Remembering Howard Zinn (1922
by Stephen Lendman
February 1, 2010
Distinguished scholar, author, political
scientist, people's historian, activist, and son of blue-collar
immigrant parents, Zinn was born on August 24, 1922 in Brooklyn,
New York and died in Santa Monica, CA of a reported heart attack
while swimming on January 27. He's survived by two children, Myla
Kabat-Zinn and Jeff Zinn, and five grandchildren.
He was 87, and a valued guest several
times on The Lendman News Hour and Progressive Radio News Hour.
He'll be sorely missed.
Writing in CounterPunch on January 28,
journalist, author and activist Harvey Wasserman called him "above
all a gentleman of unflagging grace, humility and compassion."
Interviewed on Democracy Now, his former
student, author Alice Walker, said "he had such a wonderful
impact on my life and on the lives of the students of Spelman
and of millions of people....he loved his students."
On the same program, Noam Chomsky spoke
about Zinn during the Vietnam war period saying:
His book, The Logic of Withdrawal "really
broke through. 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."
He "not only wrote about (it) eloquently,
but he participated in" anti-war efforts to end the war,
for civil and worker rights, and "any significant action
for peace and justice. Howard was there. People saw him as a leader,
but he was really a participant. His remarkable character made
him a leader...."
Also interviewed, author/activist Anthony
"Howard never rested. He had such
energy. And over the last few years, he continued to write, continued
to speak....He wanted to bring a new generation of people into
contact with the voices of dissent, the voices of protest, that
they don't get in their school textbooks, that we don't get in
our establishment media, and to remind them of the power of their
own voice, remind them of the power of dissent, the power of protest....it's
incumbent upon all of us to extend and keep (his legacy) alive
In his book, "You Can't Be Neutral
on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times," Zinn
recounted how he went "to work in a shipyard at the age of
eighteen and (spent) three years working on the docks, in the
cold and heat, amid deafening noise and poisonous fumes, building
battleships and landing ships in the early years of the Second
At age 21, he "enlist(ed) in the
Air Force, (was) trained as a bombardier, fl(ew) combat missions
in Europe, and later ask(ed himself) troubling questions about
what (he) had done in the war."
When it ended, he "married, becam(e)
a father, (went) to college under the GI Bill while loading trucks
in a warehouse, with (his) wife (Roslyn: 1944 - 2008) working
and (his) two children in a charity day-care center, and all of
(them) living in a low-income housing project on (Manhattan's)
Lower East Side."
He got his BA from New York University,
then his MA and Ph.D. in history and political science from Columbia
University, after which he got his "first real teaching job,
going to live and teach (at Spelman College) in a black community
in the Deep South for seven years."
He then "move(d)....north to teach
(at Boston University), and join(ed) the protests against the
war in Vietnam, and (got) arrested a half-dozen times," officially
charged with "sauntering and loitering, disorderly conduct,
(and) failure to quit."
He recalled speaking at "hundreds
of meetings and rallies....helping a Catholic priest stay underground
in defiance of the law, (and testifying) in a dozen courtrooms....in
the 1970s and 1980s." He wrote about "the prisoners
(he knew), short-timers and lifers, and how (they) affected (his)
view of imprisonment."
When he began teaching, he "could
not possibly keep out of the classroom (his) own experiences.
(In his) teaching, (he) never concealed (his) political views:
(his) detestation of war and militarism, (his) anger at racial
inequality, (his) belief in a democratic socialism, in a rational
and just distribution of the world's wealth. (He) made clear (his)
abhorrence of any kind of bullying, whether by powerful nations
over weaker ones, governments over their citizens, employers over
employees, or by anyone, on the Right or the Left, who thinks
they have a monopoly on the truth."
He explained mixing activism with teaching,
insisting education "cannot be neutral on the crucial issues
of our time, (but it) always frightened the guardians of traditional
education. They prefer (it to) simply prepare the new generation
to take its proper place in the old order, not to question that
He began every course telling students
"they would be getting (his) point of view, but (he) would"
encourage them to disagree. He "didn't pretend to an objectivity
that was neither possible nor desirable," saying:
"You can't be neutral on a moving
train," explaining that "events are already moving in
certain deadly directions, and to be neutral means to accept that."
For many years, he taught thousands of
students. They gave him hope for the future, even though their
activism was small in scale. He obsessed over "the bad news
we are constantly confronted with. It surround(ed him), inundate(d
him), depress(ed him) intermittently, anger(ed him)."
He spoke of the poor, "so many of
them in the ghettos of the nonwhite, often living a few blocks
away from fabulous wealth." He noted "the hypocrisy
of political leaders, of the control of information through deception,
through omission. And (that) all over the world, governments play
on national and ethnic hatred."
He expressed awareness "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 officially reported as 'collateral
He was frustrated that new leadership
in American is no different from the old. It lacks vision, boldness
and will to break from the past. They "maintain 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. (The
result is communities) riddled with violence and despair."
And there's no national movement to change this. People want change
"but feel powerless, alone (waiting for others to) make the
first move, or the second."
But historically, courageous people acted
and got others to follow. "And if we understand this, we
might make the first move."
He said he got a gift, "undeserved,
just luck," the fact that he survived the war while close
buddies perished. He felt "no right to despair. (He) insist(ed)
on hope," and devoted his life to inspiring others.
He explained how John Hersey's Hiroshima
report made him aware of war's true horrors, to civilians, children,
the elderly, to "see the Japanese as human beings, not simply
a nation of ferocious, cruel warriors." On a 1966 trip to
the rebuilt city, he visited a House of Friendship for survivors.
He saw men and women, "some without legs, others without
arms, some with sockets for eyes, or with horrible burns on their
faces and bodies." He recalled his days as a bombardier,
choked up, and couldn't speak.
The next year he visited the rebuilt town
of Royan, France, spoke to survivors and examined documents. These
two cities "were crucial in (his) gradual rethinking of what
(he) had once accepted without question - the absolute morality
of the war against fascism." He began to realize that no
war is just, all of them mostly harm civilians, and one side becomes
indistinguishable from the other.
Interviewed on Democracy Now in 2005,
he reflected on participating in the Royan bombing, saying:
His mission was ordered a few weeks before
the war's end...."everybody knew it was going to be over,
and our armies were past France into Germany, but there was a
little pocket of German soldiers hanging around this little town
of Royan on the Atlantic coast of France, and the Air Force decided
to bomb them."
He was on one of 1,200 heavy bombers dropping
napalm on the town, its first use in Europe. "And we don't
know how many people were killed or how many people were terribly
burned as a result of what we did. But I did it like most soldiers
do, unthinkingly, mechanically, thinking we're on the right side,
they're on the wrong side, and therefore we can do whatever we
want, and it's OK."
Only afterward did he learn the human
effects of bombing, mostly harming civilians - including children,
women, and the elderly. He flew at "30,000 feet, six miles
high, couldn't hear screams, couldn't see blood. And this is modern
warfare....soldiers fire, they drop bombs, and they have no notion,
really, of what is happening to the human beings that they're
firing on. Everything is done at a distance. This enables terrible
atrocities to take place." And it's happening now in Iraq
In WW II, the German, Japanese and Italian
atrocities were appalling, but allied nations did the same things
- Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Royan, the fire-bombings of Dresden and
Tokyo, the slaughter of civilians to break the will of the axis.
The more he read, the more convinced he
became that "war brutalizes everyone involved, begets a fanaticism
in which the original moral factor (like fighting fascism) is
buried at the bottom of a heap of atrocities committed by all
sides." By the 1960s, his former belief in "just war
was falling apart." He concluded that "while there are
certainly vicious enemies of liberty and human rights in the world,
war itself is the most vicious of" all.
"And that while some societies can
rightly claim to be more liberal, more democratic, more humane
than others, the difference is not great enough to justify the
massive, indiscriminate slaughter of modern warfare."
He asked shouldn't the real motivations
for war be examined. Shouldn't the claim of fighting for democracy,
liberty, a just cause, and human rights be questioned. Wouldn't
it be clear that all nations fight for power, privilege, wealth,
territory, supremacy, national pride, and dominance of one side
over others, the notions of freedom, righteousness, and innocent
victims never considered. Tyranny is in the eye of the beholder
when one side is as bad as the other.
War isn't inevitable, said Zinn. It doesn't
arise from an instinctive human need. Political leaders manufacture
it, then use propaganda to justify it to the public and mobilize
them to fight.
Zinn's "growing abhorrence of war,
(his) rethinking of the justness of even 'the best of wars, led
(him) to oppose, from the start, the American war in Vietnam,"
and all of them thereafter. War for him was the moral equivalent
of the worst kind of terrorism.
Toward the end of his life he wrote:
"Wherever any kind of injustice has
been overturned, it's been because people acted as citizens, and
not as politicians. They didn't just moan. They worked, they acted,
they organized, they rioted if necessary to bring their situation
to the attention of people in power. And that's what we have to
His numerous books include:
-- LaGuardia in Congress, a book version
of his doctoral dissertation;
-- You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train:
A Personal History of Our Time;
-- The Politics of History;
-- Disobedience and Democracy: Nine Fallacies
on Law and Order;
-- Terrorism and War;
-- Passionate Declarations: Essays on
War and Justice;
-- Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal;
-- The Power of Nonviolence: Writings
by Advocates of Peace;
-- A People's History of the United States;
-- Voices of a People's History of the
United States; and
-- A People's History of American Empire,
a pictorial, comics version of his notable book's most relevant
chapter, the centuries-long story of America's global expansionism.
The Media on Zinn's Death
The New York Times ran the AP's report
headlined, "Howard Zinn, Historian, Dies at 87," calling
him a "historian and shipyard worker, civil rights activist,
World War II bombardier, and author of A People's History of the
United States, a best seller that inspired a generation of high
school and college students to rethink American history...."
AP also referred to Zinn's left-wing writing,
saying that even "liberal historians were uneasy with (him).
Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. once said: 'I know he regards me as
a dangerous reactionary. And I don't take him very seriously.
He's a polemicist, not a historian."
On January 29, Times columnist Bob Herbert
called him "A Radical Treasure," what Zinn called himself.
"He was an unbelievably decent man who felt obliged to challenge
injustice and unfairness wherever he found it. (He) protest(ed)
peacefully for important issues he believed in - against racial
segregation (or) the war in Vietnam (and) at times he was beaten
and arrested for doing so....He was a treasure and an inspiration.
That he was considered radical says way more about this society
than it does about him."
True to form, National Public Radio's
(NPR) Allison Keyes interviewed right-wing ideologue David Horowitz,
a notorious bigot and progressive left opponent. As expected,
"There is absolutely nothing in Howard
Zinn's intellectual output that is worthy of any kind of respect.
Zinn represents a fringe mentality which has unfortunately seduced
millions of people at this point in time. So he did certainly
alter the consciousness of millions of younger people for the
worse." Horowitz earlier called Zinn one of the "most
dangerous academics in America."
The Washington Post's Patricia Sullivan
expressed other views, quoting him saying he focused:
"not on the achievements of the heros
of traditional history, but on all those people who were the victims
of those achievements, who suffered silently or fought back magnificently."
She cited Noam Chomsky, a rarity in the
corporate media, saying "His writings have changed the consciousness
of a generation, and helped open new paths to understanding and
its crucial meaning for our lives."
In her lengthy tribute, she explained
that after WW II, he "gathered his Air Medal, other awards
and documents and put them in a folder he labeled 'Never again.'
" In 2008, he said he "want(ed) to be remembered as
somebody who gave people a feeling of hope and power that they
didn't didn't have before."
CNN.com called him a "Noted author
and social activist," recounted his early years, and education,
then quoted his daughter, Myla Kabat-Zinn, saying her father lived
a "very full and exciting life," pursuing many social
issues important to him. Above all that he "believed that
there is no 'just war.' "
Zinn's contribution to a Nation magazine
special on, "Obama at One" said:
"I've been searching hard for a highlight.
The only thing that comes close is some of Obama's rhetoric; I
don't see any kind of a highlight in his actions and policies."
He added that he didn't expect much as "a traditional Democrat
president (on foreign policy is) "hardly any different from
a Republican." He concluded that "Obama is going to
be a mediocre president - which means, in our time, a dangerous
president - unless there is some national movement to push him
in a better direction."
Boston Globe writers Mark Feeney and Bryan
Marquard headlined, "Howard Zinn, historian who challenged
status quo, dies at 87," saying his "activism was a
natural extension of the revisionist brand of history he taught."
It was "a recipe for rancor between Dr. Zinn and John Silber,
former (Boston University) president. Dr. Zinn, a leading critic
of Silber, twice helped lead faculty votes to oust" (him),
who in turn once accused Dr. Zinn of arson, (a charge he quickly
retracted, but called him a) "prime example of teachers 'who
poison the well of academe.' "
The writers quoted Boston Globe columnist
James Carroll, a good friend of Zinn's for many years, calling
him "simply one of the greatest Americans of our time. He
will not be replaced - or soon forgotten. How we loved him back."
The London Guardian's writer Godfrey Hodgson
called him a "Radical US historian and leftwing activist
who fought for peace and human rights. (As a) much-loved and much-vituperated
icon of the American left, (he was) always a courageous and articulate
campaigner for his vision of a just and peaceful America."
Few could deny his commitment to his core
belief - "that people should stand for their rights and their
vision of the good society." For decades, Zinn did that and
more with the best of the most committed.
"A People's History of the United
First published in 1980, it became an
extraordinary non-fiction best seller at over two million copies
and counting. Its first edition was runner-up for the National
Book Award. Enlightened teachers made it required high school
and college reading throughout the country. It became an acclaimed
play, and, in 2003, won the Prix des Amis du Monde Diplomatique
for the book's French edition. AK Press also produced a video
of readings, and the History Channel aired Zinn narrating The
People Speak, a film version of noted passages of "Voices
of a People's History of the United States," presenting the
words of labor and anti-war activists, anti-racists, feminists,
socialists, and others rarely heard.
In 2004, Zinn and Anthony Arnove published
the above-mentioned companion volume, "Voices of a People's
History of the United States," on the writing, speeches,
poems, songs, and other material produced by notable figures,
including Frederick Douglass, Henry David Thoreau, Upton Sinclair,
Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr.,
Leonard Peltier, Noam Chomsky, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and many others.
In its newest edition, A People's History
covers the period 1492 to the new millennium under George Bush
from the point of view of ordinary people, workers, minorities,
the poor and disadvantaged, persecuted and oppressed, victimized,
forgotten and ignored. Zinn himself wrote:
It's "a biased account, one that
leans in a certain direction. I am not troubled by that, because
the mountain of history books under which we all stand leans so
heavily in the other direction - so tremblingly respectful of
state and statesmen and so disrespectful, by inattention, to people's
movements - that we need some counterforce to avoid being crushed
His account is exhaustive, informative,
and gloriously original. Though not the first revisionist text,
it's far and away the most important given its influence on so
many readers. It's also an easy read and important reference to
check events and facts.
It explains the extermination of Native
Americans, the unpopularity of the Revolutionary War, the audacity
of top leaders, including the Founders - a group of duplicitous
rich white men, not populists or civil libertarians. They were
politicians, lawyers, merchants, and land owners. Today, we'd
call them a Wall Street crowd. Many, in fact, were slave owners,
including Washington and Jefferson who was in France at the time
The 55 delegates drafted a Constitution
for themselves alone. Popular democracy wasn't considered, nor
in the Bill of Rights four years later. Property owners wanted
them for protection against unreasonable searches and seizures;
the right to bear arms; free expression, the press, religion,
assembly and petition; due process in speedy trials, and other
provisions, including their right to vote, the other 85% of the
Women, Indians, non-property owners, and
children couldn't do it. Blacks were commodities, not people.
Stripped of its romanticism and misconceptions, the Constitution
was no masterpiece of political architecture. It was the conservative
document the Founders intended, so they could govern the way Michael
to "resist the pressure of popular
tides (and protect) a rising bourgeoisie('s freedom to) invest,
speculate, trade and accumulate wealth," the same as today.
It let the nation be governed the way
politician, jurist, and first Chief Supreme Court Justice, John
Jay wanted - by "The people who own the country," for
them alone, and in times of war lets presidents be virtual dictators.
A single sentence, easily passed over
or misunderstood, constitutes the essence of presidential power.
It's from Article II, Section 1 saying:
"The executive power shall be vested
in a President of the United States of America."
Article II, Section 3 nonchalantly adds:
"The President shall take care that
the laws be faithfully exercised," omitting that they can
make them through Executive Orders, Presidential Directives and
other means, despite no constitutional authority to do so.
Lincoln took full advantage and did what
he pleased. He provoked the Fort Sumpter attack and began the
Civil War for economic reasons, not to end slavery.
William McKinley created a pretext for
war with Spain, annexed Hawaii, colonized Puerto Rico, established
a protectorate over Cuba, forced the Spanish government to cede
the Phillipines, occupied the country, fought a dirty war, and
slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Filipinos. Theodore Roosevelt
succeeded him, continued the carnage, and won a Nobel Peace Prize.
In 1916, Woodrow Wilson was reelected
on a pledge to "keep us out of war," then in 1917 established
the Committee on Public Information that turned a pacifist nation
into raging German-haters for the war he planned to enter all
FDR waged illegal naval warfare against
Germany before Pearl Harbor and, after it, governed as a dictator.
Truman atom-bombed Japan twice gratuitously when their leaders
were negotiating surrender. He attacked North Korea illegally.
So did Johnson and Nixon against Vietnam. Ronald Reagan against
Grenada and through proxies in Central America and elsewhere.
GHW Bush against Panama and Iraq. Clinton against Yugoslavia and
eight years of genocidal sanctions against Iraq. GW Bush against
Afghanistan and Iraq, continued under Obama, expanded against
Pakistan, and now in occupied Haiti for resources and other exploitive
In theory, presidents can't violate the
law, but can interpret it as freely as they wish. Allied with,
representing, chosen and controlled by powerful interests, they
can operate largely unconstrained, except when one party seeks
political advantage over the other.
Historians call FDR one of the nation's
greatest presidents, a widely admired democrat, a leader who freed
the world from fascism.
In fact, he was a conservative who partly
yielded to necessity after first bailing out Wall Street. Yet
he failed to end the Great Depression; did little for blacks,
women, immigrants, small farmers, agricultural workers, and the
poor; let blacks be persecuted, discriminated against, denied
their voting rights and be lynched in the South; interned Japanese,
German and Italian Americans during WW II; and gave the public
airwaves to private interests.
He tried to save capitalism, not change
America into a social democracy, and literally forced the Japanese
to attack Pearl Harbor to get into the war 80% of the public opposed.
Zinn wrote this about Andrew Jackson:
"If you look through high school
textbooks and elementary textbooks in American history, you will
find Jackson the frontiersman, soldier, democrat, man of the people
- not Jackson the slaveholder, land speculator, executioner of
dissident soldiers, exterminator of Indians."
Others were the same, including George
Washington. He envisioned empire, called Native Americans "red
savages (and) beasts of prey," dispatched generals to slaughter
them, destroy their villages, fields, food supplies, cattle herds,
and orchards, seize their land, and take more of it. American
imperialism today is global, for much bigger stakes, and nothing
deters presidential actions.
From the start, the notion of checks and
balances was largely myth. In fact, governments, especially presidents,
can and repeatedly have done whatever they wished, with or without
popular, congressional, or judicial approval, within or outside
the law, and it's no different today.
When once asked to name a single admirable
president, Zinn said there were none, given their allegiance to
privilege, wealth and wars, not ordinary people and real democracy,
ours he called "rotten at the root, requir(ing) not just
a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order,
the introduction of a new kind of society - cooperative, peaceful,
Zinn was a people's historian. His book
pays homage to the ones history forgot and ignore. His life's
work was dedicated to inspiring new generations to work for the
society he envisioned - moral, righteous, free, just, egalitarian,
Stephen Lendman is a Research Associate
of the Centre for Research on Globalization. He lives in Chicago
and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.