Howard Zinn

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Ralph Ellison (review date 8 November 1964)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4805

SOURCE: Ellison, Ralph. “If the Twain Shall Meet.” Book Week (8 November 1964): 1, 20, 22-5.

[In the following review of The Southern Mystique, Ellison praises Zinn for providing a constructive blueprint for solving the civil rights crisis in the South.]

Howard Zinn's The Southern Mystique is yet another reminder that American history is caught again in the excruciating process of executing a spiral—that is, in returning at a later point in time to an earlier point in historical space—and the point of maximum tortuosity is once again the South.

It would seem that the basic themes of our history may be repressed in the public mind, but like corpses in mystery dramas, they always turn up, again—and are frequently more troublesome. Yes, and with an added element of mystery. “To hit,” as the hunters say, “is history, to miss is mystery.” For while our history is characterized by a swift and tightly telescoped continuity, our consciousness of history is typically discontinuous. Like quiescent organisms in the blood, our unresolved issues persist, but with our attention turned to other concerns we come to regard the eruption of boils and chancres that mark their presence with our well-known “American innocence.” Naturally, this leaves us vulnerable to superstition, rumor, and the manipulation of political medicine men.

Nevertheless, so imperative are our national commitments that while one group in our historical drama inevitably becomes inactive once the issues that aroused it are repressed, a resuscitation of the old themes will find a quite similar group taking its place on the redecorated stage. Frequently unaware of the earlier performers of its roles—because flawed, as are most Americans, by an ignorance of history—the new group dresses in quite different costumes but speaks in its own accents the old vital lines of freedom.

Thus, the First Reconstruction saw a wave of young whites hurrying South to staff the schools the Freedmen's Bureau was establishing for the emancipated slaves. Enthusiastic, energetic, self-sacrificial, these young teachers are long forgotten, yet they were the true predecessors of the young white Northerners now participating in the sit-ins and voter-registration drives that mark the Second—or resumption of—Reconstruction. Today's young crusaders are predominantly students, but here too, acting in the ranks and as advisers, are teachers like the author of The Southern Mystique.

Presently an associate professor of government at Boston University, Mr. Zinn has been chairman of the history department at Spelman College, a school for Negro women located in Atlanta, Georgia. His book is an account of his experiences as member of an integrated faculty, as resident in a predominantly Negro university community, and as an adviser to the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. It attempts to confront the problems arising from the Negro's quest for civil rights—and the white Southerner's agony in accepting change—not with slogans nor with that smug attitude of moral superiority typical of many Northerners' approach to the South, but with a passion to discover a rationale for hope and a theoretical basis for constructive action. Significantly, Mr. Zinn places the burden of insight and sympathy upon the outsider, and thus upon himself.

With such works as The Southern Mystique, Calvin Trillin's An Education in Georgia, and Bernard Taper's Gomillion vs. Lightfoot, the Second Reconstruction is receiving its on-the-spot documentation, as once again young Northerners are bent upon trying to reduce the ethos and mystery of the South, and our involvement in it, to some semblance of human order. Mr. Zinn would give us a human perspective on the present struggle and in this sense his book belongs with such works of the First Reconstruction...

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asThe Journal of Charlotte L. Forten and Thomas Wentworth Higginson's Army Life in a Black Regiment. Like these, in reporting a social action it reveals a state of mind.

In achieving change Mr. Zinn would base his actions upon sound thinking. He would not only re-examine our major assumptions concerning man and society; he would also appropriate any new concepts developed by social psychology, Neo-Freudian analysis, and the findings of such specialists in Southern history as C. Van Woodward. Philosophically, he has tried to forge, for himself at least, a fresh concept of man. In the areas of race relations this is a most necessary endeavor, and while I disagree with some of his procedures and conclusions, I am sympathetic with his attempt to do pragmatically what our best critical minds have failed even to recognize as important.

Mr. Zinn's example reminds us that one of the most exciting intellectual phenomenons of recent years has been the stir created among Northern intellectuals by the French Existentialists' theory of engagement. How frequently has the word turned up in their writings! How often have I been asked to sign, and have signed, their petitions decrying injustices in Europe, Asia and the Middle East! Yes, and how sensitive have they been to those who have struggled in the Soviet Union, in Hungary, in Algeria—and well they might, for injustice wears ever the same harsh face wherever it shows itself. And yet, today, one of the most startling disjunctures in our national life has been the failure of many of these intellectuals to involve themselves either by their writings or their activities (except, perhaps, for wearing CORE's equality buttons in their lapels) in our own great national struggle.

One wouldn't suspect that the South has been the center of our national dilemma, both political and moral, for most intellectuals have never seriously confronted the South or its people, few have visited there, and most have drawn their notions about Southerners from novels or from political theorists and sociologists who themselves have never been there. And while in all probability most of these intellectuals reject the values or debasement of values for which the South has stood (even though they admire and often imitate the poets, novelists and critics whom the South has produced), few feel any obligation to obtain first-hand knowledge—not even those who write so, confidently (and there are Negroes among these) about the “meaning” of Negro experience. The events set in motion by the Supreme Court decision of 1954 and accelerated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and which are now transforming not only the South but the entire nation—events that are creating a revolution not only in our race relations but in our political morality—have found them ominously silent.

My complaint isn't simply that they don't know the South or the Negro but that their failures to learn the country leave them at the mercy of politicians, unreliable reporters and rumor-mongers. Nor does it help their posture of intellectual authority. Indeed, many confuse the “Negro revolution” with the so-called “sexual revolution” (really a homo-sexual revolution), and this has led them to praise unbelievably bad art in the mistaken notion that they're helping to extend Negro freedom. No wonder that when the civil rights struggle moves into their own neighborhoods many of them have nothing to fall back upon except the same tired cliches about sexual rivalry, miscegenation and Negro self-hate that have clouded the human realities of the South.

Well, Howard Zinn is no Zen Buddhist; he is a passionate reformer, and his passion lends his book the overtones of symbolic action. In this sense it involves a dual journey, one leg of which took him and his family to live in what, in his own words, “is often thought to be the womb of the South's mystery, the Negro community of the Deep South,” and the other of which led him into that violent and mysterious region evoked in the mind by the work of Margaret Mitchell, Wilbur J. Cash, and William Faulkner—a region cloaked by an “invisible mist” which not only blurred perspective but distorted justice and defied reason. Here The Southern Mystique relates a journey into the unknown, involving an agon of dangerous action, a reversal of purpose leading to a “revolution in perception,” and a return to the North with what Mr. Zinn offers as a life-preserving message—i. e., his book.

For from his base in the Negro community—this “womb,” this sanctuary, this place of growth, rebirth and vision, resting in the “tranquil eye” of the South's hurricane of racial tensions—Mr. Zinn was to discover “those tiny circles of shadow out of sight, where people of several colors meet and touch as human beings …” And now he believes that contact between the races is a key to understanding and change, because contact—“intimate, massive and more than momentary—reshuffles all sensory memories and dissolves the mystique built upon the physical characteristics of the Negro.” One gathers that, for him, contact, in a context of ameliorative action, produces a catharsis that is not only sensory and psychological, but intellectual and moral. Fear is exorcised, the errors springing from prejudice are corrected, and a redefinition of purpose, both personal and social, becomes possible. The assumption here is that social change is sparked by the concern of responsible individuals, and an overtone of individual salvation sounds throughout Mr. Zinn's book. He specifies, however, that interracial contact must be equal—which excludes most of the usual contacts between Negroes and whites, whether North or South. Thus, the coming together of whites and Negroes in the interest of change is change in itself, and therefore, threatening to those who fear the widening of American democracy.

In the “womb” of the Negro community, Mr. Zinn was moved to the passionate purpose of dispelling the mystique which he found cloaking the human realities of the South. After living there for seven intense years, he believes that he has discovered the reality underlying the Southern mystique (racial fear is its core). He sees the white Southerner not as a figure of horror but as an American who exhibits certain national characteristics in an exaggerated form. The South, he writes, “is still the most terrible place in America [but] because it is, it is filled with heroes.” And yet, I must say that his perception (and he is conscious of this) has by no means been completely purified. Not when he can write that “every cliche uttered about the South, every stereotype attached to its people, white and Negro, is true”—even though he adds the qualification that “a thousand other characteristics, complex and subtle, are also true …”

For this, surely, is to concede too much to rhetorical strategy. The cliches and stereotypes attached to the South are no more “true” than those attached to any other region or people. What he means, perhaps, is that they contain an element of truth. Stereotypes are fabricated from fragments of reality, and it is these fragments that give them life, continuity and availability for manipulation. Even this depends upon the psychological predisposition of those who accept them. Here, in fact, is the secret of the stereotypes' tenaciousness. Some people must feel superior on any ground whatsoever, and I'm afraid that for far too many, “whiteness” is the last desperate possibility. Unfortunately, this need has become contagious and now, as should be expected, certain Negroes, who for years have been satisfied to be merely human and stake their changes upon individual attainment, are succumbing to blackness as a value.

As would be expected of a book involved with race and color in the U.S., The Southern Mystique is concerned with seeing and non-seeing, with illusion and reality—but also with intellectual clarity. His own efforts to see clearly and act effectively lead Mr. Zinn to believe that certain key concepts influencing our view of personality tend to inhibit action in the field of civil rights. He is critical of Freudian psychology, for instance, because he feels that a concern with its categories leads to a “pervasive pessimism” about men in society. Agreeing with Sartre's “man is condemned at every instance to invent man,” he suggests that in achieving change in the South the point of departure is not a philosophical investigation of cause. Because “once you acknowledge cause as the core of a problem, you have built something into it that not only baffles people, but, worse, immobilizes them.” (Evidently Mr. Zinn really believes that the Devil appears only at man's bidding.)

He would therefore leave cause to the philosophers and, as an activist, concentrate on results. For after all, he argues; “A physicist may … not know what really lies behind the transformation of matter into energy, but if he has figured out how to release this energy, his achievement is stupendous.” It is true that in many tightly controlled experiments the scientist must still play it by ear, and true again that civilizations have produced great art while leaving unsolved the problem of where babies come from, yet Zinn's argument makes me uneasy if for no other reason than that it evokes the myth of the sorcerer's apprentice. Not only does it blithely put aside the intractable fact that human beings are creatures of memory and spirit, as well as of conscious motivation, but it makes too much mystery of what, in its political aspects, is really a struggle for power, as white and Negro Southerners understand very well.

Nevertheless, Mr. Zinn's rejection of the gradualists' assumption that a change in thinking must precede changes in behavior seems justified by the actual dynamics of recent social changes in the South. Thus, his observation that “first you change the way people behave by legal or extra-legal pressures of various kinds, in order to transform the environment which is the ultimate determinant of the way they think” seems valid not only on the basis of current events but it describes what actually happened to Negroes following the betrayal of Reconstruction. Indeed, Mr. Zinn draws upon the researches of C. Vann Woodward to demonstrate how comparatively recent segregation has been a support of the “Southern way of life.”

In answer to the fear that white Southerners will accept change and then retaliate violently, he considers this no reason to slow the pace of action. Today, he holds, neither change nor its approval depend upon the white Southerner's will but only upon his “quiescence.” For now, he writes, what is called “intelligent white leadership … is really the exercise of influence by some whites to get other whites to follow, however grumblingly, the leadership of Negroes … whose decisions on tactics are the parents of those decisions on law that are made in the courts and announced in the headlines.”

In other words, we've spiraled back to a situation similar to the one that followed the Hayes-Tilden Compromises; and where the violence of sheriff's deputies and night-riders formed the force by which the white leadership then achieved its will, today the Negroes have converted their grievously acquired discipline in absorbing violence non-violently into a force for changing their condition. Perhaps we have made too much of the “moral” nature of the Negroes' struggle because their demands for freedom have always been moral; what is new is that their efforts now have sanction in national law. Thus, they can, if only in extreme instances, call upon the ultimate force of Federal troops—a protection denied them since the end of Reconstruction.

Mr. Zinn points out, however, that except in rare instances change is being achieved in the South through a “mammoth internal convulsion,” and that “in almost all cases where desegregation has occurred, the white South has made its own decision for acceptance.” He explains this by noting a human fact long obscured by the Southern mystique (though not for Southern Negroes who have had to know better): the white Southerner has a “hierarchy of values, in which some things are more important than others, and segregation, while desirable, does not mean as much to him as certain other values [which] he has come to cherish.” Thus, he makes choices “with the guidance of some subconscious order of priorities, in a field of limited possibilities.”

To his awareness of the relationship between the individual's hierarchy of values and Southern change Mr. Zinn adds Kurt Lewin's dictum, derived from the “field theory” of theoretical physics, that “behavior depends neither upon the past nor the future, but on the present field”—a view which, if true, is true only in a highly qualified sense. Nevertheless, it allows Zinn a certain optimism in approaching Southern white behavior “not as the inevitable results of a fixed set of psychological traits, but as the response to a group atmosphere which is susceptible of manipulation.”

Whatever the validity of applying “field theory” to human psychology, one of the strategies of the Negro freedom movement is to exert pressures in the social field that will move whites to make choices favorable to the Negroes' goals. This, actually, is a very old maneuver of Negro strategy, characterized by careful timing and flexibility within what, since the 1870s, has been a fairly rigid field. But theory is theory and practice is what we make it, while the past asserts itself regardless.

If Southern whites (who seem as unfamiliar with “field theory” as with Edmund Wilson's “sea slug” theory of the Civil War) respond to change as they have in the past—that is, often violently—then the Negroes have usually reacted as they did most frequently in their own past, namely, non-violently. Today, however, the absorbing of blows has become a political technique, and thus a value. And a prime source of Negro morale is their knowledge that their forefathers survived so much violence (one of the major supports of the “American way of life,” by the way) during times when the highest court in the land was against them. How, by the way, does one say “Negro American” without at once implying “slave” and, hopefully, “free man and equal and responsible citizen?”

But do not let me quibble here. For I am aware that theory has no necessary correspondence in action, nor means with results. Social change, nevertheless, involves the use of words, and words, even Mr. Zinn's words, are rooted deep in the realities of the past.

Zinn bolsters his argument with Harry Stack Sullivan's observation on the importance of the “significant other” in interpersonal relationships. And he suggests that intellectuals, scholars and, especially, policy makers should be aware that in confronting (or failing to confront) problems of social change they are no mere neutral observers but participants who modify the situation by affecting the field of social forces. In this sense, then, there is no escape; one acts even by not acting—a useful reminder for those who trouble over how to apply the concept of engagement to the current struggle and one wishes to shout, “Hear, Hear!” But his suggestion that an administration that recognizes its own activity as a force affecting white behavior might “map much bolder policies than one basing its moves on the passive situation represented by public opinion polls” seems far too charitable toward the politicians' motives.

For while the myths and mysteries that form the Southern mystique are irrational and even primitive, they are, nevertheless, real even as works of the imagination are “real.” Like all mysteries and their attendant myths, they imply—as Jane Harrison teaches us in Themis, her study of ancient Greek religion—a rite. And rites are actions, the goal of which is the manipulation of power; in primitive religions, magical power; in the South (and in the North), political power.

Further, in our own representative form of government the representatives of the white South (few of whom represent Negroes) are all too often the most dedicated, most magic-befouled manipulators of the mystique that surrounds American race prejudice. Neither Strom Thurmond nor Governors Johnson or Wallace have any intention of surrendering the power issuing from the Southern mystique out of the goodness of their hearts. They will give way only before the manifestation within the South of the broader, more human American myth of equality and freedom for all. Not even the presence in the White House of an even more significant Southern “other” has inhibited the celebrants of the rites of Southern prejudice, and now they have been joined by Senator Goldwater. Race remains an active political force because they make it so, and their techniques of manipulation are traditional.

“The most vicious thing about segregation—more deadly than its immediate denials of certain goods and services is,” in Mr. Zinn's opinion, “its perpetuation of the mystery of racial differences.” I would have thought that the impact of segregation and discrimination upon individual and group alike would be more important. Most Negroes ignore the mystique of race differences, even as they comply with Southern law and custom. For they know through their own experience the superficiality of the evidence upon which the myth of white superiority rests. They also know that they haven't lived all these years as servants to a race of gods. The folk verse—“These white folk think That they so fine, But their dirty linen stinks Just like mine!”—while irreverent and a bit bawdy, is a sharp-nosed, clear-eyed observation of reality. No, it is less the mystique that harms us than the denial of basic freedom. It is not the myth that places dynamite in a Sunday school but terrorists carrying out a ritual of intimidation; for while the word slanders, the practice inflicts death. And if whites can accept change without surrendering their prejudices—and here Mr. Zinn sees quite clearly—so have Negroes existed under that prejudice without accepting its contentions.

I must leave to more qualified critics to assess the broader implications of Mr. Zinn's theoretical approach, but I believe that his effort to see freshly and act constructively is, despite all objections, overwhelmingly important. His speculations have followed courageous action, and he is aware of how urgently the activities of the Negro Freedom Movement demand clarification in theoretical structuring. One source of the problem is our lack of any adequate definition of Negro life and experience, which is far from being as simple as many thinkers assume. And here Mr. Zinn's own urgency blurs his perception.

He believes that man has in his power the means to bring himself and society closer to a more human ideal and his key term is action. His assault upon the viciousness committed in the name of instinct, race and history makes him prefer theories that underplay the influence of the past—ironically a tendency that reformers share with reactionaries and conservatives, who would repress all details of the past that would unmask their mythologies. Thus, Gordon All-port's hypothesis that “motives are contemporary … not bound functionally to historical origins or to early goals, but to present goals only” affords Zinn optimism in the field of action. But action does not imply insight, because the past is clearly present in the motivation of the Negroes with whom Zinn worked in the South. Perhaps in shrugging off the encumbrances of the past, he failed to observe them (or even to identify with them) in sufficient depth.

Zinn suggests that a half generation ago the Southern Negro personality was essentially that of the arch-stereotype of “Sambo” (that craven creation of 19th-century white Southern pseudo-sociology, recently reintroduced into what passes for intellectual discussion by Stanley M. Elkins) but was suddenly transformed by the Supreme Court Decision of 1954 into the “proud Negro demonstrator who appears in exactly those little towns and hamlets … that produced silence and compliance a half generation ago.”

But here he's being taken in—both by Elkins and by his own need to recreate man, or at least Negro man, in terms of the expediencies of the historical moment. Didn't he notice that some of the older sharecroppers who are sheltering and advising the young Northern crusaders would seem to look, talk and, when the occasion requires it, act like this alleged “Sambo”? He is perceptive when he notes that the terrible aspects of Southern life have made for many heroes, but he might also have noted that Southern life is the most dramatic form of life in the U. S., and because it is, it is full of actors. In fact, the Southern mystique has assigned roles to whites as well as to Negroes—only for Negroes the outcome of abandoning the role is frequently tragic, for it leads to terror, pitiful suffering and death.

In concentrating on the mystery of race, Mr. Zinn overlooks the more intriguing mystery of culture (it is interesting how often, for an activist, culture means politics). Still the Southern Negroes who have revealed themselves since 1954 are not products of some act of legal magic—they are the products of a culture, a culture of the Southern states, and of a tradition that, ironically, they share with white Southerners. But with Negroes it developed out of slavery and through their experiences since the Civil War and the First Reconstruction. Thus, when Zinn writes, “There are two things that make a person a ‘Negro’: a physical fact and a social artifice,” he misses the wonderful (and fortunate) circumstance that the Negro American is something more. He is the product of the synthesis of his blood mixture, his social experience, and what he has made of his predicament, i. e., his culture. And his quality of wonder and his heroism alike spring no less from his brutalization than from that culture.

Indeed, those Negroes whom Mr. Zinn has joined in action risk their lives out of a sense of life that has been expressed movingly in the blues but seldom on a more intellectually available level—even though, I believe, it is one of the keys to the meaning of American experience. For if Americans are by no means a tragic people, we might very well be a people whose fundamental attitude toward life is best expressed in the blues. Certainly the Negro American's sense of life has forced him to go beyond the boundaries of the tragic attitude in order to survive. That, too, is the result of his past.

One needn't agree with Mr. Zinn that the initiative in the South is now in Negro hands (there is the matter of antagonistic cooperation to be considered) but many clues to action are to be found in their own dramatic, experience. They've known for a long time, for instance, that you can change the white Southerner's environment without changing his beliefs because such changes have marked the fluctuations of Negro freedom. Negroes also know the counterpart of this fact—namely, that you prepare yourself for desegregation and the opportunities to be released thereby before that freedom actually exists. Indeed, it is in the process of preparation for an elected role that the techniques of freedom are discovered and that freedom itself is released.

The Negro Freedom Party of Mississippi, for instance, arose out of a mock political action, and as a mockery of the fraudulent democracy of the Democratic Party of Mississippi. Its mockery took the form of developing techniques for teaching Negroes denied the right to vote how to form a political party and participate in the elective process. In the beginning it possessed all of the “artificiality” of a ritual, but the events, the “drama” acted out in Atlantic City, saw the transformation of their mockery and play-acting into a significant political gesture that plunged them into the realms of conscious history. Here the old slave proverb “Change the joke and slip the yoke” proved a lasting bit of wisdom. For Negroes, the Supreme Court Decision of 1954 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 induced no sudden transformation of character; it provided the stage upon which they could reveal themselves for what their experiences have made them and for what they have made of their experiences. Here the past and the present come together, making possible a collaboration, across the years, between the old Abolitionists and such contemporary activists as Howard Zinn. Nor should we forget that today Negroes are freeing themselves.

If I seem overly critical of The Southern Mystique, it is by no means out of a lack of respect for its author and what he has attempted to do. His is an act of intellectual responsibility in an area that has been cast outside the range of intellectual scrutiny through our timidity of mind in the face of American cultural diversity. Mr. Zinn has not only plunged boldly into the chaos of Southern change but he has entered that maze-like and barely charted area wherein 20 million Negro Americans impinge upon American society, socially, politically, morally, and therefore, culturally. One needn't agree with Zinn, but one cannot afford not to hear him out. And once we read him—and we must read him with the finest of our attention—we can no longer be careless in our thinking about the Negro Revolution, for he makes it clear that it involves us all.

Allan R. Brockway (review date 25 November 1964)

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SOURCE: Brockway, Allan R. “Modern Abolitionists.” Christian Century 81, no. 48 (25 November 1964): 1464.

[In the following review of SNCC: The New Abolitionists, Brockway praises Zinn's hopeful account of the activities of the young leaders of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.]

Social revolutions result from a complex mixture of factors combining at a particular point in history to force change toward ends that, for all their immediate concreteness, often reach far beyond themselves. Such is the case with the Negro revolution today. And such is the case with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “Snick”), one of the most vocal, “radical” and activist manifestations of that revolt.

Howard Zinn has lived with SNCC as a teacher of some of its leaders, as an observer and, to some extent, as a participant. His book is filled with personal accounts of these young fighters in the revolution's front line. It is the closest thing to a history of SNCC yet to appear, although Zinn is correct in preferring to call it a “glimpse of SNCC people in action” that suggests “the quality of their contribution to American civilization.”

To portray the Negro SNCC field secretaries—predominately young and coming from poor, working class southern families—would be difficult without transmitting something of their courage, enthusiasm and dedication. Zinn does so without hesitation and largely with approval. Through his eyes the reader can see events associated with such southern towns as McComb, Hattiesburg and Americus from the perspective of those who lived through those events, and can share the anger, fear, frustration and pride of the participants.

Beyond detailing SNCC's origin, development and activity, the author points to some fundamental questions being raised for society as a whole by the Negro revolution and by SNCC in particular. Herein lies his most helpful contribution for the future.

One question concerns the role of white men in the Negro revolt. The question can be put in this form only because race is a social and psychological factor that cannot be ignored by the integrationist or the segregationist, by the black or the white. SNCC and other civil rights organizations must constantly fight the tendency to move toward a benevolent black nationalism. The white man among them must curtail his urge to “become a Negro.”

Further, the nation must face the question of the federal government's role as protector of rights under the U.S. Constitution. SNCC leaders maintain that Washington has always had the power to protect civil rights workers in the south, that no new civil rights law was required and that the justice department was irresponsible in failing to halt local and state abuse of fundamental American rights. The author presents SNCC's case with obvious agreement, and in so doing places before us once again the knotty problem of whether the United States is to be a unified whole or a federation of sovereign states.

Wherein lies the future of SNCC? What happens when the “students” now running the organization become mature in years? Zinn discerns signs often ignored by observers who foresee the ritual and mission of the organization falling apart when the immediate goals are accomplished. For one thing, he sees no closed ideology among SNCC workers. They are, rather, open to the problems of the future, problems which Zinn contends have been brought to the surface by the Negro revolt itself: a new evaluation of the concept of “nonviolence”; a fresh emphasis on the realization of free expression; a far-reaching reform of “jails, judges and justice”; the possibility of the total elimination of poverty and the necessity for a new and creative approach to education.

In summary, Zinn sees in the young men and women whom SNCC represents a great hope for the renewal of American society. Yet a large question hangs over the movement. Can its workers manage to see beyond the circumstances of the moment? Can they be “in the world but not of it”? Will they be willing to forsake present methods and purposes when these become outmoded? Zinn says Yes. Let us hope he is right.

A final mundane note: the index is regrettably inadequate. Some names, such as that of Ed King, are omitted entirely; others mentioned repeatedly throughout the book are noted only once. It is hoped that this flaw will be corrected in any future editions.

Martin B. Duberman (review date winter 1965)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1455

SOURCE: Duberman, Martin B. “The Fire This Time.” Partisan Review 32, no. 1 (winter 1965): 147-51.

[In the following review, Duberman contends that Zinn's two 1964 books on the civil rights movement are informed by his dual roles as scholar and active participant in the events being covered.]

Now, boy, you go to writing and write up a new day.

—Mama Dollie, Lee County, Georgia

Radicalism is returning to American life. It owes its initial rebirth to the civil rights movement, but men like Bayard Rustin and others less well-known, are now moving beyond the race problem to broad social criticism. These new radicals increasingly see racism as but one symptom of our social malaise, a symptom which itself can never disappear until a broader attack is launched against the value structure which maintains it—against the preference for order, compromise and cliché over justice, principle and reality, against all that has turned us from a revolutionary outpost into a conservative bulwark.

The new radicals do not pretend to have any long-range strategy or detailed ideology; they are undogmatic, unsentimental and unhysterical. Despite their anger and disgust at the banalities and evasions of American life, their tone is one of quiet confidence. They are optimistic not only about the country's potential, but—and this is perhaps basic to any reform impulse—they are optimistic also about the ability of individuals to ascertain and manipulate reality. In this sense, the new movement marks a restoration of human confidence, the flowering of post-Freudian homiletics: neither our individual nor our collective past need determine our present goals: neither biology nor history is enough to prevent our planning rationally and acting boldly. We are far more free—and thus far more responsible—than the determinists have told us. The new radicals insist, in short, that we may choose what to make of ourselves and our world.

Though the radicals in our midst are few and exert little power, at least they do once more exist, and their influence might yet lead us out of the post-New Deal morass. If so, we will owe much to those activists in the civil rights movement who first pointed the way, and to those intellectuals (often activists themselves) who first saw and schematized the broader possibilities of the movement. In this last group the preeminent publicists have been Michael Harrington and Nat Hentoff. Now there is Howard Zinn.

Zinn represents an emerging breed of scholar-activists. In his early forties, he has behind him a Beveridge Prize for his first book, La-Guardia in Congress, seven years of teaching history at a Negro college—Spelman, in Atlanta—and extensive involvement as adviser and participant in civil rights activities, especially those of SNCC. His two new books combine a scholar's knowledge and an activist's experience, which are used to inform his theme, not to exhibit himself. Thus both books are personal without being egotistical, are authoritative but free of pedantry, and are passionate without being suspiciously agitated. The common theme of the two books—a theme which is rationale and emblem for the whole new movement of social criticism—is that it is within our power to move with high speed towards social justice. The Southern Mystique outlines the reasons for this optimistic belief; SNCC: The New Abolitionists gives us the concrete experiences of those who have carried the belief into action.

Zinn's optimism, it must be emphasized, is not about what has been done, or even what necessarily will be done, but only about what could be done were we to become aware of the rich possibilities for change and determined to utilize them. This qualified optimism rests on both theoretical and specific considerations. Zinn draws the theoretical testimony from a variety of post-Freudian commentators—Kurt Lewin, Dorwin Cartwright, Harry Stack Sullivan, Gardner Murphy—all of whom believe in the transcending power of the immediate. Habitual behavior, according to these social psychologists, can be radically and drastically changed, even when deeply rooted. No determinant, be it instinctual or traditional, need preclude the alteration of behavior. And behavioral transformations, moreover, need not be preceded by intellectual ones. The opposite is often true: forcing changes (through legal or extra-legal pressures) in the way people act, can, by transforming the personal and social environment, produce changes in the way people think.

When Zinn applies this body of theory specifically to the race problem in the South, his optimism is supported by many specific examples of changes already wrought in that region. Though the white Southerner, Zinn tells us, does care about segregation, he cares about other things more—about his job, staying out of jail, the approval of his neighbors, community peace, keeping educational and entertainment facilities open. Furthermore, the mystique which sees the South as utterly different from the rest of the nation, is mistaken. The South may be racist, provincial, conservative, fundamentalist, nativist, violent, conformist and militarist, but these are national not merely regional qualities, American not Southern genes. Sectional differences, in other words, are differences of degree not kind.

Zinn argues this position brilliantly and with solid evidence. Only one reluctant reservation is necessary. That is, whether his optimistic diagnosis is applicable everywhere in the South. When he says the white Southerner has “no special encumbrances that cannot be thrust aside,” I doubt if this is equally true for all Southerners. Perhaps Atlantans have “no special encumbrances,” but can the same be said about the whites in Plaquemines or Sunflower Counties? In such places the devotion to segregation may be so intransigent that it does take precedence over all other values—including money, education and peace—just as the commitment to fundamentalism, nativism, et al., may be so fanatical that it is not susceptible to any but the most gradual inroads (which is not to say that the assault should be gradual). If the attitudes in such areas are variations on common national themes, they are so pronounced as to be almost new tunes.

None of this is exactly news to Howard Zinn. Knowing the South as he does from first-hand experience, he is well aware of the bitter inflexibility of certain areas within it. If he underplays this side of the picture, therefore, he does so knowingly, for a deliberate purpose. And that purpose is to encourage us to act. Too much has been said about the difficulty of producing change in the South (and in the nation) and not enough about its feasibility. Zinn deliberately stresses positive opportunities in order to counteract that mystique of intractability which for too long has served as rationale for pessimism and apathy. Zinn is here the true activist: he emphasizes those aspects of social reality best calculated to encourage involvement. He knows that the hope for significant change in this country is tenuous; he also knows that significant change will be impossible if we continue to dwell on the obstacles and to downgrade the possibilities. We are never in short supply of gainsayers, those eager to justify their complacency by magnifying the obstacles on the path to change. Zinn wants to prevent the number of these gloom-and-doomers from becoming so large that they will turn into self-fulfilling prophets.

Zinn does more than tell us that a new day is possible; he also shows us something of what it might consist of. His second book, SNCC, along with being a history of the organization, is also a history of those enrolled in its ranks. The everyday joy and terror of these SNCC workers in the South are taking on dimensions larger than the life most of us live. Certainly the joy is enviable—a warm, purposeful camaraderie—and even the terror suggests a self-confrontation most of us would welcome were the price not so high.

It is difficult, as Zinn says, not to romanticize these young adults. Yet there is no need to embroider. In their depth of feeling for each other and for their cause, in their simplicity and courage, they stand out against a purposeless, sterile backdrop in something truly like heroic outline, showing us what might be hoped for when the barriers that artificially separate people are broken down. They have lived under field conditions, of course, which by everyday standards are themselves artificial. Intimacy among them has been allowed to ripen through constant contact and mutual reliance, and has been further intensified by common dangers and goals. Then, too, they have had the rare fulfillment of knowing that their energies are employed in meaningful work.

As our society is now constituted, such conditions cannot be widely reproduced. The “new day” is for most of us still beyond reach. But thanks to Howard Zinn we have caught a glimpse of its splendors. Mama Dollie spoke to the right man.

Margaret O'Brien (review date 5 February 1965)

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SOURCE: O'Brien, Margaret. Review of SNCC: The New Abolitionists, by Howard Zinn. Commonweal 81, no. 19 (5 February 1965): 616-17.

[In the following review, O'Brien maintains that Zinn overestimates SNCC's potential to effect major changes in America unrelated to racial issues.]

From February 1, 1960 when the first sit-ins occurred in Greensboro, North Carolina, to Spring, 1964, young members of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee moved across the South, organizing sit-ins, freedom rides, and voter registration drives. Their efforts put them on intimate terms with cattle prods, jail cells, and a cast of law enforcement officials whose style of rule would warm the heart of—maybe Ivan the Terrible.

This book is built on the personal accounts of these young men and women. It is journalism; it is “human interest”; and it is valuable. We remember that behind “strategy” and “power structure” and “backlash” are people; that there are parts of our nation where people who work for equal rights—and not “strategies” or “power structures”—are defeated and sometimes killed.

Howard Zinn records the SNCC workers' early realization that the terrorized Negroes of the South would never cooperate unless the workers proved themselves willing to make a long-term commitment; problems were sure to multiply for the local Negro community the minute civil rights activities began. SNCC did make that commitment and has since shared the lot of the Southern Negro: poverty, discouragement, police and civilian harassment, shotgun blasts, beatings, church-burnings, and murder. SNCC has also shared in the joy of creating a community spirit, based on non-violence and education, which has changed the Southern Negro, and which hopes to change his white brother.

SNCC's commitment, Zinn makes clear, has not been matched by the federal government; consistently the Justice Department has refused to prosecute Negro civil rights cases because, it maintains, no white Southern jury would give the case fair consideration. One can only marvel then not at the blindness of Justice but of her stalwarts, the Justice Department and the F.B.I., when they decided to prosecute nine civil rights workers in Albany, Georgia before an all-white Southern jury, having removed all possible Negro jurors in the interest of fairness.

The civil rights workers in that case were accused of picketing a white grocer, not because he refused to hire Negroes, but because he had served on a federal jury which dismissed a civil suit brought by a Negro against the sheriff of Baker County. (The Negro accused the sheriff of shooting him while in custody; the sheriff was acquitted and the Negro was later sentenced to five years for assault.) The students were convicted of harassing a federal juror.

When one SNCC worker, Joni Rabinowitz, claimed she had not been one of the pickets, the Justice Department prosecuted her for perjury. She produced thirteen witnesses who supported her including a white girl who looked like her and had been picketing. The defense moved for dismissal on the ground of mistaken identity. The Justice Department refused and Miss Rabinowitz was convicted. Over thirty F.B.I. agents were used on this case, in which, incidentally, a civil rights worker was convicted whose pregnant wife had lost her baby after being kicked and assaulted by local police officials—in that case the federal government could do nothing!

Zinn details the laws (some on the books for decades) with which the federal government could protect the Southern Negro and his champions if the decision to enforce were made. Is it any wonder the SNCC workers might occasionally have suspected that the Attorney General was not Robert Kennedy but Franz Kafka? Their frustration in this regard was summed up by SNCC chairman, John Lewis, whose speech to the March on Washington originally included the question, “I want to know: which side is the Federal Government on?” Lewis never asked that question, however; it was objected to by another speaker, Archbishop O'Boyle of Washington, who has since requested from the Vatican Council another declaration on racial justice.

SNCC: The New Abolitionists is a combination of good journalism, hagiography and prophetics, with the latter two weakening the impact of the former. Zinn tends to lay on SNCC the robe of the Messiah, a robe which makes it look ridiculous. Rhetoric overpowers reporting; he describes one SNCC field worker: “the football player turned SNCC organizer, the Christian turned Jew, the Blackman turned Everyman.”

In the last chapter “Revolution Beyond Race” he enumerates the major political, judicial, educational, and economic problems we face today and adds: “in the end, whether SNCC will continue as a vital force in American life will depend on whether it thrusts and points beyond race, probing the entire fabric of society to point to injustice of all kinds, constituting itself as a permanent, restless prod to the conscience of the nation.” It would be nice, but SNCC is not going to save the world. By suggesting it could, Zinn places SNCC's true greatness in a possible (but very doubtful) future; and he needn't have.

David P. Gauthier (review date November 1967)

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SOURCE: Gauthier, David P. Review of Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal, by Howard Zinn. Canadian Forum 47 (November 1967): 182-84.

[In the following review, Gauthier contends that Zinn makes a well-argued case for immediate withdrawal from Vietnam, a position many critics of the war privately support.]

The most considerable merit of this critique of American involvement in Vietnam is that it presents a clearly argued case for what most critics of the Vietnamese war believe but will not say—that America should withdraw now. Howard Zinn, a Professor of Government at Boston University, rejects the so-called realism of those who muffle their criticism, calling for de-escalation, negotiation, or other half-way measures. Against them he quotes Wendell Phillips—“We must ask for the whole loaf, to get the half of it” (p. 119). The argument that withdrawal is not politically feasible rests on a misunderstanding of the decision-making process. What is possible depends on interests; if enough people demand withdrawal, then political leaders can come to have a sufficient interest to support withdrawal.

But why should withdrawal be demanded? Zinn develops his argument in three stages. First, he attempts to enlarge our perspective of the war, by viewing it from the position of an outsider—the Japanese, and an alienated insider—the American Negro, and from the historical perspective of great power behaviour. In themselves, these chapters are not likely to affect thinking about Vietnam. Although Zinn has evidently been much influenced by his own exposure to these differing perspectives, he can not convey, in a few pages, the impact of protracted experience.

Zinn then turns to what may be called the positive case for American involvement—that it is directed to the creation of a free and progressive society in Vietnam. Zinn shows convincingly that this argument has the character of a never fulfilled but ever repeated promissory note. Social change is always just around the corner; the last attempt has, alas, failed, but a new one is at hand, and surely it will succeed. This thinking, dear to those American liberals who support the Johnson administration, is exposed as continuing self-deception. “Liberal presidents and vice-presidents proclaim that “reform” will be administered by dictators and plutocrats. The result is that American statesmen who are “liberals” at home will sustain a state of terror abroad by surrounding it with the promise of change. The change then turns out to be spurious and picayune, but the devastation which accompanies it is not at all spurious and is dealt out on a grand scale” (p. 48). How much of American foreign policy—not in Vietnam alone but throughout Asia and Latin America—rests on this dishonest foundation!

In the third stage of his argument, Zinn considers the claims of those who insist that involvement in Vietnam is required to combat the evil and aggressive actions of others. First, he examines the moral issues, and shows that there can be no real equation of the moral evils undoubtedly perpetrated by the Vietcong, in massacring village officials, with the evils perpetrated by America, in killing entire village populations. As he summarily puts it, “there can be no justification in carrying on a military action which kills most of the people we claim to be defending” (p. 65).

Next he rebuts the official theory that the conflict is caused by North Vietnamese aggression. What is in doubt is not “the indigenous strength of the Vietcong”, but rather “the indigenous nature of the force attempting to put down the Vietcong” (p. 79). “Almost everybody in the world but Americans could see that, whatever the character of the Vietcong, they were Vietnamese, while the Americans, destroying land and people on a frightening scale, were the only ones who matched the accusation of “outside aggression” (p. 80).

Finally, he turns to the “domino theory” or “Munich analogy”. Zinn argues that the consequences either of crushing Communism in Vietnam, or of creating a unified Communist state in that country are neither obvious nor predictable, and that neither the security of America nor the stability of south-east Asia can be shown to depend in any significant way on either outcome.

Why not withdrawal, then? Zinn disposes of those who claim that American prestige would suffer too heavily. First, American prestige is suffering as a consequence of involvement; it could hardly suffer more from withdrawal. Second, in the words of George Kennan, withdrawal “would be a six months' sensation, but I dare say we would survive it in the end, and there would be another day. Things happen awfully fast on the international scene, and people's memories are very short …” (p. 105). Let the Vietnamese negotiate their own settlement.

There seem to me two evident weaknesses in Zinn's study. The first, to some extent imposed by its brevity, is a failure to examine in sufficient depth the grounds for America's failure in Vietnam. Why has America adopted a policy which imposes great harm on the unfortunate Vietnamese yet fails to secure compensating benefits either for Vietnam or for America? Why has America intervened to combat a nationalist-communist movement in a far corner of the world?

Perhaps the disagreement between critics and advocates of American policy in Vietnam rests on a deeper disagreement about the underlying objectives of American foreign policy—a disagreement which Zinn does not consider, and which may affect the relevance of his analysis and his proposals. If, to take a not absurd possibility, America's real aim is to establish a secure foot-hold in south-east Asia to use as a base for ultimate intervention in China, then a quite different critique of American policy is needed.

The second major weakness is Zinn's naivete in discussing the outcome of American withdrawal. He says, for example, that one desirable development in Vietnam would be “the establishment of a government in which not only the NLF, but Buddhist, Montagnard, and other elements play a role. This we will leave to the Buddhist and others to work for; they are quite militant and capable of pressing for their rights” (p. 112). Or again—“Whatever negotiation goes on should be among the Vietnamese themselves, each group negotiating from its own position of strength, undistorted by the strength of the great powers” (p. 114). And this is supported by such remarks as “In September 1966, the NLF reasserted its willingness to work with other Vietnamese groups in a future government, and to desist from reprisals against former foes.”

Maybe so—we can not be sure of the future. But we have heard this kind of talk before, and surely our memories of eastern Europe, China, and even North Vietnam are sufficiently fresh that we can make a fair guess about the character of “negotiations” among the Vietnamese.

The best argument against American withdrawal from Vietnam—whether it is a good argument or not—is not given a fair run for its money by Professor Zinn. The argument is simply that in the long run south-east Asia will prosper more, and the world balance of power will be more stable, if two world powers (the United States and China) retain an interest in the area, than if it is left entirely to the domination of one. The Americans, by their behaviour in Vietnam, are doing their utmost to show that this argument is mistaken, and that south-east Asia might better be left to the Chinese sphere of influence (which by no means entails Chinese military conquest). But on the other hand the Chinese seem bent on demonstrating, by their example of domestic harmony, that the argument has some merit after all.

Any viable proposal for the termination of conflict in Vietnam must recognize that the only choice now open to America is a choice of evils. Zinn promises far more for withdrawal than it can provide, but his argument may succeed in persuading us that it is the least of the available evils.

Carl Cohen (review date 2 December 1968)

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SOURCE: Cohen, Carl. “Civil Disobedience: Moral or Not?” Nation 207, no. 19 (2 December 1968): 597, 599-600.

[In the following review, Cohen praises Zinn's Disobedience and Democracy as an insightful book that should be widely read and discussed, although he challenges the bases for many of Zinn's arguments.]

Civil disobedience has become one of the most puzzling and provocative issues of the times. There are two kinds of reasons for this. First, those who have recently been engaging in disobedient demonstrations have done so, most usually, to register vehement protest against laws, acts and conditions that cry out for remedy, while remedy continues to elude us. The barbarity of the war in Vietnam; the cruelty of racism at home; the maldistribution of wealth and power; and, above all, the apparent unwillingness or inability of our national institutions—Congress, the courts, private enterprise—to deal effectively with injustice, frustrates and angers all decent citizens, and forces us to ask ourselves how changes we know to be essential can be brought about. Those who practice civil disobedience seek to provide at least a partial answer to this question, often breaking new ground at considerable risk to themselves. Most often we find ourselves in strong sympathy with such disobedients, knowing their intentions honorable and their cause just. Even so, many remain in genuine doubt about the moral justifiability of deliberately unlawful protest. To be sure, the end may be entirely worthy; but that, as we have been so long saying to ourselves and others, does not justify any means to its accomplishment. The wrong protested may be a thousand times more harmful than the wrong of illegal protest; is that justification enough? How should we decide, in practice, upon the rightness of certain methods—even methods deliberately disobedient and intrinsically unhappy—intended to further worthy social goals? This is one side, the practical side, of the puzzle.

As soon as we seek to resolve this practical question in any given case, we find ourselves facing a maze of difficult philosophical questions—questions with which we are all familiar, but that we had never before been forced to resolve in some conclusive way. This is the second, deeper aspect of the puzzle. Civil disobedience, its nature and justification, takes us directly to the core of some of the hardest and most important philosophical questions regarding social life. What are the limits of state authority? When, if ever, is a man justified in defying that authority, and on what grounds must such justification be based? What do we mean by the “rule of law” and how high in our catalogue of values must it remain? Nothing presses these questions upon us so quickly and so clearly as the practice of civil disobedience in a democracy, and the need to appraise it.

In this sphere Howard Zinn has written a most extraordinary book. I do not think his views entirely correct or even consistent; I find the frame within which they are put to be restrictive and disjointed; I am convinced that he is deeply mistaken on certain central issues. Yet the book is splendid—crisp and biting, reflective and insightful, sympathetic and humane. It deserves to be very widely read and very thoughtfully discussed.

The complexity of the issues with which this book deals renders it difficult to do it full justice briefly. It ranges over a great host of problems—the obligations of the citizen, the protection of the freedom of speech, the adequacy of our judicial and representative machinery, the need to devise new techniques of change—and there is hardly a page on which the reader is not impelled to register strong objection, or further observation, or (most often) a cheer. Let me register here two strong objections, one observation and three cheers.

First, objections: The inadequacy of the standard “liberal” view of civil disobedience (of which Justice Fortas' pamphlet Concerning Dissent and Civil Disobedience is taken as the archetype) is Zinn's principal target.

His attack takes the form of identifying a series of fundamental but (allegedly) mistaken propositions upon which the liberal view (more accurately, Fortas' view) is founded. These fallacies, as he calls them, in being widely and uncritically accepted, distort a realistic and healthy view both of the country itself and of civil disobedience as an instrument for change within it. Zinn argues that such disobedience offers rich possibilities for social reform, and ought to be more generously conceived and more liberally practiced. He is careful to say that civil disobedience is not all good, but he is sure that it most often is. Thus, he is obliged to deal with a number of the philosophical issues mentioned earlier, and at such critical points his argument is sometimes very weak.

The first great fallacy attacked is “that the rule of law has an intrinsic value apart from moral ends,” where by moral ends Zinn means only real human needs. It is important for him that this be shown false, because so many (including Justice Fortas) have insisted that there is a universal duty to obey the law, and that this is a moral as well as a legal imperative. On the basis of this belief (Zinn argues), liberals mistakenly conclude that civil disobedience is always unjustifiable unless the law disobeyed is itself clearly and profoundly immoral.

Confusion develops quickly here. Zinn is quite right in maintaining that those who elevate the rule of law to an absolute, and who find every case of civil disobedience unjustifiable simply because it does break the law, and because breaking the law is always wrong, must suffer from serious moral blindness, and must have a cramped and distorted view of history and their own times. Obedience to law, and the order it promotes, is only one great value, after all, and must sometimes be measured against others with which it may come into conflict—economic justice, human liberty, international peace. To accomplish these, or others, the laws may be good instruments; but they may, on occasion, be obstacles instead. A rational citizen must make that judgment. In attacking those who are slavish in their submission to law, Zinn is wise and right.

He is not right or wise, however, when he concludes from this that, apart from the benefits achieved by specific good laws, there is no general moral obligation to obey the law. There is. It is a universal and, I submit, a very weighty obligation upon every citizen stemming from the universal human need to live in a society in which one can have reasonable expectations concerning the conduct (and the limitations upon the conduct) of one's fellow human beings. In that sense the rule of the law is both noble and-practical, and it is a value of high moral import, quite apart from the particular content of individual laws. It is for this reason that one does have an obligation—a moral as well as a legal obligation—to obey a law even if he is quite convinced the law is bad. This, I think, is the force of the claim made by Fortas as well as the man in the street, that the laws always ought to be obeyed. However confusedly expressed, there is deep truth in the proposition that there is something morally wrong in breaking duly constituted laws. Indeed, Zinn exhibits a similar feeling himself when, later in the book, he expresses his distress at the willful disregard, on the part of the American Government as a whole, for the rule of international law to which it is committed. He argues there that nations are bound by the same larger moral principles that bind individual men, and he is right. Among these is the principle that the laws ought to be obeyed.

Of course this principle cannot be absolutely compelling in every circumstance. The assumption that it is absolute, and the careless invocation of this principle whenever the disobedient protest in question happens to offend, are common errors against which Zinn might properly bridle. He goes much further than this, however, even to the extreme of rejecting the intrinsic moral value of government by law.

That is an unhappy turn. I have considerable confidence in Zinn's practical wisdom: but we are not governed by men such as he, nor are we likely to be. Individual judgments of what is right are often essential, but they are never sufficient for good human government. We must have laws, even if they are less good than they might be. In a healthy democratic community the laws will be respected and honored, although they are imperfect, because they are the laws. There is, therefore, a standing presumption against civil disobedience although that presumption may, in exceptional cases, be countered. This is what the standard liberal view is fumbling for; the cheap purposes to which the words of this principle are sometimes put do not in the least detract from its truth.

Of course our national community is, at present, far from healthy. The laws are often disregarded by officials sworn to obey them, and obeyed by citizens who have a higher obligation not to obey them. For it does not follow from the fact that there is a moral obligation to obey the law that such an obligation can never be overridden. It can. It is in such circumstances precisely that civil disobedience may prove justifiable or even obligatory. But what kinds of circumstances these might be, Zinn—partly because of the looseness of his argument—never finds it necessary to make clear.

The second fallacy under attack is that “the person who commits civil disobedience must accept his punishment as right.” Zinn's argument comes to this: if the law is grossly unjust, any punishment for deliberately breaking it is unjust, and therefore the disobedient need not accept any such punishment administered by the state. Here again the position is weak, and the conclusion partly wrong, due to insufficient care and refinement in the analysis. The matter is complicated; Zinn tries to make it appear simple.

At an earlier point Zinn had introduced (less sharply than he might have) the distinction between what I have (elsewhere) called direct disobedience, in which the law broken is the very law protested, and indirect disobedience, in which the law broken is in some other way—symbolically or conventionally—relevant to the issue of the rightness of protest. What needs to be seen here is that this distinction is also importantly relevant to the issue of the rightness of punishment.

Normally, the civil disobedient does expect to be punished for his deliberately unlawful act. This is true because the disobedient is usually not a rebel (contrary to the suggestion of Zinn's language at some points) but a dedicated reformer within a larger system he is determined both to accept and to improve. Should he accept his punishment, then, as right? That depends on what he did, on what kind of law he broke. If he deliberately disobeyed a law he thought immoral in itself he is justified, of course, in fighting punishment in every reasonable way at his command, chiefly through the courts. He will seek to have the bad law struck down, or at least to have it declared inapplicable in his case. If he loses in the end, he is likely, as a citizen who is generally law-abiding, to accept the punishment, not as right but as a painful price he helps to pay for a law-governed community. If the law he broke really was in itself immoral (and we may be in some doubt about that), the legal system will have done an injustice; but we cannot allow every man to sit as the judge in his own case. Of course justice is not always done, and the fight against bad laws must never stop, but miscarriages of justice do not, in themselves, justify the abandonment of a legal system.

If, on the other hand, the disobedient has deliberately broken what he knows to be itself a good law (a traffic or trespass law, or the like) to protest some other evil, say, the war in Vietnam, or oppression in the cities, it is right for him to be punished, not because he is a bad man but because punishment in such cases of indirect disobedience is a part—an essential part—of the act of protest itself. Indirect civil disobedience, if it is to be an effective tactic, must do more than disrupt; it must exhibit the depth and intensity of the commitment of the protester. To be a successful political act within the system, it must be a genuinely moral act within that system. It cannot be that if the system is entirely disregarded. The beauty of this kind of protest lies in the fact that, though the law is broken, the system of laws is respected. Accepting the punishment, when one has deliberately broken a good law, is the only way to show that respect. To evade the punishment, therefore, is to emasculate the protest. The matter is more complex than Zinn's treatment of it would lead us to suppose.

Enough of criticism. One could raise similar objections to others among the arguments Zinn presents. But his work is so effective in opening our eyes and our minds that we profit more from considering his mistakes than from the muddy and superficial truths often encountered elsewhere.

Next, one observation: Disobedience and Democracy is a creative book, rich in insight and suggestion, but its positive impact is less than it could and should have been, largely because of the disjointed form in which it appears. That form is one of rebuttal; everything is framed as a response to Fortas' pamphlet (Concerning Dissent and Civil Disobedience) in which the several fallacies are alleged to appear.

But Fortas' work is itself poorly organized and loosely written, so that in providing a needed blow-by-blow response to it, Zinn is unhappily obliged to share some of its structural weakness. In fact, Zinn's nine fallacies are strung together with little in the way of unifying order; the consequence is that much of the constructive value of his argument is lost in the noise of battle. He has many important things to say about the need for imaginative techniques of social change and the forms they might take; but the force of what he says is partly obscured by the contest in which he is eager to score (and generally does) against a weaker opponent. In fairness it should be added that, treating these two small books as an intellectual confrontation, they present a highly absorbing spectacle, in which the Supreme Court Justice, a man of generous inclinations and considerable mental power, is bested again and again—shown to have been inconsistent, careless, occasionally shallow or unfair. A justice ought to write with greater depth and care than Fortas did, considering the gravity of the matter, Zinn is right in not going easy on him. But the upshot is, in both cases, that the threads which hang the whole together are thin and tangled.

Finally, three cheers, briefly put. One cheer for a short, punchy book, written in a prose that is plain and beautiful. Zinn writes with a directness and candor rare among scholarly men. Just reading the book is a pleasure.

A second cheer for Zinn as a perceptive critic of the American scene. He is a merciless enemy of hypocrisy and cruelty, and he makes us bite our collective lip. He is bitter, but not without hope. The largest thrust of his argument is that of a search for the instruments through which the radical reforms our condition demands can be effected with a minimum of violence and misery. He is good for us.

A third and final cheer for an author who comes through to his reader as a compassionate and gentle man, deeply anguished by the wrongs our nation does in his and all our names. Anguish cannot, by itself, justify civil disobedience as an instrument of change; but the compassion that underlies this book is desperately needed if the wrongs provoking disobedient protest are ever to be righted.

Simon Lazarus (review date 7 December 1968)

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SOURCE: Lazarus, Simon. “Perspective on Dissent.” New Republic 159, no. 23 (7 December 1968): 32-3.

[In the following review of Disobedience and Democracy, Lazarus charges Zinn with romanticizing the politics of civil disobedience and confrontation.]

In his widely distributed pamphlet, Concerning Dissent and Civil Disobedience, Mr. Justice Fortas condemned civil disobedience on the ground that America's formally democratic political system makes social change possible through legal means. This version of law-and-order liberalism is not invulnerable. Unfortunately, Howard Zinn's reply to Fortas succeeds mostly in inverting Fortas's principal difficulties.

Zinn agrees with Fortas that the propriety of civil disobedience depends on its relationship to the democratic principle. But whereas Fortas assumed, with little discussion, that American government offers adequate popular choice as well as social progress, Zinn considers it axiomatic that government can be treated as analytically separate from the people and hostile to their interests. He shares Fortas's tendency to confound the Law with the Right; but whereas Fortas asserted that virtually all that is not legal is ipso facto immoral, Zinn makes the more implausible suggestion that all acts intended to do Right should be considered lawful and receive full judicial protection. Fortas contends that defiance of the law is politically imprudent as well as immoral; Zinn dismisses fears of a repressive counter reaction as “academic and far from reality.”

Whether or not these absolutist approaches are useful as propaganda, they are less than successful as ventures in philosophy or even strategy. The pertinent question is not whether deliberate refusal to obey a law is always moral or immoral, or always prudent or otherwise. The question has to be whether, in a given set of circumstances—in this case, the circumstances of contemporary America—particular disobedient acts should receive moral, legal, or tactical condemnation or condonation—or a measure of both.

In answering this question, one can begin by following out the logic of the Fortas-Zinn premise that civil disobedience as we have seen it has been primarily a political tactic (rather than primarily a private assertion of personal conviction). Sit-ins, draft-card burnings, even occupation of campus and municipal buildings, have in fact largely been bids for publicity, methods of explaining and dramatizing points of view, attempts to mobilize and test public support. The civil disobedience of the American 1960's is in large measure a way of adapting the democratic principle to contemporary conditions—the growing power of bureaucracies to initiate and execute policy with no meaningful popular consent or even notification, the passivity of the affluent electorate, the urgency of the need for change felt by groups deprived of the means of political power or social advance or both. Given these circumstances, tactical acts of law-defiance must be seen for what they are—ingenious ways of forcing consideration of new issues, sorting out relevant constituencies, and then measuring the scope and intensity of support.

Campus revolts, for example, invariably stand or fall on the degree to which rebels are capable of mustering majority support from the students and the faculty; after the confrontation has occurred, the affair becomes a contest for popular favor between the dissidents and the administration. Sit-ins and acts aimed at dramatizing race and poverty issues, similarly try to focus public support. Often such acts are intended to enforce existing laws, when bureaucrats and legislatures are uninterested and court procedures are too cumbersome to be effective. The hope is that exposure itself will embarrass officials into changing things.

Disobedient acts such as these are certainly, by definition, against the law. When prosecutions occur, courts must convict. Indeed, they do convict, and in the normal case, no one cares very deeply. For charges are usually light, and sentences generally token, whenever disobedient acts are aimed at vindicating prevailing values. The affair is, then, a symbolic event, and is treated as such by everyone involved.

But light sentences cannot be counted on in other instances—draft-card burnings, and other acts aimed at the war and the draft, including simple refusals to accept induction. Such acts are not attempts to appeal to existing community standards but to assert a new morality, one which is understood to be out of touch with and even offensive to prevailing values. These classes of acts inevitably not only result in prosecutions, but excite draconic reactions from legislatures and juries. It is here that a judge ought to play a mediating role between the law and justice. He cannot simply refuse to enforce laws, as Zinn seems to recommend, nor can he declare a statute unconstitutional simply because it conflicts with some individual's method of expressing his discontent with things as they are. But a judge should view such cases—like that of David O'Brien, in which the Supreme Court permitted Congress to impose a six-year sentence on young men who “mutilate or destroy” draft cards—in their true light. They are political obscenity cases. They involve no challenge to the public safety or security or even to its convenience—only to the public morality. Under such circumstances, punishment must be viewed with suspicion, and harsh punishment must be regarded as incompatible with standards of tolerance in a civilized society.

There is, however, another side of this coin. When one is in the business of offending majority values, such enterprises sometimes become exercises in nose-thumbing. There is nothing necessarily immoral about nose-thumbing. Nor can anyone seriously interested in change afford to be intimidated by violence at the hands of an outraged crowd, legislature or police force. But symbolic attacks on prevailing moral standards can have unfortunate strategic effects, especially if the offended public gets the impression that the motivation for a strategy of disobedience is mainly to insult.

The increasing tendency of the politics of confrontation to become a battle of hate between upper-class youths and lower-class cops does not bode well for the future of the new radicalism. Nor does the romanticism of enthusiasts like Mr. Zinn about the virtues of confrontation for its own sake. Ultimately, hopes for worthwhile social change lie in formulating a more widely intelligible critique of the status quo and in attracting new constituencies for change. Disobedience as a political technique has made things happen—things that were beyond the reach of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund or the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But the very success of disobedience has perhaps extended a fascination with pseudo-events to a point where it begins to monopolize the attention and affections of radicals like Mr. Zinn.

Saville R. Davis (review date 16 January 1969)

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SOURCE: Davis, Saville R. “The Morality of Dissent.” Christian Science Monitor (16 January 1969): 11.

[In the following review of Disobedience and Democracy, Davis describes Zinn's reasoning as “intricate and sometimes contorted.”]

One would not look to Supreme Court justice Abe Fortas for guidance on civil disobedience, nor to author and teacher Howard Zinn, a passionate advocate of disobedience, for direction on how to preserve the American system of law. But let each one define his position and then lean toward the other, and the occasion is instructive. It is also going to make partisan readers on each side more uncomfortable. This is not a bland subject at a time when it has been argued out on the streets for five tumultuous years with the result, in the Nixon years ahead, still acutely uncertain.

In Disobedience and Democracy Mr. Zinn presents “nine fallacies on law and order” which he finds in the recent Fortas booklet “Concerning Dissent and Civil Disobedience.”

As the two books pass by each other, connecting only at points, the citizen is at a disadvantage. The law is a sophisticated subject, and Mr. Fortas, defending the existing order in a period of sometimes heroic and nonviolent challenge which he approves, and of sometimes violent or ugly challenge which he does not approve, sounds extremely plausible. Disobedience and its allied question of violence against the state make a disturbing topic, and at first glance Mr. Zinn sounds like a troublemaker. A second look confirms it; he is a professional. When he presents intricate and sometimes contorted reasoning as well as the strong opinions that usually come from a protester, it is easy to close the book, rule Mr. Zinn out of order, and conclude that his argument is too complex to bother with. He does not have the skills of a Zachariah Chaffee, who ministered dissent to an earlier period.

The exercise is still a useful one. Mr. Fortas candidly says he would have disobeyed the racist laws of Hitler and the Southern segregation laws. He supports the “great tradition” of civil disobedience when laws are “invalid and unconstitutional.” He writes of the “need … to disobey profoundly immoral or unconstitutional laws.”

Mr. Zinn admits that “violence is in itself an evil, and so can only be justified in those circumstances where it is a last resort in eliminating a greater evil. …” He proposes that disobedience should be “measured to the size of the evil it is intended to eliminate,” that it “would have to be guarded, limited, aimed carefully at the source of injustice, and preferably directed against property rather than people.”

These are substantial modifications offered by Messrs. Fortas and Zinn to the arguments by extreme partisans on both sides. But it is in the center area that the really complex questions arise:

Who decides when laws are “profoundly” immoral, in the Fortas phrase, and by what set of values?

How are the limits to be fixed for Mr. Zinn's “measured” disobedience when he includes poverty and the Vietnam war in his category of deep wrongs? These, he says, result in “enormous violence.” Are we then to measure out maximum disobedience all the time?

The black community is not given the same protection or enforcement of laws as the white in either North or South. Mr. Fortas concedes to the blacks that “even their riots—much as we dislike to acknowledge it—produced some satisfaction of their demands … but the reaction to repeated acts of violence may be repression instead of remedy.” Repression produces more violence, humans being what they are in a democratic society. How deal with this vicious cycle?

If there is any accommodation between the approaches of the Supreme Court justice and the spokesman for dissent, it might be in the anguished statement continually made by Martin Luther King Jr. toward the end: that, unless American society paid far more attention to nonviolent protests, large segments of the community would turn to violence.

Another possible accommodation is this reviewer's conviction that the good sense of the public throws the balance toward or away from dissent, in ways that are not always perfect or even conscious. But enough people either support the dissent or refrain from supporting it when the issue is forced on their attention. This has been the balance wheel in the past and is likely to be so in the future.

Courtney R. Sheldon (review date 30 July 1970)

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SOURCE: Sheldon, Courtney R. “An Urgent Plea to Historians.” Christian Science Monitor (30 July 1970): 5.

[In the following review of The Politics of History, Sheldon suggests that the strength of Zinn's convictions is reminiscent of those of the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.]

Millions of Americans ask plaintively, even desperately, why the unnerving turmoil and strife in a land of such great promise?

The answer of Howard Zinn, professor of political science at Boston University, has the searing conviction of Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison who erupted in 1831:

On this subject (slavery) I do not wish to think or speak or write with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her baby from the fire into which it has fallen—but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present.


The middle America of comfortable suburbs and homogeneous small towns and cities can best try to understand the Howard Zinns by listening to their words directly:

“One needs,” the professor points out, “to put aside on occasion first-rate newspapers, quality magazines, and other respectable sources of news about American civilization, and pick up the big-city tabloids, to read about the family knifings, the suicides, the drownings of babies by their mothers, and the thousands of other horrors that dramatize the huge (and to middle-class America, invisible) underworld of poverty in the United States. These outbursts of frantic violence induced by economic distress might be dismissed as only isolated and rare incidents, if we were not confronted with the statistics of American poverty, which indicate that for every sensational item in the newspapers there are hundreds of thousands of stories of personal tragedy, grief, misery, being played out behind closed doors all over the country, unnoticed by that two-thirds of the nation which shares somewhat in the shallow prosperity of our ‘affluent society.’”

And further: “We had a race question, but we ‘solved’ it by a war to end slavery, and by papering over the continued degradation of the black population with laws and rhetoric. … The Black Power revolt, the festering of the cities beyond our control, the rebellion of students against the Vietnam war and the draft—all indicate that the United States has run out of time, space, and rhetoric.”


As gripping and provocative as these statements are, they are really not why Professor Zinn wrote this book. His purpose was to stir historians “to earn their keep in this world.”

He would have them use more of their scholarly time and resources to expose inconsistencies and double standards in society.

As members of any minority group—political, social, religious—can testify to, history is not complete nor fair on every occasion. Professor Zinn notes: “There is an underside to every Age about which history does not often speak, because history is written from records left by the privileged. We learn about politics from the political leaders, about economics from the entrepreneurs, about slavery from the plantation owners, about the thinking of an age from its intellectual elite.”

Obviously, if the professor's advice to become intensely involved in today's problems were followed by his compatriots, a very different kind of history would be available for the future. Though Mr. Zinn is of liberal persuasion, as today's political spectrum is judged, he undoubtedly would want individuals of all shades of belief to follow their consciences and stir around brusquely in the market-place of ideas.

Professor Zinn is not certain what such a revolution among scholars would look like. He would not throw away all the tried tools of his profession. He sees reform coming at a slow and uneven pace, and he would speed it up to avoid catastrophic upheavals.

Among both the complacent and the aroused in America, there is fortunately beneath the surface a large degree of shared idealism. As Professor Zinn says, “to start historical enquiry with frank adherence to a small set of ultimate values—that war, poverty, race hatred, prisons, should be abolished; that mankind constitutes a single species; that affection and cooperation should replace violence and hostility—such a set of commitments places no pressure on its advocates to tamper with the truth.”

Ralph Stone (review date September 1970)

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SOURCE: Stone, Ralph. “Humanistic History.” Progressive 34, no. 9 (September 1970): 49-50.

[In the following review of The Politics of History, Stone finds that Zinn provides valuable advice to historians on making their work more relevant to the contemporary political situation.]

Howard Zinn is a radical historian. The order is important, for Zinn's perception of the present consciously shapes his outlook on the past. He argues in this book that more historians should do the same. In other words, there should be more politics in history. If so, more people might read what historians are writing. Integrating their history and their politics would also help historians reduce some of that disjointedness they feel between their career and the rest of their lives. Zinn would hope that in the process much of the new history would be radical. But he would settle for conservative scholarship as long as it sought to be relevant. At least such history can be debated; it is living, something that can't be said of most of what is written today.

Zinn begins with the assumption that the only real justification for studying history is to advance man toward the solution of current and future problems. He does not exclude truly artistic works which rely on imagination and flashes of insight to illuminate the past. But few historians are capable of such writing, and few even attempt it. What historians in fact do is write about the past for its own sake. Their defense is that they are laying the foundation blocks which some later scholar, more interpretive and with a longer vision, will erect into a great structure.

Zinn rejects the notion that such building-block history is comparable to what the “pure” scientist does. The latter is seeking ever-expanding alternatives to assist living human beings (or future beings) to cope with their world. The historian too often is writing dead history, dehumanizing not only to those who read it but even more so to those who write it. Who cares about “The Shield Signal at Marathon” or “Bampson of Bampson's Raiders” except a few fellow specialists or antiquarians (one and the same person, Zinn says)?

The point, though, as Zinn concedes, is not the subject itself; the most narrowly conceived subject might compel our attention if significant questions were asked of it. That is not happening and Zinn explains why in his chapter, “History as Private Enterprise.”

Writing history is profitable, Zinn points out. The professor can expect promotions, tenure, prestige, salary increments, not to mention royalties, all for “producing” a commodity that has almost no usefulness except to others in the “business.” While the ambitious historian may not consciously avoid social and political issues, “some quiet gyroscopic mechanism of survival operates to steer [him] toward research within the academic consensus.” He claims that his work does not reflect his middle-class affluence. But Zinn maintains that the scholar's seeming objectivity about the past is only a defense—even if unconscious—of the status quo.

What is the solution? First of all, Zinn advises historians to make a commitment to value-laden history. He distinguishes between ultimate and instrumental values. The former include such things as economic security, freedom of expression, abolition of war and racism; these values can be adhered to with no danger that they will distort the historian's enquiry. Instrumental values, however, are dangerous; for example, the influence of a religion, nationality, ideology, or particular class can badly prejudice an otherwise acceptable work.

Next, Zinn suggests several specific ways historians might proceed in applying ultimate values: “We can intensify, expand, sharpen our perception of how bad things are, for the victims of the world.” “We can expose the pretensions of governments to either neutrality or beneficence.” “We can expose the ideology that pervades our culture—rationale for the going order.” “We can recapture those few moments in the past which show the possibility of a better way of life than that which has dominated the earth thus far.” And “We can show how good social movements can go wrong, how leaders can betray their followers, how rebels can become bureaucrats, how ideals can become frozen and reified.”

All good advice, I think, and Zinn demonstrates what he means in a series of essays that form the middle part of the book. Chapters on the abolitionists, racism, the New Deal, Fiorello La Guardia, and imperialism, among others, are of varying quality. Zinn is at his best when discussing the recent black experience. Not surprisingly, this is the subject which he probably knows most intimately from personal involvement, thus supporting his argument for more politics in history.

My major questions concern methodology. The historian clearly can not escape being affected to a great degree by instrumental values. This is especially so when ultimate values conflict. Thus, when economic security, for example, is blocked, does one forsake non-violence? Zinn accepts the necessity of violence to promote social change, though only as a last resort and with many wise qualifications. Nevertheless, one's means will inevitably shape his end. The same statement applies to one's history. Granted we must make our writing more relevant, useful, and humanistic. Can we not also make it more precise in the best scientific sense? Zinn has little to say about quantifying and statistical methods.

Historians—and academicians generally—may not like Zinn's book. But they just might profit from it.

Philip Green (review date December 1970)

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SOURCE: Green, Philip. Review of The Politics of History, by Howard Zinn. American Political Science Review 64, no. 4 (December 1970): 1281-83.

[In the following review, Green discusses Zinn's rejection of the possibility of achieving objectivity in historical writing.]

The purpose of Howard Zinn's excellent collection of essays on history and historiography is to draw attention by both analysis and precept to “the consequences in action of historical writing. The meaning … of a writer will be found not just in what he intends to say, or what he does literally say, but in the effect of his writing on living beings.” (p. 279) “The Politics of History,” then, is a literal title, referring not to political events in time past but to the current activities as historians (and social scientists) themselves, Zinn's own included. For in a world, as he puts it, “where children are still not safe from starvation or bombs,” it is willy-nilly a political act to engage one's sympathies with or withhold them from the actors who have made the present and are making the future, and who are the objects of our study; indeed, the very choice by academics of a subject matter itself is also a political act. Thus Zinn rejects the canon of so-called objectivity in research, for since all social studies whose interpretation bears on our assessment of our own condition are ipso facto political, “objectivity” is only a mask with which we hide the real social consequences of what we are doing and saying.

In the beginning and concluding theoretical essays that form the framework of this collection, Zinn criticizes inter alia: 1) history-writing as supposedly value-free narrative about events whose interpretation is significant for us as citizens today (and which therefore can't possibly be genuinely “value-free”); 2) history-writing about such events, in the analysis of which the historian shows the wrong human sympathies, rather than pretending to have none; 3) the conventional wisdom particularly in the field of American History, which fobs apologetics off as “historical knowledge” to be passed on from generation to generation; 4) pedantic historiographical controversy about the supposedly best way to insure the discovery of those chimeras “science” and “objectivity” in historical studies, a controversy which otherwise intelligent academics engage in as a substitute for committing themselves to the discussion of important substantive issues; and 5) history-writing as value-free narrative about events of mere antiquarian interest. (Zinn, I think, overdoes this last point. The tellers of socially trivial tales are the true members of a very narrow, specialized calling related to Zinn's in name only; no more than shoemakers ought they to be scolded for not being critical intellectuals—no more than Agatha Christie ought to be scolded for not being James Joyce.)

In all these cases the clear point Zinn makes is that historians and social scientists are political men (one of Zinn's essays is entitled “Knowledge as a Form of Power”), functioning as apologists for the American status quo. Some carry out this function tacitly—through professional narrow-mindedness (4 and 5), methodological naivete (1 and 4), or lack of commitment to piercing beneath the veil of appearances (3); others carry it out overtly (2) by opposing the drastic social changes Zinn feels are necessary (and will be felt as necessary, he suggests, by anyone who detaches himself from the interests of the wealthy and powerful of the world). Unfortunately there is some confusion in Zinn's theoretical discussion of these points: the concluding essays are pitched almost entirely at the level of methodology, when in fact the more important criticism is that so many academics lack independence of intellect or a feeling for justice (3 and 2)—and these are not methodological problems at all.

This confusion in an otherwise brilliant discussion is more than compensated for by the uniform excellence of the substantive essays that form the bulk of this book. It is in these essays that Zinn both particularizes his critique of status quo apologetics and—what is more rarely done—offers his own, competing version of history in the service of social change rather than history in the service of the current world and national division of powers.

Roughly speaking, these essays fall into two groups. First those collected under the heading “Nationalism” vigorously attack the credentials of American liberalism in foreign policy. In a well-known article on the Vietnam War and with especial forcefulness in a chapter of historical summary entitled “Aggressive Liberalism,” Zinn undercuts the pieties with which Americans assure themselves that they have been peaceful and reformist in external affairs (including especially the affairs of this continent), rather than warlike and reactionary. Of course this argument is familiar by now; but it is Zinn among others who helped to make it so familiar.

The second group of essays forms a long and often exciting example of what Jesse Lemisch has called “History from the Bottom Up.” This kind of history, unlike most of our standard histories, is not based on the perceptions of political and social leaders, intellectuals and other beneficiaries of the American success story; rather, it is built around an attempt to understand the lives and hopes of the American underclass, and of our relatively few but enduring rebels; the “success” of American liberalism on the domestic scene is not presumed (as it is by “consensus” historians) but is precisely the fundamental point in question. In essays on inequality in American history, the 1914 massacre of striking mineworkers at Ludlow, Colorado, Fiorello LaGuardia, the New Deal, the Abolitionists, racism in America, and the suppression of mass civil rights demonstrations in Albany, Georgia, Zinn returns to this point over and over again. There has always been a multitude of the excluded and oppressed in America, and their oppression has often been (and still is) terrible; liberal meliorism has often been of little help to this class and on many occasions, especially when race has been involved, has not even been benign (Zinn demonstrates conclusively that the Kennedy Administration, by its unwillingness to protect peaceful protestors against savage attack, combined with its willingness to prosecute them when they defended themselves, allowed and even fostered a “pattern of brutality against the Negro” in the Deep South—and today everywhere). Finally, he reveals American history-writing at its most complacent and methodologically inept in its treatment of the American radical tradition, as he shows that our historians have followed the pattern of psychoanalyzing the latent motives of radicals, but unquestioningly accepting the manifest statements of principle of the ruling class—and of the historians themselves! Writing about Lewis Feuer's analysis of the Berkeley rebels Zinn notes that “Biopsychological ‘causes’ of human catastrophe are … marvelous reinforcers of the going order because they have no operable corrective … Explanations of social events by castration complexes insure impotency” (p. 165).

In sum, Zinn writes from the same standpoint that Christian Bay justifies in his The Structure of Freedom: a society—and for an historian like Zinn the past of a society—is to be judged not by the power and freedom available to its best-off citizens, or even to the average citizen, but by the kind of life available to its outsiders. Zinn, like several others now doing the same kind of work in diverse areas of research—Lemisch, Stephen Thernstrom, Michael Parenti, Peter Bachrach, Louis Lipsitz, and Robert Coles for example—has made a major contribution to a more balanced judgment of this society. It may be time for the practitioners of this kind of scholarship to come together and create their own standard texts to spread their unconventional wisdom.

William L. O'Neill (review date June 1973)

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SOURCE: O'Neill, William L. “Optimistic Activist.” Progressive 37, no. 6 (June 1973): 57.

[In the following review of Postwar America: 1945-1971, O'Neill contends that there is little that is new in Zinn's revisionist history of the postwar years.]

This book demonstrates how important timeliness is to a polemic. Few readers of The Progressive are likely to disagree with political scientist Howard Zinn's description of American foreign policy, or his denunciations of racism, sexism, militarism, and assorted other blights. But neither are they likely to find much that is new to them. The revisionist histories such as those by Gabriel Kolko and Lloyd C. Gardner have made us familiar with the often sordid motives underlying American diplomacy. Thanks to Gar Alperovitz and many others we know that even if the decision to use nuclear weapons against Japan was right (which Zinn disputes), it was arrived at wrongly. And what literate person can now escape knowing that the poor, the black, and the disadvantaged all have reason to feel mistreated and neglected?

Five or six years ago Zinn's remarks might have been news to some. But at this late date to announce breathlessly that in a capitalist country capitalists have unfair advantages is to make even the sympathetic reader feel embarrassed for him. Zinn has left no moderately radical cliche unmolested, which is exasperating even when you agree with the point of view. Surely the day is long past when it is appropriate to write about American failings as if one were Upton Sinclair discovering the Chicago Stockyards.

A further drawback is the disingenuous air of his conclusions. Zinn is eager to find signs of hope in our present circumstances, as who is not, but many that he invokes have faded away. The student movement is gone. The Black Panthers have sunk back into obscurity, perhaps even moderation. Of all the movements he writes about only women's liberation still seems to be growing.

Zinn's last paragraph begins: “In postwar America, it was beginning to be recognized by a small but growing part of the population that the special qualities of control possessed by the modern liberal system demanded a long revolutionary process of struggle and example.” It is not quite clear what Zinn means by this, but he seems to suggest that vanguard elements are on the move again, in commune and caucus, working for the good society. This notion, which was valid a few years ago, is clearly out of date.

I do not mean to say that optimism is wrong; indeed, serious reformers cannot get along without it. But when hope becomes wishful thinking no one benefits. That such a committed and intelligent activist as Howard Zinn has given way to it is perhaps a measure of the difficulties we face. All the same, denying reality does not make it less real. The effect instead is to trivialize obstacles, even when they are indicted passionately as Zinn does. If we are to understand, still less confront, our problems we must take them more seriously than Zinn is able to do.

Peter Michelson (review date 28 July 1973)

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SOURCE: Michelson, Peter. “Armchair Revolution.” New Republic 169, nos. 4 & 5 (28 July 1973): 24-6.

[In the following review of Postwar America: 1945-1971, Michelson praises Zinn's critique of liberalism, but ultimately finds his account of postwar politics a romanticized version of events.]

If it is true, as one wit said, that a liberal is a radical with a wife and two kids, then that tells us a whole lot about the millstone around the neck of American radicalism. Picture the liberal of the last few weeks. He gets home from his $20,000 a year job, kisses his wife, plays ball for 10 minutes with his kids, eats dinner, and then tunes in the PBS “gavel to gavel” rebroadcast of the daily Watergate circus. Somewhat condescendingly and a little self-righteous, he watches Stans, Magruder, Dean & Co. with a faint but distinctive flutter of hope. Maybe, he thinks as he sits and sips his middling good scotch, maybe they will, maybe they can get Him. His fantasies soar: indictment? impeachment? resignation? News flash: Cambodian compromise; the President promises to abide by the Constitution, in 45 days. Thump, back down: a pack of thieves. He sits. He watches. Maybe he writes his congressman. He hopes.

What does he hope for, this right-minded man with a wife, two kids and a mortgage? Does he hope for a society of just and equitable distribution of wealth, for a society where men's minds are not stooped to the grindstone of wage intimidation, for a society where their health needs are guaranteed, for a society free from the manipulation of corporate legerdemain? No, his feet are too much on the ground for such dreams. He merely hopes the thieves will be caught. Less than that even: he hopes that a symbolic thief will be caught. For though he knows that the mechanics of his society demand thievery to ensure both personal “success” and social “progress,” he is not so utopian as to think of changing the machinery. His aspiration is for a scapegoat.

That mythical beast is not dead yet. And didn't the President, a pure product of America, somewhat unwittingly call the shot in his April 30th speech when he told us that the Watergate investigation will prove the machinery liberal enough to reform itself? Heads I win, tails you lose. For whether Nixon wins or loses this most celebrated of his mock-epic “crises” will make no real difference to the corrupt operations of our national machinery. Let's allow ourselves for example a hallucinatory moment and suppose that Nixon and Agnew both resign, and a penitent nation then turns to George McGovern, who wins a landslide victory over William Buckley, Jr. in a special interim election. After he stops the bombing in Cambodia, what will he do? Will he dissolve the CIA? Will he nationalize or otherwise delimit the multinational and other corporations who continue to expand the American commercial and military “empire”? Will the economy be controlled? Will the nation's wealth be even a little more equally distributed among its citizens? Will he even be able to ensure all of them adequate medicine, housing and nutrition? No, all of that, whatever our self-serving rhetoric, is beyond the liberal dream. The American liberal these days dreams of ritual reform. Nixon is the liberal scapegoat not because he is corrupt, but because he is so arrogant and ineptly corrupt that he threatens to blow the mythic cover that enables the machine to operate smoothly.

Howard Zinn's recent book, Postwar America: 1945-1971, helps give us perspective on the melodrama of American liberalism, and in so doing gives us a sense also of the dilemma of American radicalism. Ostensibly a history, the book is really a political argument indicting the domestic and international power drift of an American liberalism in the service of capitalism. What Zinn does sharply is illustrate the great gap between the rhetorical and working creeds of liberalism, and how the United States has become the most effective of modern countries “in utilizing its rhetorical creed, in conjunction with its working creed, to sustain control over its own people and to extend control over other parts of the world.” That, sustaining and extending control, is for Zinn the principal motif of liberalism since 1945. Thus he expands the customary sense of liberalism to include the full mainstream spectrum of American politics.

For this he will be criticized, especially by liberals. All the Presidents from Roosevelt to Nixon fall within the liberal bounds by virtue of their hypocritical commitment to the rhetorical creed best represented by the language of the Declaration of Independence: “all Men are created equal … unalienable Rights … Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness … whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it. …” The working creed, of course, is different:

… all men are created equal, except foreigners with whom we are at war, blacks … Indians … inmates of prisons, members of the armed forces, and anyone without money; that what are most alienable are the lives of men sent off to war and the liberties of people helpless against authority; that whenever members of any group of people become destructive of this working creed, it is the right of the government to alter or abolish them by persecution or imprisonment.

And Zinn's main thesis is that American liberalism, as the agent of capitalist expansionism, has adroitly sustained an ambiguously disguised counter-point between these two creeds to cultivate the myth of the benevolent velvet glove within which operates the iron fist of profit, power and control.

Consider for example his fine exegesis of what we might call the Atom Bomb Allegory, how liberal America's use of “ultimate” power to end World War II was motivated not by military and humane necessity as our rhetorical creed proclaimed, but by the desire to establish American power and commercial interests in the process in Asia. The bomb was used not only to preclude Russia's entry into the Pacific war but also as an unequivocal show of power, an implicit threat to the rest of the world. On that authority America's “sphere of influence” began to infiltrate the globe. To what end? Empire. Zinn shrewdly notes for instance that “the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development was presumably established to help reconstruct war-destroyed areas; but in its own words one of its first objectives was to ‘promote private foreign investment’ all over the world.” Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt's chief adviser, said in 1944, “… it is highly important that business and government have an early meeting of minds as to general policy governing private investments abroad.” The rationale for which was succinctly summed up by the State Department's Herbert Feis, “The United States could not passively sanction … capital … for ends contrary to our major policies or interests … Capital is a form of power.” The language of profit, Zinn reveals, was paramount in the liberal vocabularies of not only top advisers but of Roosevelt himself (a State Department summary of Roosevelt's meeting with Ibn-Saud of Saudi Arabia after the Yalta conference cites him as saying, “that essentially, the President was a businessman … And that as a businessman he would be very much interested in Arabia”) and such principals of his administration as Hull, Forrestal, Wallace and Harriman. The atomic bomb, then, was used not so much as a “humanitarian” end to a vicious war, for which it was unnecessary, but as the beginning of the Cold War with Russia and to prepare the world for the United States to fill the economic vacuum left by the postwar demise of the British Empire.

The pattern of power, control and profit, backed by the moral interventionism of World War II and bolstered by liberal scorn for “isolationism,” became the working principle of American foreign policy. The 1947 intervention in Greece set the model and its subsequent success is by now an old and painful story, leading the United States into Korea, Guatemala, Lebanon, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and at last Vietnam. The Pax Americana, a peace, as Archibald MacLeish put it in the 1940s when he was assistant secretary of State, “a peace of oil, a peace of gold, a peace of shipping … a peace without moral purpose or human interest, a peace of dicker and trade … which will lead us where … dicker and trade have always led.” And it did. At home as well as abroad. The corporation vs. the people; capital is power, and power is the name of the game.

Zinn's valuable service in this book is his incisive analysis of history, showing how liberalism has served the interests of corporate capitalism under the rhetorical banner of preserving the “free world.” But for all the sharpness of its critique, the book suffers finally from political romanticism, the sort of wishful thinking that reveals the frustrating dilemma of American radicalism. In The Politics of History (1970) Zinn presented a theory of “radical history” in which he justified a “value-laden historiography” as a means of helping move the consciousness of the country toward at least some kind of revolutionary sense. I presume he intends Postwar America to be an essay in radical history, and insofar as it helps explode the myth of liberalism it has that tactical function. But when Zinn suggests that the counterculture, for example, or that antiwar protest is revolutionary, he embalms radical politics in liberal imagery:

It was on that Memorial Day weekend that several hundred veterans against the war camped out on the green at Lexington, Massachusetts, the cradle of the American revolution. They were joined by three hundred citizens, and then all were arrested for refusing to leave the green. After getting out of jail, the veterans went to Bunker Hill, spent the night, and held an antiwar rally on the Boston Common the next day. This defection from violence, from war, this rebellion against authority, this suspicion of government, this independence of spirit, came twenty-five years after the passive acceptance by American soldiers in 1945 of the dropping of the atomic bomb on the men, women, and children of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Something important was happening to the spirit and mind of many people in the United States.

Was a revolution—at least the first stirrings of one—taking place in postwar America? Many with a strong sense of history were dubious. …

And yet, there was something qualitatively different this time.

Bracketing American history with Bunker Hill makes for hopeful literature. It should; it's the old liberal fantasy machine, maybe the best the world has ever known. But it is wrong. Radically wrong. For it shows how much the language of radicalism and revolution has become the bauble of liberal fantasies, however “leftist” they may be.

Here for example is Zinn's conclusion: “… it was beginning to be recognized … that the special qualities of control possessed by the modern liberal system demanded a long revolutionary process … The process would have to be long enough, intense enough, to change the thinking of people … To work for the great ends of the Declaration of Independence … did not mean looking for some future day of fruition. It meant beginning immediately to make those ends real.” But consider the fate of such immediate beginnings as we have had. Bobby Seale, to take one highly signifying example, has turned to electoral politics as a Democrat, saying that he has gone “beyond” Black Panther strategies. The Panthers themselves, those who have not been murdered, imprisoned or exiled, seem to have turned their energies to internal squabbles. The SDS has folded. The Weathermen and their “Days of Rage” succeeded only in effecting the election of such reactionaries as Cook County Sheriff Richard Elrod. The bourgeois radicalism of Saul Alinsky proved itself empty of political content. The counterculture has either retreated to the bucolic life or cashed in on a new style. The “ending” of the Vietnam war has neutralized the radical potential of antiwar politics. When a revolutionary commune a few months ago accidentally blew itself up with its own arsenal in a New York brownstone, we were confronted with perhaps the most pathetic possible metaphor of radical masochism trying to cut loose from its liberal albatross.

The liberal maw takes in everything, including its own critics. It seduces the radical will. The dilemma of Zinn's book is therefore the dilemma of American radicalism as a whole. The radical is sick of the liberal fraud, but his means of opposition to it are so puny and have proved so ineffectual that watching Senator Ervin wave the liberal banner on television makes as much sense as doing anything else. And how easy it is to sit in an armchair and be fed our liberal lunch intravenously through the tube. To imagine, while filling in the dots, that one is actively participating in the continuing story of the revolution!

James T. Patterson (review date September 1973)

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SOURCE: Patterson, James T. Review of Postwar America: 1945-1971, by Howard Zinn. The Journal of American History 60, no. 2 (September 1973): 513-14.

[In the following review of Zinn's account of the postwar era, Patterson faults Zinn for neglecting various aspects of social and cultural history, among them issues involving women and families, religious developments, ethnic conflict, and urban problems.]

No self-respecting publishing firm these days can hold up its head unless it tries to capture the college market (students, that is) by promoting a series of short books on American history. Howard Zinn's book is part of such a series, billed as the History of American Society. The editor of this venture, Jack P. Greene, says that the volumes will “outline in broad strokes … the main thrust of American economic, social, and cultural development and the interaction between that development and American political and public life” (p. x).

Zinn, an activist who makes no pretense of objectivity, does no such thing. Instead, he starts with a New Left critique of American foreign policy and follows with sharp assaults on American political and judicial institutions. He concludes by calling for a humane new socialism, the demise of the nation-state, the abolition of prisons, and the end of authoritarianism in personal and familial relationships. Though he is ambiguous about the role to be played by the federal government, he appears to hope that direct action, such as the strategy employed by the civil rights movement, will force a way to change.

This polemic may reassure activist students. Though repetitive and occasionally dull, his book may assist professors who are seeking examples to document the nasty side of postwar American life. Zinn may also shock the few students, if any, who have never before encountered his point of view.

Teachers looking for social history should turn elsewhere. Zinn devotes but three pages to the status of women, none to family life, marriage and divorce, juvenile delinquency, or other demographic trends. He barely mentions religious developments, and says nothing about postwar ethnic relations. Cultural trends, despite the editor's promise, are ignored. Zinn says almost nothing about internal migrations, about immigration, or about the nature of life in northern cities and suburbs. Astonishingly, Zinn, a veteran advocate of civil rights, ignores class divisions within the black community; and he apparently prefers to forget about the severe racial tensions which rent the civil rights movement in the 1960s. CORE, he notes carelessly, was a “newly formed” organization in the 1960s (p. 205).

In place of analysis, Zinn relies on unbalanced assertions or on time-worn phrases. America's inequities, he concludes, stem from nationalism, the profit motive, and a faulty political system. But what nation is free of these? Are these “faults” becoming more or less serious? Is it true that “all major episodes of American foreign policy in the postwar period show the same fanatical anti-communism” (p. 51)? Should the Supreme Court's Barenblatt decision of 1959, which most authorities regard as a temporary swing to the right, be emphasized as characteristic of the court's postwar record on civil liberties?

One yearns also for a wider time perspective. Is postwar America different from what went before; if so, why; if not, why not? Is the class structure more or less equitable than it was in 1900, or 1940? Are blacks better or worse off? Is affluence a myth? Have federal programs meant as little as Zinn claims? Readers will not find analyses of these questions. To Zinn, it is not the past but the future that counts.

Michael Kammen (review date 23 March 1980)

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SOURCE: Kammen, Michael. “How the Other Half Lived.” Washington Post Book World (23 March 1980): 7.

[In the following review, Kammen finds A People's History a largely unsuccessful attempt to synthesize the body of revisionist historiography of the 1970s.]

Howard Zinn has earned his medals as a radical academic and social activist. He served nobly in the civil rights movement during the 1960s and subsequently became an outspoken critic of our tragic involvement in Vietnam. He is now in the news because the president of Boston University, where Zinn is a professor of political science, is trying to fire five tenured faculty members who led a strike last fall against the president's authoritarian policies. Howard Zinn is one of the “B.U.5.”

Most of his previous publications have dealt with American history in the 20th century, especially southern and black history, our Vietnam fiasco and related aspects of injustice in the United States. His collected essays, The Politics of History (1970), accused his fellow historians of “elitism,” and pleaded for a new approach to history, history from “the bottom up”—a more egalitarian history that would de-emphasize the role of great white men and give adequate attention to workers, women and minorities.

A People's History of the United States takes such an approach and seeks to fill that need. I wish that I could pronounce Zinn's book a great success; but it is not. It is a synthesis of the radical and revisionist historiography of the past decade, incorporating many of the strengths and most of the weaknesses of that highly uneven body of literature. Zinn's America is not a land of liberty but a land of relentless exploitation and hypocrisy. The traditional treatment of U.S. history is turned upside down. Zinn might well have borrowed the title of a novel by Jack London (which he cites on p. 315), People of the Abyss. That would be a fair summary of the story that Zinn relates.

Zinn's gravest error of commission is to include too many tedious snippets as well as lengthy quotations from radical historians. Not only does the book read like a scissors-and-paste-pot job, but, even less attractive, so much attention to historians, historiography and historical polemic leaves precious little space for the substance of history. Thus Philip Foner, a radical historian, is cited nine times, while Thomas Jefferson is mentioned only eight.

Zinn's sins of omission are even more serious. He has virtually no interest in religion, for example, a force that for three centuries was phenomenal rather than epiphenomenal in American life. Puritanism, despite its profound impact upon American culture, gets short shrift. The Great Awakening, the single most consequential social movement between colonization and the coming of the American Revolution—and a movement fraught with egalitarian consequences—is not discussed. The Mormons are totally ignored, as is Brigham Young (I suppose because he was an exploitative sexist), despite the fact that he led one of the most remarkable folk (“people's”) movements in all of American history. Zinn has no place for major evangelists, like Jonathan Edwards and Charles G. Finney, and no time for leading theologians like Horace Bushnell and Reinhold Niebuhr. It could be argued, however, that such individuals, functioning as writers, preachers and social activists, had a major impact upon “the people.”

Zinn has little interest in ideas: either the philosophical variety or the more practical, technological sort. He talks about the Berrigan brothers but mentions just once, and in passing, John C. Calhoun, one of the two or three Americans who have made a truly original contribution to political philosophy. Zinn mentions Karl Marx on numerous occasions, but never Thorstein Veblen, whose penetrating analyses of industrial development, 1870-1920, deserve close attention. Key figures who transformed the lives of ordinary Americans at home, at work, and in getting from one to the other—Robert Fulton, Eli Whitney, Thomas A. Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and Henry Ford—are rarely mentioned (Edison once, Ford twice, the others not at all). Radio and television as innovations with great impact upon “the people”? Simply not examined.

Well then, who and what is discussed? Figures of social protest and political criticism. Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger, but not Stephen Foster, whose music for more than a century was very much “the people's” music and eventually had considerable influence upon black music in the 20th century. We get H. Rap Brown, Huey Newton and Julian Bond, but not George Washington Carver. We get Pablo Picasso but not Charles Sheeler, an artist who is central to the American esthetic tradition and had important things to “say” about the way technology altered the quality of life in America. We get Catharine Beecher, who deserves to be in any “people's history” because she transformed American notions of “domestic economy”; but we do not get her father, Lyman, an extraordinary evangelist, or her brother, Henry Ward Beecher, the most widely known clergyman in Victorian America. We get Eartha Kitt but not Florence Kelley and Jane Addams, who pioneered the settlement house movement for the urban underprivileged. We get W. E. B. Du Bois repeatedly, but nary a mention of John Dewey. We get William Z. Foster, a communist leader, but not Jacob Riis, the muckraking reformer and photographer whose book, How the Other Half Lives (1890), called dramatic attention to life in the slums. We get Black Panthers galore but not Hugo Black, one of the greatest civil libertarians to have graced the Supreme Court.

We do deserve a people's history; but not a singleminded, simpleminded history, too often of fools, knaves and Robin Hoods. We need a judicious people's history because the people are entitled to have their history whole: not just those parts that will anger or embarrass them.

I find history from “the bottom up” as unsatisfactory as “elitist” history. “Histoire totale” has a somewhat different meaning in French historical thought than a direct translation might suggest. Nevertheless, we would do well to adapt that phrase and ask future historians of the United States who are prepared to devote 600 pages to the American experience, from Columbus to Jimmy Carter, to give us truly total history. If that is asking for the moon, than we will cheerfully settle for balanced history. Ours has encompassed grandeur as well as tragedy, magnanimity as well as muddle, honor as well as shame. Like Walt Whitman, we must embrace it all.

Bruce Kuklick (review date 24 May 1980)

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SOURCE: Kuklick, Bruce. “The People? Yes.” Nation 230, no. 20 (24 May 1980): 634-36.

[In the following review, Kuklick claims that while A People's History is a radical textbook, it exhibits many of the problems common to textbooks in general.]

Howard Zinn admits that “a people's history” is not the best description of his work, and I've tried to understand it by figuring out what would be the best description. The book is clearly about the oppression of the people: there are eloquent renditions of the destruction of Indian culture and rich analyses of the torment of the slaves, their revolts and their degradation after the Civil War. There are long explorations of the misery of the working class, its attempts to avoid becoming cannon fodder in American wars, and its struggles to form unions. Much time is also devoted to the study of left and radical politics. Finally, Zinn writes of the subjugation of women, although here I was struck by the brevity of his treatment, as if he were a relative latecomer to feminism who hadn't fully integrated its views into his own.

At the same time, Zinn has almost nothing to say about the daily texture of the social life of the people and, what is more surprising, there is no discussion of the people's religion—surely a central aspect of American experience in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and an important element in much of the nineteenth.

On its face, then, Zinn has written a book about class conflict and the awareness of such conflict among the masses. Eric Foner, writing for The New York Times, has pointed this out in arguing that Zinn has related only part of our history. What is needed, Foner says, is an integration of Zinn's narrative with a similar narrative about the elite. But Foner's analysis also falls short of understanding what Zinn is doing.

When Zinn comes to the post-1945 period, he actually spends much of his time exploring the doings of the elite. There is an extended summary of cold-war diplomacy from a “revisionist” standpoint and lengthy examinations of the connections among corporate, business and military leadership. Watergate is nothing if not an elite affair; yet Zinn has much to say about it.

The book is actually a radical textbook history of the United States. It's designed to give the left a usable past and, I think Zinn hopes, to inculcate into students a certain view of America. One gets a sense of this from the historical tempo. Zinn's 600 pages cover almost 500 years of history; yet one-third of the book is on the last sixty years, one-quarter on the last thirty. Fifteen percent of the book is spent on Zinn's favorite decade in the history of humankind—the 1960s.

I don't mean to derogate A People's History by assessing it as a radical textbook. Zinn writes clearly and articulately; his narrative is coherent and thematically unified. On the assumption that textbooks are socializing agents I prefer this sort of text to the usual ones celebrating industrialists and Presidents, texts for which Zinn has an ill-concealed but justifiable contempt.

At the same time, the book suffers the defects of the textbook genre. Its comprehension of issues is stunted; its understanding of materials is unnuanced. A People's History doesn't rise above these standard textbook problems in the way that, say, a rare sort of text like Carl Degler's Out of Our Past (1959) does. Degler's biases are liberal, but he brought to his task a subtlety and sophistication that Zinn doesn't possess.

Take Zinn's neglect of religion. Most of the time, I suspect, he believes it's the opiate of the masses, and wants to dismiss discussion of “the people” in their drugged state. But such a view not only ignores something important about the people but also overlooks the revolutionary and anti-elite dimension to American religious belief. The Massachusetts antinomian controversy, the Salem witch trials, the periodic revivals and contemporary cult movements all display this potential, yet Zinn neglects them all.

Another set of examples: his radicalism to the contrary, Zinn is unable to realize that the resilience and shrewdness of American liberalism are the greatest enemies of the left reform he hopes for. He can't resist writing some sympathetic words about the New Deal, despite the fact that Franklin Roosevelt, more than any other single person, is responsible for the twentieth-century success of the system Zinn abhors. When he treats Joe McCarthy, he goes no further than the liberal notion that the Wisconsin Senator was a grotesque anti-Communist. Zinn doesn't see that McCarthy saw through a glass darkly: part of his message to “the people” was that internationalist diplomacy was the product of a smug ruling class whose policies had the chief consequence of sending the ruled off to needless wars. This veiled message was also surely part of McCarthy's appeal.

Perhaps the most significant example comes from reviewing Zinn's attempts to grasp the failures of “the people” over five centuries. His story is of continuous expressions of class consciousness and solidarity. For Zinn, the workers, the poor, the oppressed know who their enemies are, and their history is one of persistent and recurring attempts to throw off the oppressors' yoke. Yet they never succeed; indeed, Zinn effectively admits that they've failed again and again by noting how successful “the system” has been at containing or transforming protest. How do we explain the people's constant failure and the elite's constant success?

Zinn's text is so blunted that it has only mechanistic answers to this question. The ruling group found “a wonderfully useful device,” the symbols of nationhood; “the profit system” began to look overseas; the system had “an instinctual response” for survival; “American capitalism” needed international rivalry and demanded a national consensus for war, and “the system” always responded to pressures by “finding new forms of control.”

I don't find these explanations very sensitive; they reflect, again, the failures of the textbook genre. But all this is not to say that Zinn's is not an excellent text. It's rather to say that one should read Carl Degler first.

Oscar Handlin (review date autumn 1980)

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SOURCE: Handlin, Oscar. “Arawaks.” American Scholar 49 (autumn 1980): 546-50.

[In the following review of A People's History, Handlin refutes the accuracy of many of the historical facts presented in Zinn's book.]

This is a book about Arawaks.

Once upon a time, people remarkable for their belief in sharing and for their hospitality lived blissfully without commerce; they relied exclusively on the natural environment for sustenance. They valued the arts, and accorded each sex freedom and dignity. Ages before the Arawaks, the Mound Builders, also devoted to the arts, had occupied the same continent. And from across the ocean came blacks out of such idyllic communal groups that they hardly needed law; even slavery was benign. Then the destructive white strangers arrived—and after that it was downhill all the way.

Such is the story Zinn purports to unfold. He ascribes the topsy-turvy quality of his description to its perspective—the Constitution viewed by the slaves, Andrew Jackson by the Cherokees, the Civil War by the New York Irish, the Spanish-American War by Cubans, the New Deal by Harlem blacks, and the recent American empire by Latin-American peons. Alas, he can produce little proof that the people he names, from slaves to peons, saw matters as he does. Hence the deranged quality of his fairy tale, in which the incidents are made to fit the legend, no matter how intractable the evidence of American history.

It may be unfair to expose to critical scrutiny a work patched together from secondary sources, many used uncritically (Jennings, Williams), others ravaged for material torn out of context (Young, Pike). Any careful reader will perceive that Zinn is a stranger to evidence bearing upon the peoples about whom he purports to write. But only critics who know the sources will recognize the complex array of devices that pervert his pages.

This book pays only casual regard to factual accuracy. It simply is not true that “what Columbus did to the Arawaks of the Bahamas, Cortez did to the Aztecs of Mexico, Pizarro to the Incas of Peru, and the English settlers of Virginia and Massachusetts to the Powhatans and the Pequots.” It simply is not true that the farmers of the Chesapeake colonies in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries avidly desired the importation of black slaves, or that the gap between rich and poor widened in the eighteenth-century colonies. Zinn gulps down as literally true the proven hoax of Polly Baker and the improbable Plough Jogger, and he repeats uncritically the old charge that President Lincoln altered his views to suit his audience. The Geneva assembly of 1954 did not agree on elections in a unified Vietnam; that was simply the hope expressed by the British chairman when the parties concerned could not agree. The United States did not back Batista in 1959; it had ended aid to Cuba and washed its hands of him well before then. “Tet” was not evidence of the unpopularity of the Saigon government, but a resounding rejection of the northern invaders.

Since Zinn does not comprehend the simple meaning of words, he labels John Adams an aristocrat and Theodore Parker a racist, and turns free trade into imperialism. Talk of liberty and country Zinn considers a rhetorical device to conceal rule by the rich few, and the Revolution of 1776 he describes as just the creation of a legal entity to take over land, profits, and power. Woman, in status, was “akin to a house slave.”

Zinn does not scruple to use insidious rhetorical questions to convey affirmations he is too shy to make openly. “Could patriotic fervor and the military spirit cover up class struggle? Unemployment, hard times, were growing in 1914. Could guns divert attention and create some national consensus against an external enemy?” Thereupon the First World War becomes an effort by the American elite to divert attention from its internal problems. Other paragraphs sprinkled with question marks reveal the Supreme Court “doing its bit for the ruling elite,” almost justify the attack on Pearl Harbor, and distort the internment of the Japanese Americans.

Biased selections falsify events. A chapter entitled “The Other Civil War,” for instance, covers the years between 1837 and 1877. It includes anti-rent riots in New York State, the Astor Place riot in New York City, Dorr's War in Rhode Island, and the railroad strikes of 1877—thus bracketing quite dissimilar and unrelated outbreaks of violence to give the impression of a country torn by ceaseless civil conflict.

On the other hand, the book conveniently omits whatever does not fit its overriding thesis. In view of the epilogue, it is startling to find no notice taken of the long series of communal experiments stretching from the eighteenth-century Moravians down through Brook Farm and on to Oneida. Humanitarianism, benevolence, idealism would not jibe with the portrayal of a totally materialistic nation. For the same reason, there is no explanation of why the discontent that welled up in Shays' Rebellion subsided as quickly as it did. But then Zinn freely tears evidence out of context and distorts it—for example, in the discussion of the period down to 1941 when imperial ambitions led the United States into war. American aggression continued after Vietnam, rearranged but pursuing the same vile military and economic goals. Not a word about the Soviet Union, of course.

Focusing upon the dimly known Arawaks of the past, whose shadowy shapes can take any form, the book cannot do justice to the great variety of actual people who inhabited the United States. The blacks and whites, immigrants and natives, laborers and farmers, merchants and manufacturers cannot be known when treated as lay figures to be manipulated according to the author's fantasies. The description of how the eighteenth-century population understood the First Amendment is pure invention. Reactions to the Mexican War are scarcely more substantial. Nor can Zinn understand the men and women, indiscriminately labeled the elite, who helped shape American society and its institutions. By his account, only one motive moved them: greed—from Columbus rapacious in the quest for gold to Carnegie lusting for profit. Hence the blank incomprehensibility of those who acted contrary to their interests. Why did John Marshall come to the aid of the Cherokees? Why did the Grimkés turn against slavery? Why was Andrew Carnegie an active anti-imperialist? To answer such questions would have called for an examination of intellectual and social forces beyond Zinn's ken. Indeed, since the dominant tradition of liberal reform in the United States was staunchly pro-American, he must interpret it as only a device by which the elite protected its own interests.

It would be a mistake, however, to regard Zinn as merely anti-American. Brendan Behan once observed that whoever hated America hated mankind, and hatred of humanity is the dominant tone of Zinn's book. No other modern country receives a favorable mention. He speaks well of the Russian and Chinese revolutions, but not of the states they created. He lavishes indiscriminate condemnation upon all the works of man—that is, upon civilization, a word he usually encloses in quotation marks.

Against it, in the epilogue he juxtaposes a loving community of neighbors who cooperated without coercion—a community exemplified by the Arawaks, who are fit objects for fantasy because nothing is known about them. Early in the book, Zinn quotes a Spaniard's description of other pre-invasion Indians who lived in peace and amity, six hundred in a conical hut. Life may have been carefree, even idyllic, but it could not have been easy under those circumstances. No doubt a twentieth-century American would find the actuality of six hundred people to a hut difficult to imagine. And perhaps the events in Guyana show what can happen to such numbers cooped up together, driven in upon one another in their loving community.

Few such societies are driven to suicide, as was that in Jonestown. But rarely are any of them capable of dealing with the crises and contingencies of human experience.

And in that regard we can learn something from the Arawaks, although Zinn is too obtuse to do so. What discussion ensued among those Indians who greeted Columbus or Cortez we shall never know. Perhaps they hoped by friendly gestures to propitiate the strangers and persuade them to leave. Perhaps, already aware of their own helplessness, they thought to stave off attack by appeasement. Perhaps internal dissension, or lack of organization, or will weakened by ease prevented them from following another course. Lacking evidence, we cannot know. But the outcome we do know, and from it we can learn. From Montezuma to Tecumseh, people who lacked the political means to defend themselves were helpless to resist the invaders animated by a vision of what they wanted and driven by the will to seize it.

The American people of actuality—whom Zinn does not discuss—were not Arawaks in the past. Nor are many likely now to respond to his invitation to share the fate either of Jonestown or of the Aztecs.

Charles Glass (review date 24 October 1980)

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SOURCE: Glass, Charles. “The Other US.” New Statesman 100, no. 2588 (24 October 1980): 27.

[In the following excerpted review, Glass claims that despite its limitations, A People's History provides information on groups omitted from standard textbooks.]

A People's History of the United States, … attempts, in its author's words:

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, of the Mexican war as seen by the deserting soldiers of Scott's army, of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile mills, of the Spanish-American war as seen by the Cubans, the conquest of the Philippines as seen by black soldiers on Luzon, the Gilded Age as seen by southern farmers, the First World War as seen by socialists, the Second World War as seen by pacifists, the New Deal as seen by blacks in Harlem, the postwar American empire as seen by peons in Latin America.

(emphasis added)

Thus, in his first chapter, Professor Zinn promises to relate the familiar episodes of American history from at least 13 different points of view. If he fails in that nearly impossible task, which he does, he succeeds admirably in his second objective of ‘disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win’. He may not be able to tell the story of America from dozens of conflicting perspectives (he has one perspective, that of a moderately left-wing American political scientist), but he does reveal much about the people who are usually missing from American history text books: the Arawaks, Cherokees, the English settlers who fled starvation and oppression in the early colonies to live with the Indians, the landless Hudson River farmers, the Negro soldiers of several wars, the Wobblies, women workers, sharecroppers, Big Bill Haywood, Mother Jones, Cubans, Filippinos and Vietnamese.

Standard American histories ignore many of the incidents (the great railroad strike of 1877, the Haymarket massacre and trials, the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti, Joe Hill and the Rosenbergs) which Professor Zinn emphasizes. What is missing from his otherwise interesting, if undramatic, account are enough primary sources (as in his discussion of pre-Civil War class conflicts, pp. 214ff), a coherent overview of the development of the country in the past 200 years (of the kind found in, say, Claude Julien's Le Rêve et l'histoire, Bernard Grasset, Paris, 1976) and sufficient evidence to support his own contentions.

Erwin Knoll (review date February 1991)

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SOURCE: Knoll, Erwin. “Down to the Roots.” Progressive 55, no. 2 (February 1991): 40-1.

[In the following review of Declarations of Independence, Knoll praises Zinn for offering new ways of thinking about issues of social and political justice.]

Howard Zinn is a radical in the true sense of that much-abused word. In discussing the most important issues of public policy, he gets down to the roots, deep down to the bedrock questions: Why do we believe what we believe? How much of what we believe is true? Why are things the way they are? Whose interests are served? How should things be changed to serve the common interests of suffering humanity?

A decade ago, Zinn's splendid A People's History of the United States ignored the conservative conventions of historiography to disinter parts of the past that had been buried alive or mutilated beyond recognition. Declarations of Independence is a worthy successor to that modern classic.

Zinn's purpose here is to challenge “the old orthodoxies, the traditional ideologies, the neatly tied bundles of ideas … so that we can play and experiment with all the ingredients, add others, and create new combinations in looser bundles.” He perceives that we desperately need new, imaginative approaches to the problems of our time.

Zinn, a professor emeritus of political science at Boston University, tackles with zest and intellectual rigor the formidable task of rethinking questions many would regard as settled. He is not burdened by the niceties of scholarly “objectivity” and feels no obligation to stand in awe of “experts.” His reexamination of traditional assumptions culminates in the declarations of independence of his title.

“To depend on great thinkers, authorities, and experts is, it seems to me, a violation of the spirit of democracy,” Zinn writes. “Democracy rests on the idea that, except for technical details for which experts may be useful, the important decisions of society are within the capability of ordinary citizens. Not only can ordinary people make decisions about these issues, but they ought to, because citizens understand their own interests more clearly than any experts.”

Zinn's bold and incisive approach is at its exemplary best in his discussion of “just and unjust war.” Like the Sixteenth Century scholar, Erasmus Desiderius, he holds that “there is nothing more wicked, more disastrous, more widely destructive, more deeply tenacious, more loathsome” than war. But unlike many of today's antiwar activists, Zinn—a U.S. Army Air Corps bombardier in World War II—subjects his pacifism to the ultimate test: the war against Nazism.

It was, he writes, “a war of high principle, and each bombing mission was a mission of high principle. The moral issue could hardly be clearer. The enemy could not be more obviously evil. … If there was such a thing as a just war, this was it.”

That was how the young Howard Zinn felt in 1943. But as he undertook the study of history, he began to wonder what had really motivated the United States in World War II. Washington had, after all “observed fascist expansion without any strong reactions”: the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, the destruction of the Spanish republic by fascist forces aided by Germany and Italy, the German annexation of Austria, the invasion of Czechoslovakia and Poland.

“It was only when Japan threatened potential U.S. markets by its attempted takeover of China.” Zinn notes, “but especially as it moved toward the tin, rubber, and oil of Southeast Asia, that the United States became alarmed and took those measures that led to the Japanese attack [on Pearl Harbor]: a total embargo on scrap iron and a total embargo on oil in the summer of 1941.” But wasn't it, after all, a war to save the Jews? Zinn points out, “Even after we were in the war against Germany (it should be noted that after Pearl Harbor Germany declared war on the United States, not vice versa), and reports began to arrive that Hitler was planning the annihilation of the Jews, Roosevelt's administration failed to take steps that might have saved thousands of lives.”

Zinn's conclusion, supported by citations from authoritative studies of the Holocaust, is that “not only did waging war against Hitler fail to save the Jews, it may be that the war itself brought on the Final Solution of genocide. This is not to remove the responsibility from Hitler and the Nazis, but there is much evidence that Germany's anti-Semitic actions, cruel as they were, would not have turned to mass murder were it not for the psychic distortions of war, acting on already distorted minds.”

Though Declarations of Independence went to press before the Bush Administration dispatched a massive U.S. expeditionary force to the Persian Gulf, Zinn marshals impressive historic, political, and moral arguments against this and any military intervention. And he is equally persuasive in discussing other aspects of what he calls American ideology: the imperial cast of U.S. foreign policy, the class structure of our irrational economy, racism, the use of the legal system to suppress dissent and harass dissenters, and the draconian limits imposed on freedom of speech and press.

In each of these areas, Zinn points the way not to solutions but to new ways of thinking that may help us find solutions. History, he observes, “does not offer us predictable scenarios for immense changes in consciousness and policy. Such changes have taken place, but always in ways that could not have been foretold, starting often with imperceptibly small acts, developing along routes often too complex to trace. All we can do is to make a start, wherever we can, to persist, and let events unfold as they will.”

A careful reading of Declarations of Independence will help anyone ready to make that start.

George Scialabba (review date 13 May 1991)

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SOURCE: Scialabba, George. “U.S. History: By the People, For the People.” Christianity and Crisis (13 May 1991): 155-56.

[In the following review, Scialabba dismisses Declarations of Independence as “mostly authorial commentary.”]

The erudite essayist Walter Benjamin once proposed writing a book that would consist entirely of quotations. Fifty years later, in 1980, the earnest activist Howard Zinn actually wrote something approximating such a book. But while Benjamin envisioned an exquisite collage, cunningly composed and intricately ironic, Zinn produced an immense, ingenuous epic, a monumental saga of human brutality and bondage: A People's History of the United States.

I don't know how Benjamin's book would have turned out, but Zinn's beyond praise, a masterpiece of social criticism. In form, it is a national history narrated from the viewpoint of the victims: Indians, slaves, workers, women—not an entirely original idea, even in 1980. Its materials are standard, or at any rate easily accessible, secondary sources. But its scope and momentum are overwhelming. The appalling statistics, the heartbreaking voices of the dispossessed and exploited, the violence and bias of the state, the moral blindness of ruling elites and their apologists, the indignation of contemporary rebels and reformers, the fiercely sardonic or fatuously complacent judgments of historians: All these are presented fully, vividly, unforgettably.

The result is a gradual, unforced awakening of critical consciousness. If American history consists so largely, so centrally, of suffering and injustice, and if this experience has nevertheless played so small a role in contemporary Americans' image, or myth, of their society and its history, then—it is bound to dawn on even the least morally imaginative reader—something may be amiss even now, something requiring honest inquiry and commitment. The more morally imaginative reader may well find in this book a vocation. It should, in short—especially now that it's newly returned to print—be placed in the hands of one's every acquaintance, from investment banker to idealistic youth.

Zinn's new book, alas, can be recommended only for precocious pre-schoolers. One reason for the success of A People's History is that Zinn let his sources speak for themselves, with a minimum of authorial commentary. Declarations of Independence is, unfortunately, mostly authorial commentary. The ten years between these two books (much of them wasted skirmishing with John Silber's administration at Boston University) seem to have taken their toll. Zinn has never been a scintillating writer; now he's almost embarrassing.

Declarations of Independence aims to articulate and challenge American ideology, to expose the hidden assumptions and invisible framework of our political culture. This is an urgently necessary task, and those works that have undertaken it successfully have been among the most valuable in recent years: for example, Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis' Democracy and Capitalism, Robert Reich's Tales of a New America, Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers' Right Turn. Josh Cohen and Joel Rogers' On Democracy, Barbara Ehrenreich's Fear of Falling, Thomas Edsall's The New Politics of Inequality, Mark Hertsgaard's On Bended Knee, and perhaps most impressively, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent. But by the standard these books set, Zinn's effort is a failure.

An essential requirement of ideological criticism is to give opposing arguments their due: i.e., to present them in their most plausible form and so account for their persistence and wide appeal. Refuting straw arguments is a waste of time. But Zinn seems incapable of comprehending, or at any rate reproducing, the complexity, the intractability, the sheer difficulty of contemporary political debate.

Take, for example, his discussion of economic justice, and in particular of the “free market.” Every such discussion should begin as Zinn's does: with a recital of the prima facie absurdity and indecency of many of the inequalities generated by our present economic system. But the next step ought to be a question or two. Why do most Americans (nowadays, actually, most human beings) nevertheless consider the competitive market system fundamentally fair, or at least fairer than any feasible alternative? And what about its reputation for efficiency among the large majority of professional economists—is this just a mistake, or a vast fraud on the rest of us, or what? Do arguments for the market amount to nothing more than rationalizations for inequality, or is there something to them?

Zinn does not address these questions. It's hard to believe, but the word “price” does not once appear in his discussion. He does not mention that a market is, in essence, a mechanism for determining prices; or that only one other mechanism—state control—has ever been proposed, and is now universally discredited. Until the Golden Age, when everything will be free, prices are indispensable; they are the economic equivalent of our five senses. How does Zinn think they should be determined? Socialist theorists like Alec Nove and Ivan Szelenyi have wrestled for years with these and related questions. Zinn's jabs at Milton Friedman and Robert Nozick, however gratifying, are no substitute for such efforts.

War is another example. Zinn is against it, claiming that war is both horrible and unnecessary. Unfortunately, he spends too much time illustrating the former claim, which hardly anyone disputes, and too little proving the latter, which hardly anyone accepts. For once, though, he does provide a reasonably clear and effective statement of the opposing argument, in a quote from Michael Howard.

He [i.e., Thomas More] accepted, as thinkers for the next two hundred years were to accept, that European society was organized in a system of states in which war was an inescapable process for the settlement of differences in the absence of any higher common jurisdiction. That being the case, it was a requirement of humanity, of religion and of common sense alike that those wars should be fought in such a manner as to cause as little damage as possible. … For better or worse war was an institution which could not be eliminated from the international system. All that could be done about it was, so far as possible, to codify its rationale and to civilize its means.

This cogent statement of moral “realism” calls for an equally cogent reply, one that would ask under what conditions a “higher common jurisdiction” might replace the “system of states,” and also ask what sort of “differences” have typically led to war, whose interests were at stake, etc. What it does not call for is a merely rhetorical rejoinder, such as Zinn quotes from Albert Einstein: “One does not make wars less likely by formulating rules of warfare. … War cannot be humanized. It can only be abolished.”

Then there's civil disobedience, which Zinn strongly recommends, though only for the right-minded. Why is civil disobedience protesting racial discrimination or military intervention legitimate, and civil disobedience protesting busing or abortion illegitimate? Why should juries refuse to convict people for picketing nuclear power plants but not for picketing Planned Parenthood clinics? Simple. Civil disobedience in a just cause is right; in an unjust cause, wrong. That is the sum of Zinn's reasoning on the subject.

Representative institutions, mass culture, the First Amendment, nuclear deterrence—subtle questions on all these topics beckon to Zinn as he makes his way through the book. But he rambles along, oblivious, boldly demanding justice, eloquently deploring injustice, enjoying the sound of his own voice, wasting the reader's time and goodwill.


Very occasionally, lightning flashes: a striking quote, statistic, or anecdote. Garrison Keillor: “Any decent law to protect the flag ought to prohibit politicians from wrapping it around themselves.” In 1985 a Physicians Task Force investigates hunger nationwide: they offer a “conservative estimate” that 15 million American families are chronically unable to get adequate food. Before a recent trip to Czechoslovakia, Zinn consults the official account (in Strategic Bombing Survey) of a World War II air raid he took part in as a pilot: he then compares the official version—only five civilians died—with the memories of Czech survivors—hundreds of civilians died. If only Zinn had compiled this book instead of writing it.

Still, a great book covers a multitude of mediocre ones. A People's History of the United States is one of the permanent achievements of the New Left. It is a relief to have it back in print, and painful to think it was ever out of print—though perhaps not surprising, considering the moral torpor of the late '80s. Zinn's new book may not be much use to those who are struggling to come to polemical grips with the stubborn, complicated, seductive, exasperating phenomenon that is America's ideologia perennis. But it is thanks, in some measure, to his earlier masterpiece that many of us have been moved to try.

Howard Zinn and Jack McEnany (interview date summer 1991)

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SOURCE: Zinn, Howard, and Jack McEnany. “The Politics of War.” Humanist 53, no. 1 (January-February 1993): 13-17.

[In the following interview, originally conducted in the summer of 1991, McEnany questions Zinn on American participation in various wars throughout history, from the Revolutionary War up to and including the Gulf War.]

The following extracts are from an interview with Howard Zinn … professor emeritus of history at Boston University. The interview was conducted in the summer of 1991 by Jack McEnany as part of a video project entitled The Gulf War: Is This Any Way to Run an Empire? (See note at the end of the article for further details on this project.)

[McEnany]: Professor Zinn, recurrent in your book, A People's History of the United States, are examples of working-America fighting wars that it had no personal stake in. Was this true of the Gulf War?

[Zinn]: Oh, yes, the Gulf War fits that pattern. War seldom, if ever, has a particular or personal stake in it for the people who do the fighting—the working classes. In fact, most soldiers' only stake in war is that their lives are in danger and they will be the ones who suffer the casualties. It's an old story and, unfortunately, it takes a while for the people who are the victims of war to catch on to it. Sometimes there is an immediate reaction; sometimes there's a delayed reaction.

If we go way back prior to independence—while the country was under English rule—the American colonists were expected to fight in wars that the British government was fighting with France. There were a number of these in the early and middle eighteenth century. But the colonists rebelled against conscription; they rebelled and attacked the people who were enlisting them forcibly in the wars.

When the American Revolution took place, most Americans might think, well, at last here's a war for a good purpose, a war in which the colonists could enlist thinking that this war is for them. But, in fact, there was an enormous amount of disaffection from the Revolutionary War. It was estimated by John Adams—who was a supporter of the war—that one-third of the population was against the war, one-third supported the war, and one-third was on the fence. And there were a number of instances of rebellion against the war. George Washington had to send troops down south because people in the Carolinas and Virginia were refusing to enlist and fight in the Revolutionary Army. He sent General Nathaniel Greene down there to—to put it crudely—kill a number of people in order to impress upon them that they had to fight in this war.

In New England, people protested the drafting of citizens for the Revolutionary War as something that hit the working classes hardest. People with money could buy their way out. A lot of people know this about the Civil War—this business of rich people buying their way out of the draft, buying substitutes—but it happened during the Revolutionary War as well.

In the War of 1812, the government did not dare put a conscription act into effect because it knew there would be tremendous resistance to it. The War of 1812 was basically an expansionist war—to try to move into Canada, to try to move into western lands controlled by the English.

In the Mexican War (1846 to 1848), there was open desertion on the way to Mexico City. General Scott's troops rebelled; seven regiments, virtually half his entire force, simply scattered and went home. The soldiers who didn't desert returned home after the war embittered by their casualties and by the fact that they didn't know what in the world we were fighting Mexico for. The soldiers who returned to Massachusetts went to a welcome-home dinner—you might say a “yellow-ribbon dinner,” but in 1848. At this dinner, the surviving Massachusetts volunteers—half of them had been killed—booed their commanding officer at their own welcome-home party to express how they felt about the war.

In the Civil War, the poor people of New York did not see it as a war against slavery. They saw only that they were being conscripted to fight and die in a very gruesome war. They saw that the rich—the Vanderbilts, the Morgans, the Astors—could buy their way out for $300. And, as so often working-class whites will do, they took out their resentment on black people. The draft riots of 1863 in New York were some of the most violent internal uprisings we've had in this country, and they were directed against black people—the innocent victims of a violent outrage against a civil war that the white working class of New York saw as just dooming them for no reason.

In the Spanish American War, there was some early enthusiasm from a buildup of propaganda. It was seen as a war to save Cuba from Spain, a humanitarian war, a just war—all of that. Fortunately for the United States government, the war ended quickly. But although there were very few battle casualties, there were thousands of other casualties. Soldiers were poisoned by beef sold to the army by the big meat-packing companies of Chicago—Swift and Armour. Imagine: thousands of dead soldiers as a result of poisoned beef, but only a few hundred battle casualties. It was a very quick war—a three-month war—with no chance for resentment to build up. But when the war was extended to the Philippines, then some resentment began to appear—especially among the black troops stationed there, who saw that they were fighting against dark-skinned Filipinos who simply wanted to run their own country.

In World War I, there was a very strong anti-war movement which the government had to suppress forcibly by sending people to jail. The U.S. government prosecuted 2,000 people with laws passed by Congress to prevent criticism of the war. It destroyed the Industrial Workers of the World, a radical trade union that was against the war, and sent its top leadership to jail. The government also destroyed the Socialist Party, sent its leadership to jail, and expelled socialists from state legislatures to which they had been legally elected. There was a real campaign of oppression and propaganda to persuade people to fight the war—to accept the war—which was not quite successful. When the war was over, tremendous disillusionment and anger set in.

Even during World War II, which was, I suppose—certainly in the twentieth century, anyway—the closest thing you can get to a popular war, there was a lot of early resistance. It was a war that could be presented to the public as a good war, a just war, a war against fascism, and so on. But even with all that going for it, World War II required an enormous amount of manipulation of the public. Even after the war had started in Europe, there was a very large section of the American public opposed to it, and a lot of work had to be done by the Roosevelt administration to propagandize America into accepting the idea of joining the fight. Thousands of people went to prison rather than fight in World War II.

So when we come to the Korean War and the Vietnam War—especially the Vietnam War—you find that one of the most powerful elements of the anti-war movement was the GI movement. The GI movement consisted mostly of working-class kids. Ron Kovic really is a typical example of a working-class kid who joined the Marines—imbued with the idea of adventure and fighting for his country, the stars and stripes, and all that—and then went to Vietnam and became totally disillusioned with what was going on over there, realizing that the young people of the working classes were the ones doing most of the fighting. I don't think that they thought of it in exactly that way—not strictly as a class phenomenon. But in a kind of general way, they knew that the kids from poor families—black and white—were the ones who fought in the war, and that they were the ones dying in the war. They formed the heart of the GI resistance to the war. Not just the overt resistance—not just the people who deserted, not just the GIs who refused to get on airplanes and go to Vietnam or the GIs who refused to go out on patrols in South Vietnam—but the many thousands of blacks and whites who simply didn't show up for the draft. Actually, there were too many people for the government to prosecute, and the result was that, though there were hundreds of thousands of people who resisted going into the service one way or another, there were only 8,000 GIs who were ultimately court-martialed and imprisoned for their views on the war.

One interesting fact, I think, should be noted: in surveys of public opinion during the war, it was inevitably shown that people with the highest education—college graduates—were the most supportive of the war. People who had not graduated from high school were the ones most against the war. This is a surprising figure because most people thought the anti-war movement consisted of intellectuals and students and college professors. While those people were most visible in the anti-war movement, public opinion against the war was concentrated in the least educated classes. They had some gut feeling that they were dying, that their kids were dying, in a war that the rich were escaping from and that there was nothing in it for them.

White House media managers over the last ten years have blamed the American press corps and the anti-war movement for the plight of the Vietnam veteran. Is there any merit to that?

For the plight of the Vietnam veteran? That's always been an interesting question—the way the media and the government have done such a good job of creating the impression that Vietnam veterans came back and were betrayed by the anti-war movement. As their most vivid point, they said that the GIs were spat upon when they came home; they were supposedly reviled by the anti-war movement. I've always been startled by this because I moved all throughout the anti-war movement, as a lot of people did, and I spoke all over the country. I took part in an infinite number of demonstrations, I knew thousands of people involved in the anti-war movement, I read a huge amount of the literature of the anti-war movement, and I cannot recall any instance in which, in any of its aspects, the anti-war movement—as a movement—reviled the American GI. The anti-war movement was very specifically a movement against the U.S. government's policies in Vietnam. And it was a movement that supported the GIs by working to bring them home. Of course, it should be kept in mind that an integral element of the anti-war movement was the GI anti-war movement. There wouldn't have been an anti-war movement among the GIs if they had felt betrayed by the anti-war movement at home. So this is one of the most successful propaganda ventures of the administration: to take the fact that GIs were sent into a stupid, needless, imperialist war to be wounded, to die, and to kill, and then to accuse the anti-war movement of betraying them. In fact, they were betrayed by the U.S. government when they came home to find that the did not have jobs, that they did not have homes, that they were not going to be taken care of and were treated like dirt in VA hospitals. To take the true facts and obscure them—and then turn the blame on the anti-war movement—to me is an extremely successful piece of propaganda and something the anti-war movement very much needs to overcome.

When President Harry Truman ordered troops to Korea, he said that the conflict there was between “the rule of law and the rule of force.” George Bush used that identical line of rhetoric when he committed American troops to the Persian Gulf. If Bush were to lose the next presidential election, would there be any fundamental differences in the way America conducts itself internationally?

Well, you can point to differences in the domestic policies of the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, although those differences have been exaggerated. In foreign policy, you cannot really point to any fundamental differences.

If you look at the history of wars in this century, it was a liberal Democrat who pushed the United States into World War I; it was Roosevelt, a Democrat, who was president when we got involved in World War II; Truman, a Democrat, was president when we got into the Korean War; it was Democratic presidents Kennedy and Johnson who escalated the Vietnam War to the height it reached. I am not saying that the Republicans are absolved from this, because the Republicans all went along with it, but the government always uses the phrase bipartisan foreign policy and that's exactly right—we've always had a bipartisan foreign policy. This is not a democratic country when it comes to foreign policy; I mean, it's undemocratic enough in terms of domestic policy, but when it comes to foreign policy, we are living in a one-party state. Republicans and Democrats both engage in covert activities; they've both gotten us into wars.

When the Democrats dissent from the military budgets of Republican administrations, their dissent is feeble. They will argue over whether the military budget this year should be $300 billion or $296 billion. You'll see, for instance, the liberal Democrats—the Democrats you would most expect to oppose aggressive foreign policies—cave in at critical moments when the United States is intervening militarily in other countries. For instance, when the United States invaded Panama in 1989, John Kerry—a liberal Democratic senator from Massachusetts, who became famous as a leading GI opponent of the Vietnam War back in the 1960s and early 1970s (a liberal Democrat who, by the way, owes his election as senator to the fact that he was a dramatic spokesman against the Vietnam War)—this same Kerry supported the invasion of Panama.

The liberal Democrats supported Reagan's bombing of Libya and the invasion of Grenada. During the buildup of troops in the Persian Gulf, the Democrats were, at first, opposed to military action—at least enough of them were to spark the first spirited debate on foreign policy that we have ever had in the United States Congress. But they had already, in a sense, surrendered when they allowed Bush to beef up the American military presence in the Middle East to the point where war became inevitable. As soon as Bush gave the orders to start the military operations, the Democrats totally caved in.

Are you saying that George Bush is correct when he says that the Vietnam syndrome is behind us?

He fought the Gulf War in good part to put an end to that syndrome. He fought a winning war by taking on a third-rate military power and using the most modern technology against it. If, by Vietnam syndrome, he means fighting a war that is unpopular with the public, he overcame that by making sure that the war was won very quickly.

But there is a residual element of the Vietnam syndrome that cannot be overcome. And that is, just before the bombing started in Vietnam, public opinion polls showed that Americans were divided 50-50 on the question of whether or not we should use military force. After the Vietnam War, the public was overwhelmingly against American military operations abroad. The public was set against America intervening militarily in Central America, for example. There's a deeply held feeling on the part of the public—which I think comes from lessons learned in the Vietnam War—that we should not be intervening in foreign conflicts. This feeling was overcome briefly by the inundation of propaganda and by the swiftness of the Persian Gulf War. But when the war ended, I think, that quickly built enthusiasm began to recede. Public opinion once again moved back to a more deep-seated revulsion against sending our men and women overseas to fight in wars whose purposes are unclear.

People see that the results of the war in the gulf are not that clean. They see that we have restored a brutal government in Kuwait, a vicious government in Saudi Arabia, and created millions of refugees. Reports are coming out about Iraqi children dying in large numbers because of what we did to their water supply and electrical system. Fewer and fewer Americans believe that the war was a good thing. So, in that sense, the Vietnam syndrome—the feeling that the United States should avoid such wars—has not been laid to rest.

If the congressional vote on the Persian Gulf War had gone the other way, what do you think the Bush administration would have done?

It wouldn't have affected Bush's desire to go to war, but it would have made war more difficult for the Bush administration. My own feeling is that the Bush administration wanted the war—they wanted the war badly. Everything that they did indicated that they were determined to go to war. They rejected any possibility of negotiation with Saddam Hussein; all of the overtures coming from Iraq were ignored or rejected. The doubling of U.S. troops in the gulf in November 1990 and the change in strategy from a defensive to an offensive one made it clear that the Bush administration wanted war—which means that the only reason it allowed Congress to debate the war was that it was confident it had the votes. I'm sure the Bush administration made a very careful tally to determine whether or not it had the votes to go to war before it agreed that the vote should be submitted to Congress. In a way, it's a hypothetical question. The Bush administration was determined to go to war and only would have allowed the debate if it knew that the debate would end up the way it did.

Historically, imperial powers have ruled abroad at a terrible cost to the home front. Rome, Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union—all were eventually dragged down by the financial burden of huge armies and navies. Can America hope to be different?

I doubt it. In fact, we are already seeing the results in the United States. The American economy is already suffering from the several trillion dollars we have spent over the years on these huge military budgets. And the situation is becoming worse. No, I don't see the United States escaping. It has been able to escape longer than other countries because we have this vast industrial base to begin with. We're a very wealthy country. But I think we've reached the point where the maintenance of this military budget is dragging the entire economy down and causing more and more people to suffer.

Now, suffering in the working classes has always gone on whether we were in a so-called period of prosperity or depression. The 1920s—the Jazz Age, the so-called age of prosperity, as kids learn when they study history in high school—were a time when large numbers of people in this country were poor and hungry and experiencing severe hardships. What is happening now in the United States is that not only the 40 or 50 million people in the lower classes—the working classes and the marginal groups—are suffering, but even the so-called middle class—the class on which the elite has depended to be the buffer between it and the working classes—is feeling the crunch. You might say that there is a great American middle class that has been bribed—with jobs and fairly decent salaries and televisions and cars and homes and so on—to be supporters of the system. Now these people in the middle class are beginning to hurt. They're losing their jobs, they're not able to pay the mortgages on their homes, they are beginning to feel that there is something sick about the economy, and furthermore—and I think this is important and unique in our century—for the first time there is a serious danger to the environment. This was always true for the lower classes; they suffered from bad air and bad water. The children of Philadelphia died in huge numbers because the Schuylkill River, from which they drew their drinking water, was contaminated. The working classes have always died in large numbers from what they inhaled where they worked—whether it was in the mines or the textile mills or the shipyards. But now that blight has spread to the whole country. All our water, our beaches, our air is becoming polluted, and the money that could be used to clean them up is not there because of the military budget. So far it hasn't reached a crisis point where there is an enormous nationwide movement of rebellion, but I think we are moving toward that.

Seventy years ago, Scott Nearing wrote: “The American people are not imperialists. They are proud of their country, jealous of their honor, willing to make sacrifices for their dear ones. They are today where the plain folk of Egypt, Rome, France, and England were before the will to power gripped the ruling classes of those countries.” Does this still ring true or has the twentieth century somehow changed the plain folk of America?

Well, Scott Nearing was speaking at the end of World War I and he was recognizing what I think is true: that although the American people fought in World War I and in a sense accepted it—they had all the patriotic parades to welcome home the troops and so forth—there was still a great deal of resistance to it. Before America joined the war, the Wilson administration had to overcome public opinion against the war with a huge propaganda effort, and after the war a great deal of disillusionment set in.

Scott Nearing believed that the American people were basically decent and peace-loving, that they had to be conned or coerced into war. And that basic fact is still true. People are not naturally warlike—the American people no more so than anybody else. But they can be propagandized, persuaded, coerced, threatened, and drafted into war. That can be done; it's happened again and again.

I believe, like Scott Nearing, that there is a fundamental revulsion to war. The task for the anti-war movement is to build on that natural revulsion in such a powerful way that it cannot be overcome by a lightning stroke of propaganda or a military action like the one in the Persian Gulf. It's a big job, but it does have the common sense of the American public as its base.

Is America taking any leadership role in its foreign policy other than the military one?

Leadership role? I don't see a leadership role other than by military means. In other policy areas—for instance, in environmental control—other nations have had to push and push and push to get the United States to take even the most minimal measures toward solving the problem of ozone-layer depletion, or any other area of the world environmental crisis. The United States has been very reluctant to end nuclear testing; it hasn't taken the lead in this area—even though now, presumably, the nuclear threat of the Soviet Union no longer exists. The United States still refuses to end the practice of testing nuclear weapons which contaminate the atmosphere and cost a lot of money. So aside from military activities, the United States lags far behind other countries in taking any initiative to clean up the environment, to do anything about world health problems, to solve the problem of starvation. It's very sad to think that the United States is first militarily and a backward nation when it comes to human values.

Michael Kazin (review date December 1991)

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SOURCE: Kazin, Michael. Review of Declarations of Independence, by Howard Zinn. Journal of American History 78, no. 3 (December 1991): 1034-35.

[In the following review, Kazin praises Zinn's exposure of the fallacies associated with conventional historical truths despite the weakness of some of his arguments.]

Howard Zinn writes the type of history scholars are supposed to disdain. “For me,” he writes, “history could only be a way of understanding and helping to change (yes, an extravagant ambition!) what was wrong in the world.” This book is the committed radical's latest attempt to scour the past for lessons to instruct those who might transform American society. Declarations of Independence is organized as a series of passionate moral arguments with the normative assumptions of contemporary politics—that some wars are just, that “Machiavellian realism” is a proper basis for foreign policy, that the legal system serves just ends, that capitalism rewards hard work, etc. Zinn's conclusions flow directly from his pacifist and anarchist (of the collectivist variety) beliefs. These days, many traditionalists charge left-wing academics with writing “polemical” history. Zinn never pretends to be doing anything else.

But that should not devalue his achievement. Splendid and squalid polemicists alike have always drawn on historical examples to drive a point home or to structure an entire argument. The difference between a Thomas Paine and a Gerald L. K. Smith (their specific opinions aside) lies in the emotional valence of their evidence, the originality and precision of their prose, and the timeliness of their major arguments. Judged by these standards, Zinn's book is a flawed success.

He is best at debunking certain pillars of the common wisdom that he views as rationales of the powerful. Disputing free market hosannas, he shows that, beginning with colonial land grants, the rich have been always benefited, handsomely, from government aid. Whereas free land for transcontinental railroad builders in the 1860s and tax cuts for corporations in the 1920s and 1980s were considered necessary for economic growth, payments to single mothers are castigated as “welfare.”

Similarly, Zinn rebuts the almost universal opinion that World War II was a just, idealistic war. He reviews the United States record of prewar appeasement, the military's “area bombing” of civilians massed in such cities as Dresden and Tokyo, and the administration's support for restoring the French and British empires. Several passages about his own experience as a bombardier in the European theater give these sections a poignance and humility that heightens their persuasiveness.

But to strip away from rulers their mask of legitimacy, a polemicist must understand why they continue to rule. And Zinn is quite unequal to that admittedly complex task. Throughout the book, he implies that “the dominant ideology” is merely a device for accumulating profits, denying free speech to dissidents, and motivating Americans to go to war. In his single-minded emphasis on self-interest, Zinn betrays the sensibility of a muck-raker with a fistful of grievances instead of a radical armed with a sophisticated theory of history. Because he gives his antagonists no credit for having a world view of their own, he cannot convincingly explain why a majority of Americans have usually agreed with the ideas put forth by members of ruling elites (or their publicists). Some radical scholars today make too much of hegemony; Howard Zinn makes too little of it.

Despite this major weakness. Declarations of Independence is a work that should be taught. In a clear style and compassionate voice, it challenges the political preconceptions most undergraduates bring to survey classes. And it keeps alive a tradition, more than two centuries old, that currently has few serious practitioners. Zinn is certainly no Tom Paine, Henry George, or Matilda Joslyn Gage (author of the 1893 feminist classic Woman, Church and State). But like those visionaries, he believes historical interpretation should liberate Americans and not merely inform them.

Mark A. Graber (review date spring 1992)

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SOURCE: Graber, Mark A. Review of Declarations of Independence: Cross-Examining American Ideology, by Howard Zinn. Political Science Quarterly 107, no. 1 (spring 1992): 187-89.

[In the following review, Graber calls Zinn's book successful in terms of its critique of American ideology, particularly in the sections on U.S. foreign policy.]

Thomas Jefferson thought that the tree of liberty needed to be watered with blood every so often. Only through intermittent reenactments of the revolution, he believed, would American ideals retain their vitality. Howard Zinn's latest book offers a valuable alternative for a nuclear age. “Whatever in the past has been the moral justification of violence,” he points out, “must now be accomplished by other means” (p. 289). Zinn's remedy for “an obedient, acquiescent, passive citizenry,” a disease he correctly considers “deadly to democracy” (p. 5), is a vigorous interrogation of the ideas that implicitly structure mainstream American thought. His work promises “declarations of independence from all nations, parties and programs—all rigid dogmas” (p. 8).

For the most part, Zinn conducts a successful cross-examination of American ideology. His chapters on American foreign policy, in particular, should intrigue both students and professors. Declarations of Independence will challenge anyone to explain how repeated examples of malicious and frequently unrealistic national goals can be justified in the name of realism. Zinn also offers a thought-provoking attack on American participation in World War II. Although he does not deny the legitimate reasons for entering into that global conflict, Zinn presents evidence that strongly suggests that the desire to free civilization from murderous and expansionist fascist regimes does not explain the course of American policy during the war and afterwards. Public recognition of this distinction between circumstances that might justify military intervention and the actual policies leaders pursue during wars might have reduced enthusiasm for recent U.S. forays in the Persian Gulf.

Foreign policy, however, receives too much emphasis in this work. Although Zinn does devote chapters to such matters as civil liberties, racism, and the distribution of wealth, he repeatedly attributes the failure of Americans to live up to their ideals to the demands of the national security state. Thus, he fails to cross-examine mainstream assumptions that economic growth is a necessary good that justifies material inequities or sacrifice of the environment, or that all citizens should strive to be rich. This latter aspect of American culture may help explain why many Americans support regressive tax policies that disproportionately benefit affluent citizens.

Declarations of Independence works better as a cross-examination than as the statement of a case. Indeed, when defending his political beliefs, Zinn occasionally makes statements that contradict the claims he makes when questioning conventional ideals. Thus, after demonstrating that lack of a good scientific basis for asserting that human beings are inherently violent, he blithely states that human beings are innately altruistic. Moreover, for a scholar devoted to the power of ideas, Zinn seems surprisingly contemptuous of everyone who disagrees with him. Those persons who advance mainstream beliefs are in his view either stupid or corrupt. Nowhere in Declarations of Independence is there any hint that the central problems facing the United States are difficult or that their causes and solutions may be the subject of good-faith debate. In this respect, Zinn seems quite similar to his nemesis, John Silber.

In spite of these faults, Declarations of Independence will enliven any introduction to American government or history. Zinn is provocative, but readable; indeed, his work demonstrates that radicals need not speak fluent post-structuralism to critique the influence of class, race, and (with much less emphasis) gender in the United States. Although few students or professors will agree with Zinn's conclusions, if they learn that “it is a crucial act of independent thinking to be skeptical of someone else's thinking” (p. 11), their undergraduate education will not have been in vain.

Paul Buhle (review date 21 November 1994)

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SOURCE: Buhle, Paul. “He Shall Not Be Moved.” Nation 259, no. 17 (21 November 1994): 623-25.

[In the following review of Zinn's autobiography, Buhle asserts that You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train is not Zinn's best work, but insists that it is nonetheless an engaging and entertaining book.]

I have always imagined that historian Howard Zinn somehow took part in the multitudinous radical movements of the 1840s-50s, campaigning for abolition, women's rights, dress reform and nonviolence. A rare Jew among Yankees and African-Americans, he would have commanded the platform with figures like Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, held his own against hostile audiences and broadcast the prospects for universal freedom. Something about Zinn's style and bearing suggests the prophetic profile so common to radicals in those days and so rare in our own.

Actually, Zinn grew up in a blue-collar Brooklyn family in the 1920s and '30s, son of a waiter named Eddie and a hard-pressed immigrant mother from Irkutsk, Siberia. At the ripe age of 10, Howard bought a cheap set of Dickens with newspaper coupons, and came to understand poverty in new ways. Almost accidentally he found himself at an antifascist demonstration in Times Square, like Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times picking up a red flag and seeing thousands fall into step behind him. In real life, New York's finest rushed the demonstrators, leaving Zinn with a blurred memory and a lump on the head.

This was Zinn's introduction to the left, along with reading Upton Sinclair, Marx and Engels. He got a job in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and then joined the Army Air Corps at 20, in 1943. Eager to bomb the fascists, he flew missions across Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Educated by a Trotskyist gunner who described the war as an imperialist adventure (Zinn had already read Arthur Koestler's novel of disillusionment with Stalinism, The Yogi and the Commissar), he was pained to realize that he and his colleagues had destroyed the French city of Royan along with the German forces holed up there. This marked the beginning of a deep disillusionment with war.

Mustered out and already married to a political soul-mate, Zinn went to N.Y.U. and then Columbia on the G.I. Bill. Meanwhile his family grew, and he worked nights in a warehouse, joining District 65 of the old Retail, Wholesale and Department Store workers. After he hurt his back he took up adjunct college teaching, determinedly winding up his Ph.D. From here on, the story ceases to be mainly personal: Zinn started work at all-black Spelman College in 1956.

He was just looking for a job, but he found the crusade that he had, perhaps, been preparing himself for. Atlanta was the right place to be, even if few effects of Brown v. Board of Education or the Montgomery bus boycott could yet be seen. Zinn soon took his students and a few others from Morehouse College to visit the Georgia state legislature, where they attempted to sit in the whites-only section, stirring a near-riot. (One of the students from Morehouse was Julian Bond.) By 1959, the faculty adviser of the campus Social Science Club, Zinn found himself prompting the desegregation of the Carnegie Library in Atlanta, as his students asked politely for copies of the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. They won their point. Then came the escalating rounds of sit-ins, jail, appeals, boycotts and still more demonstrations. Almost always Zinn was on hand, offering an apartment for meetings as well as his kindly encouragement and strategic acumen. He modestly takes no credit except for being there. In a book blurb, Marian Wright Edelman (originally Marian Wright, a student of Zinn's at Spelman) describes her teacher as totally inspirational, a formidable influence on the movement spreading around him.

Zinn plunged into the national spotlight when he took an assignment for the Southern Regional Council reporting on the anti-segregation struggle in Albany, Georgia. Zinn's report, condemning the unwillingness of the Kennedy Justice Department to assist the victims, hit the front page of The New York Times. The Nation soon published Zinn's moving essay “Kennedy: The Reluctant Emancipator” (December 1, 1962).

Now SNCC jumped into the act in Albany, with Zinn as one of its two adult advisers (the other was civil rights veteran Ella Baker). Stokely Carmichael, Bob Zellner and Charles Sherrod, along with Bernice Johnson (Reagon) of the Albany SNCC Freedom Singers and later, Sweet Honey in the Rock (Zinn helped her get into Spelman College)—the most spectacular circle of activists since the industrial union movement of the 1930s—soon had a big story to tell.

Zinn decided to tell it, in the book titled SNCC: The New Abolitionists (1964). He had earlier proved himself an able scholar with his prizewinning La Guardia in Congress (1959); now he turned to his real métier, the popular narrative. Hardly a better current history has been written than this instant classic, which combined oral history with a novelistic narrative and a burning sincerity. Zinn had made his mark as an unusual type of scholar, redefining American radicalism while explaining the emergence of a radical generation younger than himself. He says at the end of SNCC that their language and lives “give only a hint of what it is about SNCC that worries traditional liberalism.” The young activists hinted at socialist egalitarianism, “but to put it this way freezes what is really a fluid attitude, directed at ending deprivation and equalizing wealth, but completely open about ways to do this,” a radicalism of mood more than of doctrinal certainty.

One can fairly complain that Zinn did not see the downside to this prospect. Tossed on the seas of youthful expectancy and indifferent to solid organization, SNCC and the rest of the New Left were prone to the ravages of short-term disappointment as much as to the tricks of security agencies and the rhetoric of future neoliberals. But one cannot doubt the poignancy of Zinn's later reflections: “How awful they were, those days in the South, in the movement, and how they were the greatest days of our lives.”

Zinn paid an unexpected price, dismissal from Spelman (Alice Walker, another of his students, left in protest). He headed north, to then-liberal Boston University, in 1964. And once again he placed himself in a political cockpit. By April 1965, Zinn was speaking at the first of the anti-Vietnam War rallies on the Boston Common, sharing a platform with Herbert Marcuse. As a veteran both of the Second World War and the civil rights struggle, Zinn had credibility, a ringing voice and a wonderfully straightforward manner. He projected that public self along with a skillful analysis in a little book, Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal, which sold well at demonstrations and went through eight quick editions. A Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist suggested that the final chapter of Zinn's book, written as a model presidential address, would make a real President giving it “one of the great men of history.” Johnson and his would-be successor, Hubert Humphrey, lacked the courage to try it.

The deepening disappointment in American liberal leaders marks a deep-textual frustration inevitable in You Can't Be Neutral. Zinn offsets the mood with other hopeful and even funny moments, like F.B.I. agents, in hot pursuit of Father Daniel Berrigan, rushing the stage at a 1970 Passover peace ceremony. (The lights immediately went out, and by the time they came on again Berrigan had vanished into a Bread and Puppet Theatre creation.) But the book does not move toward a happy ending. Zinn's popular narrative, A People's History of the United States (1980), indeed, became the standard textbook alternative against the reality of Reagan America.

The new Boston University president (and clown prince of neoconservatism), John Silber, ached to cashier the much-admired radical professor who drew hundreds of enthusiastic students each semester. “The more democratic a university is, the lousier it is,” said Silber, delicately explaining his educational philosophy a few years later in The New York Times. But Zinn already had tenure. And happily for the rest of us, Silber could not convince Massachusetts voters to launch his gubernatorial career from the little corporate kingdom he had created on campus.

Zinn closes his volume with an epilogue, “The Possibility of Hope,” in which he insists that “small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.” True, no doubt, although the thought seems rather too pious at a moment in which we require a drastic shift of the radical paradigm just to keep up with the multiple human and environmental calamities ahead. We probably need a science-fiction version of Zinn just now, half prophet and half cyberpunk.

Still, he has a point about our underestimation of the trouble we cause our rulers. The sudden and unexpected appearance of social movements at various moments of the past certainly makes elites nervous, when they think of history at all. Meanwhile, a new, sleek-faced brand of writers, from the conservative think tank to the best-seller shelf to PBS documentaries, is indeed hard at work trying to bury that past in hyperbole about free markets and American innocence.

If You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train seems sometimes less than Zinn's best, it is because he has too much modesty to construct a world view out of his own experiences. However, he is a good read, as always. And the casual or intense Zinn-watcher will surely be touched by his urging to “live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us.” These homely phrases remind us of the simple, often disguised promise that remains alive in human decency and in a willingness to learn from history.

Matthew Rothschild (review date January 1995)

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SOURCE: Rothschild, Matthew. Review of You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train, by Howard Zinn. Progressive 59, no. 1 (January 1995): 37-8.

[In the following review, Rothschild contends that Zinn's autobiography presents an eloquent record of his activism in the civil rights and anti-war movements.]

Here's a personal favorite. This autobiography by the great activist and historian (who wrote the pioneering multicultural history. A People's History of the United States, long before the term “multiculturalism” was in vogue) provides an eloquent, personal account of the struggles for civil rights and against the Vietnam war, and a universal paean to protest and resistance.

At bottom, Zinn, like all humanitarian radicals, has nurtured throughout his life “an indignation against the bullies of the world, those who used wealth or military might or social status to keep others down,” he writes.

Zinn defies chronological and autobiographical order and jumps right into the action. In the first part of the book, “The South and the Movement,” Zinn discusses his days as chair of the history department at Spelman College in Atlanta, and his eventual firing for encouraging his students—including Alice Walker and Marian Wright—to participate in civil-rights protests. He follows his involvement in the movement to Albany, Georgia; Selma, Alabama; and Greenwood, Mississippi, where he encounters Martin Luther King Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, Julian Bond, James Farmer, and Bob Moses, as well as many unsung heroes whose praise he sings.

The second part of the book is simply entitled, “War.” It mostly discusses the many Vietnam protests which Zinn participated in, spoke at, or helped lead, and it recounts the trip he and Daniel Berrigan took to Vietnam in 1968 to bring back three American pilots whom the North Vietnamese government was releasing.

But the section begins with Zinn's discussion of his evolution as a pacifist, and this account took on a particular poignance for me, since it reminded me of many conversations I'd had with Erwin over the years on the very question of pacifism in the face of Hitler—a position I still have trouble accepting.

Zinn was a bomber in World War II, an ardent believer in the need to fight fascism by force of arms. One pivotal event came when Zinn and his fellow pilots were ordered to bomb a few thousand German soldiers who were trapped in Royan, France, a few weeks before the war ended. There was nothing to be gained militarily from the action: what's worse, the bombing mission used not the traditional weapons but “jellied gasoline.” Zinn recalls. “They didn't use the word, and I only realized long after the war that this was an early use of napalm.” Zinn also credits John Hersey's Hiroshima for transforming his view of “just wars.”

“The more I read, the more I thought about World War II, the more I became convinced that the atmosphere of war brutalizes everyone involved, begets a fanaticism in which the original moral factor (which certainly existed in World War II—opposition to a ruthless tyranny, to brutal aggression) is buried at the bottom of a heap of atrocities committed by all sides,” he writes.

“By the 1960s, my old belief in a ‘just war’ was falling apart, I was concluding that while there are certainly vicious enemies of liberty and human rights in the world, war itself is the most vicious of enemies. And that while some societies can rightly claim to be more liberal, more democratic, more humane than others, the difference is not great enough to justify the massive, indiscriminate slaughter of modern warfare.”

Zinn waits until Chapter 12 to give his personal background—son of Austrian Jewish and Russian immigrants, who settled in Brooklyn and never had any money. His mother managed the household: his father was a waiter and failed candy-store owner, who banged his head on the American dream but didn't make a dent.

Two events propelled Zinn into politics. The first occurred when he was ten, and the New York Post offered its readers a set of the complete works of Charles Dickens if they sent in the requisite number of coupons. Zinn's parents, who didn't know Dickens but knew their son liked to read, dutifully clipped and mailed the coupons. Zinn credits Dickens for arousing in him “a profound compassion for the poor.”

The other event occurred when Zinn was a teenager. Some of the guys he played basketball and football with in the neighborhood were communists, and they invited him to a demonstration in Times Square. Zinn went, and took his turn carrying a banner. Then the police came, some on horseback, and started smashing people with clubs. Zinn himself was knocked unconscious.

“From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy,” he writes, “I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country.”

Howard Zinn is an apostle of protest. “The tiniest acts of protest in which we engage may become the invisible roots of social change.” He uses his training both as a historian and an activist to preserve hope, even as the clouds gather, as they seem to be right now.

“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness,” he writes on the last page of his book.

“And if we do act, in however small a way, we don't have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

Maurice Isserman (review date September 1995)

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SOURCE: Isserman, Maurice. Review of You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train, by Howard Zinn. Journal of American History 82, no. 2 (September 1995): 834-35.

[In the following review, Isserman calls Zinn's autobiography “lucid and unpretentious.”]

Howard Zinn arrived at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, in August 1956 to take up duties as chair of the department of history and social science. He tells us in his memoir, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train, that he had not sought out a job at a “Negro college,” and he certainly had no sense that he was arriving in the Deep South just in time to witness the beginnings of the civil rights revolution. But the match between man and moment proved fateful:

The events of my life, growing up poor, working in a shipyard, being in a war, had nurtured an indignation against the bullies of the world, those who used wealth or military might or social status to keep others down. And now I was in the midst of a situation where human beings, by accident of birth, because of their skin color, were being treated as inferior beings. … I was open to anything my students wanted to do, refusing to accept the idea that a teacher should confine his teaching to the classroom when so much was at stake outside it.

In the next seven years Zinn welcomed the chance to move from sympathy to committed activism. His students, including such notables as Marian Wright and Alice Walker, were at the forefront of the southern Black student movement. Zinn himself was invited to join the executive committee of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) as one of two “adult advisers” (the other was Ella Baker). Zinn's reports from the civil rights battlefronts in Albany, Georgia, Selma, Alabama, and Greenwood, Mississippi were published in the Nation and the New Republic; his 1964 book SNCC: The New Abolitionists remains a classic of 1960s advocacy journalism.

Zinn's activism did not endear him to Spelman's autocratic president and led to his dismissal in 1963. Zinn then moved on to a position in the political science department at Boston University, where he would spend the rest of his career. The Boston area was a center of student protest against the war in Vietnam, and Zinn again found ample outlets for his talents as organizer and pamphleteer (his Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal quickly went through eight printings after its 1967 publication).

You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train is, like most of Zinn's writings, lucid and unpretentious. Among its several virtues is the view it provides of the links between the Old and New Left. Zinn's initiation into radical politics came as a teenage Communist in Brooklyn. Disillusionment with the Soviet Union followed a few years later when he was serving as a bombardier with the United States Army Air Corps in Europe, and a fellow crew member lent him a copy of Arthur Koestler's The Yogi and the Commissar (1945). But Zinn remained an independent-minded socialist and, like many others who had left their party affiliations behind, found a way to put his radical beliefs into action when new opportunities arose in the 1960s.

Howard Zinn and David Barsamian (interview date July 1997)

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SOURCE: Zinn, Howard, and David Barsamian. “Howard Zinn.” Progressive 61, no. 7 (July 1997): 37-40.

[In the following interview, Barsamian questions the 75-year-old Zinn about his social and political activism, his teaching career, and his writings.]

Howard Zinn is a model of the activist scholar. His classic work, A People's History of the United States, has sold more than half a million copies and is widely used in college and university classrooms. A project to develop A People's History into a TV series is under way.

Zinn grew up class-conscious in a poor immigrant family. “We were always,” he recalls, “one step ahead of the landlord.” There were no books or magazines at home. The first book he remembers reading was Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar. He found it in the street, the first ten pages ripped out. But it didn't matter to him. When his parents discovered his interest in books, they took advantage of a newspaper offer and ordered the complete works of Charles Dickens. Later they got him a used Underwood No. 5 typewriter. The rest is history.

Even though he earned a Ph.D. from Columbia. Zinn learned of the Ludlow Massacre in Colorado only by hearing a Woody Guthrie song about the event. That omission in his education taught him a lot about what is included and excluded in conventional textbooks.

Zinn is an excavator and memory retriever. He recovers valuable and hidden aspects of the past. The lessons inform us, and they inspire us to social action.

He also has a keen interest in the arts. His play Emma, on the life of Emma Goldman, has been performed in New York, Boston, London, Edinburgh, and Tokyo. His most recent play is Marx in Soho.

At seventy-five, Zinn is as active as ever. The professor emeritus at Boston University is in great demand as a speaker all over the country. But in characteristic fashion, he doesn't just speak. He acts as well. He recently was arrested in Everett, Massachusetts, in support of Salvadoran women workers at a curtain factory.

Zinn is one of the most beloved figures in the progressive movement. And he's proof that you can be radical and have a sense of humor. I talked with him in the offices of the Harvard Trade Union Program in Cambridge.

[Barsamian]: In your memoir, you write of an incident in Times Square that had a big political impact on you.

[Howard Zinn]: I was a seventeen-year-old kid living in the slums of Brooklyn. Living on the same block were these young communists who were older than I and seemed very politically sophisticated. They asked me to come to a demonstration at Times Square. I had never been to a demonstration, and going to Times Square sounded very exciting. I went along.

It seemed like nothing was going on. But my friend said, “Wait.” The clock on The New York Times building said ten. Suddenly, banners unfurled all around me. People started marching down the street. It was very exciting. I wasn't even sure what it was all about, except that vaguely I thought that it was against war.

At some point there were two women in front of us carrying banners. This was before the age of feminist consciousness, even among leftists. My friends said, “We mustn't let these two women carry this banner. You take one end. I'll take the other end.” It was like Charlie Chaplin picking up that red flag, a railroad signal flag, and suddenly there's this army of unemployed people marching behind him in this demonstration.

Then I heard these sirens. I thought there must be a fire somewhere around. But no. The mounted police arrived, driving their horses into the crowd, beating the people. It was a wild scene. Before I knew it, I was spun around by the shoulder, hit, and knocked unconscious.

I woke up, I don't know how much later, in a doorway. Times Square was back as it was before. It was very eerie, as if nothing had happened. My friend was gone. The demonstration was over. The police were gone.

I was nursing not only a hurt head, but hurt feelings about our country. All the things these radicals had been saying were true. The state is not neutral, but on the side of the powerful; there really is no freedom of speech in this country if you're a radical. That was brought home to me, because these people were engaging in a nonviolent demonstration, presumably protected by the Constitution and—zoom!—the police are there beating heads and breaking up the demonstration.

The title of your memoir is You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train. Why did you pick a title like that?

To confuse people, so that everybody who introduces me at a lecture gets it all wrong, like, You Can't Be Training in a Neutral Place. The title came out of my classroom teaching, where I would start off my classes explaining to my students—because I didn't want to deceive them—that I would be taking stands on everything. They would hear my point of view in this course, that this would not be a neutral course. My point to them was that in fact it was impossible to be neutral. You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train means that the world is already moving in certain directions. Things are already happening. Wars are taking place. Children are going hungry. In a world like this—already moving in certain, often terrible directions—to be neutral or to stand by is to collaborate with what is happening. I didn't want to be a collaborator, and I didn't want to invite my students to be collaborators.

Was your job at Spelman College in Atlanta a radicalizing experience for you? I presume you lived in a black neighborhood near the college.

Actually, the first year we were there, 1956, we lived in a white, working-class neighborhood on the edge of Atlanta, which was an interesting experience in itself. We weren't far from Stone Mountain, which is a Ku Klux Klan gathering place. One of the first things that happened when we were there is we heard all this noise. We went outside. There was a main street about a block from our house. There was a parade of people with white hoods. KKK, marching to Stone Mountain.

We moved to the Spelman College campus, which was surrounded by a black community. We lived in the black community for the next six years. Probably that time at Spelman College was the most intense experience of learning in my life. Talk about social change: I could see social change happening all around me. I was writing about it, observing it, participating in it. My Spelman College students—especially young black women—were being trained to take their obedient places in the segregated society. Trained to pour tea and wear white gloves and march into and out of chapel.

Then suddenly I saw them break away from this after they watched the sit-ins taking place in Greensboro and Rock Hill and Nashville, and I saw them getting together and planning the first sit-ins in the spring of 1960 in Atlanta.

This was remarkable—this growth of courage and getting arrested, going to jail. I saw my students literally leaping over that stone wall that surrounded Spelman College campus and doing what they weren't supposed to do.

I saw Marian Wright Edelman, my student at Spelman, go to jail. A photo of her appeared in the newspapers the next day showing this very studious Spelman student behind bars reading a book which she brought along with her so she wouldn't miss her homework.

I participated in sit-ins, and I saw the atmosphere around us in Rich's department store suddenly change from friendly to hostile when four of us—two black and two white, my wife and I and two black students from Spelman—sat down at this lunch counter. Suddenly it was as if a bomb had been dropped or a plague had been visited on it. The people gathering around us were shouting and cursing. I got an inkling of what it is to be black and be subject all your life to the thought that if you step one foot out of line you'll be surrounded by people who are threatening you.

I saw the South change in that time. White Southerners getting used to the idea that the South was going to change and accepting it.

I learned a lot about teaching, too. I learned that the most important thing about teaching is not what you do in the classroom but what you do outside of the classroom. You go outside the classroom yourself, bring your students outside, or have them bring you outside the classroom, because very often they do it first and you say, “I can't hang back. I'm their teacher. I have to be there with them.” And you learn that the best kind of teaching makes this connection between social action and book learning.

Do you miss teaching?

I miss the classroom and the encounter with students. But I'm not completely divorced from that situation, because now that I'm not teaching in a formal way, I do go around the country and speak to groups of young people, and do a kind of teaching. I love to speak to high-school students. As a result, I don't miss teaching as much as I might have if I simply retired from teaching and played tennis.

Why do you think so many of your colleagues want to just busy themselves with their scholarship and churn out papers and attend conferences? I'm not saying that doesn't have any value. But when it comes to being “out there,” to being engaged with what's happening in the streets, in society, they don't feel it's appropriate.

In our society, there's a powerful drive for safety and security. Everybody is vulnerable because we are all part of a hierarchy of power. Unless we're at the very, very top, unless we're billionaires, unless we're the President of the United States, unless we're the boss, and very few of us are bosses, we are somewhere on some lower rung in the hierarchy of power. If somebody has power over us, somebody has the power to fire us, to withhold a raise, to punish us in some way.

Here in this rich country, so prideful of the economic system, the most clear-cut thing you can say is that everybody is insecure. Everybody is nervous. Even if you're doing well, you're nervous. Something will happen to you. In fact, the people who are doing fairly well, the middle class, are more nervous than the people at the bottom, who know what to expect. The academic world has its own special culture of conformity and being professional. Being professional means not being committed.

It's unprofessional to be a teacher who goes out on picket lines, or who invites students out on picket lines, unprofessional to be a teacher who says to students, “Look, instead of giving you a final exam of multiple-choice questions asking you who was President during the Mexican War, your assignment is to go out into the community and work with some organization that you believe in and then do a report on that.”

And you will stand out. You will stick out if the stuff you write is not written for scholarly journals but is written for everybody. Certainly the stuff written for scholarly journals is deliberately written in such a way that very few people can read it. So if you write stuff that an ordinary person can read, you're suspect. They'll say you're not a scholar, you're a journalist. Or you're not a scholar, you're a propagandist, because you have a point of view. Of course, scholarly articles have a point of view. They have an agenda. But they may not even know they have an agenda. The agenda is obedience. The agenda is silence. The agenda is safety. The agenda is, “Don't rock the boat.”

Have you noticed any changes in your profession, history?

No question there have been changes. Not changes enough to say that the teaching of history has changed. But obviously enough changes to alarm the right wing in this country, to alarm the American Legion, to alarm Senators, to alarm Lynne Cheney, Robert Dole, William Bennett, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and to alarm all these people who are holding on to the old history.

The story of Columbus has changed now, not in the majority of schools around the country, but in thousands. This is alarming. What? Young kids are going to begin to think of Columbus as not just an adventurer, but as a predator, a kidnapper, an enslaver, a torturer, a bad person, and think maybe that conquest and expansion are not good things and that the search for gold is not something to be welcomed? Kids, be happy! Gold has been found!

And maybe, let's take a look at the Indian societies Columbus came upon. How did they live? How did they treat one another? Columbus stories told in the schools don't usually tell about how the Indians were living on this continent.

Somebody sent me a letter reminding me of the work of William Brandon. He has done research for decades about Indians and their communities in this hemisphere before Columbus came and after. It's an amazing story, and one that would make anybody question capitalism, greed, competition, disparate wealth, hierarchy. To start to hint about that, telling a new kind of Columbus story, a new kind of Native American story, is subversive.

Also, the Reconstruction period is being told in a new way. Eric Foner's book Reconstruction is marvelous. It's very different treatment of Reconstruction than when I was going to graduate school in the 1950s, where incidentally they did not put on my reading list W. E. B. Du Bois's Black Reconstruction, which is a vital predecessor to Eric Foner's book.

So a lot of history teaching has changed. Not enough. But just enough to frighten the keepers of the old.

Some years ago, speaking to a gathering of university presidents. John Silber, the chancellor of Boston University, talked darkly about those teachers who “poison the well of academe.” His two chief examples? Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn.

I guess Silber thinks that there is some kind of pure well, then along come people like Chomsky and me and ruin it. That is the kind of accusation now being made in a larger sense about education by the right wing in this country, who claim that education was wonderful before the multiculturalists came in, before we had feminist studies and black studies and Native American studies and Chicano studies. The well was pure before students had to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X alongside Thomas Hardy, before they were given I, Rigoberta Menchú alongside Tolstoy and Rousseau.

But it was not a very pure well. It was pure only in the sense of the racial purity that was so talked about during the fascist years—a well that I would argue was itself poisonous. It perpetuated an education that left out large numbers of the world's people.

Here's an easy one: How does social change happen?

Thanks, David. I can deal with that in thirty seconds. You think I know? What I try to do is look at historical situations and extrapolate. You see change happening when there has been an accumulation of grievance until it reaches a boiling point. Then something happens. What happened in the South in the 1950s and 1960s? It's not that suddenly black people were put back into slavery. It's not as if there was some precipitating thing that suddenly pushed them back. They were, as the Southern white ruling class was eager to say, making progress. It was glacial progress, extremely slow. But they were making progress. But the ideal in the minds of the black people was. “We have to be equal. We have to be treated as equals.” The progress that was being made in the South was far from that. The recognition of that gap—between what should be and what is—existed for a long time but waited for a moment when a spark would be lit.

You never know what spark is going to really result in a conflagration. After all, before the Montgomery bus boycotts there had been other boycotts. Before the sit-ins of the 1960s, there had been sit-ins in sixteen different cities between 1955 and 1960 that nobody paid any attention to and that did not ignite a movement.

But then in Greensboro, on February 1, 1960, these four college kids sit in, and everything goes haywire. Then things are never the same.

I think this is an encouragement to people who do things not knowing whether they will result in anything. You do things again and again, and nothing happens. You have to do things, do things, do things; you have to light that match, light that match, light that match, not knowing how often it's going to sputter and go out and at what point it's going to take hold. That's what happened in the civil-rights movement, and that's what happens in other movements. Things take a long time. It requires patience, but not a passive patience—the patience of activism.

When I was in South Africa in 1982, it was very, very interesting. We know about books being banned; there, people were banned. They couldn't speak. They couldn't go here or there. The secret police were everywhere. Just before I arrived at the University of Capetown, the secret police of South Africa had broken into the offices of the student newspaper at the University of Capetown and made off with all of their stuff. It was the kind of thing that happened all the time. There was an atmosphere of terror. You would think, perhaps, that nothing is going to happen here. But having come from that experience in the South, I was aware that underneath the surface of total control things were simmering; things were going on. I didn't know when it would break through, but we saw it break through not long ago. Suddenly Mandela comes out of Robben's Island and becomes president of the new South Africa.

We should be encouraged by historical examples of social change, by how surprising changes take place suddenly, when you least expect it, not because of a miracle from on high, but because people have labored patiently for a long time.

When people get discouraged because they do something and nothing happens, they should really understand that the only way things will happen is if people get over the notion that they must see immediate success. If they get over that notion and persist, then they will see things happen before they even realize it.

Let's talk about the American left and its values. What are left values to you?

When I think of left values I think of socialism—not in the Soviet sense, not in the bureaucratic sense, not in the Bolshevik sense, but socialism in the sense of Eugene Debs and Mother Jones and Emma Goldman and anarchist socialists. Left values are fundamentally egalitarian values. If I had to say what is at the center of left values, it's the idea that everyone has a fundamental right to the good things in life, to the necessary things of life, that there should be no disproportions in the world.

It doesn't mean perfect equality; we can't possibly achieve that. I notice that your sweater is better than mine. But we both have a sweater, which is something.

The Declaration of Independence—the idea that everybody has an equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—to me is a remarkable statement of left values. Of course, in the Declaration of Independence it was all men. It had to be extended as the feminists of 1848 did when they created a new Declaration that added “women” to it. Now it has to be extended internationally.

One of the crucial values that the left must embrace is a value of international solidarity and equality across national lines. That's very important, because it changes everything if you begin to understand that the lives of children in other countries are equivalent to the lives of children in our country. Then war is impossible.

Just speaking around the country, presenting what I think are left values, I talk about the equal right of everybody to these things and about extending the principles of the Declaration of Independence all over the world. I find that people everywhere I go—and these are not captive audiences of just leftwing people; these are assemblies of people, a thousand high-school students who are assembled forcibly to hear me—they agree with this. It makes sense. It seems right. It seems moral.

They find themselves then accepting what they didn't accept before, for instance, the fact that you might say the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima can be a controversial issue within the limits of discussion that have generally been set in our society. But if you change those limits by simply introducing the idea that the children of Japan have an equal right to life with the children of the United States, then suddenly it is impossible to drop a bomb in Hiroshima, just as it would be impossible to drop a bomb on the children of New York, even in order to end World War II faster.

Talk about the idea of equality of opportunity, which is a big theme, versus equality of condition and then the outcome.

The conservatives, and sometimes the liberals, make a big thing of, “Oh, well, what we just want to give people is equality of opportunity. We'll give them an education, and we'll send them out into the world and see what happens.” Basically that's it. “We've done our best. And now let the fittest survive.” It's a Darwinian idea. Our values should be that people should have health care and housing and work and food and an education, the fundamental things they need, and that should be guaranteed. To say we're giving people opportunity consigns to poverty those people who don't have, let's say, moneymaking skills, moneymaking intelligence: the special kind of qualities that enable some people to become millionaires. These people may be poets or musicians, or they may just be decent people, or they may be carpenters, and so on. But they won't have a chance. So it's very important to rid ourselves of the notion that it's sufficient to give people so-called equality of opportunity.

You've said, “We can't go on with the present polarization of wealth and poverty.” Why not?

I don't know how long we can go on, but I know we can't go on indefinitely. That growing, growing gap between wealth and poverty is a recipe for trouble, for disaster, for conflict, for explosion. Here's the Dow Jones average going up, up, up, and there are the lives of people in the city. The Dow Jones average in the last fifteen years has gone up 400 percent. In the same period, the wages of the working population have gone down 15 percent. Now the richest 1 percent of the population owns 43, 44 percent of the wealth. Up from the usual maybe 28 percent, 30 percent, 32 percent, which is bad enough and which has been a constant throughout American history. When they did studies of the tax rolls in Boston in the seventeenth century, they concluded that 1 percent of the population owned 33 percent of the wealth. If you look at the statistics all through American history, you see that figure, a little more, a little less, around the same. Now it's worse and worse. Something's got to give.

So despite what the pundits are telling us about the population being passive and quiescent, you think there's an audience there for dissidence?

Absolutely. Five hundred people come to hear me in Duluth, Minnesota. They're not people who are already aficionados of the left and of radical messages. They come maybe out of curiosity. Their interest has been piqued by an article in the newspaper or whatever, and they come to hear me.

Then I deliver what I believe is a radical message: This is what's wrong with our economic system. This is what's wrong with our political system. It's fundamental. We need to redistribute the wealth in this country. We need to use it in a rational way. We need to take this enormous arms budget and not just cut it slightly but dismantle it because we have to make up our minds we're not going to war anymore. We're not going to intervene militarily anymore. If we're not going to go to war any more, then we have $250 billion. We don't have to worry about Medicare, Social Security, child care, universal health care, education. We can have a better society.

I say things which, if you mentioned them on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, they would say, “That's a little too much for our listeners.” It's not too much. You tell people what makes common sense. It makes common sense that if you're a very, very rich country that nobody should be hungry. Nobody should be homeless. Nobody should be without health care. The richest country in the world. Nobody should be without these things. We have the resources but they're being wasted or given somewhere to somebody. It's common sense. So there are people all over this country, millions of people, who would listen to such a message and say, “Yes, yes, yes.”

Harvey Wasserman (review date March 1998)

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SOURCE: Wasserman, Harvey. “Radical Mensch.” Progressive 62, no. 3 (March 1998): 43-4.

[In the following review of The Zinn Reader, Wasserman applauds the hopeful tone of the essays in Zinn's collection.]

Howard Zinn, with characteristic innocence, introduces his pathbreaking essay The Southern Mystique, about breaking the color line in Atlanta in the 1950s, like this:

“I did not deliberately seek employment in a black college. I was only vaguely aware such an institution existed. …”

To say that Zinn is unique in the panoply of American writer-teacher-activists is to vastly understate his importance. “National treasure” comes closer to the truth. His People's History of the United States remains the most important leftwing narration of America's story yet published, with sales in the range of 225,000 and, after twenty years, still climbing.

Zinn's gentle style, evident throughout this welcome new compendium, is to present his case for radical change in terms of self-effacing human decency and understated common sense.

“Isn't it obvious,” he seems to ask, “that these things are wrong, and that we have to change them?” And isn't it equally obvious, he then adds, that the evils of racism, war, and class injustice will sooner or later fall away under the evolving power of nonviolent action?

When Zinn describes busting segregation in the Georgia capital, he writes with the wide-eyed tones of an intrigued, eternally optimistic neophyte who just happened upon a struggle for truth and justice and had no choice but to jump in. “A handful of Spelman students and faculty members, conscious of the unplanned and violent cataclysms that have shaken the world in this century, had been talking about the idea of deliberate social change,” he explains.

As his colleagues decide to make an issue of the lack of access for blacks to the public library system, Zinn is swept up in a quiet, beautifully managed movement to open those doors.

And open they do. So much else changes over the decades of Southern turbulence that the immensely complex “Southern mystique” is forever altered. “We are all magicians,” Zinn says. “We created the mystery of the South, and we can dissolve it.”

With beguiling grace, Zinn subtly dissects the burden of segregation and the movement to dismantle it. He was a participant in much of the early civil-rights movement, and his skill as a writer with access to key national journals was crucial in helping to spread the word.

Next, Zinn “somehow” finds himself amid the turmoil of the Vietnam War, and again takes on the role of author-teacher-activist. As a popular professor of political science at Boston University, his books and articles on that conflict had a major impact. Occasionally they made their way into the mainstream, as when he (briefly) wrote a column in the Boston Globe. Wherever his writings were published, they had that unique ability to balance rational thought with quiet rage.

Along the way, Zinn helped a new generation of budding historians rethink our national past, especially as illuminated by the social fireworks of the day.

What gives this particular grouping of his essays their special magic is that, taken in concert with his introductions, they comprise an autobiography of the man and a chronicle of his time.

In the essay “Growing Up Class-Conscious,” Zinn discusses his working-class background. His Austrian Jewish father, a member of Local 2 of the Waiters Union, “worked very hard for very little” as “a window cleaner, a pushcart peddler, a street salesman of neckties, a W.P.A. worker in Central Park.” Zinn's mother, a Siberian refugee, entered an arranged marriage, lost her firstborn to meningitis, and kept the family barely fed and constantly moving from tenement to tenement, often one step ahead of the rent collector.

“The roaches,” Zinn remembers, “were never absent, wherever we lived. … I never got used to them.” He also never accepted things the way they were. “The analysis of capitalism by Marx and Engels made sense,” he says. “My image of ‘a Communist’ was not a Soviet bureaucrat but my friend Leon's father, a cabdriver who came home from work bruised and bloody one day, beaten up by his employer's goons (yes, that word was soon part of my vocabulary) for trying to organize his fellow cabdrivers into a union.”

A bombardier in World War II, Zinn first embraced, then denounced the bombing of Hiroshima. His long, thoughtful essay on “Just and Unjust War” explores the logic of pacifism with a tone that confirms his commitments while making it equally clear he does not have all the answers.

Even without all the answers, this book is a healing read. Take two of these essays each night before bed. Soon, you'll feel restored, even hopeful. Then get everyone you know to repeat the process.

Mariel Garza (review date July 1999)

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SOURCE: Garza, Mariel. “Alternate History.” Reason 31, no. 3 (July 1999): 15-6.

[In the following review of the twentieth-anniversary edition of A People's History of the United States, Garza describes the phenomenal sales record of Zinn's alternate history and the support it has received from rock stars and movie actors.]

One of the ironies of capitalism is that socialism sells, especially when plugged by millionaire movie stars and rock idols. That helps explains surging sales for A People's History of the United States: 1492-Present, a leftist chronicle by Boston University professor emeritus Howard Zinn. Originally published in 1980 and revised in 1995, the book has sold more than 500,000 copies—a total that is climbing rapidly due in no small part to a prominent product placement in the popular 1997 film Good Will Hunting. Matt Damon, who co-wrote and starred in the movie, and Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder are among the celebrities who have publicly touted the book to their youthful fans.

As a result, the book has become standard fare not only at left-leaning independent bookstores throughout the country, but also at mall-style chain stories. Of course, glitterati advocacy alone can't account for such success—and certainly doesn't explain the weekly additions to the list of reader reviews found on (where the book maintained a sales ranking of around 500 for some time). Mostly favorable, the reviews include comments such as, “This is the ONLY U.S. history book that matters,” and “brilliant.”

Why do people love it? Despite its anticapitalist mentality, A People's History is a great example of product differentiation, entering underserved markets, and giving people what they want.

Zinn has a master storyteller's touch and he tells the tales of folks often left out of other texts—Indians, black slaves, poor whites, women, and immigrants—from their perspectives.

And, in the best Hollywood tradition, the book is packed with violence, sex, and intrigue. Consider, for example, Zinn's NC-17 treatment of Jamestown residents during the colony's “starving time” in the winter of 1609-1610: “One among them slew his wife as she slept in his bosom, cut her to pieces, salted her and fed upon her till he had clean devoured all parts saving her head.”

Now that's entertainment. So much so, in fact, that media baron—and arch-capitalist—Rupert Murdoch is among Zinn's fans. Indeed, Fox has inked a deal to develop a mini-series based on the book.


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