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Howard Zinn

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Howard Zinn (1922-2007)


Howard Zinn was born in New York City and grew up in a working-class family in Brooklyn where he became a shipyard labourer.

He volunteered in World War Two to fight fascism, and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant Air Force bombardier, to fight fascism, and he bombed targets Czechoslovakia, Hungary and later Germany. In April, 1945, he participated in one of the first military uses of napalm, which took place in Royan, France. The bombings were aimed at German soldiers who were, in Zinn's words, hiding and waiting out the closing days of the war. The attacks killed not only the German soldiers but also French civilians. Nine years later, Zinn visited Royan to examine documents and interview residents

Zinn said his experience as a bombardier, combined with his research into the reasons for and effects of the bombing of Royan, sensitised him to the ethical dilemmas faced by G.I.s during wartime. He questioned the justifications for military operations inflicting civilian casualties in the Allied bombing of cities such as Dresden, Royan, Tokyo, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II.

In his books, The Politics of History and The Zinn Reader, he described how the bombing was ordered at the war's end by decision-makers most probably motivated by the desire for career advancement rather than for legitimate military objectives.

His experience of war led him to take a life-long stand against imperialism, militarism, jingoistic nationalism and neo-colonialism, and led to him becoming both one of the most respected and most vilified historians in American history.


After his discharge from the military he attended New York University and received his bachelor's degree in 1951. He did graduate work in political science at Columbia University, completing his Masters in 1952 and his Ph.D. in 1958. During this time he was an instructor at Upsala College in East Orange, NJ, from 1953 to 1956.

Zinn's doctoral dissertation on New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia's congressional career was published in 1959 as LaGuardia in Congress. Zinn portrayed LaGuardia as a feisty liberal Republican who fought for pro-labor legislation and criticized the upper-class bias of his party's economic policies. Although LaGuardia would remain one of his heroes, Zinn's own political views grew much more radical. In Zinn's introduction to his anthology New Deal Thought (1965), he argued that President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his leading advisers thwarted a possible American social revolution by pursuing the modest goal of restoring the American middle class to prosperity and rejecting more radical social reform.

After finishing his PhD he was appointed chairman of the department of history and social sciences at Spelman College in Atlanta, where he participated in the Civil Rights movement and served as an adviser to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and later wrote the book SNCC: The New Abolitionists (1964). At Spelman, Zinn collaborated with historian Staughton Lynd and mentored young student activists, among them writer Alice Walker and Marian Wright Edelman now president of the Children’s Defense Fund who acknowledges Zinn as major influence in her.

Although tenured, Zinn was fired from Spelman in 1965 for siding with students in their desire to challenge the University’s traditional emphasis of turning out "young ladies" rather than acknowledging that Spelman students were likely to be found on the picket line, or in jail for participating in the greater effort to desegregate in public places in Atlanta. As he himself noted: his seven years at Spelman College, were " probably the most interesting, exciting, most educational years for me. I learned more from my students than my students learned from me." While there, he participated with his students in the sit-ins and freedom rides and was critical of the failure of the supposedly liberal Kennedy administration for its inability or unwillingness to enforce federal laws more stringently in favour of the de-segregationists.

Zinn wrote frequently about the struggle for civil rights, both as a participant and historian and in 1960-61, he took a year off from teaching to write SNCC: The New Abolitionists and The Southern Mystique. The SNCC book was both an impassioned first-hand description of the civil rights struggle and a cogent historical analysis of the modern movement's links with pre-Civil War abolitionism.

Following his dismissal from Spelman he accepted a position in the political science department at Boston University. His classes in civil liberties were among the most popular classes offered at BU with as many as 400 students subscribing each semester to the non-required class. He taught at BU for 24 years and retired in 1988. While there he was politically active in many acts of resistance – in particular towards the war in Vietnam.

He became well known in New Left circles for his opposition to United States military involvement in Vietnam. In his book Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal (1967), he made a powerful case for reversing the Lyndon Johnson administration's policy of escalation. Zinn's role in the peace movement was not limited to his scholarly writings. Throughout the mid-1960s he was active in the American Mobilization Committee's national drive to bring an end to the United States intervention. In February 1968, he travelled to North Vietnam with the radical priest, Father Daniel Berrigan , to secure the release of three American bomber pilots shot down on air raids. As he had done earlier with his experiences in the civil rights movement, Zinn wrote articles that offered a first-hand account of his trip to Hanoi.

Traditional academics scolded Zinn for being partisan about his subject matter. In a collection of his essays, The Politics of History (1970), he rejected the view that historical scholarship was objective. He argued that all historical writing was political and that historians should align themselves with humane values. To fail to speak out against evil, he warned, was to be irrelevant and irresponsible. He sought to illustrate the usefulness of a politically engaged approach to history in his essays on World War II, the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam War. They provided examples of how his historical approach worked in practice.

When Daniel Ellsberg, a former RAND Corporation consultant secretly copied The Pentagon Papers, (which described internal planning and policy decisions of the United States in the Vietnam War) he gave a copy of them to Howard Zinn. Along with Noam Chomsky, Zinn edited and annotated the copy of The Pentagon Papers. Zinn's longtime publisher, Beacon Press, published what has come to be known as the Senator Mike Gravel edition of The Pentagon Papers, four volumes plus a fifth volume with analysis by Chomsky and Zinn.

At Ellsberg's criminal trial for theft, conspiracy, and espionage in connection with the publication of the Pentagon Papers by The New York Times, defense attorneys called Zinn as an expert witness to explain to the jury the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam from World War II to 1963. Zinn discussed that history for several hours, noting that there was nothing in the papers of military significance that could be used to harm the defense of the United States, that the information in them was simply embarrassing to our government because what was revealed, in the government's own interoffice memos, was how it had lied to the American public. The secrets disclosed in the Pentagon Papers might embarrass politicians, might hurt the profits of corporations wanting tin, rubber, oil, in far-off places. But this was not the same as hurting the nation, the people, Zinn wrote in his autobiography. Most of the jurors later said they voted for acquittal. However, the federal judge dismissed the case on grounds it had been tainted by the burglary by President Richard Nixon's administration of the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist.

When critics charged that the New Left historians' historiography was deficient because radical scholars had not produced a full-scale synthesis of American history, Zinn set to work to prove them wrong. His now famous A People's History of the United States (1980), surveyed all of American history from the point of view of the working classes and minority groups. He documented the history of race, sex, and class; the history of civil disobedience; how hopes for a more egalitarian society had been frustrated, and how a small, upper-class elite had retained its hold on power and wealth.

The book presents American history through the eyes of 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. His position, his perspective, was unapologetically critical of American domestic and foreign policy.

In reply to the critics who accuse him of a bias in his historical analysis he acknowledges the overtly political agenda of A People's History in an explanatory coda to the 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."

In the 27 years since the first edition of A People's History was publishe, it has been used as an alternative to standard textbooks in many high school and college history courses, and 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"

His academic life has never been very far from his political and personal perspectives. More recently, he opposed the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and has written several books about it. He asserts that the U.S. will end its war with, and occupation of, Iraq when resistance within the military increases, in the same way resistance within the military contributed to ending the U.S. war in Vietnam. He compares the demand by a growing number of contemporary U.S. military families to end the war in Iraq to the parallel "in the Confederacy in the Civil War, when the wives of soldiers rioted because their husbands were dying and the plantation owners were profiting from the sale of cotton, refusing to grow grains for civilians to eat." Zinn argued that "There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people for a purpose which is unattainable."[

In response to Zinn’s critics Dale McCartney, editor of the Canadian online magazine, Seven Oaks, has written:

"Zinn is not neglecting a more objective perspective on American history; he's rejecting it in favor of an openly political stance that reclaims the history of oppressed peoples, regardless of race or gender. His popularity is testament to both the appeal of such a reading of American history, and the desperate thirst of working class people, people of colour, women and the many other victims of modern society's ravages for a history in which they are at the centre. I would go so far as to argue that not only has Kazin underestimated the importance of this role for Zinn's book, but that the academic tradition of objectivity (read: liberalism that favors white men) has played a key role in marginalizing oppressed peoples and derailing social movements. Zinn's work is an important corrective to this destructive tradition in historical writing."
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