Daniel J. Flynn: An FBI History of Howard Zinn

Historians in the News

[Daniel J. Flynn, author of A Conservative History of the American Left, blogs at www.flynnfiles.com.]

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, as Joseph Stalin entered the final years of his reign of terror in the Soviet Union, twentysomething Howard Zinn served as a foot soldier in the Communist Party of the United States of America—this according to recently declassified FBI files. Zinn, the Marxist historian and progressive hero who died in January, may also have lied to the FBI about his Communist Party membership. Is it at all surprising that someone who got history so wrong stood on the wrong side of history?

Zinn’s partisans will no doubt jeer at much of what the FBI files reveal. Who cares if Zinn marched in a May Day parade or if his wife subscribed to The Daily Worker? Other allegations are more serious but vague. One declassified report notes: “Information received on 6/12/53, indicated that the subject was possibly in contact with persons operating in the Communist Party underground.” What information, derived from whom? Was Zinn “possibly” involved with spies or really involved with spies? What kind of “contact”? Who in “the Communist Party underground”? And for some, the identity of the accusers vindicates the accused. J. Edgar Hoover’s personally ordering an investigation of Zinn on March 30, 1949; FBI associate director Clyde Tolson’s ominously asking, “What do our files show on Zinn?”; and FBI spooks’ surveillance of Zinn’s home—these stand as badges of honor in some circles, most notably the ones in which Zinn operated.

But amid charges innocuous and amorphous are specific allegations by numerous eyewitnesses that Howard Zinn was indeed a Communist Party member. After interviewing Zinn on November 6, 1953 and again on February 9, 1954, FBI agents described him as “courteous” and “friendly,” yet willing to part with information only after a repetition of pointed questions. Zinn admitted membership in numerous Communist fronts, including the Americans Veterans Committee and the American Labor Party, which employed Zinn at its headquarters in Brooklyn at a time when Communists controlled it. But he steadfastly denied membership in the Communist Party itself....

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Nestor Morpheus - 8/25/2010

Quote:” Is it at all surprising that someone who got history so wrong stood on the wrong side of history?"

That beggars the questions, "In which way did Howard Zinn 'get history so wrong'? - and, "How was he 'on the wrong side of history'"?

Besides, who cares if Zinn was a Communist Party member in his youth? (Lying about something like that to the FBI ought to be a civil right.) Nearly everyone with the slightest social engagement and empathy, the least historical consciousness, and a minimum of experience from the imperialistic (world) wars and of the economic realities of that age were communists, socialists, or sympathisers. Something the late, not very lamented Senator (R)from Wisconsin, Joseph Raymond McCarthy, along with his affiliated gangs of paranoids, rapacious opportunists, fascists, and Cold Warriors never seemed to be able to grasp.

Is this inability still a problem for contemporary US historians?