An FBI History of Howard Zinn

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.

Several Communist Party members said otherwise. The files paraphrase one informant’s conversation with Zinn in 1948 as the future historian traveled from a protest outside the Truman White House to a Brooklyn rally for presidential candidate Henry Wallace. According to the informant, “Zinn indicated that he is a member of the Communist Party and that he attends Party meetings five nights a week in Brooklyn.” The files summarize how another informant believed that Zinn was “selected as a delegate to the New York State Communist Party Convention.” The Zinn that emerges from the files manned picket lines, religiously attended almost daily party meetings, and collected subscriptions for The Daily Worker. His work on behalf of radical causes was apparently so conspicuous that even a neighbor told the FBI that she believed Zinn was a Communist.

Zinn, of course, is most famous for writing A People’s History of the United States, an unremittingly Marxist retelling of the nation’s past. Fueled by enthusiastic professors who made the book required reading and by pop-culture name-dropping by the likes of The SimpsonsGood Will Hunting, and The SopranosA People’s History has sold more than a million copies. Late last year, the History Channel aired The People Speak, a film partly based on Zinn’s book that featured appearances by Eddie Vedder, Sean Penn, P!nk, and other entertainers. The octogenarian activist was the celebrity’s celebrity.

“I wanted my writing of history and my teaching of history to be part of social struggle,” Zinn explained in a 1998 Revolutionary Worker interview. “I wanted to be a part of history and not just a recorder and teacher of history. So that kind of attitude towards history, history itself as a political act, has always informed my writing and my teaching.” But what happens when the aims of the social struggle and the facts of history clash?

Zinn the historian is a one-trick pony conditioned by Marxism. One crucial line from The Communist Manifesto—“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”—colors the entirety of A People’s History of the United States. Zinn characterizes the American Founding as a Machiavellian trick to usurp British Empire profits and subjugate the American populace. According to Zinn, the main casualty of the Civil War was not slavery but “class consciousness,” which the drums of war drowned out. Zinn argues that it was “money and profit, not the movement against slavery, that was uppermost in the priorities of the men who ran the country.” He explains World War I thus:

“American capitalism needed international rivalry—and periodic war—to create an artificial community of interest among rich and poor.” Columbus’s discovery of the New World, World War II, and every other significant event in American history is similarly described through the lens of Marxism.

Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that the FBI files also note “a photograph of Zinn taken in about 1951 which showed him instructing a class in Basic Marxism at the Twelfth Assembly District, CP Headquarters, Brooklyn, New York.” Were Stalin-era Communists in the habit of inviting “liberals” to teach them about Marxism? That, after all, is how Zinn described himself to the FBI agents: “Zinn stated that he was a liberal and that perhaps some people would consider him to be a ‘leftist.’” He insisted that he joined the International Workers Order, a Communist-controlled front group, “entirely for the insurance benefits.” And what about that Communist Party convention that he allegedly attended as a delegate in 1948? Zinn told the FBI that he couldn’t recall whether he had attended or not.

Howard Zinn, subject of an FBI investigation, was just as deceptive as Howard Zinn, historian.

Daniel J. Flynn, author of A Conservative History of the American Left, blogs at

Lewis Carroll predicts the Woke thinking with the words of Humpty Dumpty:

“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”

― Lewis Carroll


3 thoughts on “An FBI History of Howard Zinn

  1. David Greenberg/March 18, 2013
    Howard Zinn’s influential mutilations of American history
    In the 1980s, in the faculty-filled suburbs west of Boston, the historian Howard Zinn was something of a folk hero. The Boston Globe, where Zinn published a column, ran stories of his battles with the dictatorial John Silber, the president of Boston University, who cracked down on unions, censored student protests, and denied pay raises to enemies such as Zinn. When it was learned that the National Labor Relations Board had reinstated service workers who had been fired for striking, or that the courts upheld a student’s right to hang a “divest” banner from his window, a wave of satisfaction would surge from Cambridge to Brookline to Newton to Wellesley. As Silber’s chief nemesis, Zinn—handsome in profile, gentle in manner—made for a winning poster boy for anyone who reviled Silber’s high-handed rule.

    A People’s History whispered that everything I had learned in school was a sugar-coated fairy tale
    As a faculty brat in those years, I was doubly enamored of Zinn after a classmate gave me A People’s History of the United States, his now-famous victims’-eye panorama of the American experience. In my adolescent rebelliousness, I thrilled to Zinn’s deflation of what he presented as the myths of standard-issue history. Do you know that the Declaration of Independence charged King George with fomenting slave rebellions and attacks from “merciless Indian Savages”? That James Polk started a war with Mexico as a pretext for annexing California? That Eugene Debs was jailed for calling World War I a war of conquest and plunder? Perhaps you do, if you are moderately well-read in American history. And if you are very well-read, you also know that these statements themselves are problematic simplifications. But like most sixteen-year-olds, I didn’t know any of this. Mischievously—subversively—A People’s History whispered that everything I had learned in school was a sugar-coated fairy tale, if not a deliberate lie. Now I knew.

    What I didn’t realize was that the orthodox version of the American past that Howard Zinn spent his life debunking was by the 1980s no longer quite as hegemonic as Zinn made out. Even my high school history teacher marked Columbus Day by explaining that the celebrated “discoverer” of America had plundered Hispaniola for its gold and that, in acts of barbarism that would later be classified as genocide, Columbus’s men had butchered the native Arawaks, slicing off limbs for sport and turning their scrotums into change-purses. (This last detail stuck vividly in the teenage mind.) That Mr. MacDougall was conversant with radical scholarship such as Zinn’s suggests that much had changed from the days when Zinn himself had imbibed uncritical schoolbook accounts of the American story. True, in the popular books and public ceremonies of the 1980s, you could still find a whitewashed tale of the nation’s past, as you can today; and many cities around the country shielded their charges from such heresies. But as far as historians were concerned, the sacred cows that Howard Zinn was purporting to gore had already been slaughtered many times. As Jon Wiener noted in the Journal of American History, “during the early seventies … of all the changes in the profession, the institutionalization of radical history was the most remarkable.”

    It is no secret that the radical historians of the 1960s—and more basically, the infusion of that decade’s fiercely questioning spirit into intellectual life—transformed historical inquiry. Almost half a century has now passed since a new tide of work upended interpretations of subjects from the Civil War to the Cold War and legitimized whole fields of research, notably Afro-American history and women’s history. In short order, these new fields and frameworks became central to the discipline. This mainstreaming of radical history owes more to the flow of deep currents of academic thought than it does to the person of Howard Zinn. But Zinn deserves a share of responsibility. As Martin Duberman notes in his interesting but flawed biography of Zinn, A People’s History of the United States has long been a publishing sensation, having sold more than two million copies in thirty-plus years, and its transgressive vapors still beguile young minds. To be sure, when they get to college, many of these students continue to read books, including works of history. And some of them come to realize that Zinn’s famous book is—for reasons that Duberman admirably makes clear—a pretty lousy piece of work.

    Martin Duberman is himself a veteran of the 1960s generation, an admired and pathbreaking historian who began his career writing on Charles Francis Adams and James Russell Lowell and went on to pioneer the study of gay history. He knew Zinn and shared his politics, yet he narrates Zinn’s life fairly and dispassionately. And also, alas, diffidently: there is a conspicuous refusal throughout the book to comment on Zinn’s more outrageous or obtuse political positions. Duberman quotes Zinn at the time of Robert Kennedy’s murder saying that the American people’s collective anguish constituted “one of the great acts of hypocrisy in world history…. If we were to tell the truth, we would say that murderers are wearing mourning clothes today…. Is murder only the killing of important men by unimportant men? Is it not also the killing of unimportant men by important men? Are not governments the greatest murderers of all?” Duberman does not remark upon, or even register, the perversity Also troubling, Duberman descends into needlessly snide or polemical asides, to the detriment of the credibility he elsewhere takes pains to uphold. This is how he summarizes a conversation between Nixon and Kissinger about bombing Cambodia: “In other words, Let’s git us a little mass murder.” Elsewhere, sympathizing with Zinn’s dim view of the justice system, Duberman writes: “Presidential pardons are reserved for the likes of Richard Nixon and his vice president Spiro Agnew.” The offhand sarcasm here is compounded by a factual error—Agnew was never pardoned—which, unfortunately, is not an isolated one. Duberman awards Daniel Patrick Moynihan the title of senator while he is still in the Nixon White House, and Lyndon Johnson, never known as a religious zealot, is morphed into Ann Coulter, discordantly described by Duberman as endorsing “the country’s mission to spread Christianity and ‘democracy.’ ” Duberman’s account of Zinn’s life is free from snark, but it suffers from the opposite vice: an overly familiar tone creeps into his prose, particularly when he comes to Zinn’s personal relations. He takes up the touchy subject of Zinn’s extramarital affairs, which is fair enough, but when he reports that Zinn’s wife learned of these liaisons, Duberman dilates at length on whether “they initially and explicitly committed to sexual monogamy.” This is not what one picks up a biography of Howard Zinn to know.

    Duberman draws judiciously from interviews, a passel of letters, and Zinn’s own memoirs to reconstruct his subject’s early life. Born in 1922, the son of immigrants from Russia and Ukraine, Zinn grew up in a hardscrabble, working-class Brooklyn household. Zinn’s father Eddie sold fruit from a pushcart and, during the Depression, dug ditches and cleaned windows. When Eddie ordered a complete set of Dickens’s works from an ad in the New York Post, Howard devoured every volume. By his late teens, his reading had veered into politics, especially Marxism. Duberman suggests that unlike some friends, Zinn refrained from joining the Communist Party, which at the time of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939 was losing its allure. On this point Duberman contradicts, among others, August Meier and Elliot Rudwick, who write in Black History and the Historical Profession, 1915-1980 that Zinn was “an active party member for almost a decade.” Whatever the truth, Zinn’s lifelong leftism was forged in those years.


  2. Glenn Greenwald Retweeted
    Drew Holden
    Trying to remember the last time a “whistleblower” went public with a PR firm, press email contact, full legal team and Senate appearance.
    Quote Tweet
    · Oct 5
    ‘Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division, and weaken our democracy’ — Watch Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s full opening statement at a U.S. Senate hearing


  3. It is Columbus Day today.

    The New World was “discovered” by the Europeans on this day in 1942 When Columbus set ashore on probably Watling Island in the Bahamas, and went ashore the same day, claiming it for Spain.

    The film, ‘1492: Conquest of Paradise’ directed and produced by Ridley Scott, gives a fair historical account of the event as provided by the ship’s logs and the diaries of Columbus.

    Thursday, October 11

    …Presently many inhabitants of the island assembled. What follows is in the actual words of the Admiral in his book of the first navigation and discovery of the Indies. “I,” he says, ” that we might form great friendship, for I knew that they were a people who could be more easily freed and converted to our holy faith by love than by force, gave to some of them red caps, and glass beads to put round their necks, and many other things of little value, which gave them great pleasure, and made them so much our friends that it was a marvel to see. They afterwards came to the ship’s boats where we were, swimming and bringing us parrots, cotton threads in skeins, darts, and many other things; and we exchanged them for other things that we gave them, such as glass beads and small bells. In fine, they took all, and gave what they had with good will. It appeared to me to be a race of people very poor in everything. They go as naked as when their mothers bore them, and so do the women, although I did not see more than one young girl. All I saw were youths, none more than thirty years of age. They are very well made, with very handsome bodies, and very good countenances. Their hair is short and coarse, almost like the hairs of a horse’s tail. They wear the hairs brought down to the eyebrows, except a few locks behind, which they wear long and never cut. They paint themselves black, and they are the color of the Canarians, neither black nor white. Some paint themselves white, others red, and others of what color they find. Some paint their faces, others the whole body, some only round the eyes, others only on the nose. They neither carry nor know anything of arms, for I showed them swords, and they took them by the blade and cut themselves through ignorance. They have no iron, their darts being wands without iron, some of them having a fish’s tooth at the end, and others being pointed in various ways. They are all of fair stature and size, with good laces, and well made. I saw some with marks of wounds on their bodies, and I made signs to ask what it was, and they gave me to understand that people from other adjacent islands came with the intention of seizing them, and that they defended themselves. I believed, and still believe, that they come here from the mainland to take them prisoners. They should be good servants and intelligent, for I observed that they quickly took in what was said to them, and I believe that they would easily be made Christians, as it appeared to me that they had no religion, our Lord being pleased, will take hence, at the time of my departure, six natives for your Highnesses that they may learn to speak. I saw no beast of any kind except parrots, on this island.” The above is in the words of the admiral….

    ..As soon as dawn broke many of these people came to the beach, al! youths, as I have said, and all of good stature, a very handsome people. Their hair is not curly, but loose and coarse, like horse hair. In all the forehead is broad, more so than in any other people I have hitherto seen. Their eyes are very beautiful and not small, and themselves far from black, but the color of the Canarians. Nor should anything; else be expected, as this island is in a line east and west from the island of Hierro in the Canaries. Their legs are very straight, all in one line,’ and no belly, but very well formed. They came to the ship in small canoes, made out of the trunk of a tree like a long boat, and all of one piece, and wonderfully worked, considering the country. They are large, some of them holding 40 to 45 men, others smaller, and some only large enough to hold one man. They are propelled with a paddle like a baker’s shovel, and go at a marvelous rate. If the canoe capsizes they all promptly begin to swim, and to bale it out with calabashes that they take with them. They brought skeins of cotton thread, parrots, darts, and other small things, which it would be tedious to recount, and they give all in exchange for anything that may be given to them. I was attentive, and took trouble to ascertain if there was gold. I saw that some of them had a small piece fastened in a hole they have in the nose, and by signs I was able to make out that to the south, or going from the island to the south, there was a king who had great cups full, and who possessed a great quantity. I tried to get them to go there, but afterwards I saw that they had no inclination. I resolved to wait until to-morrow in the afternoon and then to depart, shaping a course to the S.W.



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