Howard Zinn Briefly Recalled


Stern served as historian at the JFK Library from 1977 through 1999. He is the author of Averting ‘the Final Failure’: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings (2003) and The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis, (2005), both in the Stanford University Press Nuclear Age Series.

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

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

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

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

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

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Louis Nelson Proyect - 2/4/2010


John Connally - 2/4/2010

"It's a mystery how A People's History of the United States, which has sold over a million copies and currently sits at number fourteen on the Amazon bestseller list, has become so popular with students, Hollywood types, and academics. It is a book of no original research and no original ideas; a tedious aggregation of American crimes (both real and imagined) and deliberate elisions of inconvenient facts and historical events."


stephen frederick knott - 2/3/2010

Thanks to Dr. Stern for a thoughtful piece on Howard Zinn. I know from my own work on Alexander Hamilton that Zinn played fast and loose with the facts in "A People's History of the United States." For instance, in making his case that Hamilton led something of a counterrevolution against the people, Zinn described Hamilton as a "merchant from New York" -- nothing could have been further from the truth -- and he distorts a quotation from Hamilton by the use of a strategically placed elipsis. His work simply cannot be trusted.