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The Wilderness of Zinn

Yes, Virginia, Howard Zinn was a communist.  More evidence that we should be leary of those who think his People's History of the United States is the best and most important book to read about U.S. history.  Zinn was not interested in telling the whole truth about U.S. history. He was, as far as I can tell, interested primarily in reporting only those facts which helped his indictment of America, and reporting them in a way that helped advance his agenda.

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Discussions - 15 Comments

Yeah, I saw that on Real Clear Politics. It's not surprising, but I was interested to learn he travelled to North Vietnam. I've become interested in the evolution of the American Left/Progressivism and its relationship to Communism as well as individuals such as Zinn and Chomsky. I have a Lefty friend who love's Zinn and Chomsky, and several things over the last few months have convinced me the 1960's contribute an equal if not greater amount to the problems we're dealing with today than President Wilson & Co (or the Great Satan following Beck's meme). It seems that ignoring the muck of the 60's is to plan an assault on a citadel without first neutraling the outer defenses.

The statement by the FBI says that informants reported that Zinn was a CP member, which he denied some years later. It does not offer a definitive statement as to whether or not he carried a party card.
(That is of modest significance, of course. His reported activities indicate without a doubt that his loyalties were with the enemy).

"Zinn was a communist. More evidence that we should be leary of those who think his People's History of the United States is the best and most important book to read about U.S. history..."

What a perfect, striking example of ad hominem. What did Zinn say or write that was factually inaccurate? That's what matters. Dissect the errors of his works and let's evaluate the legacy of Zinn and his book(s) from there. The man had serious academic training in history and political science and wrote many completely legitimate works, plenty of them of a more bland, dry, stereotypically academic variety than People's History.

"He was, as far as I can tell, interested primarily in reporting only those facts which helped his indictment of America, and reporting them in a way that helped advance his agenda."

Laughable. Replace "indictment" with "cheerleading" and "America" with "unchecked capitalism" and "extreme nationalism" and you've described this very blog, which is as just-the-facts, middle-of-the-road objective as FoxNews, albeit with a veneer of scholarly pretension. Further, Zinn's indictment wasn't "of America" but of certain American actions. Anyone who ever heard Zinn speak would know how he could speak at length of the many wonders to be found in the United States, its people, and places.

Zinn's actions speak for themselves. What did Zinn ever DO that actually harmed the US? Did he plot or participate in some attack? Did he march in Washington, DC holding a sign saying "We come unarmed (this time)." ?? Was it when he helped get three American POWs released by the North Vietnamese - did that hurt America?

This leads to ArtDeco's comment that "[Zinn's] reported activities indicate without a doubt that his loyalties were with the enemy."

Really??!!
Even by the standards of a "No Left Turns" mindset, it seems as though Zinn deserves at least some accolades.

Zinn joined the US Army Air Force during WWII - to fight the fascists (stand back while Glenn Beck and Jonah Goldberg's heads explode - wait, where's the splatter?) - and was a leader of a bomber squadron. He even followed orders and dropped napalm... on France!! That alone should earn him some love credits from the warrior right-wing, no? I guess the problem is that he opted to think for himself and asked some questions after he left the military. He was open to the idea that he may have participated in something seriously wrong and that his country might err - that sort of critical self-reflection has become increasingly anathema to the modern American right. It's telling though, how today's right, just wants, even expects, war veterans to be little more than useful props which can can be displayed at various jingoistic spectacles. "Look at those old WWII veterans, son! Real heroes!! Why, of course, I'm sure they ARE against unions and the estate tax and want to abolish public education and the EPA! Don't forget to wave your flag!!"

From the FBI link:

"a number of left-wing political causes, some of them associated with the activities of the Communist Party of the United States."

Which, at the time, probably extended to working in a non-religious soup kitchen or reading Dickens.
Reminds me of Cheney's mercurial "weapons of mass destruction-related program activities."

Ar Deco and Ohio Voter are right that Adam's framing of the FBI link is inaccurate.

However, Ohio Voter needs to chill significantly, and read more.

"Ohio Voter needs to chill significantly, and read more."

How do you know what my emotional state is, or how much I've read??

What did Zinn ever DO that actually harmed the US? Did he plot or participate in some attack? Did he march in Washington, DC holding a sign saying "We come unarmed (this time)." ??

What does any private citizen do or not do that is of much significance outside of his immediate circle? Still, we can ask: Is the quality of public discourse and academic research improved or degraded by characters such as Zinn. (Paul Hollander's Political Pilgrims suggest an answer).


Was it when he helped get three American POWs released by the North Vietnamese - did that hurt America?

I am sure these men were released due to his brilliance and lawyerly suasion.


This leads to ArtDeco's comment that "[Zinn's] reported activities indicate without a doubt that his loyalties were with the enemy." Really??!!
Even by the standards of a "No Left Turns" mindset, it seems as though Zinn deserves at least some accolades. Zinn joined the US Army Air Force during WWII - to fight the fascists
.

I will credit his military service. Be nice if he could have been motivated merely to fight for his country, which was in an antagonistic position against a more variegated crew than Mussolini. Zinn's subsequent activities indicated where his actual loyalties were, like it or lump it.

I guess the problem is that he opted to think for himself and asked some questions after he left the military.

Just out of curiosity, just how do you discern from the exterior that an individual 'thinks for himself' and has elected to do so?

He was open to the idea that he may have participated in something seriously wrong and that his country might err - that sort of critical self-reflection has become increasingly anathema to the modern American right. It's telling though, how today's right, just wants, even expects, war veterans to be little more than useful props which can can be displayed at various jingoistic spectacles. "Look at those old WWII veterans, son! Real heroes!! Why, of course, I'm sure they ARE against unions and the estate tax and want to abolish public education and the EPA! Don't forget to wave your flag!!"

I can think of ways to honor veterans. An endorsement of the United Auto Workers and the activities of a public agency erected in 1970 are not among them. Pleased to see you have a degree of critical engagement with what particular people say rather than impugning the motives of social types.


Which, at the time, probably extended to working in a non-religious soup kitchen or reading Dickens.

The hard left has been noted for a number of things. Vigorous activity on behalf of the Community Chest has not been one.

I ought to have been a bit less declarative, but the testimony confirms what many have long suspected.

Ohio voter, like many other commenters here, does open a window into the liberal mind. The U.S. was allied with Stalin in WWII. Hence a communist was free to sign up. Whether Zinn fell in that camp during the war, and whether his opinion moved over time (either to the Left or Right, are separate questions).

If someone wrote my biography and only told stories of my sins and mistakes, it might have no false facts, but the overall impression it conveyed would be false (at least I hope it would). That's how Zinn writes U.S. history. It's not "warts and all" history, it's only warts history. That's no more honest than sanitized history.

The most thorough skewering of Zinn comes from liberal historian Michael Kazin: http://hnn.us/articles/4370.html

"The U.S. was allied with Stalin in WWII. Hence a communist was free to sign up. Whether Zinn fell in that camp during the war, and whether his opinion moved over time (either to the Left or Right, are separate questions)."

But what of Jonah Goldberg's "theory" that fascism " is, and always has been, a phenomenon of the left"?? Why would Zinn and his fellow commies, pinkies, and assorted leftist trash fight against their supposed fascist brethren?

"It's not "warts and all" history, it's only warts history. That's no more honest than sanitized history."

...plenty of examples of which can be found on the Ashbrook book-of-the-week page. BTW, Zinn was pretty clear that a primary purpose of his People's History book was to fill in the gaps within history that most other - even mainstream texts (the views of Horowitz and the Texas Board of Ed. notwithstanding) - leave out completely.

The man had serious academic training in history and political science and wrote many completely legitimate works, plenty of them of a more bland, dry, stereotypically academic variety than People's History.

I have been spelunking about and discover only three articles he placed in academic journals from 1963 until his death. One of them appears to be a piece of topical commentary.

History is a discipline that continues to publish original research in monographs. His work has been issued and re-issued and extensively translated for whatever reason. Excluding the translations and miscellaneous works for which he contributed only a forward or an introduction or an afterword, you can find 66 monographs in English which bear his name. There are another 20 titles which one might wager are translations of his work in English, but it is difficult for a layman to tell because they are in Turkish and Korean and do not have recognizable titles. Quite a few (north of a third) are miscellaneous unpublished works, pamphlets, broadsides, museum catalogues &c. He was a prolific writer.

What becomes apparent running down the list is that the man produced quite a mass of topical commentary over the years (some of which might qualify as historiographical essays) and a nexus of teaching texts, of which the various editions of A People's History of the United States are the most known. There are about a dozen or so English language titles for which it would be necessary to examine the references and bibliography to ascertain what sort of work it was. The remainder are non-scholarly.

Another curio is his allergy to university presses. I could only find two titles on this list which were issued by that sort of publisher. Neither was a work of history.

The texts you would want to take a second look at are quite a jumble. All are in the domain of American history. He concentrates on 20th century history, but also wrote a book about the early colonial period. Several are more-or-less biographical works. One looks like and intellectual history; two others appear to be a quasi-military or quasi-diplomatic history (about the atomic bomb and the VietNam War, natch).

I would be surprised if there was much other than secondary literature in the bibliographies of those dozen or so volumes, but cannot say at this point.

Whether Zinn fell in that camp during the war, and whether his opinion moved over time (either to the Left or Right, are separate questions).

One of this unpublished pieces, given the title "Times Square", is described in an abstract thus:

"Howard Zinn's personal account of a New York demonstration and police riot in the late 30's that left him with a life-long radical point-of-view."

Did some extra checking, reading abstracts & such.

All of his published work in academic journals consisted of topical commentary and book reviews. One possible exception was a piece in an obscure archivists' journal which appeared in 1977. While the topic concerned problems in historical research, the abstract suggests the piece was as polemical as much else he wrote.

Of the dozen volumes referred to above, one was his dissertation, one was a revised edition of his dissertation issued by Cornell University Press, one was a piece of labor history which does make use of some primary sources (and was complied with two co-authors, hmmm...), and one he describes as a 'speculative essay based on personal experience'; this last has no footnotes. Eight other titles are not in libraries convenient to me. They are...

1. Albany, a study in national responsibility
2 Artists in times of war /
3. The bomb /
4. Columbus, the indians, & and human progress :
5. Life of an anarchist :
6. New Deal thought.
7. The Pentagon papers:
8. Postwar America: 1945-1971.

NEW DEAL THOUGHT is actually a primary source reader--and not a bad one, although, apart from a solid editorial by Walter Lippmann, completely ignores the conservative critique of the New Deal. The radical Left critique, as you might expect, is well represented.

Zinn's indictment wasn't "of America" but of certain American actions. Anyone who ever heard Zinn speak would know how he could speak at length of the many wonders to be found in the United States, its people, and places.

See

Zinn, Howard, The Southern Mystiique. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964. pp. 262-263.:

""Let me go back over my argument. The South is everything its revilers have charged. It is racist, violent, hypocritically pious, xenophobic, false in its elevation of women, nationalistic, conservative, and it harbors extreme poverty in the midst of ostentatious wealth. The only point I have to add is that the United States, as a civilization, embodies all of those same qualities. That the South possesses them with more intensity simply makes it easier for the nation to pass off its characteristics to the South, leaving itself innocent and righteous."

Cherry picked? Well, this was the first hard copy volume of his I picked up. I was looking for the bibliography and happened upon this (it being right at the end of this 263 page long 'speculative essay').

Yes and...

1. Albany, a study in national responsibility
--The core around which The Southern Mystique was constructed; non-scholarly.

2 Artists in times of war /
--An audio CD of lectures on the views of various parties (e.g. Mark Twain); non-scholarly.

3. The bomb /
--More 'critical reflections' from a man who did no work in military history, diplomatic history, or social ethics.; non-scholarly.

4. Columbus, the indians, & and human progress :
--a chapter of A People's History of the United States issued as a free-standing pamphlet by an outfit in New Jersey; non-scholarly

5. Life of an anarchist :
--A collection of Alexander Berkman's writing.

6. New Deal thought.
--As you noted above.

7. The Pentagon papers:
--A contribution to v. 5 of the edition issued by Beacon Press. The volume consists of an index to the previous volumes and commentary by Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. The whole volume is 72 pages in length; non-scholarly.

8. Postwar America: 1945-1971.
--The composition of historical surveys is a dimension of teaching rather than scholarship. You might make an exception if the work constituted an innovative and interesting syntheses. Per Dr. Kazin, that is not a characteristic of Zinn's work. Likely non-scholarly.


So, from 1955 to his death this year, he produced a dissertation, a publishable edition of his dissertation, two reference collections, a minor labor history in collaboration with two other professors, and a historical survey that may or may not break some new ground. Which is to say five or six monographs in 55 years, with a bias toward editorial work. One might wager that is above the mean for the whole population of history professors in this country, from your local community college to Stanford, and certainly respectable for the trade's rank and file.

As of this date, his output would be inferior to that of Clayton Cramer, who isn't going to be feted by the Organization of American Historians anytime soon.

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