Double podcast episode about the life and work of Howard Zinn, historian, World War II veteran and activist, in his own words, 100 years since his birth.

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Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States and other texts, was one of the most influential historians in the US in the 20th-century, inspiring a generation to study history from below, including us. Born in New York in August 1922, we are releasing these episodes for the centenary of his birth, as part of a series of Howard Zinn 100 events. In these episodes, Zinn tells the story of his life, his activism, his ideas and his work in his own words, in what was one of his last, if not the last, interview before his sudden death in 2010. This little-known interview was conducted by Sasha Lilley, and excerpts from it are used with permission of Lilley and PM Press. A DVD video of the full interview is available here in our online store.

  • Part 1: Early life, work, World War II and the civil rights movement

E69: Howard Zinn 100, part 1 Working Class History

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  • Thanks to our patreon supporters for making this podcast possible.
  • Episode graphic courtesy Slobodandimitrov/Wikimedia Commons CC by NC 4.0
  • Edited by Jesse French
  • Our theme tune is Bella Ciao, thanks for permission to use it from Dischi del Sole. You can purchase it here or stream it here.


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Part 1

100 years ago exactly, Howard Zinn was born in New York. A shipyard worker, World War II bombardier, playwright, academic and historian, Zinn took part in workplace organising, the civil rights movement, the movement against the Vietnam war, and countless other campaigns. He was spied on by the FBI, and authorities around the US tried to ban his books, which have inspired a generation of others to take up the task of researching and promoting history from below, including us. This is Working Class History.

[Intro music]

Before we get started, just a quick reminder that our podcast is brought to you by our patreon supporters. Our supporters fund our work, and in return get exclusive early access to podcast episodes, bonus episodes, free and discounted merchandise and other content. For example, our patreon supporters can listen to both parts of this double episode now. Join us or find out more at, link in the show notes.

Howard Zinn was without doubt one of the most influential US historians of the last century. Particularly, his work A People’s History of the United States, first published in 1980, and since expanded and republished multiple times. A US bestseller, which has sold over 2 million copies, and been translated into multiple languages. The New York Times in their obituary declared that the book “inspired a generation of high school and college students to rethink American history”.

We at WCH are some of the many people who were inspired by his work. In fact, we almost named our project “People’s History”, in a deliberate homage to Zinn’s book, but in the end decided against it, because we thought stressing the importance of class was important, although our project would probably be more popular if we had!

So on the centenary of his birth, as part of numerous Zinn at 100 events around the world, we wanted to make a podcast about his life and ideas, in his own words.

Howard Zinn: I grew up in a working-class family and a struggling family. My father was a waiter and he met my mother when they were both immigrant factory workers in New York. I grew up in tenements and miserable places [laughter] and one step ahead of the landlord in the Depression years.

This is Howard Zinn talking to Sasha Lilley in what turned out to be one of the last, if not the last, interview before his sudden death in January 2010. This was a video interview which appears on the DVD, Theory and Practice: Conversations with Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, available on the link in the show notes. We are grateful to Sasha and PM Press for their permission to use audio from this interview in these episodes.

Howard grew up in New York City, the son of Jewish immigrant parents from Siberia and what was then Austria-Hungary. His parents met one another one day, working in the same factory.

Howard: Home was not a nice place to be. I remember the first time I walked into somebody’s home who had a piano and the house looked clean and neat [laughter]. I thought, ‘Wow! This is very nice.’ I’d never seen anything like that. No, home was no place to be. It was crowded and messy and so you lived out on the street really. I mean in poor neighbourhoods, that’s what you have. You have street life. Kids are out on the street. That’s where they have their fun. That’s where they meet their friends. That’s why when you walk out here in the suburbs in middle-class neighbourhoods, you don’t see anybody out on the street. They have nice homes. Yeah, I suppose it’s that; growing up in the Depression years and seeing people having a hard, hard time and seeing people evicted from their homes. I have a vivid memory of seeing furniture piled up on the sidewalk outside of this family home and a crowd gathering. The crowd were then facing off the police and moving the furniture back into the house. It was a very dramatic conflict. This was the kind of scene that you don’t forget. You might say I was class conscious at an early age without ever hearing the word ‘class’ [laughter].

Class consciousness basically means an understanding of your position as part of an economic class in society. So in Howard’s case, this was the working class. His dad at this time worked jobs like digging ditches and cleaning windows, and later became a waiter, and joined the waiters’ union.

Howard: At the age of 18, I started going to college and went to work in a shipyard, Brooklyn Navy Yard. Kids in my neighbourhood never went to college. They graduated from high school or they dropped out of high school and they went to work. Families needed the money and families couldn’t afford to send them to college, even if it was a free college or even if it was a city college. No, they needed their kids’ little salaries. So I went to work in the Brooklyn Navy Yard for $14.40 a week [laughter] and worked there for three years. In the meantime, I had become politically interested, involved and radicalised, I think, by encountering young radicals, communists and members of the Young Communist League. They were very political and very smart. I was impressed about how much they knew and I was interested in these things but I didn’t know as much as they did. I was reading books. I read at an early age. I think this is one of the important influences in my life. I started to read at an early age and started to read Dickens and Mark Twain when I was 13 or 14. My parents didn’t know about books. There was no book in the house; not a single book in the house. There were movie magazines [laughter] that my mother read but no books but I picked up books on the street and read. I was interested. I was reading about fascism and socialism and so by the time I went to the Navy Yard to work, I was already a political person. In fact, just before that, I had been on a demonstration in Times Square which my communist friends took me to – my first demonstration. It was exciting. I didn’t know what a demonstration was. I thought going to Times Square would be fun [laughter]. There were all these people milling around in Times Square and at a certain moment, they unfurled banners but to this day, I don’t even know what the banners said; probably ‘Stop Fascism’ or ‘Stop War’ or something like that. It sounded okay to me. I then heard sirens and I thought, ‘There must be a fire somewhere.’ [Laughter] No, of course not. It was the police attacking the crowd and this was an important revelation to me. I thought, ‘My god! Police are attacking these people who are not doing anything but just marching and holding placards.’ Before I knew it, I was spun around and knocked on the head [laughter]; knocked unconscious actually. I woke up in a doorway who knows when. An hour later? Times Square was as it had been before; nobody, quiet and no demonstration. It was eerie but it was a radicalising moment for me. I thought, ‘Wow! These radical guys are right! The state is not neutral. The police are not neutral. There is no real free speech in America, not if you antagonise the establishment.’ I guess what I’m saying is that even before I went to work in the shipyard at the age of 18, I was already politicized in a certain way.

In the Brooklyn Navy Yard, I encountered three other young fellows who were also young radicals and the four of us set out to organise the young workers in the shipyard. We were excluded from the union which was the American Federation of Labor, a craft union. They only took in skilled workers which meant that they were excluding Black workers because the Black workers in the Navy Yard were the “unskilled” workers but it was the heaviest work, like riveters and shippers. It was nasty work. The young apprentices were outside the union and we organised them.

This was quite typical behaviour of AFL unions at the time, which were often strictly segregated on the basis of race and gender. But even if they weren’t, they could be de facto segregated by only permitting membership for workers in certain so-called “skilled” craft jobs, and refusing entry to anyone in so-called “unskilled” jobs, which as in this case often effectively meant Black workers.

Howard: Meanwhile, the war in Europe was going on and soon the United States was in the war. My friends outside of the Navy Yard were going into the military because if you were in the Navy Yard, you didn’t have to go into the military. You were doing important war work by building ships. I worked on the USS Iowa and USS Missouri which later became famous because that’s where the Japanese surrender was signed. So we were doing important work but I didn’t want to stay in the Navy Yard. I wanted to get into the fray. Fascism… I almost said, ‘Fascism beckoned’ [laughter].  No, but the war against fascism beckoned. Some of my friends were already in the military and so I enlisted in the Air Force.

Over the course of the war, Howard’s views on the conflict changed dramatically.

Howard: I entered the Air Force as an enthusiastic bombardier. That’s what I became; a bombardier on a heavy bomber stationed in England and flying missions over Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and even France. It was a good war. That’s why I enlisted. It was a war against fascism. It was very clear they were the bad guys and we were the good guys [laughter] but I began to have doubts, small doubts and doubts first put into my head by a guy who was on another crew. He was a young fellow who was a gunner on another crew and we became friends. I guess we became friends because we were both readers. There weren’t too many readers in the Air Force [laughter]. We exchanged books and ideas and talked. Once he said to me, ‘You know, we are fighting in an imperialist war.’ I was startled and said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Both sides are imperialists. Fascists are terrible but what about our side? The British Empire, the French Empire, the Dutch Empire and the American Empire. The Soviet Union with Stalin. What makes us think we’re the good guys? No, both sides are fighting for imperial interests.’ It was shocking to me to hear that. I was so totally imbued with the idea we were on the right side. To this day, of course, I understand how soldiers make a decision at the beginning and think, ‘I’m on the right side.’ Once you make that decision, you don’t have to think anymore. You don’t have to examine what you do from that point on. Everything you do is right. You can kill. You can drop bombs on Hiroshima. You’re on the right side. I listened to this guy and I said, ‘Well, if you believe that, why are you here?’ He said, ‘Well, I’m here to talk to guys like you.’ [Laughter] This startled me too; the idea that this guy was risking his life, you might say, to embed himself in the military and to speak out against the war in which he was risking his life. Ironically or tragically, this guy didn’t return from a mission some weeks later. Amazing. He gave me a book called The Yogi and the Commissar by Arthur Koestler. That book is not well-known these days.

Arthur Koestler was a Hungarian Jewish author, who was a member of the Communist Party, spent time in the Soviet Union, and was sent by the Party to Spain during the civil war which we talk about in episodes 39-40. There he spied on the Nationalist and fascist forces of general Francisco Franco until he was arrested in 1937, although he was later released in a prisoner swap. He later left the Communist Party and became a critic of totalitarianism.

Howard: He wrote The God That Failed. A lot of people know that but they don’t know The Yogi and the Commissar but Koestler had fought in Spain and had the credentials of a left-winger, so I could listen to him. He was anti-Soviet and critical of the Soviet Union. The Yogi and the Commissar started me, I think, on the road to examining the war I was in but I didn’t do that until after the war when I picked up John Hersey’s book on Hiroshima. I had seen the headlines of the bombing of Hiroshima when I had flown from Europe back to the United States with my crew and we were having a 30-day furlough before going on to the Pacific where we would continue bombing missions in the Pacific. I had been married just before I went overseas and my wife and I were going to spend this 30-day furlough out in the country. We stopped at a bus stop and there was this newspaper with this headline ‘Atomic Bomb Dropped on Hiroshima’ and we were glad. ‘Oh, wow! This is great. What’s the atomic bomb?’ We didn’t know. It was just another bomb. I’d been dropping bombs and I thought, ‘Maybe this is a bigger bomb but it sounds like this might end the war, so this is good.’ That was my attitude at that moment and then I read John Hersey’s book about Hiroshima. It then came home to me what that was. He interviewed the survivors in Hiroshima and you can imagine what the survivors looked like. There were people without eyes, without faces, with legs and without arms.

Now, going into detail about the rights and wrongs of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is beyond the scope of this episode. But in brief, apologists for what happened nowadays typically say that while it might have been sad, it was better than the alternative, which was a US land invasion of Japan, which would have cost more lives. This is completely false, however, as the positing of the bombing as an alternative to land invasion was only come up with in 1947, well after the war ended. At the time, numerous senior US military and government officials admitted that the bombing served no practical purpose in the war effort. For example, Admiral William D. Leahy, Former Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said: “It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender. My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was taught not to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”

We will put more reading on this point in the sources on the webpage for this episode. Anyway, reading Hershey’s book really made Howard reconsider what he had been part of.

Howard: The reality of bombing suddenly came home to me and I was horrified because I had been bombing. I had never seen anybody down below. I didn’t know what was happening to people under my bombs because you fly from 30,000 ft high and you don’t see any human beings. It’s a mechanical distant operation which is what so much of modern warfare is like: people are killing at a distance; people are killing non-human objects. So I began to think about that and then I began to think about Dresden and the bombing we had done in Europe. It wasn’t actually until years later that I learned about the bombing of Tokyo. I think, to this day, most Americans do not know that several months before Hiroshima, we fire-bombed Tokyo and killed 100,000 people in one night. All of these experiences made me reconsider the idea of a ‘good war’. Is there such a thing as a good war? If World War 2, which was the best of wars or the most clear-cut moral war, needed to be examined, then surely all the other wars did. That experience turned me against war. Period.

Indeed, you can see what Howard’s view ultimately was of World War II in A People’s History of the United States. And while some of the crimes of the Nazis were unique to them, particularly the industrialised and systematic genocide of Jewish, Roma, Sinti, and disabled people and so on, which we discuss in our episodes 35-37, these crimes had nothing to do with Allied participation in the war. And, as Howard references, the Allies were hardly the beacons of racial equality and democracy which is often pretended today. For example, the British Empire was responsible for the deaths of millions of people in the Bengal famine during the war, and not long afterwards, Britain was happy to heard hundreds of thousands of people into concentration camps in its colonies in Kenya and Malaysia. Belgium killed half the population of the Congo, France brutalised the population of Algeria, the list goes on and on.

After the war, Howard had to return to normal life.

Howard: After I came back from the Air Force, my wife and I lived in a little rat-infested apartment in Brooklyn. I hope people in Brooklyn won’t take offence [laughter] but there are rat-infested apartments in every big city. This happened to be in Brooklyn [laughter]. It’s interesting how you leave the military and you go back to your life before. If your life before was in the working-class, even if you’ve been in the military and you’ve been an officer, worn good uniforms, eaten good food – yeah, as they say, you’re an officer and a gentleman – the war ends and you’re back in the working class and working at odd jobs which is what I was doing. I went back to the Navy Yard for a while but didn’t like it. I worked as a ditch-digger, I worked as a waiter and I worked as this and worked at that. That was my life. I went back to my working-class life. I decided to go to college under the GI Bill. I went to college in the daytime and worked a 4 to 12 shift in a warehouse loading trucks. While the GI Bill was wonderful and generous, you might say, it still wasn’t enough to keep you alive and so I had to work and my wife had to work because we had two little kids and they were in a nursery. I went to Colombia Graduate School and got a PhD at Colombia and then had my first teaching job which was at Spelman College in Atlanta. The next seven years were in the South, living in the Black community of Atlanta from 1956 to 1963.

Spelman College was a historically Black women’s college, and Howard was recruited as chair of the history department. At that time, civil rights struggles were raging, which would have a profound influence on Howard.

Howard: I was just looking for a job. I wasn’t looking to teach in a Black college. I was just looking for a job and this job came along.We packed up our old Chevy and went down. That was probably the most educational experience of my life, being in the South in those particular years. We went down in ’56 which was the year after the Montgomery bus boycott and we stayed until ’63.

The Montgomery bus boycott was a really pivotal direct action campaign, which began after the refusal of various Black activists like Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks to vacate seats on segregated buses to white passengers. After 13 months it resulted in the desegregation of public transport in the city in Alabama.

Howard: I could see the development of the movement and became involved with my students. Even before the sit-ins, students were making little forays into Atlanta against symbols of racial segregation and it was instructive at showing actually that you could win little victories if you stuck at it. My students decided they wanted to desegregate the Atlanta Public Library. Libraries were segregated like schools were segregated and the main library in Atlanta, called the Carnegie Library, was only for whites. They decided they were going to try to get in [laughter]. They would go to the library, ask for books and say, ‘We don’t have these books in the Black library. We’d like John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. [Laughter] We’d like John Stewart Mill’s On Liberty.’ The librarians were getting more and more embarrassed. Librarians are sensitive people [laughter] and so that’s why they become librarians. Librarians are not going to get angry and say, ‘Get out of here!’ They’ll find all sorts of excuses. This campaign went on and on and finally, they broke down and they desegregated the library which was an amazing victory that just a handful of students had succeeded in doing. That was a lesson.

With his students setting an example, Howard soon got involved in organising himself.

Howard: I became involved with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) which was formed in 1960. The sit-ins had taken place which had started in February in Greensboro, North Carolina and the sit-ins spread to other cities in the South. They spread to Atlanta the next month. My Spelman College students were very polite and very controlled. Spelman College was like a nunnery. Students had to go to compulsory chapel six mornings a week. They couldn’t double-date [laughter]. It was a very controlled place. The idea was to take these young Black girls from the South and move them into the middle class by teaching them manners like a finishing school; teaching them how to pour tea and wear white gloves. Really! Amazing. What happened is when they got involved in the movement, they broke out of Spelman College and went into the city where they’d never really gone. The city was a forbidding place and Atlanta was as tightly segregated as Johannesburg, South Africa but they went into the city, sat in and they got arrested. When they came back to the campus, they were on fire. They rebelled against the administration and against the rules and regulations. It was fascinating to see the change from passivity, courtesy, and deportment to rebellion and anger. So I became involved with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee which had formed out of the various sit-ins that had taken place throughout the South. SNCC asked me to be on their executive board along with one other person they considered an adult. We were the two adult advisors; I and a woman named Ella Baker, a Black woman. She was a remarkable woman with a history of organising in Harlem with the NAACP. She was very wise. I became a kind of writer and participant in the movement, doing both at the same time. I went round from Atlanta, Georgia to Albany, Georgia where demonstrations were taking place to Selma, Alabama and various towns in Mississippi, like Hattiesburg, Greenville, Greenwood and Jackson. I was writing about this and participating in it and, as I said, it was an educational experience for me.

Howard quite casually name drops Ella Baker here. I’m sure many of our listeners will be aware of her, but she was a legendary civil rights activist. Born in 1903, her grandmother had been enslaved, and she went on to play key roles in the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), Martin Luther King Jr’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the SNCC. The SNCC archive website explains that: “There would not have been a SNCC without Ella Baker.” And explains that she had organised the founding conference of the group. Baker was a firm believer in participatory democracy and rank-and-file control of struggle, saying that ‘strong people don’t need strong leaders’, which sometimes led her into conflict with male leaders in the civil rights movement. She remained active until her death in 1986.

Going back to Howard Zinn, in 1963, he was fired by the college for “insubordination”, although he said that in the academic world, you don’t say “fired”.

Howard: We actually rarely say ‘dismissed’ [laughter]. What do we say? We say, ‘His contract was not renewed.’ [Laughter]. Yes, I was fired. Let’s put it bluntly.

People often think that it’s impossible to fire tenured professors. But in reality this is not the case.

Howard: I was chair of the department. When you ask, ‘How is that possible when you had tenure?’ it’s like asking, ‘How could a policeman hit you with a club when we have a constitution?’ [Laughter]. The law is one thing; power is another thing. When I began teaching at Boston University, I taught a course called Law and Justice in America and that was the theme of the course. ‘This is law and this is justice. This is the law and this is power.’ It’s a very important thing to learn. Yeah, I was fired despite the fact that I had tenure, I was chair of the department and I was a full professor. I was fired but they didn’t send me my letter until June because they wanted to wait until all the students were off the campus, everything was quiet and that’s when the axe came down. My family and I picked up our belongings and went North. There was a sort of consolation prize that went along with the letters telling me goodbye. They said, ‘We’ll give you one year’s salary of $7,000.’ So we could live for the next year on $7,000 which we did actually and moved up to Boston, had a year in which I did some writing and kept going back to the South and so on.

In his enforced sabbatical, Howard began to also get involved in organising against the Vietnam war. We talk a lot more about this movement in our episodes 43-46, and about its origins in the civil rights movement.

Howard: Well, we got involved in the war. Well, it seemed natural and I was coming up North in ’63 and ’64. There was the Gulf of Tonkin incident which was the precipitating incident that brought the escalation of the war. As I said, I was still going down and my wife and I spent the summer of ’64 in Mississippi. Freedom Summer was where people came from all over the country to work on the right to vote for Black people, set up ‘Freedom Schools’ for kids and did all sorts of things. That was the summer in which that infamous incident took place with the murder of three civil rights workers; one Black, two whites called Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman. That took place in June or at least they disappeared in June but their bodies weren’t found until late July or the beginning of August. At the beginning of August, we had a memorial ceremony for them in Philadelphia, Mississippi which is where they had been arrested and from which they were dragged out and executed. People in the civil rights movement came from various parts of Mississippi to this memorial meeting that was held out of doors. It was actually a beautiful day and Mrs Chaney, the mother of James Chaney, was there and Bob Moses, who was a sort of fabled SNCC organiser in Mississippi. They were quiet but very courageous. He got up on the platform at the memorial meeting and he held up a newspaper. It was that morning’s Jackson, Mississippi newspaper and the headline said ‘LBJ Says Shoot to Kill in the Gulf of Tonkin.’ He said, ‘So we’re ready to shoot to kill in the Gulf of Tonkin half a world away and the Federal Government will not send anybody down here to Mississippi to protect civil rights workers, three of whom have just been killed.’ It was a very dramatic moment. You might say it was the beginning, in a certain sense, of the anti-war movement or a convergence of the two movements. In fact, the anti-war movement drew a lot from the civil rights movement. It drew a lot of the spirit and feeling, and hostility to the national government and people who were in the civil rights movement became involved in the anti-war movement. I was there that day and I became involved in what became a slowly growing movement against the war. In the spring of ’65, which is a moment of important escalation in the war, we had a rally on the Boston Common against the war. I spoke and Herbert Marcuse, a political philosopher, and there were 100 people [laughter]. It wasn’t a very big turnout. I tell people about that when they complain and say, ‘Oh man, we’re not having a big demonstration. Look how many people showed up.’ People get disconsolate. Yeah, there were 100 people but then it grew, and grew, and grew. Three and a half years later, there was another meeting at Boston Common and 100,000 people were there.

So I became involved when I was teaching at Boston University where I was offered a job when I came that year that I was living luxuriously on our $7,000. I was invited to teach at Boston University. I was teaching at Boston University and at the same time, very active in the anti-war movement and, therefore, it wasn’t easy for me to get tenure at Boston University because of that. It was a very tricky thing but ultimately, I did. That’s a story in itself but I won’t go into it [laughter]. It’s one of those academic stories. You know how boring academic stories are [laughter].

[Outro music]

That brings us to the end of part one of this double podcast episode about the life and work of Howard Zinn. Our patreon supporters can listen to part two now. For everyone else it will be out in the next couple of weeks.

We are only able to make this podcast because of support from you, our listeners on patreon. So if you can, please consider joining us for as little as two dollars a month at Supporters get great benefits like exclusive early access to episodes, as well as exclusive bonus episodes, free and discounted books and merch, and more.

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This podcast is part of a number of events for Howard Zinn’s centenary. Links to more of them in the show notes. You can get hold of Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States, and all the books in Beacon Press’s People’s History of the US series, on the link in the show notes.

If you’re enjoying this interview you can also watch the full thing on video on the DVD available from PM Press, link in the show notes. As a listener to the podcast you can get 10% off the cost of them or anything else in our store using the discount code WCHPODCAST.

As always, we’ve got sources, links to more info, transcripts, and more on the webpage for this episode, link in the show notes.

Thanks again to our patreon supporters for making this podcast possible. Special thanks to Stone Lawson.

Our theme tune is Bella Ciao, thanks for permission to use it from Dischi del Sole. You can buy it or stream it on the links in the show notes.

This episode was edited by Jesse French.

Thanks to all of you for listening. Catch you next time.

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