Remembering Howard Zinn (1922 - 2010)

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 Arnove said:

"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's incumbent upon all of us to extend and keep (his legacy) alive and vibrant."

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 World War."

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 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 order."

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 damage.' "

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 and Afghanistan.

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 do today."

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, he said:

"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." 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 States"

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 into submission."

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 as Ambassador.

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 population excluded.

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 Parenti explained:

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 along.

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 reasons.

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, egalitarian."

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, at peace.

Stephen Lendman is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization. He lives in Chicago and can be reached at

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