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Howard Zinn

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Howard Zinn (August 24, 1922 – January 27, 2010) is a U.S. historian and political scientist. His philosophy incorporates ideas from Marxism, anarchism, socialism, and social democracy. Since the 1960s, he has been an important figure in the Civil Rights and anti-war movements in the United States. [1] He is the author of 20 books, including A People's History of the United States.


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." [2]

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 Politics of History and 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. [3]

"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.

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" [4]. 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."Template:fn

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 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. [5]

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, [6], 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."

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. [7] and in 1960–61, he took a year off from teaching to write SNCC: The New Abolitionists and The Southern Mystique. [8]

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 [9] and allies [10] with the Berrigan brothers, Phil and Daniel over the years.

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." [11]

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's autobiography is You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train. A biographical documentary film of the same name was produced in 2004 and shown in select theaters. It is available[12]on DVD. The film, by Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller[13]is narrated by Matt Damon; the music was composed by Richard Martinez featuring music by Billy Bragg, Woodie Guthrie, and Pearl Jam. The film includes footage of Howard and Roslyn Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Marian Wright Edelman, Daniel Ellsberg, Tom Hayden and Alice Walker. The 78-minute film on DVD includes these special features: On Human Nature and Aggression; his speech at Veterans for Peace Conference, 2004; and audio of his 1971 speech at the Boston Common on Civil Disobedience. In the film, Noam Chomsky says Zinn "changed the consciousness of a generation."

A People's History[edit]

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 [14], and Howard Zinn as narrator. The event was aired by Amy Goodman's Democracy Now and is online. [15] 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 Voices of A People's History of the United States with Anthony Arnove. Voices expands on the concept and provides a large collection of dissident voices in long form. The book is intended as a companion to 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 [16], 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.

In October 2005, Chicago's venerable indie punk label Thick Records released a CD by Springfield, IL - based indie rock band (Resident Genius), which featured excerpts from several Zinn talks, tying them into the band's songs. The CD is titled "You Can't Blow Up A Social Relationship."


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." [17]

His most recent is Marx in Soho, a play on history that has been continuously performed [18]to encouraging reviews[19] [20]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.

Books Written or Edited by Howard Zinn[edit]


Forewords and introductions by Howard Zinn[edit]

Compact discs[edit]

  • A People's History of the United States (1999)
  • Artists in the Time of War (2002)
  • Heroes & Martyrs: Emma Goldman, Sacco & Vanzetti, and the Revolutionary Struggle (2000)
  • Stories Hollywood Never Tells (2000)
  • You Can't Blow Up A Social Relationship - split cd featuring Zinn talks and noted indie rock band Resident Genius (Thick Records) (2005)



In that same chapter, Zinn speaks of John Lewis who has represented Georgia's Fifth District, including Atlanta, in Congress since 1986. [23]

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. [24]

"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. ... [25]

"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." [26]

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." [27]

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.

"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." [28]

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." [29]

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."Template:fn

External links[edit]

Online interviews and video[edit]

Amy Goodman: Conversations with Howard Zinn on Democracy Now! (1997–2005)[edit]

  • "A special hour-long conversation: To Be Neutral, To Be Passive In A Situation Is To Collaborate With Whatever Is Going On" (April 27, 2005)[31]
  • "Bush Represents Everything That Martin Luther King Opposed" (January 20, 2005)[32]
  • "Reaction to John Kerry's Concession and the Reelection of George W Bush" (November 3, 2004)[33]
  • "Nader vs. Anybody But Bush: A Debate on Ralph Nader's Candidacy" (October 26, 2004)[34]
  • "Candidates Not Addressing Fundamental Issues of American Policy" in the World"(October 14, 2004)[35]
  • "Revolutionary Non-Violence: Remembering Dave Dellinger, 1915-2004" (May 27, 2004)[36]
  • "Labor Day Special: Howard Zinn on Occupied Iraq, the Role of Resistance Movements, Government Lies and the Media" (September 1, 2003)[37]
  • "Independence Day Special: A Dramatic Reading of 'A People's History of the United States' with James Earl Jones, Alfre Woodard, Kurt Vonnegut, Danny Glover, Harris Yulin and others"(July 4, 2003) [38]
  • "Howard Zinn and Arundhati Roy: A Conversation Between Two Leading Social Critics" (May 28, 2003)[39]
  • "Howard Zinn Talks About Bombs, Terrorism, the Anti-War Movement and the Bush Administration's Impending War On Iraq" (February 25, 2003) [40]
  • "People's History of the United States, 1,000,000 Copies and Counting: Alice Walker, Danny Glover, Kurt Vonnegut, Marisa Tomei and Others Celebrate Howard Zinn's Classic" (February 25, 2003)[41]
  • "Renowned Historian Howard Zinn On the History of Government and Media Lies in Time of War" (February 13, 2003)[42]
  • "President Bush Takes the Nation to the Brink of War and Defends American Empire in His State of the Union Address; Simultaneously, He Tries to Prove He Cares About the Economy" (January 29, 2003)[43]
  • "Over 600 Gather for the Funeral of Legendary Anti-War Activist Philip Berrigan in Baltimore: We Hear From Historian Howard Zinn and Brendan Walsh, Who Co-Founded Viva House, a Catholic Worker House in Baltimore"(December 10, 2003)[44]
  • "Howard Zinn On the History of the US Government and CIA 'Changing Regimes' Around the World" (November 28, 2003)[45]
  • "Saying No to War: From Boston to Washington, D.C. to Madison, Wisconsin, We Hear From Howard Zinn, Medea Benjamin and Others" (October 29, 2003)[46]
  • "Congress Holds Joint Session in New York for First Time in 200 Years" (September 6, 2003)[47]
  • "The People's Historian" (June 21, 2002)[48]
  • "Reflections On 9/11 and Beyond" (March 11, 2002)[49]
  • "Where Are We Heading: Terrorism, Global Security, and the Peace Movement": During a Time Ofseemingly Endless War, We'll Hear From Radical Historian Howard Zinn" (February 22, 2002)[50]
  • "As Bush Delivers His First State of the Union Address, Democracy Now! Convenes a Shadowcongress to Respond" (January 30, 2002)[51]
  • "As Pacifica Stations WBAI, KPFK and WPFW Continue to Censor Democracy Now!, a Medley of The Voices That Pacifica Has Refused to Air Since September 11" (January 8, 2002)[52]
  • "Howard Zinn Speaks On the US War Against Afghanistan, US Wars Gone By, and the Prospects for a Humane US Foreign Policy" (Part II) (October 22, 2001)[53]
  • "Howard Zinn Speaks On the US War Against Afghanistan, US Wars Gone By, and the Prospects for a Humane US Foreign Policy" (Part I) (October 22, 2001)[54]
  • "Manning Marable, Howard Zinn and Grace Paley Speak Out Against the Bush Administration'smarch to War" (September 13, 2001)[55]
  • "Pearl Harbor: The Corporatization of History" (Part II) (Wednesday, May 30, 2001)[56]
  • "The Electoral College and Election 2000: A Historical Perspective From Howard Zinn" ( December 8, 2000) [57]
  • "American History Review of the 20th Century: Manning Marable and Howard Zinn" (December 27, 1999)[58]
  • "A People's History of the United States" (May 18, 1999)[59]
  • "Historian Howard Zinn Discusses Mergers" of two oil giants Exxon and Mobil (December 7, 1998)[60]
  • "Historian Zinn Addresses Nation's Censored Reports" (May 13, 1998)[61][62]
  • "Columbus Day Broadcast: A Talk by Howard Zinn" (October 13, 1997) [63]

Links based on compilation at Howard Zinn dot org. [64]

Links to criticism of Howard Zinn[edit]

Ways of Telling History Compared[edit]

  • Carlyle, Thomas. On Heroes, Hero Worship and the Heroic in History. (University of California Press: 1993) ISBN: 0520075153
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