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Two Cheers for Howard Zinn

The passing last October of the 98-year-old Gough Whitlam—Australia’s Prime Minister from 1972 to 1975—provoked a renewed realization that not so long ago numerous prominent socialists existed who, whatever the faults of their programs, had done honorable service in the Second World War. However dire various aspects of Whitlam’s administrative behavior, one merit of his cannot be gainsaid: in 1942, after three years in the national army reserve, Whitlam became navigator for the Royal Australian Air Force’s No. 13 Squadron. Though this gave him a much higher life expectancy than was enjoyed by the average Bomber Command pilot in the European theater, it remained a dangerous, nerve-tearing job, one he could easily have avoided through familial prosperity and successive undergraduate deferments. He chose, instead, to take it on. There are worse epitaphs for high achievers than that.

It is curious to think that at the very time of Whitlam’s combat duty, a leftist with still graver impairments of political vision could be found as bombardier for Uncle Sam’s Eighth Air Force, flying at great personal risk over Hungarian, Czech, and French as well as German soil. According to his New York Times obit of January 28, 2010, the leftist concerned got home, “deposited his medals in an envelope and wrote: ‘Never again’.” No less a hater of canting sentimentalism than Orwell once admitted that a homicidal combatant preaching peace always “makes an impressive figure, like a reformed burglar at a Salvation Army meeting.” The name of this particular ex-combatant became known to multitudes who never suspected what his wartime experiences had involved. His name was Howard Zinn.

When I stumbled upon Zinn’s existence, I had no great desire to salute him and several solid excuses for shunning him. No one ever obliged to plow through the bureaucratic verbiage of British Marxists like Christopher Hill, who not only thought like Stalin but wrote like Brezhnev, and Czech Marxists like J.V. Polisensky—are even Laotians still compelled to read him these days?—would lightly seek more such cruel and unusual punishment. Eric Hobsbawm, operating at a higher literary level than those apparatchiks, spent so many decades as an unrepentant Stalinist that one soon ceased to trust even his page numbers. More odious still was Hobsbawm’s sheer spinsterish euphemism. Falstaff’s rollicking deceits have for centuries furnished good clean farce, but anyone who, like Hobsbawm, can solemnly refer to “temporary episodes such as 1939-41”—meaning, ahem, the Nazi-Soviet Pact—would try even Polonius’s patience.

Zinn’s output, I assumed, might be no worse than Polisensky’s or Hobsbawm’s but was unlikely to be better. Yet Zinn had produced at least one million-selling book. Though a million-selling book might be as pernicious as Fifty Shades of Grey, it can hardly fail to provoke interest, if only pathological. So I sought out A People’s History of the United States, hoping for the best, fully expecting the worst.

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Perhaps an Australian such as myself may, by his ex officio postcolonial baggage, supply a fresh view of Zinn’s work. Among the Cold War’s most comprehensively forgotten truths is the Americanization that even Australia’s infantile leftists—as well as, no doubt, Canada’s and New Zealand’s—usually underwent. However many American flags they burned, however many visiting Lyndon Johnsons and Hubert Humphreys they booed, they never in their bones regarded America as their chief cultural enemy because that role was supplied by Britain. For them, any stick to beat the British—even a stick manufactured in Foggy Bottom, or, preferably, by Sinn Fein—would do. Therefore, those Australian adolescents who were taught American history imbibed it in so banal a form that to call the outcome Whiggish would insult Macaulay. Deep down, it was Beltway-Hollywood Ataturkism. At least with Zinn, I told myself, we could be spared that.

Whether we would be spared much else, I could not at first determine. Any lawyer can appreciate the desirability of hearing the case for the prosecution before hearing the case for the defense. And with Zinn, the case for the prosecution can be mounted without undue trouble. There are, for one thing, the problems from which almost every book released in 1980 suffered concerning Cold War archives. (That 1980 edition had a print run of just 5,000. Few, least of all Zinn, imagined it would become a favorite. One copy made its way to the library of Monash University in Melbourne, but I have not a clue what befell the other 4,999.) Post-Venona, any belief in the Rosenbergs’ and Alger Hiss’s innocence of deliberate pro-communist treason belongs in la-la land. Interestingly, A People’s History, for all its strenuous attempts to extenuate the most celebrated power couple ever to occupy the electric chair, avoids doing the same for Hiss.

Then we are faced with Zinn’s moralizing. Expecting Zinn to sprout adequate nuance is like expecting the Venus de Milo to sprout adequate arms. Near the start of A People’s History Zinn says: “I will try not to overlook the cruelties that victims inflict on one another … . I don’t want to romanticize them.” But romanticizing them is what he often ends up doing. Princeton’s Sean Wilentz rebuked Zinn thus: “his view of history is topsy-turvy, turning old villains into heroes, and after a while the glow gets unreal.” Now and then A People’s History resembles a first draft of Dave Barry Slept Here, with that masterpiece’s clockwork invocations of the “many women and minorities [who] were also making important contributions.” When Zinn announces that “I prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish,” cynics might well find themselves remembering General Patton’s solemn and likewise unfalsifiable belief that in previous lives he had himself fought for both Hannibal and Napoleon.

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So much for the faults of Zinn’s first chapters and his last. Between the prelude and the postlude falls… the shadow. As for what Zinn sometimes attains in that shadow which might interest readers of this magazine, it is worth casting one’s mind back to the year when that small, 5,000-copy print run rolled off the presses.

In 1980 Carter’s presidency had become not so much lame duck as dying duck. The USSR, posing as liberator of Afghanistan, looked so utterly invulnerable that when Encounter started publishing essays of the “Will the Soviet Union survive until 1984?” type, numerous subscribers feared for editor Melvin Lasky’s mental health. And when Norman Podhoretz told Gore Vidal, “To me the Civil War is as remote and as irrelevant as the War of the Roses,” he just expressed, in unusually coherent form, the default approach of 1980s mainstream right, whether American or Australian. Ideologues and honest citizens alike had arrived at Henry Ford’s conclusion: where America was concerned, “History is more or less bunk.” marapr-issuethumb [1]

Then Zinn came along. It was thanks to A People’s History, and to that alone, that hundreds of thousands if not millions of young people made their first acquaintance with a) the extent of black participation on the Loyalist side in the Revolutionary War, b) the sheer personal wealth of Washington himself, c) Shays’ Rebellion, d) the scale of cross-party opposition to the Mexican War, e) the Emancipation Proclamation’s inapplicability to slaveholding behind Union lines, f) New York City’s draft riots, g) Colorado’s Ludlow Massacre of 1914.

Now, it is perfectly true that every individual reading these words in 2015 will have known about those phenomena for ages, Zinn or no Zinn. (The first was pretty much summed up in Dr. Johnson’s renowned plaint, which A People’s History nowhere cites: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?”) There could already be found in 1980 large academic bibliographies on all of these subjects. Richard Hofstadter, long before his death in 1970, had popularized several of them. At a lower level, the Encyclopedia Britannica could have disgorged substantial data on most of them. But Zinn was actually getting the kids interested in them.

Before reading Zinn, I, for one, had been absolutely unaware of the gun-ownership enthusiasm to be found among certain NAACP leaders. Amazingly enough, during 1957, whiffs of black-fired grapeshot in North Carolina proved most effective at dispersing Klan thugs. (After 9/11, Condoleezza Rice tried explaining similar anti-Klan strategies, from her own Deep Southern childhood, to the man whom she politely addressed as “Mr. Prime Minister,” Australia’s center-right John Howard, then still flush with his own gun-stealing enthusiasm. Of course her attempt failed.) To examine Zinn in his unconsciously libertarian-populist moments is to be reminded of the late 16th-century Jesuit mission’s much-quoted verdict on Hideyoshi, the Japanese tyrant: “This man seems to have been chosen by God to prepare the way for [us], without understanding what he is doing.”

A crucial factor in the acclaim Zinn enjoyed was the simple truth that he, unlike Hill and Polisensky, could write. (He could also orate, as YouTube video footage of him shows.) For all his sub-Manichean simplifying, he conveyed his authorial intent in such a fashion as to make his readers want to turn each page. Active-voice sentences. Abundant monosyllables. A spartan vocabulary redolent of Somerset Maugham’s. These feats—as any professional writer can confirm—are by no means negligible, nor are they swiftly acquired.

Compare and contrast Zinn’s idiom with the following Chekist tripe, nigh inescapable in Australian undergraduate humanities departments during my youth—this is from Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, 1923:

But in the case of the proletariat such a consciousness not only has to overcome these internal (bourgeois) contradictions, but it also conflicts with the course of action to which the economic situation necessarily commits the proletariat (regardless of its own thoughts on the subject). The proletariat must act in a proletarian manner, but its own vulgar Marxist theory blocks its vision of the right course to adopt. The dialectical contradiction between necessary proletarian action and vulgar Marxist (bourgeois) theory becomes…

And so on for a further 400 pages of the ostensibly English translation.

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In 2013, three years dead, Zinn hogged the headlines again when it emerged that erstwhile Indiana governor Mitch Daniels had frantically tried to get Zinn’s work removed from pedagogical curricula. Daniels’s complaints included a charmless, “ding-dong-the-witch-is-dead” reaction to Zinn’s actual demise, coupled with fears about what, on his watch, might have been entering hormonal teens’ heads: “This terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away … Can someone assure me that it [A People’s History] is not in use anywhere in Indiana? If it is, how do we get rid of it before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?”

What emerges from these snarls—elsewhere Daniels elegantly described Zinn as “crap”—is how the ex-governor had accepted the Servile State’s premises while purporting to reject them. He did not do what might have cost money and effort: commission a more satisfactory chronicle of American history. Instead, he demonstrated the same failure of the imagination which so many other censors have revealed: inability to appreciate that for several million slothful kids, the sole alternative to perusing objectionable books is to peruse no books whatever. Once Daniels had agitated for Zinn to be banned, hordes of real-life Beavises and Butt-Heads—“I hate words. Words suck. If I wanted to read, I’d go to school”—sought out Zinn on principle. They thus upheld the authentic tradition of those Louisa May Alcott youngsters who suddenly spotted the enchanting epistemological innovations implicit in the order “Don’t put beans up your noses.”

Do post-Cold-War officeholders really suppose that they are aiding Western Civ when they insist that American history be forever bowdlerized? Does it not occur to them that the more they inflict on their charges such bowdlerizing, the greater will be those charges’ indignation when they learn from other sources—as learn they invariably shall, not least from Google exposure—of American leaders’ most grievous sins? Could such elected Comstocks not, at least theoretically, discern the wisdom in Alfonso XIII’s contrasting attitude to the fatherland’s annals? The Spanish boy-king, his 1963 biographer relates, had a tutor who showed squeamish reluctance to reveal aspects of post-Napoleonic national administration; and indeed, this administration exhibited Spain’s leadership at something like its nadir. Young Alfonso specifically told the tutor to bowdlerize nothing: “Please don’t hesitate. These matters belong to history, and I must know the truth.”

Howard Zinn loathed monarchs per se and probably never knew of that anecdote. But between his historical approach and Alfonso’s there exist obvious parallels. By contrast, all that today’s younger neocons—as opposed to, say, Gertrude Himmelfarb—can produce are third-rate fantasies upon Churchill’s vainglorious theme: “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” Let those who think this policy a legitimate research method remember, in shame, that leader’s derisive response to the discover of bodies at Katyn: “There is no use prowling morbidly round the three-year-old graves at Smolensk.” The first sentence, in its intellectual and moral bankruptcy, guaranteed the second. Zinn, to do him justice, penned nothing as straightforwardly noxious as either remark.

One final observation is relevant to Zinn’s attitude. When an English periodical’s staffers genuinely imagined that they were complimenting Dwight Macdonald by calling him “a good American,” the angry target of their admiration shot back:

How do you know I am a good American? I’m certainly a Critical American … . A bad American, cynical and traitorous, might still make perfectly sound criticisms of his country. And if they were sound, it would be your editorial duty to print them. It’s in the other place to the East [the Soviet empire] that civic virtue is the indispensable passport to print.

Dwight had a point, no?

R.J. Stove lives in Melbourne, Australia.

14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "Two Cheers for Howard Zinn"

#1 Comment By Kurt Gayle On April 1, 2015 @ 2:00 am

Howard Zinn — he of “active-voice sentences and abundant monosyllables” – said in a 1970 speech that “if you don’t think; if you just listen to TV and read scholarly things, you actually begin to think that things are not so bad or that just little things are wrong…”

Matt Damon from Howard Zinn’s [1970] speech “The Problem is Civil Obedience.”

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#2 Comment By Fran Macadam On April 1, 2015 @ 3:42 am

Thanks for the perspective out there in the Minor Five Eyes. I’ll give the third cheer to Zinn, despite his socialism, for his good-hearted stab at introducing honesty into the mass histories that really were written by victors who intended they be treated kindly by posterity. Although he didn’t write it to be kind to himself, he made a kind of people’s history himself, as a white professor at a black girls’ college in the Deep South whose teaching led his students to ignore their own black administrators’ horror of confronting and disobeying Jim Crow. Zinn was no demagogue but personally humble in his populism. Though he was no religious believer, I was moved by his statement that in a country whose people are deeply religious, he was offended that cynical leaders would use the peoples’ beliefs against them, subverting Christianity to the purpose of war. He even turned the last day of classes he taught, over to musical recitals, to emphasize the point that politics is not an end to be pursued for itself, but to ensure a climate for artistry, beauty and the best of the human spirit. Which is why I no longer consider the source indicative of truth, but let what is stated prove its own merits. In our own orthodoxically profane and status quo heretical age, it is the agnostics and even honest atheists, from Twain to Zinn, who are its most reliable prophets.

#3 Comment By Kurt Gayle On April 1, 2015 @ 10:38 am

R.J. Stove writes of Howard Zinn that he was “a bombardier for Uncle Sam’s Eighth Air Force, flying at great personal risk over Hungarian, Czech, and French as well as German soil. According to his New York Times obit of January 28, 2010, the leftist concerned [Zinn] got home, ‘deposited his medals in an envelope and wrote: “Never again”.’ No less a hater of canting sentimentalism than Orwell once admitted that a homicidal combatant preaching peace always ‘makes an impressive figure, like a reformed burglar at a Salvation Army meeting.’ The name of this particular ex-combatant became known to multitudes who never suspected what his wartime experiences had involved.”

R.J. Stove, too, probably “never suspected what [Zinn’s] wartime experiences had involved” that led Zinn to become an anti-war activist:

“As bombardier, Zinn dropped napalm bombs in April 1945 on Royan, a seaside resort in southwestern France. The anti-war stance Zinn developed later was informed, in part, by his experiences. On a post-doctoral research mission nine years later, Zinn visited the resort near Bordeaux where he interviewed residents, reviewed municipal documents, and read wartime newspaper clippings at the local library. In 1966, Zinn returned to Royan after which he gave his fullest account of that research in his book, The Politics of History. On the ground, Zinn learned that the aerial bombing attacks in which he participated had killed more than 1000 French civilians as well as some German soldiers hiding near Royan to await the war’s end, events that are described ‘in all accounts’ he found as ‘une tragique erreur’ that leveled a small but ancient city and ‘its population that was, at least officially, friend, not foe.’ In The Politics of History, Zinn described how the bombing was ordered—three weeks before the war in Europe ended—by military officials who were, in part, motivated more by the desire for their own career advancement than in legitimate military objectives. He quotes the official history of the U.S. Army Air Forces’ brief reference to the Eighth Air Force attack on Royan…Zinn said his experience as a wartime bombardier, combined with his research into the reasons for, and effects of the bombing of Royan and Pilsen sensitized him to the ethical dilemmas faced by G.I.s during wartime. Zinn questioned the justifications for military operations that inflicted massive civilian casualties during the Allied bombing of cities such as Dresden, Royan, Tokyo, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II, Hanoi during the War in Vietnam, and Baghdad during the war in Iraq and the civilian casualties during bombings in Afghanistan during the current war there. In his pamphlet, Hiroshima: Breaking the Silence written in 1995, he laid out the case against targeting civilians with aerial bombing.” (“Howard Zinn,” Wikipedia)

#4 Comment By Bob Johnson On April 1, 2015 @ 3:01 pm

THANK YOU! Zinn has a lot to offer traditionalist conservatives; i think he’s better than the pro Israel neocon Paul Johnson. A hatred of big organizations they be business or government-runs throughout Zinn’s book. Zinn was a tireless critic of the US empire and corporate welfare. He also wasn’t a Christian hating frankfurt school marxist-his work, as stove points out, is easily understandable. Of course libertarians and conservatives disagree with Zinn on economics, but on civil liberties, corporatism, and the warfare state, their is no better ally. I particularly liked his treatment of WW2-he debunked the whole notion that the CPUSA was an ally of blacks. Many blacks opposed WW2, the communist party did not. They tried to silence black opposition to WW2. Ironically, the founder of HUAC, samuel dickstein, was a communist agent.

#5 Comment By Viking On April 1, 2015 @ 4:20 pm

Thanks for this piece, it was very interesting. I haven’t read much of Zinn, but am curious: was he a genuine socialist? It’s hard for me to reconcile a genuine distrust of big organizations, including governmental ones, with that particular political ideology.

#6 Comment By R. J. Stove On April 1, 2015 @ 5:26 pm

Thanks to all who left comments regarding my Zinn article. And of course thanks to TAC for publishing the article in the first place.

As a small Lenten penance I have abandoned Facebook, except for very occasional furtive glimpses. So I shall say nothing there. Yet even one such furtive glimpse enabled me to discern this morning that the Facebook commentary concerning my effort had grown so copious as to approach breaking-the-Internet levels.

One fact which I want to put upon the record is that the title, “Two Cheers For Howard Zinn”, was not my own choice. Of course, editors have a perfect right to select whatever titles for articles they wish (my original typescript’s proffered name, should anyone be interested, was “Historians and Stopped Clocks”: obviously an allusion to the “A stopped clock is still right twice per day” proverb).

Have I overrated Zinn? Some would certainly insist that I have. But as Sidney Hook, no heart-throb of mine, once said: “Before impugning an opponent’s motives, even when they may legitimately be impugned, answer his arguments.” Or, to cite Orwell during the war:

“If you write anything truthful about the London slums, you are liable to hear it repeated on the Nazi radio a week later. But what, then, are you expected to do? Pretend there are no slums?

#7 Comment By Strategy King On April 1, 2015 @ 5:44 pm

Ugh what a terrible article – so many twisted, tortured language to get around to almost, almost admitting that hey, Zinn had a point or two.

This is there in everything published in this website. If anyone in the ‘other’ tribe does or says something sensible, before you agree with him/her you have to say something derogatory about that person, and your agreement has to be an almost kind of one.

Conservatives are the most tribal people in this country, and comparable to tribal people in other places in their tribalness. It is only the influence of the enlightenment that saves you every now and then, so you can see reason in the words of the other.

The people’s history is a great book, for the first time in human history recording the other’s version of events, recognizing that history has always only been written by the victors, acknowledging only their tribal point of view and denigrating the other’s.

At the root you can even see the Christian influence in this book, hey if we are to love thy neighbor, he/she has a story to tell and it is part of history too.

But still, a step in the right direction I suppose.

#8 Comment By Dan Phillips On April 1, 2015 @ 8:42 pm

I have long said that paleocons and radicals like Zinn are the only people who tell the truth about US history. Paleocons point out inconvenient truths to counter Jaffaite fairy tales and American exceptionalism and proposition nation myth making.The radical libs do so to counter mainstream liberal self congratulation.

#9 Comment By Charlieford On April 1, 2015 @ 9:50 pm

I used both Zinn and Johnson simultaneously for more than ten years, two sections each semester, and read each each time. I got to know each book real well, and this is the best piece about Zinn I’ve read. Once upon a time I might have marveled that something called TAC was the venue to publish it, but I’m not now.

There are many places where Johnson might be confused for Zinn (I used to do that in class: “Johnson or Zinn?” then read a passage), but not once you get to the 1960s or so. There are few passages in Zinn you would take for Johnson.

However, Johnson flies at 30,000 feet; Zinn takes you down on the ground and makes you listen to the participants. A lot of participants. I teach at a pretty conservative college, but never did any student insist Zinn wasn’t worth reading, or that he was bunk. They didn’t like him, though. (Except the black students: They loved him.)

Anyway, great article. Thank you.

#10 Comment By Dain On April 2, 2015 @ 4:12 pm

Zinn? He’s also ready widely loved, and it sounds like he wasn’t saying much that I didn’t hear as a student of the California public school system.

The truly challenging historians are people like James J. Martin.

#11 Comment By J.D. On April 3, 2015 @ 1:33 pm

Zinn certainly seems like an admirable man. As far as I can tell, his “socialism” did not include any admiration for Communist regimes, though he was (understandably) skeptical of our motives in the Cold War.

The main problem with “People’s History,” which is generally a useful book, is that Zinn occasionally indulges in some light conspiracy thinking; to wit, the American Revolution was dreamed up by greedy American elites as a means of crowd-control, the Civil War was purposely engineered by Northern business interests, et al.

#12 Comment By FX Meaney On April 3, 2015 @ 4:01 pm

Zinn’s book has done more to breed anti-American attitudes in the young of America than anything else. It has been seized on by leftist “educator” at college level and below as the prime indoctrination piece on why you shouldn’t be proud to be American. The anti-Americanism shown by Obama down to the four Harvard kids who though the U.S. is more of a threat to peace than ISIS begins with Zinn.

#13 Comment By Kurt Gayle On April 4, 2015 @ 8:19 am

@ FX Meaney:

Why can’t we be “be proud to be American” and also admit that at times in our history “the U.S. is more of a threat to peace than ISIS”?

Why is admitting that “anti-American”?

Why can’t it be that American governments that have waged wars that were not in America’s national interest — and that badly damaged us — are “anti-American”?

Why can’t it be that those of us who want to change US foreign policy so that it serves America’s national interests – and not the interests of special-interest groups and foreign nations – are as red, white, and blue as you’re going to find?

#14 Comment By Fran Macadam On April 7, 2015 @ 4:07 am

One struggles mightily as if against a mountain, bringing only a gnat, to try to make of Zinn a bogeyman Socialist. He didn’t like monopoly big business or big coercive government, either, which has always been at their service, never more so than when exercising the excess power and profit war brings. His socialism was really born of the instinct for siding with the aggrieved underdog, a peculiar theme of populist Americanism from the start that is more small d democratic or even small c conservative than any of the big ideologies like either Capitalism or Communism. The “social” in his socialism was more about the accountable relationships people can have when they know one another, live and work in close proximity to one another, out of genuine cooperation in much smaller, voluntary social groups – villages, towns, neighborhoods. Unlike the phoney folksiness of faraway politicians who are completely unaccountable to those they cannot know, yet whose lives they damage by their edicts for the favor of elites.