A Tribute To American People’s Historian - Howard Zinn
By Dr. Habib Siddiqui
29 January, 2010
Dr. Howard Zinn, historian, teacher and political activist, died of a heart attack on Wednesday at the age of 87. He was an early opponent of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. To him, “There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people for a purpose which is unattainable.” He also didn’t buy Bush-Cheney’s justifications to go to wars in the Muslim world. In the January 2006 issue of the Progressive magazine, he wrote, “Terrorism became the justification for war, but war is itself terrorism, breeding rage and hate, as we are seeing now.”
In the aftermath of 9/11, when the War Party was busy conniving and selling the toxic tablets of war, Dr. Zinn didn’t find anything “just” about invading Afghanistan. In a December 2001 essay he wrote, “How can a war be truly just when it involves the daily killing of civilians, when it causes hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children to leave their homes to escape the bombs, when it may not find those who planned the September 11 attacks, and when it will multiply the ranks of people who are angry enough at this country to become terrorists themselves? This war amounts to a gross violation of human rights, and it will produce the exact opposite of what is wanted: It will not end terrorism; it will proliferate terrorism.” And Dr. Zinn has been proven right.
Professor Zinn’s popular book “A People’s History of the United States” sold nearly two million copies since its publication in 1980. True to its title, the book challenged the conventional historical account about America by presenting the perspective of the slaughtered and mutilated. It exposed the genocidal devastations of Christopher Columbus, the blood lust of Theodore Roosevelt, the racial failings of Abraham Lincoln, and the revolutionary struggles of impoverished farmers, laborers and resisters of slavery and war. It was a radical book that inspired many folks around the world - young and old -- to rethink American experience in a critical way.
Looking at the growth of the anti-war and peace movements in the USA, there is no doubt that Dr. Zinn changed the conscience of America in a highly constructive way. As MIT Professor Noam Chomsky noted, “Both by his actions, and his writings for 50 years, he played a powerful role in helping and in many ways inspiring the Civil rights movement and the anti-war movement.”
In 1967 Dr. Zinn published Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal. It was the first book on the war to call for immediate withdrawal without any condition. He spoke at many rallies and teach-ins to oppose America’s war in Vietnam. He drew national attention when he and Rev. Daniel Berrigan, another leading antiwar activist, went to Hanoi in 1968 to receive three prisoners released by the North Vietnamese. In 1971 he was severely beaten by Boston Police at a protest rally against the war.
Dr. Zinn’s basic message remained that war doesn’t solve any fundamental problem, and creates insidiously a common morality for all sides: “It poisons everyone who is engaged in it, however different they are in many ways, turns them into killers and torturers, as we are seeing now. It pretends to be concerned with toppling tyrants, and may in fact do so, but the people it kills are the victims of the tyrants. It appears to cleanse the world of evil, but that does not last, because its very nature spawns more evil. Wars, like violence in general, I concluded, is a drug. It gives a quick high, the thrill of victory, but that wears off and then comes despair.”
Dr. Zinn opposed sanctions against Iraq during the Clinton era, and called for withdrawal of U.S. forces from Saudi Arabia and Israel from the Occupied Palestinian Territories. From his criticism of Israeli policies, very few people, especially in the Muslim world, would recognize that Dr. Zinn was born in New York City on Aug. 24, 1922 to a family of poor Jewish immigrants. When Professor Joel Kovel, a fellow Jew, who had taught at Bard College for 21 years, was fired prejudicially last year for his published articles [e.g., "Zionism's Bad Conscience,” “Left-Anti-Semitism and the Special Status of Israel"] and book “Overcoming Zionism” (Pluto Press, London, UK) that were critical of the state of Israel, Dr. Zinn criticized the college decision for obstructing open discussion on a controversial subject like Zionism. Dr. Zinn also criticized the decision of University of Michigan when after receiving a series of complaining and threatening emails and letters from an ultra-Zionist group called StandWithUs, it withdrew from distribution Prof. Joel Kovel’s book “Overcoming Zionism.”
Professor Zinn was against the Holocaust industry and its merchants and promoters who had selective amnesia about horrendous crimes of the rogue Zionist state against its indigenous Palestinian people and justify further Israeli expansion into Palestinian land. Many years ago, when asked by a Jewish group to give a talk on the Holocaust at the Boston University (BU) campus, Dr. Zinn spoke not about the Holocaust of World War II but about other Holocausts taking place then. In his words, “It was the mid-Eighties, and the United States government was supporting death squad governments in Central America, so I spoke of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of peasants in Guatemala and El Salvador, victims of American policy. My point was that the memory of the Jewish Holocaust should not be encircled by barbed wire, morally ghettoized, kept isolated from other genocides in history.” To him, “If the Holocaust was to have any meaning, I thought, we must transfer our anger to the brutalities of our time. We must atone for our allowing the Jewish Holocaust to happen by refusing to allow similar atrocities to take place now—yes, to use the Day of Atonement not to pray for the dead but to act for the living, to rescue those about to die.” As a true humanist, Zinn was anti-thesis of charlatans like Elie Wiesel who would not even recognize the Holocaust of millions of non-Jews during World War II on the pretext that such a labeling would, what he called, “dilute,” “falsify” or “steal” “Holocaust from us.”
During the Great Depression years Howard Zinn grew up in the slums of Brooklyn. He graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School and became a pipe fitter in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where he met his future wife, Roslyn Shechter. He joined the Army Air Corps in 1943, and married Roslyn in October 1944, while he was on his first furlough. During World War II, he served as a bombardier in a B-17 and was awarded the Air Medal, and attained the rank of second lieutenant. As is obvious from his many speeches and writings, he deeply regretted dropping bombs in Japan. In his words, “Only after the war did I begin to question the purity of the moral crusade. Dropping bombs from five miles high, I had seen no human beings, heard no screams, seen no children dismembered. But now I had to think about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the fire-bombings of Tokyo and Dresden, the deaths of 600,000 civilians in Japan, and a similar number in Germany. I came to a conclusion about the psychology of myself and other warriors: Once we decided, at the start, that our side was the good side and the other side was evil, once we had made that simple and simplistic calculation, we did not have to think anymore. Then we could commit unspeakable crimes and it was all right.”
After the war, Howard Zinn worked at a series of menial jobs until entering New York University on the GI Bill as a 27-year-old freshman. He worked nights in a warehouse loading trucks to support his studies. He received his bachelor’s degree from NYU, followed by master’s and doctoral degrees in history from Columbia University.
Before joining Boston University in 1964 as an associate professor, Dr. Zinn was an instructor at Upsala College, a lecturer at Brooklyn College and chairman of the history department at Spellman College (a historically black women’s college) in Atlanta. He was named full professor at BU two years later in 1966. He retired in 1988, concluding his last class early so that he could join a picket line. He invited his students to join him; nearly a quarter of students did.
Howard Zinn considered war as the enemy of the human race and did everything possible as an educator and activist to oppose it. He said, “The abolition of war has become not only desirable but absolutely necessary if the planet is to be saved. It is an idea whose time has come.” Will our generation ever come together to save our planet to abolish this curse of war or will it let the military industrial complex to drag us to future wars that will be more atrocious and devastating than anything we have witnessed before?
With the death of Dr. Zinn there is no doubt that the anti-war and peace movement in the USA has lost one of its best activists and an honest historian that the public trusted.