The People’s Historian and the FBI Zinn Files





Peter N. Kirstein is professor of history at St. Xavier University and Vice President of the American Association of University Professors (Illinois). He published, “Hiroshima and Spinning the Atom: America, Britain, and Canada Proclaim the Nuclear Age, August 6, 1945," Historian (Winter 2009): 805-827. The HNN article is from an address at the "College of Complexes" in Chicago.

Howard Zinn was the quintessential scholar activist at the time of his death at age eighty-seven in Santa Monica, California on January 27, 2010.  He had been the target of a quarter-century long FBI surveillance operation.  Just four years after his return from World War II in 1945, the FBI opened its investigatory file on Dr. Zinn (hereafter referred to as the Zinn Files).  The 423-page report monitored his activities as special agents and unscrupulous informants throughout the country recorded his growing influence in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements.  His residences, phone numbers, attendance at meetings and numerous public utterances were recorded and filed.  His spouse, Roslyn Zinn, also came under FBI scrutiny.

The Zinn Files were declassified and released on July 30, 2010.  Reflecting embryonic McCarthyism before Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s Wheeling address, it established early on a “Communist Party: Counterintelligence Program” dossier.  The FBI repeatedly accused Howard Zinn of being a Communist Party member from 1949-1953.  Special Agent Edward Scheidt requested on March 9, 1949 that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover investigate the “communist” Howard Zinn.  On March 23, 1949, Hoover authorized a “security index card” that remained active until this unseemly file was closed in 1974.  FBI special agents on November 6, 1953 and February 9, 1954 interrogated him outside near his home to intimidate him about his alleged Communist Party affiliation.  Dr. Zinn denied being a CPUSA party member as if such an association, especially during the Manichaean Cold War, would not honor and confirm the moral and ethical rectitude of an American.  During both interrogations he refused to name names or reveal anyone’s political ideology or group association.  Shamelessly and without any justification, Hoover reported annually to the director of the Secret Service from March 7, 1966 through March 7, 1968 that Professor Zinn was a threat to “[p]residential protection.”  He was depicted in three memoranda as “potentially dangerous; or has been identified as member or participant in [the] communist movement; or has been under active investigation as member of other group or organization inimical to U.S.”

His journey toward greatness as a teacher-activist began with his first appointment as chair of the Department of History and Social Sciences at Spelman College.  He was fired in 1963 while challenging the administration of the African American women’s college to actively support academic freedom and the civil rights movement.  While at Spelman, the Zinn Files reveal continuous surveillance as the “subject of a Communist index card.”  Boston University then hired Dr. Zinn, who became a full professor in the Department of Political Science.  While one of the more influential historians of the postwar period, his enduring academic appointment was in political science.  I majored in government and matriculated in three of his courses:  two in political theory and one on civil liberties.  He was my advisor during senior year.

In 2006 I gave a paper at the Historians Against the War conference at the University of Texas in Austin.  Dr. Zinn was the keynoter and I reintroduced myself at a reception and indicated he was the inspiration for my academic career.  David Horowitz’s latest assault on academia had appeared with The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America and I informed him of our mutual inclusion.  He exclaimed, “Oh, you are in there too?  One of my students also in that book!”  I presume we are the only teacher-student combination on Horowitz’s academic enemies list.

We are what we remember.  Professor Zinn was determined to expand the nation’s collective memory.  He gave historical voice to African Americans, labor organizers, Latinos, women, socialists, anarchists, immigrants, antiwar activists, tenant farmers, the poor, gays and lesbians, and Native Americans.  He resurrected their histories that shamed our past.  This was his mission:  a commitment to challenge elite power with its hauteur of American exceptionalism.  The historian’s craft, to Dr. Zinn, must pursue progressive change for the betterment of society.  He eschewed a Bancroftian exultation of American greatness and emphasized its detritus of proletarian misery on the streets:  sometimes literally, as when 146 burning women jumped to their deaths during the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Manhattan in 1911.  (Declarations of Independence: Cross-Examining American Ideology, 171.)

Howard Zinn’s first book, La Guardia in Congress (1959), won Honorable Mention for the American Historical Association’s Albert J. Beveridge prize.  Not surprisingly, Professor Zinn would later condemn Senator Beveridge's imperialist nationalism during the Spanish-American War (The Politics of History, 45-6).  In 1980 Howard Zinn published his classic, The People's History Of The United States: 1492-Present, an accessible, sweeping challenge to fawning court historiography.  He defied the hero worshipping of Columbus, Jefferson and Jackson.  He profiled the courage of dissenters against an array of evils.  Howard Zinn’s history was real history, with its “litany of unfettered power-abusing and exploitation of the poor, people of color, immigrants, workers, and all the disenfranchised who had lacked a voice in mainstream histories.”  (The Independent, February 5, 2010)

Originally published as an antidote to anodyne textbooks, it unexpectedly became coffee-table fare for the masses.  Movies celebrated it with stars like Matt Damon reading it; it appeared in suburban-mall bookstores; it was converted into a comic-book edition, a History Channel documentary, The People Speak, and it spun off an abridged version, The Twentieth Century: A People’s History.It has sold over two million copies, including thousands to my students.

Horowitz in an e-mail described People's History as a “prosecutor's case” and “worthless.”  Horowitz castigates Dr. Zinn for “further[ing] the corruption of a profession that is already well advanced.”  In People's History, Dr. Zinn notes historiography entails “that inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis...” (10) The inclusion of facts, movements and outcomes that demand an accounting of a nation's past is salutary in cleansing the “corruption” of historical scholarship.

Howard Zinn’s commitment to ending racial segregation begins during the anti-apartheid struggle in the South during the 1950s and 1960s.  He recounted his role in the civil rights movement during his celebrated return as commencement speaker at Spelman in 2005:

Those were the years of the great movement in the South against racial segregation, and I became involved in that in Atlanta; in Albany, Georgia; in Selma, Alabama; in Hattiesburg, Mississippi; and Greenwood and Itta Bena and Jackson.  I learned something about democracy:  that it does not come from the government, from on high, it comes from people getting together and struggling for justice.  I learned about race.  I learned something that any intelligent person realizes at a certain point—that race is a manufactured thing, an artificial thing, and while race does matter (as Cornell West has written), it only matters because certain people want it to matter...I learned that what really matters is that all of us…are human beings and should cherish one another.

He joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, founded in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1960.  He served on its Executive Board and his travails are chronicled in SNCC: The New Abolitionists (1964).  When in Hattiesburg in 1964 at the trial of Robert Moses, a major civil rights organizer, Judge Mildred W. Norris demanded courtroom seating be segregated.  Dr. Zinn objected: “Your Honor, the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that segregated seating in a courtroom is unconstitutional.  Will you please abide by that ruling.”  He was “astonished” with her acquiescence in allowing interracial seating. (SNCC, 117-118)

Years before Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965, Professor Zinn was in Selma on Freedom Day in 1963 for a SNCC voter registration drive as volunteers traversed dangerous country roads throughout the South.  Dr. Zinn was exasperated that Department of Justice officials passively documented human-rights abuses.  He asked a DOJ lawyer to intervene directly and order state troopers to provide food and water to arrested activists:

Is there any reason why a representative of the Justice Department can’t go over and talk to the state troopers and say these people are entitled to food and water…There was a long pause.  Then he said, “I won’t do it.”  He paused again.  “I believe they do have the right to receive food and water.  But I won’t do it.” (SNCC, 162)

In the Zinn Files the FBI created an egregious investigative category, “Communist infiltration of SNCC,” and repeatedly referenced Dr. Zinn’s courageous activism in ending Jim Crow as his “racial activities.”  In its release of the Zinn Files, the FBI candidly conceded that he was surveilled because of “his criticism of the FBI’s civil rights investigations.”  The Zinn Files detail extensively Professor Zinn’s arrest on April 4, 1970 outside Boston police headquarters while protesting the incarceration of Bobby Seale, a founder of the Black Panther Party and one of the original Chicago Eight defendants.  Perhaps more than he knew, Dr. Zinn declared that “America has been a police state for a long time.”  He was arrested and fined $20.  He refused to pay the fine and was sentenced to jail at the rate of three dollars per day until its equivalent was reached.  Reminiscent of Thoreau, he spent a night in jail and paid the remainder of his fine.

Professor Zinn wanted America to understand the history of suffering.  He was a bombardier in the 490th Bomb Group during World War II.  In The Politics of History he expressed remorse for the bombing of Royan, France in April 1945, when napalm was first deployed as a torture weapon.  The killing of non-combatant French civilians with indiscriminate, allied strategic bombing haunted Dr. Zinn.

In Disobedience and Democracy: Nine Fallacies on Law and Order (1968) he contrasted the rhetoric of the Constitution with the Supreme Court’s frequent evisceration of First Amendment protection of speech during war.  He liberated students and faculty from the hagiography of founding documents like the Constitution.  Eugene Victor Debs, presidential candidate, union organizer and socialist leader, was incarcerated for condemning the draft during World War I.  Charles Schenck, general secretary of the Socialist Party, was imprisoned during the war for distributing antiwar pamphlets.  Dr. Zinn confronts mainstream historiography in challenging Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s draconian application of the clear and present danger doctrine.  (Disobedience, 68-87)

He journeyed with Jesuit Father Daniel Berrigan, later of Catonsville IX glory, on a rescue mission to Hanoi in February 1968.  They secured the first release of American prisoners of war who were shot down over North Vietnam.  They were Air Force Major Norris Miller Overly, Air Force Captain John David Black and Navy Ensign David Paul Matheny (Howard Zinn On War, 49-51; Zinn Files memorandum to Hoover, February 16, 1968). This peace mission was coterminous with the epic Tet offensive that presaged the withdrawal and defeat of U.S. forces in 1973.  I have a hunch he was selected for this humanitarian undertaking because of his recently published Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal (1967).  Its final chapter, “A Speech for LBJ,” was never delivered and 58,226 Americans died in the war along with two to three million Vietnamese.  This is an excerpt:

We have not run out of planes, nor have we run out of bombs, nor have we run out of the determination to use them when it is wise.  What we have run out of is the willingness to see more people die under our bombs...It is time to call a halt...From now on, our war will be on starvation and disease, on misery and hopelessness…[H]uman life is sacred, peace is precious. (Emphasis in original, 123-24)

Ron Kovic returned from Vietnam as a paraplegic.  One of three hundred thousand Americans wounded in this quasi-genocidal war, the marine joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War and was arrested during a protest.  Professor Zinn cites Kovic’s biography, Born on the Fourth of July, a book that inspired Oliver Stone's Oscar-winning film in 1989:  “What’s your name?” the officer behind the desk says.  “Ron Kovic,” I say, “Occupation, Vietnam veteran against the war.”  (An officer says):  “You should have died over there…I’d like to take this guy and throw him off the roof.” (Twentieth Century, 248)  Philip Supina, a graduate student in history at Boston University, wrote his draft board an eloquent letter explaining his reasons for refusing conscription during the Vietnam War.  Signed “Respectfully yours,” Supina quoted Spanish philosopher Miguel Unamuno:  “Sometimes to be Silent is to Lie.”  He received a four-year prison sentence.  (Postwar America: 1945-1971, 221-22.)

By the late 1960s Howard Zinn was primarily engaged in antiwar resistance.  After Hoover’s death President Richard Nixon named L. Patrick Gray III as acting director of the FBI.  Gray informed the director of the Secret Service five weeks later on June 9, 1972 that Dr. Zinn was “potentially dangerous because of background, emotional instability or activity in groups engaged in activities inimical to U.S.”  In the summer of 1972, mainly due to his opposition to the Vietnam debacle, he is classified as “Howard Zinn—Subversive.”  In 1974 this humanitarian is described as a “national militant spokesman of the New Left.”  The word “militant” then as now is analogous to “terrorist.”

In Twentieth Century, he declares:  “The cry of the poor is not always just, but if you don’t listen to it, you will never know what justice is.”  (xii)  Professor Zinn experienced abject poverty.  A son of immigrants, his father completed the fourth grade and his mother the seventh.  He lived in roach-infested poverty without heat, refrigerator or shower.  Returning from school in the winter, it was dark due to unpaid utility bills.  (Declarations, 148-49)  Howard Zinn opposed interstate war, but supported aggressive class resistance to growing immiseration in America.  The Industrial Workers of the World—founded in Chicago in 1905—was marginalized by liberal historians averse to anarcho-syndicalist, direct action unionism against Smithian laissez-faire capitalism.  Dr. Zinn rendered spacious treatment to union activists who were imprisoned or executed, such as the Wobblies’ songwriter, organizer Joe Hill who declared, “Don’t waste any time in mourning.  Organize.”  (People’s History, 335)  Elizabeth Gurley Flynn’s rap sheet is presented as a panorama of class resistance in America:  “Arrested in New York, 1906, free speech case, dismissed;...arrested Missoula, Montana, 1909, in free-speech fight of IWW...Arrested, Duluth, Minnesota, 1917, charged with vagrancy under law passed to stop IWW and pacifist speakers, case dismissed; Indicted in Chicago IWW case, 1917.”  (Twentieth Century, 63)

Professor Zinn wrote three plays, each of which were produced:  Emma, after anarchist Emma Goldman; Daughter of Venus, an anti-nuclear drama; and Marx in Soho: A Play on History (1999).  Marx reappears in New York’s Soho district and lectures on classical Marxism’s elegant rejection of unbridled, competitive capitalism.  At the end Marx intones:

Let’s not speak anymore about capitalism, socialism.  Let’s just speak of using the incredible wealth of the earth for human beings.  Give people what they need:  food, medicine, clean air, pure water, trees and grass, pleasant homes to live in, some hours of work, more hours of leisure.  Don’t ask who deserves it.  Every human being deserves it.  (Marx in Soho, 47)

In his overlooked edited anthology, New Deal Thought (1966), Professor Zinn declared:  “[W]e would like the past to speak wisely to our present needs.”  (xv)  The Zinn Files unwittingly chronicle a quarter century of heroic, indefatigable service to humankind that eloquently speaks to those needs.  From his commitment to relieve working-class misery in the 1940s, to his burgeoning role in the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, to his international fame as antiwar advocate, to his emergence as a preeminent historian of postwar America, the Zinn Files paradoxically create an extensive biography of the life and times of an exemplary American.

He was a people’s historian who heard the cries and whispers from the past.  But are we listening?  If history is reserved for the powerful and privileged, then past injustices will continue to haunt the future.  It is for us to continue Professor Howard Zinn’s commitment to resist unwarranted governmental intrusion, oppose war, level devastating economic disparities, confront racism and deconstruct the past for social justice now.

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Peter N. Kirstein - 8/21/2010

I wonder if the charge of ideological bias is somewhat disingenuous. I mean are you without ideology and really trying to say? "I am a conservative at a military university (Naval War College, NSC 68, Captain Mahan) and do not like progressive, left-wing historians."


steve f knott - 8/18/2010

You (as did Zinn) ignore Hamilton's equally critical quotes of the wealthy. But again, no surprise. Do yourself a favor and don't just "check the pages" in Zinn's book, read the original material. The distortions will become readily apparent, if you're willing to put aside your ideology.


Peter N. Kirstein - 8/17/2010

I wish I could marry into a Schuyler family. A tad more than "somewhat wealthy." His penury was of course decades after the Constitution. The Constitution did serve the interests of the elites and I think if you actually check the pages you cite, you will see Mr Hamilton refers to the "imprudence of democracy." He refers to the common person as "turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right." He also says they are not the voice of god as he rejects those who say they are.

That's it for me. Got to prep for fall classes. Thanks!


steve f knott - 8/17/2010

Alexander Hamilton was "a merchant from New York" who helped write a constitution that served "the interests of a wealthy elite" while doing just enough for small property owners and Americans of middling means, the latter of whom "acted as buffers against the blacks, the Indians, the very poor whites."(Zinn, pp. 76, 90, 94-101, 408.) Hamilton was not a merchant, nor was he wealthy, having arrived as an orphaned immigrant from the West Indies. While he married into somewhat wealthy family, he died relatively poor, as the fund raising efforts for his family after the duel indicate. He was also the founding member of the New York Society for the Manumission of Slaves, hardly someone who sought to keep blacks oppressed. He also help found an academy in upstate New York to educate Iroquois indians. None of these facts made it into Zinn's book; but why should they? They go against the grain of his thesis that the history of the United States is nothing more than the history of wealthy, white, male oppression....


Peter N. Kirstein - 8/14/2010

I think you make some very good points. While I don't exactly see a pure Marxian dialectic in Dr Zinn's works, it is certainly embued with an emphasis on the common person. His analysis also does not evolve from a strict economic determinism as the moving force of history, as does Marxian theory, but is more multicausal with politics, race, gender and othe forms of discrimination.

I would perhaps refine one of your statements: "{Dr Zinn} rightly focuses on the idea that common people define history, not elites." I think Professor Zinn felt that history as written by liberal whites (most of whom were male)defined history by privileging only those considered worthy and culturally superior.

As the great Marx wrote in the 18th Brumaire: "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please." Howard Zinn strove throughout his life to empower the non-elites to be able to define history by having greater social justice and a true participatory democracy.


Nat Bates - 8/13/2010

The problem with "People's History" is the exact same problem with the Whig Theory of History. Both are really the same in that they divide history up in to good guys and bad guys.

Whig History says that Jefferson was a good guy based on some principles that it believes are the inexorable result of history. Hegelian Marxism agreed with Whig History on this, assuming that Jefferson's "people" was a stepping stone to Marx's "workers' liberation."

People's History, on the other hand, focuses on the regressive aspects of Jefferson and then says "bad." It rightly focuses on the idea that common people define history, not elites. And, it rightly cleanses itself of the Hegelian notion of over-arching teleology and places history rightly in the context of a geneology of ideas defined by people in the context of their own time. Yet, it errs when it takes after Whig and Marxist schools of thought by labelling some people big bad oppressors and other people humble victims. Just like Whig theories with their big, bad King George and the wonderful Enlightenment heroes (forgetting about slavery and the Native Americans), so does "People's History" focus on some forces being absolutely good and others being evil.

History is not about good guys and bad guys. This is an attempt to secularize Christianity and make some kind of battle to define history. History is bigger than that. Hegelianism, Whig Theories, and other theories of history simplify what is very complex.

I agree with People's History that much of history is defined by conspiracies at the top, from big capitalists and their entourage. However, whenever I am presented with heroes who do not have flaws, or whose work as Soviet agents I am supposed to explain away as simple idealism, I begin to suspect the same snow-job I get from the Establishment education system and its pantheons of founding fathers whom I am not supposed to question.


Peter N. Kirstein - 8/13/2010

One person's zealotry may be another person's commitment. Errors undoubtedly can be found and I have found some in the 729 page work. Rarely does one encounter a book or even an article that is without error. The charge of "riddled" without documentation leads one to ponder if it emanates from a conservative bias.


steve f knott - 8/10/2010

Zinn was an ideological zealot with little concern for historical objectivity. His "People's History" is riddled with errors.....


John Connally - 8/9/2010

...tripe.