He was an American historian, anarchist, author, activist, playwright, intellectual and Professor of Political Science at Boston University from 1964 to 1988. He wrote more than 20 books, which included his best-selling and influential A People's History of the United States. Zinn also wrote extensively about the civil rights, civil liberties and anti-war movements. His memoir, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train, became the title of a 2004 documentary about Zinn's life and work.
Zinn was born to a Jewish immigrant family in Brooklyn. His father, Eddie Zinn, born in Austria-Hungary, emigrated to the U.S. with his brother Samuel before the outbreak of World War I. Howard's mother Jenny Zinn emigrated from the Eastern Siberian city of Irkutsk.
Both parents were factory workers with limited education when they met and married, and there were no books or magazines in the series of apartments where they raised their children. Zinn's parents introduced him to literature by sending 25 cents plus a coupon to the New York Post for each of the 20 volumes of Charles Dickens' collected works. He also studied creative writing at Thomas Jefferson High School in a special program established by poet Elias Lieberman.
World War II:
Eager to fight fascism, Zinn joined the Army Air Force during World War II where he was assigned as a bombardier in the 490th Bombardment Group, bombing targets in Berlin, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. The anti-war stance Zinn developed later was informed, in part, by his experiences. In April 1945, he participated in the first military use of napalm, which took place in Royan, western France.
On a post-doctoral research mission nine years after those bombing missions, Zinn visited the seaside resort near Bordeaux in southwest France where he interviewed residents, reviewed municipal documents and read wartime newspaper clippings at the local library. In 1966, Zinn returned to Royan after which he gave his fullest account of that research in his book, The Politics of History. On the ground, Zinn learned that the aerial bombing attacks—in which he participated—had killed more than 1000 French civilians as well as some German soldiers hiding near Royan to await the war's end, events that are described "in all accounts" he found as "une tragique erreur" that leveled a small but ancient city and "its population that was, at least officially, friend, not foe." In two books, The Politics of History and The Zinn Reader, Zinn described how the bombing was ordered—three weeks before the war in Europe ended—by military officials who were, in part, motivated more by the desire for career advancement than legitimate military objectives. He quotes the official history of the U.S. Army Air Forces' brief reference to the Eighth Air Force attack on Royan and also, in the same chapter, to the bombing of Pilsen in what was then Czechoslovakia. The official history stated, that the famous Skoda works in Pilsen "received 500 well-placed tons, and that "Because of a warning sent out ahead of time the workers were able to escape, except for five persons."
Zinn wrote, "I recalled flying on that mission, too, as deputy lead bombardier, and that we did not aim specifically at the "skoda works" (which I would have noted, because it was the one target in Czechoslovakia I had read about) but dropped our bombs, without much precision, on the city of Pilsen. Two Czech citizens who lived in Pilsen at the time told me, recently, that several hundred people were killed in that raid (that is, Czechs)--not five."
Zinn said his experience as a wartime bombardier, combined with his research into the reasons for, and effects of the bombing of Royan and Pilsen, sensitized him to the ethical dilemmas faced by G.I.s during wartime. Zinn questioned the justifications for military operations that inflicted massive civilian casualties during the Allied bombing of cities such as Dresden, Royan, Tokyo, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II, Hanoi during the U.S. War in Vietnam, and Baghdad during the U.S. war in Iraq and the civilian casualties during bombings in Afghanistan during the U.S.'s current and nearly decade old war there. In his pamphlet, Hiroshima: Breaking the Silence written in 1995, he laid out the case against targeting civilians with aerial bombing.
Six years later, he wrote: "Recall that in the midst of the Gulf War, the U.S. military bombed an air raid shelter, killing 400 to 500 men, women, and children who were huddled to escape bombs. The claim was that it was a military target, housing a communications center, but reporters going through the ruins immediately afterward said there was no sign of anything like that. I suggest that the history of bombing—and no one has bombed more than this nation—is a history of endless atrocities, all calmly explained by deceptive and deadly language like "accident," "military target," and "collateral damage".
After World War II, Zinn attended New York University on the GI Bill, graduating with a B.A. in 1951 and Columbia University, where he earned an M.A. (1952) and a Ph.D. in history with a minor in political science (1958). His masters' thesis examined the Colorado coal strikes of 1914. His doctoral dissertation LaGuardia in Congress was a study of Fiorello LaGuardia's congressional career, and it depicted LaGuardia representing "the conscience of the twenties" as LaGuardia fought for public power, the right to strike, and the redistribution of wealth by taxation "His specific legislative program," Zinn wrote, "was an astonishingly accurate preview of the New Deal." It was published by the Cornell University Press for the American Historical Association. La Guardia in Congress was nominated for the American Historical Association's Beveridge Prize as the best English-language book on American history.
While at Columbia, his professors included Harry Carman, Henry Steele Commager, and David Donald. But it was Columbia historian Richard Hofstadter's The American Political Tradition that made the most lasting impression. Zinn regularly included it in his lists of recommended readings, and after Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, Zinn wrote, "If Richard Hofstadter were adding to his book The American Political Tradition, in which he found both "conservative" and "liberal" presidents, both Democrats and Republicans, maintaining for dear life the two critical characteristics of the American system, nationalism and capitalism, Obama would fit the pattern."
In 1960-61, Zinn was a post-doctoral Fellow in East Asian Studies at Harvard University.
Zinn was Professor of History at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia from 1956 to 1963, and Visiting Professor at both the University of Paris and University of Bologna.
Fresh from writing two books about his research, observations, and participation in the Civil Rights movement in the South, Zinn accepted a position at Boston University in 1964. His classes in civil liberties were among the most popular at the university with as many as 400 students subscribing each semester to the non-required class. A Professor of Political Science, he taught at BU for 24 years and retired in 1988.
"He had a deep sense of fairness and justice for the underdog. But he always kept his sense of humor. He was a happy warrior," said Caryl Rivers, journalism professor at Boston University. Rivers and Zinn were among a group of faculty members who in 1979 defended the right of the school's clerical workers to strike and were threatened with dismissal after refusing to cross a picket line.
Zinn came to believe that the point of view expressed in traditional history books was often limited. He wrote a history textbook, A People's History of the United States, to provide other perspectives on American history. The textbook depicts the struggles of Native Americans against European and U.S. conquest and expansion, slaves against slavery, unionists and other workers against capitalists, women against patriarchy, and African-Americans for civil rights. The book was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1981.
In the years since the first edition of A People's History was published in 1980, it has been used as an alternative to standard textbooks in many high school and college history courses, and it is one of the most widely known examples of critical pedagogy. According to the New York Times Book Review it "routinely sells more than 100,000 copies a year".
In 2004, Zinn published Voices of A People's History of the United States with Anthony Arnove. Voices is a sourcebook of speeches, articles, essays, poetry and song lyrics by the people themselves whose stories are told in A People's History.
The People Speak, scheduled for release on DVD in February 2010, is a documentary movie inspired by the lives of ordinary people who fought back against oppressive conditions over the course of the history of the United States. The film includes performances by Zinn, Matt Damon, Morgan Freeman, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Vedder, Viggo Mortensen, Josh Brolin, Danny Glover, Marisa Tomei, Don Cheadle, and Sandra Oh.
Civil Rights movement:
From 1956 through 1963, Zinn chaired the department of history and social sciences at Spelman College. He participated in the Civil Rights movement and lobbied with historian August Meier "to end the practice of the Southern Historical Association of holding meetings at segregated hotels."
While at Spelman, Zinn served as an adviser to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and in 1964, Beacon Press published his book SNCC: The New Abolitionists. Zinn collaborated with historian Staughton Lynd mentoring student activists, among them Alice Walker, who would later write The Color Purple, and Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund. Edelman identified Zinn as a major influence in her life and, in that same journal article, tells of his accompanying students to a sit-in at the segregated white section of the Georgia state legislature.
Although Zinn was a tenured professor, he was dismissed in June 1963, after siding with students in the struggle against segregation. As Zinn described in The Nation, though Spelman administrators prided themselves for turning out refined "young ladies, its students were likely to be found on the picket line, or in jail for participating in the greater effort to break down segregation in public places in Atlanta. Zinn's years at Spelman are recounted in his autobiography You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times. His seven years at Spelman College, Zinn said, "are probably the most interesting, exciting, most educational years for me. I learned more from my students than my students learned from me."
While living in Georgia, Zinn wrote that he observed 30 violations of the First and Fourteenth amendments to the United States Constitution in Albany, Georgia, including the rights to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and equal protection under the law. In an article on the civil rights movement in Albany, Zinn described the people who participated in the Freedom Rides to end segregation, and the reluctance of President John F. Kennedy to enforce the law. Zinn has also pointed out that the Justice Department under Robert F. Kennedy and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, headed by J. Edgar Hoover, did little or nothing to stop the segregationists from brutalizing civil rights workers.
Zinn wrote about the struggle for civil rights, both as participant and historian His second book, The Southern Mystique was published in 1964, the same year as his SNCC: The New Abolitionists in which he describes how the sit-ins against segregation were initiated by students and, in that sense, were independent of the efforts of the older, more established civil rights organizations.
In 2005, forty-one years after his firing, Zinn returned to Spelman where he was given an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters and gave the commencement address where he said in part, during his speech titled, "Against Discouragement," that "The lesson of that history is that you must not despair, that if you are right, and you persist, things will change. The government may try to deceive the people, and the newspapers and television may do the same, but the truth has a way of coming out. The truth has a power greater than a hundred lies."
Zinn wrote one of the earliest books calling for the U.S. withdrawal from its war in Vietnam. Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal was published by Beacon Press in 1967 based on his articles in Commonwealth, The Nation, and Ramparts.
In Noam Chomsky's view, The Logic of Withdrawal, was Zinn's most important book. "He was the first person to say—loudly, publicly, very persuasively—that this simply has to stop; we should get out, period, no conditions; we have no right to be there; it's an act of aggression; pull out. That was so surprising at the time—it became more commonplace later—that he couldn't even—there wasn't even a review of the book. In fact, he asked me if I would review it in Ramparts just so that people would know about the book."
In December 1969, radical historians tried unsuccessfully to persuade the American Historical Association to pass an anti-Vietnam War resolution. "A debacle unfolded as Harvard historian (and AHA president in 1968) John Fairbank literally wrestled the microphone from Zinn's hands." Correspondence by Fairbank, Zinn and other historians, published by the AHA in 1970, is online in what Fairbank called "our briefly-famous Struggle for the Mike".
In later years, Zinn was an adviser to the Disarm Education Fund.
Zinn described himself as “Something of an anarchist, something of a socialist. Maybe a democratic socialist.” He suggested looking at socialism in its full historical context. In Madison, Wisconsin in 2009, Zinn said:
"Let's talk about socialism. I think it's very important to bring back the idea of socialism into the national discussion to where it was at the turn of the [last] century before the Soviet Union gave it a bad name. Socialism had a good name in this country. Socialism had Eugene Debs. It had Clarence Darrow. It had Mother Jones. It had Emma Goldman. It had several million people reading socialist newspapers around the country. Socialism basically said, hey, let's have a kinder, gentler society. Let's share things. Let's have an economic system that produces things not because they're profitable for some corporation, but produces things that people need. People should not be retreating from the word socialism because you have to go beyond capitalism."
Due to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the FBI released on July 30, 2010 a file with 423 pages of information on Howard Zinn's life and activities. The FBI first opened a domestic security investigation on Zinn (FBI File # 100-360217) in 1949, based on Zinn’s activities in what the agency considered to be communist front groups and informant reports that Zinn was an active member of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA). Zinn has denied ever being a member. In the 1960s, the agency kept tabs on Zinn's efforts campaigning against the Vietnam War.
* 2008 Howard Zinn was selected as a special senior advisor to Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann, the President of the United Nations General Assembly 63rd session.
Zinn was swimming in a hotel pool when he died of an apparent heart attack in Santa Monica, California on January 27, 2010. He had been scheduled to speak at the Santa Monica Museum of Art for an event titled "A Collection of Ideas... the People Speak."
In one of his last interviews he said he'd like to be remembered "for introducing a different way of thinking about the world, about war, about human rights, about equality," and "for getting more people to realize that the power which rests so far in the hands of people with wealth and guns, that the power ultimately rests in people themselves and that they can use it. At certain points in history, they have used it. Black people in the South used it. People in the women's movement used it. People in the anti-war movement used it. People in other countries who have overthrown tyrannies have used it."
He said he wanted to be known as "somebody who gave people a feeling of hope and power that they didn't have before."
Zinn is survived by his daughter Myla Kabat-Zinn, son Jeff Zinn and five grandchildren.
A People's History of American Empire, Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_People%27s_History_of_American_Empire
A People's History of the United States, Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_People%27s_History_of_the_United_States
American Feud: A History of Conservatives and Liberals, Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Feud:_A_History_of_Conservatives_and_Liberals
Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train, IMDb : http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0416825/