With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Howard Zinn Briefly Recalled

Ever since Howard Zinn’s death last week, there has been an avalanche of articles, letters, editorials, op-eds, and Internet postings justifiably praising him as a courageous activist in the struggles against war, racism, and economic injustice.  However, there have also been repeated claims that he was a great historian.  But, as several historians have pointed out, (e.g. Ron Radosh, History News Network, February 1, 2010), Zinn’s legacy as a historian is very much in dispute.

Professor Zinn spoke several times at the JFK Library-University of Massachusetts-Boston annual Summer Institute for Teachers (which I co-directed).  He was always a big hit, consistently receiving the highest speaker ratings from most of the teachers. I was, however, struck by the fact that he invariably placed a folder of handwritten, yellowed, dog-eared, and clearly decades-old notes on the podium before he spoke.  Not surprisingly, he never referred to recent studies, interpretations, or evidence that might challenge his obviously long-held premises or conclusions.  His one-dimensional historical narrative, pitting the virtuous people against the greedy leaders of American business and government, seemed impervious to change.

On one occasion I spoke to him about new documents available on the website of the Cold War International History Project, especially the crucial material from the archives of the former Soviet Union.  He was courteous, if not avuncular, but did not seem particularly interested in them or knowledgeable about them.  I asked him specifically about the groundbreaking scholarship of John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr; he replied that we should be wary of any work that appears to justify the repression of the McCarthy era and prop up the “established narrative” of the Cold War.  I noted that McCarthy did not even know about the U.S. government’s “Venona” intercepts, which exposed domestic espionage by Soviet and American communists; Zinn countered incongruously that the capitalists now running Russia would go to any lengths to cozy up to the power brokers of American capitalism.

On another occasion, he lectured about pollution of the environment by American industry.  I asked him about the environmental catastrophe left by the Soviet Union in their former satellites—in Czechoslovakia, for example, most of the arable land was no longer fit for agriculture.  He smiled but made no reply.  I also asked, after he had spoken about the peoples’ struggle against the war in Vietnam, why much of organized labor had supported the war and construction workers had attacked students demonstrating against the war.  He countered that the genius of American capitalist leaders was their unfailing ability to turn the people against their own interests.

Professor Zinn was simply not going to take seriously any evidence or interpretation that might undermine his own “established narrative.”  My admittedly limited personal experience seems to confirm Michael Kazin’s conclusion that Zinn’s historical work, including the immensely popular A People’s History of the United States,is “grounded in a premise better suited to a conspiracy-monger’s Web site than to a work of scholarship.” (Dissent, Spring 2004)

Related Links