By Geoff Cobb
(Reading time: 3 mins.)
Like many Brooklyn Jews of his generation, Howard Zinn, an icon of the American left, questioned laissez fair American capitalism and American nationalist glorification of country. He was the author of “A People’s History of the United States,” a best seller which sold more than two million copies and inspired a generation of high school and college students to rethink American history. He was also a strong supporter of the civil rights movement and an opponent of the Vietnam war, as well as being a much-loved professor. Proudly, unabashedly radical, Zinn delighted in debating ideological foes, including his own college president, and in attacking conventional ideas, not the least that American history was a heroic march toward democracy.
Born Aug. 24, 1922, Howard Zinn grew up in Bedford Stuyvesant. His parents were Jewish immigrants who met in a factory. His father worked as a ditch digger and window cleaner during the Depression. His father and mother ran a neighborhood candy store for a brief time, barely getting by. For many years his father was in the waiter’s union and worked as a waiter for weddings and bar mitzvahs. “We moved a lot, one step ahead of the landlord,” Zinn recalled. “I lived in all of Brooklyn’s best slums.”
“NO LONGER A LIBERAL”
His parents were not intellectuals and Zinn recalled that there were no books in his home growing up. At some point his parents, knowing his interest in books, and never having heard of Charles Dickens, sent in a coupon with a dime each month to the New York Post and received one of ultimately twenty volumes of Dickens’ complete works. He became interested in fascism and began to read about its rise in Europe and to engage in political discussions and debates with some young Communists in his neighborhood. Zinn was radicalized thanks to a peaceful political rally in Times Square, where mounted police charged the marchers, hit Zinn knocked him unconscious. Zinn explained, “From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. . . The situation required 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.”
After graduating from Thomas Jefferson High School, Zinn became an apprentice shipfitter in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where he and a few other apprentices began to discuss books and strategize about how to improve their dangerous working conditions. Excluded from the craft unions of skilled workers, they formed their own Apprentice Association. On an overnight boat trip he organized to raise money for the association, he met his future wife, Roslyn Shechter, who shared Howard’s progressive views and was also a Jewish child of immigrants. Zinn joined the Army Air Corps in 1943, eager to fight the fascists, and became a bombardier in a B-17. While in the Air Force he was disturbed by the race and class inequality among the servicemen. It wasn’t until years after the war that he questioned the necessity of the bombs that he dropped. But at the end of the war, back in New York, he deposited his medals in an envelope and wrote: “Never Again.”
“I would not deny that [WWII] had a certain moral core, but that made it easier for Americans to treat all subsequent wars with a kind of glow,” Zinn said. “Every enemy becomes Hitler.”
After the war, he went back to interview victims of the bombing, and later wrote about it in two books. His own experience and his subsequent interviews led him to conclude that the bombing had been ordered more to enhance the careers of senior officers than for any military imperative, and he later wrote about the ethics of bombing in the context of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Tokyo and Dresden, as well as Iraq.
Zinn and Roz married in 1944. While Zinn worked various jobs after the war, they lived on meager income in a rat-infested basement apartment in Brooklyn. Their daughter Myla was born in 1947 and Jeff in 1949. They moved to new public housing in 1949 and Zinn went to New York University for his B.A in history.
Thanks to the GI Bill, which paid the tuition of veterans, Zinn went to Columbia, where he earned an MA in 1952 with a thesis about a famous coalminers’ strike in Colorado, then obtained his PhD with a dissertation about the career in Congress of Fiorello LaGuardia, the reforming mayor of New York. He studied at Columbia under Richard Hofstadter who taught Zinn that American liberals were not as liberal as they thought they were, and that the two common threads in all American history were nationalism and capitalism.
In 1956, Zinn accepted a professorship at Spelman College, a traditionally black college for women in Atlanta, Georgia. Among his students were Maria Wright Edelman, the campaigner for children’s rights, and the future novelist Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple. At Spelman, he was a mentor to and later the historian of the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC), the radical student wing of the civil rights movement. Zinn took part in many civil rights protests, and he encouraged his students to join him in these marches, which angered Spelman’s president. Zinn angered the authorities at Spelman over his insistence that its students should not be trained to be ladies, but should be actively involved in politics. “I was fired for insubordination,” he recalled. “Which happened to be true.” Zinn moved to Boston University in 1964, where he quickly became an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War. He angered many Americans, including Boston University’s president, by traveling with the Rev. Daniel Berrigan to Hanoi to receive prisoners released by the North Vietnamese, and produced the antiwar books “Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal” (1967) and “Disobedience and Democracy” (1968). When Daniel Ellsberg, a previously gung-ho John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson administration official, came out against the war, he gave one copy of the Pentagon Papers (officially titled United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense, the government’s secret history of the war) to Zinn and his wife, Roslyn. Zinn and Noam Chomsky edited what became known as the Mike Gravel edition, published in Boston in 1971-72 by the Beacon Press.
In 1980, he published his most successful work, A People’s History of the United States, which was a highly controversial revision of American history. Instead of the usual congratulatory tone of most American history textbooks, his work concentrated on what he saw as the genocidal depredations of Christopher Columbus, the blood lust of Theodore Roosevelt and the racial failings of Abraham Lincoln. He also highlighted the revolutionary struggles of impoverished farmers, feminists, laborers and resisters of slavery and war. Bruce Springsteen said the starkest of his many albums, “Nebraska,” drew inspiration in part from Mr. Zinn’s writings.
For decades, he poured out articles attacking war and government secrecy.
When President Ronald Reagan bombed Tripoli in 1986, Zinn wrote: “There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people for a purpose which is unattainable.” He denounced the invasion of Iraq and also criticized President Barack Obama’s intensification of the war in Afghanistan. He was sharply attacked in Israel and by many of his fellow American Jews for saying that war was morally the equivalent of terrorism.
Mr. Zinn retired in 1988, concluding his last class early so he could join a picket line. He invited his students to join him. Zinn also wrote three plays: “Daughter of Venus,” “Marx in Soho” and “Emma,” about the life of the anarchist Emma Goldman. All have been produced. Zinn died in 2010.
Zinn always believed in standing up to injustice and fighting for oppression. He said near the end of his life, “Where progress has been made, 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.”
POSTSCRIPT from Rebel Breeze:
TRUMP ATTACKS ZINN AFTER LATTER’S DEATH
“If you want to read a real history book,” Matt Damon’s character tells his therapist, played by Robin Williams, in the 1997 film “Good Will Hunting,” “read Howard Zinn’s ‘A People’s History of the United States.’ That book will knock you on your ass.”
It is very unlikely that President Donald Trump knew who Howard Zinn was before he saw the name on his teleprompter. And it is even less likely that he’s read “A People’s History of the United States.” But that didn’t stop him from saying — at the White House Conference on American History on Thursday — that today’s “left-wing rioting and mayhem are the direct result of decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools. It’s gone on far too long. Our children are instructed from propaganda tracts, like those of Howard Zinn, that try to make students ashamed of their own history.”