historian and political scientist. Zinn is the author of 20 books. His philosophy incorporates ideas from Marxism, anarchism, socialism, and social democracy.
While most historians study the role of great men in affecting history, Zinn chronicles history from the bottom up, from the street, the home, and the workplace. His signature work, A People's History Of the United States, is told from the viewpoint of-and in the words of-its women, factory workers, African-Americans, Native Americans, working poor, and immigrant laborers. In his contribution to a balanced understanding of history, Zinn describes how many of the country's greatest internal battles-for labor laws, women's rights and racial equality-were carried out at the grassroots level, against steel-willed resistance. It is "a history written from the standpoint of those who have been marginalized politically and economically and whose struggles have been largely omitted from most histories."
A bombardier in World War II, Zinn summarized the outcome of that war: "The victors (of World War II) were the Soviet Union and the United States... . Both these countries now went to work- without swastikas, goose-stepping, or officially declared racism, but under the cover of "socialism" on one side, and "democracy" on the other, to carve out their own empires of influence. They proceeded to share and contest with one another the domination of the world, to build military machines far greater than the Fascist countries had built, to control the destinies of more countries than Hitler, Mussolini, and Japan had been able to do. They also acted to control their own populations, each country with its own techniques-crude in the Soviet Union, sophisticated in the United States-to make their rule secure."
In Declarations Of Independence: Cross-Examining American Ideology, Zinn wrote, that it is impossible for a historian to be neutral. "In a world already moving in certain directions, where wealth and power are already distributed in certain ways, neutrality means accepting the way things are now. It is a world of clashing interests-war against peace, nationalism against internationalism, equality against greed, and democracy against elitism- and it seems to me both impossible and undesirable to be neutral in those conflicts. I do not claim to be neutral, nor do I want to be... . I will try to be fair to opposing ideas by accurately representing them."
Not one to record history from the top down or through the eyes and actions of politicians and magnates, Zinn presents the viewpoint of ordinary people engaged in actions to improve the quality of their lives. He taps into the vein of forgotten and overlooked stories but emphasizes, "We are not starting from scratch. There is a long history in this country of rebellion against the establishment, of resistance to orthodoxy. There has always been a commonsense perception that there are things seriously wrong and that we can't really depend on those in charge to set them right."
"This perception has led Americans to protest and rebel. I think of the Boston Bread Rioters and Carolina antitax farmers of the eighteenth century; the black and white abolitionists of slavery days; the working people of the railroads, mines, textile mills, steel mills, and auto plants who went on strike, facing the clubs of policemen and the machine guns of soldiers to get an eight-hour workday and a living wage; the women who refused to stay in the kitchen and marched and went to jail for equal rights; the black protesters and antiwar activists of the 1960s; and the protesters against industrial pollution and war preparations in the 1980s."
Zinn is critical of both Democrats and Republicans. In a 1996 interview with Calvin Simons, Zinn said Richard Hofstadter's 1948 book, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (1948) established how both the liberal and conservative traditions in the United States (including FDR and Herbert Hoover; Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt; the Founding Fathers; the Jeffersonians and the Hamiltonians) "hewed to certain fundamental principles" of nationalism, capitalism and private enterprise. Zinn said those same principles continue to guide both the Democratic and Republican parties, and both he said, "are very closely connected with corporate wealth; they both have the same fundamental foreign policy; they both support enormous military budgets and only differ in small ways on how much social spending there should be to take care of human needs in this country."
In his column in The Progressive, Zinn itemized lies both Republican and Democratic presidents have told.
He provides examples to support his often-made claims that there are few foreign policy differences between the Republican and Democratic parties. And, in a scathing analysis of the Clinton years (that does not mention sex), in his book The Twentieth Century: A People's History (May 1998), Zinn places the Clinton presidency in historical perspective. One chapter is online with permission of the author.
Can America's political and economic system be fixed?
"I'd like to think that while the new has not yet been born and the old system has not yet died, that the old system is beginning to show what is wrong with it in a way that will cause more and more people to rebel against it and for the new to emerge. There are women activists in Nigeria who shut down the ChevronTexaco operation. Poor people in Peru are protesting the impact of the so-called free market system. Banana workers in Ecuador are going on strike. In Poland, there are signs of recognition that the lovely capitalist system that was promised for them has turned out to be disastrous," he replied.
Howard Zinn was born to a Jewish immigrant family in Brooklyn. His father, Eddie Zinn, born in Austria-Hungary, emigrated to the United States with his brother Phil 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 when they met and married, and there were no books or magazines in the series of apartments where their children grew. However, knowing that Howard liked to read, they ensured his introduction to literature by sending twenty-five cents plus a coupon to the New York Post for each of 20 volumes of Charles Dickens. Zinn remembered, " I read every single one. Dickens was my first author."
As a young adult, Howard Zinn worked as a shipyard worker and labor organizer in the Brooklyn shipyards; later, he flew bombing missions in Europe during World War II, an experience that shaped his opposition to war. Zinn flew a B-17 with the 490th Bomb Group. In April, 1945 he participated in the bombing of Royan, France, the first time napalm had been used in warfare. The bombing took the lives of French civilians and also German soldiers who were doing little more than waiting out the closing days of the war. Nine years later, Zinn visited Royan to examine documents and interview residents. In his books, The Zinn Reader, he concluded that the bombing was connected more to the desire by higher-ups for career advancement than for any legitimate military objective.
Zinn's experience as a bombardier, combined with his research into the reasons for and effects of the bombing of Royan, sensitized him to the ethical dilemmas faced by G.I.'s during wartime.
"In the Second World War, there was indeed a strong moral imperative, which still resonates among most people in (the U.S.) and which maintains the reputation of World War II as "the good war." There was a need to defeat the monstrosity of fascism. It was that belief that drove me to enlist in the Air Force and fly bombing missions over Europe.
"Only after the war did I begin to question the purity of the moral crusade. Dropping bombs from five miles high, I had seen no human beings, heard no screams, seen no children dismembered. But now I had to think about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the firebombings of Tokyo and Dresden, the deaths of 600,000 civilians in Japan, and a similar number in Germany. I came to a conclusion about the psychology of myself and other warriors: Once we decided, at the start, that our side was the good side and the other side was evil, once we had made that simple and simplistic calculation, we did not have to think anymore. Then we could commit unspeakable crimes and it was all right.
"I began to think about the motives of the Western powers and Stalinist Russia and wondered if they cared as much about fascism as about retaining their own empires, their own power, and if that was why they had military priorities higher than bombing the rail lines leading to Auschwitz. Six million Jews were killed in the death camps (allowed to be killed?). Only 60,000 were saved by the war,1 percent.
"A gunner on another crew, a reader of history with whom I had become friends, said to me one day: "You know this is an imperialist war. The fascists are evil. But our side is not much better." I could not accept his statement at the time, but it stuck with me."
In the decades that followed, Zinn supported the G.I. antiwar movement during the U.S. war in Vietnam, and in the 2001 film Unfinished Symphony, Zinn provides the historical context for the march, in 1971, by Vietnam Veterans against the War from Lexington, Massachusetts, to Bunker Hill, "which retraced Paul Revere's ride of 1775 and ended in a massive arrest of 410 veterans and civilians by the Lexington police." The film depicts "scenes from the 1971 'Winter Soldier' investigations, during which former G.I.s testified about atrocities" they either participated in or witnessed in Vietnam.
Zinn questions the immense civilian casualties that resulted from the United States bombing 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. He makes the case against targeting civilians in his pamphlet "Hiroshima: Breaking the Silence". Instead of bombing civilians, he contends that the Axis powers could have been opposed during World War II through popularly organized acts of nonviolent resistance. He writes: "The term 'just war' contains an internal contradiction. War is inherently unjust, and the great challenge of our time is how to deal with evil, tyranny, and oppression without killing huge numbers of people."
Zinn is not a pacifist: to him the term suggests passive- rather than active- resistance. For example, he offered the following alternative to bombing Kosovo and stressed its effectiveness: "I think of South Africa, where a decision to engage in out-and-out armed struggle would have led to a bloody civil war with huge casualties, most of them black. Instead, the African National Congress decided to put up with apartheid longer, but wage a long-term campaign of attrition, with strikes, sabotage, economic sanctions, and international pressure. It worked."
Zinn 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."
This is his view of how change occurs. "I would encourage people to look around them in their community and find an organization that is doing something that they believe in, even if that organization has only five people, or ten people, or twenty people, or a hundred people. And to look at history and understand that when change takes place it takes place as a result of large, large numbers of people doing little things unbeknownst to one another. And that history is very important for people to not get discouraged. Because if you look at history you see the way the labor movement was able to achieve things when it stuck to its guns, when it organized, when it resisted. Black people were able to change their condition when they fought back and when they organized. Same thing with the movement against the war in Vietnam, and the women's movement. History is instructive. And what it suggests to people is that even if they do little things, if they walk on the picket line, if they join a vigil, if they write a letter to their local newspaper. Anything they do, however small, becomes part of a much, much larger sort of flow of energy. And when enough people do enough things, however small they are, then change takes place."
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 Ph.D. in history with a minor in political science (1958). His doctoral dissertation Laguardia In Congress was a study of Fiorello LaGuardia's congressional career. It depicts LaGuardia representing "the conscience of the twenties" as he 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.
In 1956, Zinn was appointed chairman of the department of history and social sciences at Spelman College (now Atlanta University Center, Spelman College) and then a college for black women in Atlanta, where he participated in the Civil Rights movement. Zinn served as an adviser to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
In chapter four, called "My Name Is Freedom:" Albany, Georgia in Zinn's autobiography You Can't Be Neutral On a Moving Train, excerpted with permission, he describes the people who participated in the Freedom Rides to end segregation in Albany, Georgia, and of the reluctance of the administration of President John F. Kennedy to enforce the law. "The First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights in the United States Constitution were being violated in Albany again and again- freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the equal protection of the laws- I could count at least 30 such violations," Zinn wrote. "Yet the president, sworn to uphold the Constitution, and all the agencies of the United States government at his disposal, were nowhere to be seen."
In that same chapter, Zinn speaks of John Lewis who has represented Georgia's Fifth District, including Atlanta, in Congress since 1986.
Zinn wrote: "At the great Washington March of 1963, the chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, John Lewis, speaking to the same enormous crowd that heard Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream," was prepared to ask the right question: "Which side is the federal government on?" That sentence was eliminated from his speech by organizers of the March to avoid offending the Kennedy Administration. But Lewis and his fellow Sncc workers had experienced, again and again, the strange passivity of the national government in the face of Southern violence, strange, considering how often this same government had been willing to intervene outside the country, often with overwhelming force.
"John Lewis and SNCC had reason to be angry. John had been beaten bloody by a white mob in Montgomery as a Freedom Rider in the spring of 1961. The federal government had trusted the notoriously racist Alabama police to protect the Riders, but done nothing itself except to have FBI agents take notes. Instead of insisting that blacks and whites had a right to ride the buses together, the Kennedy Administration called for a "cooling-off period," a moratorium on Freedom Rides. ...
"The white population could not possibly be unaffected by those events- some whites more stubborn in their defense of segregation, but others beginning to think in different ways. And the black population was transformed, having risen up in mass action for the first time, feeling its power, knowing now that if the old order could be shaken it could be toppled."
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."
Zinn collaborated with historian Staughton Lynd at Spelman and mentored young student activists including Alice Walker and Marian Wright Edelman. A tenured professor, Zinn was fired in June 1963 after siding with students in their desire to challenge Spelman's traditional emphasis of turning out "young ladies" when, as Zinn described in an article in The Nation, Spelman 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. An account of Zinn's years at Spelman is in You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times.
Zinn wrote frequently about the historic struggle for Civil Rights, both as a participant and historian. And in 1960-61, he took a year off from teaching to write The Southern Mystique.
In 1964, he joined the faculty at Boston University where he taught history and civil liberties until 1988. He was a leading critic of the Vietnam War. Zinn's diplomatic visit to Hanoi with Rev. Daniel Berrigan during the Tet Offensive in January 1968 resulted in the return of three American airmen, the first American POWs released by the North Vietnamese since the U.S. bombing of that nation had begun. Zinn remained friends and allies with the Berrigan brothers, Phil and Daniel over the years.
Daniel Ellsberg entrusted "The Pentagon Papers" to Zinn (and others) before they were finally published in The New York Times. Called as an expert witness in Ellsberg's criminal trial, Zinn was asked 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 and later reflected on his time before the jury. "I explained 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 on pp 160-161 of his autobiography. Most of the jurors later said they voted for acquittal. However, the judge dismissed the case on grounds it had been tainted by the Nixon administration's 'plumber' operation, by breaking into the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist.
Howard Zinn is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Boston University. He has received the Thomas Merton Award and the Eugene V. Debs Award. In 1998, he won the Lannan Literary Award for nonfiction and the following year won the Upton Sinclair Award, which honors social activism. He lives in the Auburndale neighborhood of Newton, Massachusetts with his wife Roslyn in the United States. The couple have two children, Myla and Jeff, and five grandchildren. Roslyn is an artist and editor who has a role in editing all of Howard's books.
Zinn recently signed the statement of the antifascist group The World Can't Wait- Drive Out the Bush Regime.
A People's History
A People's History of the United States presents U.S. history through the eyes of ordinary people struggling to improve their lives, including striking workers, Native Americans, African-American slaves, women, African-Americans struggling against racism and for civil rights, Populists, and others whose stories are not often told.
For example, Zinn documents the history of men such as Jermain Wesley Loguen who was born in 1813 into slavery, escaped, became a popular abolitionist speaker, and settled in Syracuse where his home became a major stop on the Underground Railroad. In the years since the first edition of "A People's History" was published in 1980, it has been assigned reading both as a high school and college textbook, and is one of the most widely known examples of critical pedagogy.
In the spring of 2003, to commemorate the sale of the millionth copy of A People's History, a dramatic reading from the book was held at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. The reading featured Danny Glover, Andre Gregory, James Earl Jones, Myla Pitt, Marisa Tomei, Kurt Vonnegut, Alice Walker, Alfre Woodard, Harris Yulin, Jeff Zinn, producing artistic director of the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater , and Howard Zinn as narrator. The event was aired by Amy Goodman's Democracy Now and is online. The program was also published as The People Speak: American Voices, Some Famous, Some Little Known as a book and CD.
In 2004 Zinn published A People's History and parallels its structure.
Zinn was a consultant to the six-part documentary A People's History of the United States, a television series produced by Alvin H. Perlmutter. It is unclear whether this series aired.
When Matt Damon, his mother, and brother moved next door to the Zinns in West Newton, Massachusetts, the families became friends, and the Zinns sometimes sat with the Damon boys. After Damon became an actor, he included a reference to A People's History in his film Good Will Hunting, and read the latter half of People's History for an audiobook released February 1, 2003 (ISBN 0060530065). People's History was also referenced in a Columbus Day episode of the TV show The Sopranos.
Zinn has written Three Plays, including Daughter of Venus (1985), his first play.
Zinn's second play, Emma, is based on the life of the early 20th Century anarchist Emma Goldman. In the words of the publisher, South End Press: "With his wit and unique ability to illuminate history from below, historian and playwright Howard Zinn dramatizes the life of Emma Goldman, the anarchist, feminist, and free-spirited thinker who was exiled from the United States because of her outspoken views, including her opposition to World War I.
"As Zinn writes in his Introduction, Emma Goldman 'seemed to be tireless as she traveled the country, lecturing to large audiences everywhere, on birth control ("A woman should decide for herself"), on the falsity of marriage as an institution ("Marriage has nothing to do with love"), on patriotism ("the last refuge of a scoundrel") on free love ("What is love if not free?"), and also on drama, including Shaw, Ibsen, and Strindberg.
"This book will be of immense interest to feminists, anarchists, American historians, and people interested in the long history of resistance and protest in the United States."
His most recent is Marx In Soho, a play on history that has been continuously performed to encouraging reviews in small theaters throughout the United States, with Brian Jones in the title role starting in 1999 through 2005. In February 2005, Bob Weick took on the title role in a traveling tour. Details of the traveling tour are at Iron Age Theatre.