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
- Part 2: The Vietnam war, writing A People’s History, Marxism and anarchism, revolution and how to change the world
- Theory and Practice: Conversations with Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn (DVD)
- Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States
- Beacon Press People’s History of the US book series
- Michael Powell, “Howard Zinn, Historian, Is Dead at 87,” New York Times, January 28, 2010, https://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/29/us/29zinn.html.
- “A People’s History of the United States: 1492 – Present,” Zinn Education Project, accessed June 21, 2022, https://www.zinnedproject.org/materials/peoples-history-of-the-united-states.
- “Biography,” Howard Zinn.org, accessed June 21, 2022, http://www.howardzinn.org/about/biography/.
- John Simkin, “Arthur Koestler,” Spartacus Educational, accessed June 21, 2022, https://spartacus-educational.com/SPkoestler.htm.
- Gar Alperovitz, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb (Vintage, 1996).
- “1945: US responses to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” libcom.org, December 24, 2007, accessed June 21, 2022, https://libcom.org/article/1945-us-responses-atomic-bombing-hiroshima-and-nagasaki.
- Henry Lewis Stimson, “The decision to use the atomic bomb,” Harper’s Magazine (February 1947), accessed June 21, 2022, https://harpers.org/archive/1947/02/the-decision-to-use-the-atomic-bomb/.
- “Dropping the Bomb: Hiroshima & Nagasaki,” Shaun YouTube, December 11, 2020, accessed June 21, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RCRTgtpC-Go.
- “Ella Baker,” SNCC Digital, accessed June 27, 2022, https://snccdigital.org/people/ella-baker/.
- “Who Was Ella Baker?” Ella Baker for Human Rights, accessed June 27, 2022, https://ellabakercenter.org/who-was-ella-baker/.
- Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003)
- Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (Verso, 2012).
- Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon,” 1852, accessed June 22, 2022, https://libcom.org/article/eighteenth-brumaire-louis-napoleon.
- “Left-Wing History, Fake Radical History, and Antislavery — Matt Karp,” Jacobin YouTube, April 26, 2021, accessed June 28, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gpf_geWvxCQ.
- 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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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.
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 patreon.com/workingclasshistory, 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].
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.
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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.
Hi and welcome back to part 2 of our double podcast episode about the life and work of Howard Zinn. If you haven’t listened to part one yet, I’d go back and listen to that first.
Where we left off last time, Howard Zinn had got a new job at Boston University, and had begun getting actively involved in the movement against the Vietnam war.
Howard: I did a lot of speaking and writing. I wrote an article for The Nation called Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal and Beacon Press, which had published my book on SNCC, suggested I write a book by that name. A fair amount had been written about the Vietnam War by 1967 but no book called for immediate withdrawal from Vietnam. That was considered too radical. People said, ‘We can’t withdraw precipitously.’ I love that word ‘precipitously’. Even after you’ve been at war for seven years, if you’re going to leave, they say, ‘Oh, we mustn’t be precipitous.’ [Laughter]. That’s what they say now about the war in Iraq. We’ve been there six years and they say, ‘We mustn’t be precipitous.’ We’ve been in Afghanistan for eight or nine years. So I wrote this book, Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal. Just before writing the book, I’d been to Japan as I’d been invited by a Japanese anti-war group called Beheiren. I was invited to do a lecture tour of Japan about the war and representing the anti-war movement in the United States. They invited me and they invited a young Black guy named Ralph Featherstone who I had worked with in SNCC in the South. The two of us did this lecture tour of 13 Japanese cities in 13 days [laughter] from Hokkaido in the North down to Okinawa in the South. We went all the way through Japan and every night, a different city. That was a great experience. The Japanese were far more against the Vietnam War than the United States. It’s interesting when you think of it. Is communism in Vietnam a threat? Well, Japan is much closer [laughter]. If anybody might be threatened, it’s Japan but the Japanese didn’t see communism as a threat and they saw the war for what it was; an attempt to extend American power in Asia.
So I had been to Japan and I wrote this book, Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal which immediately went into seven printings, was distributed at anti-war rallies and was taken up and got a fair amount of publicity. The last chapter of the book was a speech I wrote for Lyndon Johnson. Of course, he didn’t ask for it [laughter] but that wasn’t going to stop me. I thought, ‘I’m going to write a speech for him.’ The idea of the speech was because everybody was saying, ‘Well, we shouldn’t be in Vietnam but how can we get out?’ It’s just what you hear now about Iraq and Afghanistan. ‘We shouldn’t be there but surely we can’t just leave.’ It’s as if somebody had broken into your house [laughter] and you said, ‘Get out!’ and they said, ‘I can’t just leave.’ [Laughter]. So I wrote this speech for Lyndon Johnson in which he explains to the American people why he is ordering our troops to leave… very convincingly. He convinced me [laughter] but apparently, he convinced other people and they reprinted this speech in newspapers. There was a businessman in Ohio who distributed copies of my book to every member of Congress, the President and Vice President but, of course, it didn’t stop the war.
So I was writing and speaking and that’s what my life consisted of and in early 1968, the North Vietnamese invited what they described as ‘a responsible member of the American peace movement’ to come to Hanoi and to pick up three American prisoners of war who were fliers. They would be the first ones released by the North Vietnamese. It was January of ’68 and it was a time of the Tet holiday and also the time of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. In honour of the holiday, they wanted to make a goodwill gesture and they said they would release three prisoners if some responsible member of the American peace movement would come. I was considered a responsible member of the American peace movement and Daniel Berrigan also, so two responsible members – that’s better. I had never met Dan Berrigan but I met him on the morning that we were going to take a flight to Hanoi together. I met him in an apartment in Greenwich Village where we’d been briefed by David Dellinger and Tom Hayden, both of whom had been to North Vietnam. So Dan Berrigan and I flew halfway around the world to Hanoi, stopping at six different cities on the way. We spent the weekend in Laos because the plane that was supposed to take us from Vientiane in Laos to Hanoi had not arrived. It was supposed to take off from Saigon. There was a certain special plane which was an ICC (International Control Commission) plane set up by Geneva Accords and that plane flew six times a month to Hanoi. That was a regular schedule of six times a month. It was dangerous to fly to Hanoi. It flew from Saigon to Phnom Penh in Cambodia, to Vientiane in Laos and to Hanoi. We didn’t arrive when we were supposed to arrive in Vientiane where we were going to take it to Hanoi. It didn’t arrive because the Tet Offensive had held it up in Saigon. The Viet Cong had taken over Tan Son Nhat airport in Saigon. Finally, the plane arrived after an interesting week in Vientiane where Dan Berrigan and I got to be real friends and got to really know one another. We then flew to Hanoi, picked up the three prisoners and brought them back to Vientiane. After that, Dan Berrigan became very involved in the anti-war movement with the Catonsville Nine and all sorts of actions of civil disobedience. I continued to be involved in the movement.
Together with Noam Chomsky, who we speak with in our podcast episode 12 about the geopolitics of the Vietnam war, Howard also played a role in an important episode in resistance to the war: the release of the Pentagon papers, by Daniel Ellsberg, an analyst at the US military-linked RAND Corporation.
Howard: Well, I’d like to exaggerate my role, of course, [laughter] but I’ll try to tell the truth. I got to know Dan Ellsberg when he left the RAND Corporation, left the government and had some sort of fellowship at MIT. I suppose this was around 1969/70 and I met him at one of these anti-war rallies and we hit it off and became friends with him and his wife, Pat. I and my wife began going out places together and one time, we were visiting him at his apartment in Cambridge near Harvard Square. I don’t know if you know this area. We visited them in their apartment and Dan said, ‘I’d like to show you something.’ [Laughter]. He had a sense of drama. Dan Ellsberg is a very dramatic guy. Actually, he does dramatic things which hardly require over-dramatising but that’s not going to stop him. He will dramatise the already dramatic [laughter]. Dan said, ‘The RAND Corporation ordered a secret history to be put together of the Vietnam War for the Defence Department. I and my friend, Tony Russo, who also worked for the RAND Corporation decided we would photocopy 7,000 pages and make it public.’ He brought out a bunch of papers and said, ‘Would you like to have some?’ Like, ‘Would you like to have a drink?’ – a polite thing to do. I said, ‘Yeah.’ Anyway, I took charge of some of these papers and shortly after that in early ’71, Dan Ellsberg, his wife Pat and Ros and I were going out to a movie together. We were going to see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid [laughter] which I think Dan Ellsberg had seen six times [laughter]. When they came over to pick us up at our little apartment in Newton, Dan Ellsberg was very obviously agitated and I said, ‘What’s the matter?’ He said, ‘I gave copies of the Pentagon Papers to all these newspapers like The Times and The Post and none of them has done anything with it but tomorrow morning, The Times is going to print a bunch of the papers.’ I said, ‘Why are you upset?’ He said, ‘Because they didn’t tell me.’ [Laughter]. This was a Saturday night and that Sunday, the next day, The Times had a big headline and, of course, the government began looking frantically for the person who had released these papers and for a while, it wasn’t known. Somebody then exposed the fact it was Dan Ellsberg and they began looking for him. He went underground and in the meantime, while he was underground, some of us were distributing his papers to other newspapers and I played a part in distributing other copies of the papers to The Boston Globe which then printed it. At a certain point, he decided to surrender to the FBI, you might say, with a little party [laughter] in front of the Federal Building in Boston where he and Pat showed up and the FBI was there. They were a little embarrassed because they hadn’t known where he was. He was arrested and then he was put on trial in Los Angeles. I was asked to be a witness in the trial because one of the things that had to be done in the trial was to explain to the jury what was in the Pentagon Papers because the jury was being told by the government that to release these documents was dangerous to the security of the United States. That was the basis for the indictment and he was indicted on 13 different counts for ten years each, so 130 years in jail [laughter]. His friend, Tony Russo, who had helped him was also indicted. They had his trial out in Los Angeles in 1973 and I went out to LA to testify in the trial. My job was to tell the jury what was in the Pentagon Papers. I actually had an opportunity to give a four-hour lecture to the jury on the history of the Vietnam War and to explain to them how releasing this was not dangerous to the national security. It was just embarrassing to the US Government and that’s why they didn’t want it released. I told them what was in it because the jury did not have the papers in front of them. The papers had to be introduced as exhibits and so I had the job of telling them. I said, ‘This is what’s in the papers. This tells you that the United States created the government of South Vietnam which we claimed we were coming in to help. No, we brought Mr Diem, the head of the South Vietnamese government, from New Jersey to Vietnam, set him up and gave him something to drink.
The trial took place and it was interesting that the government put on witnesses to say, ‘This is a danger.’ In the midst of the trial, the scandal broke around the Nixon administration and the Watergate scandal. It turned out that Nixon had ordered his team of official thugs to break into the office of Dan Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. Nixon wanted to get something to show he was a nut and if somebody has visited a psychiatrist, he must be a nut; not like Nixon [laughter]. There was the news of the break-in and the judge in the trial said, ‘No, we can’t let the trial go on. It’s tainted by what the government has done.’ That was the end of the trial. Since then, Dan Ellsberg has been very, very active in the movement against nuclear weapons and has been arrested many times.
Participating in these movements inspired Howard to start thinking about how to record and write about that sort of history, of mass social movements from below.
Howard: I was really influenced by my experience of the South especially and then my experience in the anti-war movement, both experiences having persuaded me that the histories of our country were inadequate. They left out the people who made history like the working people, the Black people, the Native Americans and women. For instance, talking about the influence of my experience in the South and getting me to write the book, when I was in Selma, Alabama, I contacted Columbia University which was where I’d done my PhD. I knew they had an oral history project and I also knew what their oral history project was. It wasn’t a historical project. It was a project where they interviewed famous people like ex-Secretaries of State, ex-generals, etc, and recorded their interviews. I wrote to them and I said, ‘You’re an oral history project. There is real history going on down here with interesting people to talk to and not ex-generals and not ex-Secretaries of State. They’re just people involved in very important and dramatic movements. Why don’t you send somebody down here with a tape recorder?’ I got a letter back from Columbia University which said, ‘That’s a very good idea.’ [Laughter]. When somebody starts off with ‘that’s a very good idea,’ you know they’re not going to do anything [laughter]. ‘That’s a very good idea but we don’t have the resources to do that.’ Columbia University doesn’t have the resources. It’s like the United States government. It doesn’t have the resources to build another school [laughter]. They don’t have the resources. Anyway, I started taping interviews with people in the movement and taping the evening in Selma, Alabama. I think that helped germinate the idea in me of history from below.
This work eventually culminated in the writing and publication of the first edition of A People’s History of the United States by Beacon Press in 1980. Now some people criticised the book for failing to devote enough attention to the struggles of particular groups like Native Americans and Black people. Howard basically acknowledged this, but said it was beyond the scope of his book to devote the deserved attention to different groups, so he encouraged the writing and publication of other more specific histories. So now, Beacon has a whole range of additional related titles, including An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, A Queer History of the United States by Michael Bronski, A Black Women’s History of the United States by Daina Rami Berry and Kali Nicole Gross, An Afro-Indigenous History of the United States by Kyle T Mays and An African-American and Latinx History of the United States by Paul Ortiz.
The concept of history from below has a lot of its roots in Marxism, particularly Marx’s ideas that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”, and that people “make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.”
Howard: Well, when I was I suppose 17 or 18, maybe it was my communist friends in the neighbourhood who were always giving out literature and who gave me a copy of The Communist Manifesto. I read The Communist Manifesto and I thought, ‘Wow! That explains a lot.’ After all, The Communist Manifesto is not a scholarly complex thing. It’s relatively simple and clear. It shows you the historical development of the human race from primitive communism through feudalism and capitalism. It analyses capitalism and shows you why capitalism fails, what’s wrong with it and how it’s a historical phenomenon. It’s not a permanent fixture in our history. It came into being at a certain point and will leave at a certain point and be replaced by a different society, a socialist society. Anyway, it all made sense to me. You might say it made sense of my own life. When I got together with my other three radical shipyard workers, we met once a week and read books. We read Marx and Engels. We read all sorts of things and discussed them. Later on, I read Volume 1 of Das Kapital and I even tried to read Volume 2 and Volume 3 [laughter]. Maybe that led me to the conclusion that it’s better not to write long, complex and difficult things but to write things that people can understand. I don’t know if you know my play but there’s a sort of exchange between Marx and his wife, Jenny.
This is his play, Marx in Soho.
Howard: She sort of shakes her head about Das Kapital. She reads the first sentence of Das Kapital which is so forbidding and says ‘the history of all society is the history of commodities…’ She said, ‘No, that won’t do. You have to write it like The Communist Manifesto.’ No, I was very interested in Marxist theory when I was teaching. I was teaching political theory and I taught Marxism. Soon, I was teaching a seminar in Marxism and anarchism and comparing their ideas. I guess that interest in Marxism led me to write this play.
Howard also wrote a play about famous Lithuanian-born Jewish anarchist Emma Goldman, reflecting his interest in anarchism as well as Marxism.
Howard: I don’t think I’ve ever specifically identified myself as an anarchist. Maybe I don’t specifically identify myself as anything because I’m cautious about labelling myself when people don’t know what the label means. The word anarchist suggests so many different things and so I don’t want people to get the wrong impression. I don’t want them to think I’m a bomb-thrower. I’m a peaceful person [laughter]. Of all the political philosophies that there are, probably anarchism comes closest to my way of thinking. If I try to think of when I became interested in it, it was even before I began specifically reading anarchist ideas and even before I read Emma Goldman’s autobiography. For one thing, I was disaffected from the Soviet Union and from that idea of socialism and, therefore, I was open to the idea that all governments are dangerous to human freedom and that we needed a society that’s free of authority. My specific introduction to anarchism came in the ‘60s when I actually encountered a fellow historian named Richard Drinnon who had written a biography of Emma Goldman. I didn’t know that but when two academics get together, they say, ‘Oh, what have you written?’ [Laughter]. ‘Oh, I just wrote this biography of Emma Goldman.’ I had actually had read a little about Emma Goldman and I knew vaguely that she was an anarchist. I decided I would read his book, Rebel in Paradise: A Biography of Emma Goldman. It’s a wonderful book about Emma Goldman and it excited me. I then went on to read her autobiography, Living My Life which is one of the great autobiographies and which later I would always recommend to my students. I read Bakunin and Kropotkin and so I was more and more attracted to anarchism because it was anti-authoritarian.
Here, Howard is referring to pioneering Russian anarchists Mikhail Bakunin and Pyotr Kropotkin.
Howard: Talking about labelling yourself and/or describing what you believe in, as I say, I’ve always had trouble saying, ‘I’m a socialist,’ or ‘I’m a Marxist.’ I will say, ‘I believe in socialism so long as I can explain what I mean. I’m a Marxist so long as I can explain what I mean.’ Sometimes, I will say a three-word description of how I feel. I got this from Dalton Trumbo, the Hollywood writer who was blacklisted and wrote one of my favourite books, Johnny Got His Gun, which is a great anti-war novel. Dalton Trumbo was once asked, ‘Are you a communist? What do you believe in? How do you describe yourself?’ He said, ‘What I believe in is socialism without jails.’ Three words. I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s good.’ So I wrote a play about Emma Goldman and the play was the longest-running play in Boston in 1977. What’s interesting to me is that anarchism is presumably a political philosophy held by very few people and anarchists are on the fringes of society but if you present anarchist ideas or present them through a fascinating character like Emma Goldman, people are all for it and they’re interested.
Now lots of people, and especially lots of Marxist and anarchists (!), think of their two philosophies as being diametrically opposed. But for Howard (and us), they can be complementary.
Howard: Take the analysis of Marxism and capitalism, his call to action, his call for philosophers to change the world and not simply record it and take the anarchist idea of being suspicious of authority and centralised power, I think that blending of Marxist and anarchist ideas is something that is a good idea.
To give a historical example of this, the Paris Commune uprising of 1871 had participants who were socialists and anarchists. And the bodies which were established by the working class during the rebellion to govern society were the inspiration for how a free society could be run, both for Marxists and anarchists.
Howard: The Paris Commune was a situation that was taking advantage of the fact that France and Germany were at war. It was an opportunity for workers to seize the City of Paris, to take charge of the city and to set up a commune. They were called The Communards and they created a cooperative egalitarian society in Paris where people traded things and where there was no crime really. People had nothing to be criminal about [laughter]. It was where decisions were made by clusters of people gathering in the streets and then passing on their ideas to the leaders of the commune but the leaders of the commune were people who didn’t get a salary that was greater than an ordinary worker’s salary. They created schools for women and there was no such thing as education for women at that time. They had free admission to the theatre. They made things available to everybody on an egalitarian basis and they made decisions based on people getting together and talking and discussing. It was an admirable society while it lasted and then it was crushed but there have been other instances like that in history which are models in the sense that they give us at least a glimpse of what is possible, like Barcelona in 1936. The early months of the Spanish Civil War are described by George Orwell in his book, Homage to Catalonia. Again, it’s about people sharing things and no crime. What’s interesting is in The Grapes of Wrath, which we were talking about before at the very end, Tom Joad, who certainly doesn’t know anything about political theory and never read anything about any of these things, talks about how, in the government camps that were set up to help migrant workers, people helped one another. He said, ‘There were no cops keeping order. We had better order than any cop could bring us.’ I think it’s a kind of society that people would welcome.
Listeners can learn more about the Spanish civil war, and those revolutionary early months, in our podcast episodes 39-40.
Despite being influenced by these revolutionary ideas, Howard saw revolution as more of a gradual process than a rapid overhaul of society.
Howard: No, I don’t think revolution in the old sense of seizing power of capital. No, we’ve had enough experience with that to suggest that that’s dangerous and corrupting. I think building institutions is a slower process: building free institutions within the old society and so liberating the ground one by one; liberating this institution and that institution; workers taking over industries; students taking over universities; people in neighbourhoods taking over the running of their neighbourhoods and the security of their neighbourhoods. I think it will come not through gradualism in the sense of waiting too long but working to liberate society piece by piece from within.
Recently, there has been a tendency for some on the left – particularly those in the US who want to push the Democrats in a more social democratic direction – to criticise Howard Zinn, and his school of history from below
For example, it’s been claimed that Howard was generally pessimistic about the ability of movements to win and that his view of history is just one of constant defeat.
But this couldn’t be further from the truth. To name just a few examples, in Chapter 9 of A People’s History, he talks in great detail about the role played by grassroots rebellions of enslaved people and the abolitionist movement in the overthrowing of slavery in the US. In Chapter 13 he recounts strikes like the women textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts which won pay increases. And in Chapter 17 he talks about how militant Black freedom struggles in the 1950s and 60s led to the granting of civil rights. What his critics seem more annoyed by, is not that his worldview is actually pessimistic, but that his work both focuses on grassroots struggles as being the driving force behind these changes – rather than enlightened or progressive politicians – and that his vision of change is ultimately more radical than their own. So where Howard does look at politicians or other powerful people, rather than see them as pushing forward progressive change out of the goodness of their hearts, he primarily sees progressive change as concessions they were pressured into from below and which were often compromises against more radical change based on the balance of power between social movements and the ruling class. Sometimes, the nature of these concessions as compromises against radical change was admitted explicitly: for instance, in Chapter 13, he cites the Progressive Milwaukee Journal newspaper criticising conservatives, who they claimed “[fought] socialism blindly… while the Progressives fight it intelligently and seek to remedy the abuses and conditions upon which it thrives.”
Now it does make sense for the social democratic left, who emphasise electing progressive leaders and politicians, to be unhappy with Howard’s approach and to disagree with it. But painting it as “pessimistic” is just incorrect as Howard gives multiple examples of the ability of movements to win. And in any case, history books have long been full of accounts of Great Men, politicians like Franklin Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, talking about how noble they were and all they supposedly achieved. But Howard’s people’s history is openly and honestly a very deliberate attempt to tip the scales away from this approach towards looking at mass social movements, and the role of millions of ordinary people in reshaping society for themselves.
From all of his experience in social movements, and his studies of them, Howard thinks there are important lessons we can learn about how we can make social change happen.
Howard: There are certain tactics which are the most effective at confronting power based on the idea that the people in power hold their power only because they are obeyed. When people withdraw their obedience and people withdraw their support from the institutions, the people who control these institutions become powerless. Notice with a strike, it’s a fundamental weapon because no matter how powerful the corporation, if workers go on strike, the corporation is helpless. This is what happened in the 1930s and people thought, ‘You can’t fight General Motors or Ford. They’re rich and they’re big.’ No, when workers leave the factory and it can’t function, they are helpless. It’s the same thing with consumers when consumers boycott which is a not sufficiently used weapon. It was used by Chavez on the West Coast with the boycott of grapes and it brought the very wealthy, powerful farmgrowers to have to recognise the farmworkers’ union. When Jesse Jackson threatened to call a boycott of Texaco because they had been guilty of racist practices, Texaco immediately caved in. They were worried. This is what they depend on. They depend on people buying their products. You stop buying their products, they’re scared and then when soldiers refused to fight which is what happened in the Vietnam War. They couldn’t count on the military anymore. That’s an aspect of the anti-war movement that has been underplayed but the fact is that GI resistance in the Vietnam War was crucial in making the US government decide it could not carry on the war.
The GI resistance to the Vietnam War is an extremely inspiring and important movement, which really isn’t spoken about enough. You can learn more about it in our podcasts 10-11, in conversation with anti-war veterans, as well as our episode 21-24 in conversation with an anti-war sailor who organised a mutiny.
Howard: What I’m saying is we have to think about tactics that can overcome power. You have to think about what it is that holds these people and these institutions in power and so it’s about developing these tactics, like the strike, the boycott, the refusal of soldiers in the military and the building of cooperative institutions. Yes, the building of all kinds of cooperatives: farmers’ cooperatives; consumer cooperatives; housing cooperatives. Yeah, it’s a long process but I think it can be done.
You can read about lots of examples of these type of tactics in Zinn’s work, including A People’s History of the United States, and all the books in Beacon Press’s People’s History of the US series. Links to get these from independent bookstores in the show notes. This is also something we hope to do through our work. So we post stories like this on our social media accounts every day, on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Mastodon, TikTok and so on. As soon we will be launching an interactive website with timelines and maps of all of our stories.
Well, that brings us to the end of this double podcast episode about the life and work of Howard Zinn. This podcast is part of a number of events for Howard Zinn’s centenary. Links to more of them in the show notes.
If you enjoyed this interview you can also watch the full thing on video on the DVD available from PM Press, link in the show notes.
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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.