Howard Zinn was born on August 29, 1927 and died on January 27, 2010. His parents were Jewish immigrants. His father, Eddie Zinn, left Austria-Hungary with his brother, Samuel, for the U.S. before the outbreak of World War I. They settled in Brooklyn. His mother, Jenny, emigrated from the Eastern Siberian city of Irkutsk.
His parents were factory workers when they met and married. Although there were no books in the house where they raised their son, to literature by sending 25 cents plus a coupon to the New York Post for each of the 20 volumes of Charles Dickens' collected works. He pursued a study of creative writing at Thomas Jefferson High School in a special program established by the poet Elias Lieberman.
As a young man he served in the Air Force during World War II. He volunteered for service in the Air Force even though he was working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard at the time and was eligible for an exemption since his work was considered essential to the war effort. He felt strongly about the war against the fascists. He became a bombardier during that horrific conflict, and was involved in the bombing of Royan, a small town on the Atlantic coast of France. It was known that German troops were bivouacked there. The bombs that he dropped, including napalm, resulted in the deaths of many German soldiers and innocent civilians as well. Twelve hundred bombers flew over this small town and destroyed it. It was a role that he would later regret; the devastating impact that the bombs wrought on the civilian populations of the enemy had a dramatic impact on his view of warfare in general and the politics that drove the decisions made by the government of his country in particular. This highly personal experience would inform his thinking and his activism for the rest of his life.
Later in his career, he was invited by the Smithsonian Institution to a Memorial Day celebration at which he was invited to speak. In his address he said, “World War II was not simply and purely a good war. It was accompanied by too many atrocities on our side – too many bombings of civilian populations. There were too many betrayals of the principles for which the war was supposed to have been fought. I don’t want to honor military heroism; that conceals too much death and suffering. I want to honor those who all these years have opposed the horror of war.” He was surprised to hear applause at the end of his provocative presentation. Another personality of note, Kurt Vonnegut, was present following the firebombing of the German city of Dresden. He was so appalled by what he witnessed that he was inspired to write an anti-war novel entitled, Slaughterhouse-5, a book that received critical acclaim.
Following the War, he took advantage of the G.I. Bill of Rights and attended New York University. There, he received his bachelor's degree in 1951. He went on to do graduate work in political science at Columbia University. He finally received his PhD in political science in 1958. Zinn’s doctoral dissertation was on New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia's congressional career; it was published in 1959 with the title, LaGuardia in Congress. LaGuardia was a well-loved Mayor of New York City. Zinn depicted him as a liberal Republican who fought for pro-labor legislation and criticized the upper-class bias of his party's economic policies. LaGuardia’s political career had an impact on Zinn’s own viewpoint. In 1965, Zinn published an anthology of New Deal Thought. In his introduction, he argued that President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his leading advisers prevented a possible American social revolution by pursuing the goal of restoring the American middle class to prosperity and, thereby, rejecting a more radical social reform.
Zinn became very active in the Civil Rights Movement. This was inspired, in part, by his position as Chairman of the Department of History and Social Science at Spelman College in Atlanta Georgia. Spelman College was a school for African-American women. He was there for seven years beginning in 1956. While he was there, Zinn became acquainted with the brutal reality of Jim Crow and was dismayed by the federal government's failure to protect the civil rights of African-American citizens. He felt that the federal government should actively protect and defend the civil rights of all its citizens. He challenged the Kennedy Administration in this regard.
Zinn's book entitled, SNCC: The New Abolitionists (1964) was an in-depth examination of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and its similarity to the pre Civil War abolitionist movement.
As a result of his studies and as a cumulative result of his personal experiences, he became convinced that the conventional telling of history left out many crucial events and precluded a broader spectrum of viewpoints and interpretation. He felt that history was ordinarily told from the perspective of the winners and did not serve the vast majority of individuals and their personal struggles. For this reason, he wrote a history that is now widely acclaimed – A People’s History of the United States (1980). Within this tome, Zinn presents historic data that represents pivotal events as seen through the eyes of ordinary people and differs substantially from what is normally portrayed as the truth.
Over the course of his adult life, his passion for the truth and his belief in pacifism was unwavering. He became convinced that nonviolent action was the only reliable path to real change. According to him, “Nonviolent action is not utopian; it is practical as well as moral. It builds on what already exists. It starts not with change in government, but with civil society, with the hearts and minds of people, which is where John Adams said the American Revolution was won. The people can bypass the government and tackle social problems themselves, as has been demonstrated by Havel in Czechoslovakia, Solidarity in Poland and the indigenous in Chiapas, Mexico.”
Zinn became deeply involved in the anti-war movement during the Vietnam War and again during the two Gulf Wars. He was deeply disturbed by the fact that following World War II the United States had become involved in major conflicts all around the globe.
He was openly critical of the United States government’s response to the September 11, 2001 attack by terrorists on the World Trade Center in New York – an horrific event that left over three thousand people dead. He strongly believed that the Afghani people suffered terribly in America’s retaliation against the Taliban, who controlled Afghanistan at that time. He felt that the wrong people were targeted.
In order to highlight the devastation wrecked upon the people of Afghanistan as a result of the United Stated military assault on that country following 9/11, Zinn provided concrete examples of the people directly affected in his book entitled, A Power Governments cannot Suppress. The following example illustrates that point.
“In the sprawling mud-brick slum of Qala-ye-Khatir, most men were kneeling in the mosques at morning prayer on November 6, 2001 when a quarter-ton of steel and high explosives hurtled from the sky into the home of Gul Ahmed, a carpet weaver. The American bomb detonated, killing Ahmed, his five daughters, one of his wives, and a son. Next door, it demolished the home of Sahib Dad and killed two of his children.”
An additional insight into Zinn’s worldview can be readily found in the following statement, “In my teaching I never concealed my political views: my detestation of war and militarism, my anger at racial inequality, my belief in a democratic socialism, in a rational and just distribution of the world’s wealth. I made clear my abhorrence of any kind of bullying, whether by powerful nations over weaker ones, governments over their citizens, employers over employees, or by anyone, on the Right or Left, who thinks they have a monopoly on the truth.”
Howard Zinn has left behind a substantial legacy of thought and action that reveals the character of the man and his passionate pursuit of peace and social justice.
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