Ron Radosh

Howard Zinn's FBI Files: What It Reveals

The announcement last week by the FBI that it was releasing the FBI files of the late radical historian, Howard Zinn, was not met with universal acclaim.  In fact, many leftists were enraged.  Typical was the reaction of Noam Chomsky, who was quoted by writer Clark Merrefield. Zinn’s  files, Chomsky said, were “mostly a mixture of things that they’ve picked up here and there which is mostly false, things they’ve gotten from informants that are mostly false. We took for granted that obviously we were being monitored by the FBI.” For Chomsky, anything coming from the FBI obviously has to, by definition, be lies.

The most recent comment from the ranks of the Left is by frequent Nation writer Chris Hedges, whose column in Bob Scheer’s inappropriately named Truthdig reflects the most common take on Zinn’s work by liberal/left intellectuals. Hedges writes how he used Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States as a text for the American history class he was giving to prison inmates. “We’ve been lied to,” students would comment at the end of class. He assigned Zinn’s work because he says it opened the “eyes of young, mostly African-Americans to their own history and the structures that perpetuate misery for the poor and gluttony and privilege for the elite.” (Wonder no more about why so much of the American underclass get a bad education.)

So what is in these files? First, the FBI had evidence that Zinn was a member of the Communist Party of the United States, and lied about his membership when being interviewed by FBI agents. The first file on the subject appeared in March of 1949, when an informant noted “that he (ZINN) is a Communist Party member and attends meetings five days a week.” Zinn was then employed by the American Labor Party, which itself gives credence to the informant’s report. By that date, the ALP — created in the early forties to give NYC labor a left-wing ballot on which to vote for FDR — had been taken over lock, stock and barrel by the CP. It never would have hired non-Party members as full-time employees.

Another informant described Zinn as a “person with some authority” in the CP group to which they belonged. Zinn, he said, taught a course for his comrades on “basic Marxism.” On June 12, 1957, another informant told the Bureau that when he was transferred to the Williamsburgh branch of the Party in 1949, “HOWARD ZINN was already a member of that section.” It was his impression that  “ZINN was not a new member, but had been in the CP for some time.”

Zinn, however, denied he was a Communist when questioned by the FBI in 1953. It is important to note here that unlike those who testified before Congressional investigating committees, Zinn was not under oath. The reason Zinn denied his membership was the same as that for other  Communists. The Party instructed them not to, even when asked to testify before committees like HUAC. As some of the Hollywood Ten members revealed years after their own investigations, if they said they were Reds, that would only prove that the Red-baiters were right when they called them Communists! It would undermine their pose as good liberals, who were only taking pro-Soviet positions because they genuinely believed in them, not because it was the Party line.

And this is precisely the pose Zinn took to the agents who questioned him in 1953. Zinn “acknowledged that perhaps his activities in the past had opened him to charges that he was associated with the CP as a member; however,” he told the FBI, “he was not. … He stated that he was a liberal and perhaps some people would consider him to be a ‘leftist.’” He admitted that he participated in the work of groups that had been considered CP fronts — in fact, he belonged to and worked in scores of them, not just one or two; “but his participation was motivated by his belief that in this country people had the right to believe, think and act according to their own ideals.” He went on to note that if he had knowledge of anyone who sought to overthrow the U.S. government by force or violence,  he would advise the Bureau.  Zinn added that “he would advise the FBI if he observed persons committing acts of sabotage or espionage against the Government.” He also declared that he “would defend this country in the event of war against any enemy including the Soviet Union.”

What can one say about these statements? First, Zinn had defended his country, serving as a bombardier in the US Air Force during World War II. Indeed, it was that experience that led him to view the US as a nation that committed atrocities against the people of the world, and he obviously never lost a sense of guilt about the civilian injuries he had caused as a result of his wartime bombing raids .

Secondly, Zinn, like other leftists, protested the innocence of all those accused of espionage, like Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs. Since he viewed any of the people so accused as innocent victims of a witch-hunt (like Christopher Hedges today), he did not have to worry about the facts. He automatically assumed they all had been framed up. Would he have defended the US if indeed the Cold War had escalated into a real war with the USSR? Note he says “any enemy,” and in his eyes at that time, the Soviet Union was a peacemaking power and a friend of the American people, hence not an enemy. So as he obviously saw things, a result like that would never take place.

Finally, he acknowledged to the agents that he belonged to obvious front groups, and that “some of the members…with which he had been associated might be CP members,” but he was “certain that not all of the members” were. This too was obfuscation, typical of how CP members talked. The fronts to which he belonged included The American Veterans Committee, the Committee To Repeal the Mundt-Nixon Bill, and others. These groups were then entirely made up of Communists, with rare exceptions, and these members were often Communists in all regards except formal membership. No one in that period in the democratic Left and anti-Communist Left joined or worked with such Communist dominated or controlled groups. No one in the FBI was fooled.

The file stops, and resumes in the early ’60’, when as the Bureau’s press release notes, “the Bureau took another look at Zinn on account of his criticism of the FBI’s civil rights investigations.” The FBI, in fact, had much to account for, and took a rather passive role in protection of civil rights workers. The new investigation reflects a great deal about J.Edgar Hoover’s paranoia that any actual threats to America’s security may have come from those opposing segregation.

By this time, it is clear that Howard Zinn had long departed from CP ranks. If anything, he was far to the left of the official American CP. During the war in Vietnam, they backed the moderate group known as “Negotiations Now,” which sought a negotiated settlement of the war, and had the support of people like Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. and Irving Howe. Zinn became the architect of advocacy of unilateral withdrawal from Vietnam and a North Vietnamese victory. In 1968 he and others went to North Vietnam in a solidarity trip, and to arrange the release of a tiny minority of American POW’s, a propaganda coup for the North Vietnamese government.

Internally, Zinn gave his support to the black radicals in SNCC, as well as the militant new group, the Black Panther Party. He called all blacks in American prisons “political prisoners,” and said that the United States “has been a police state for a long time.” He also gave his backing to myriad far left groups, including the Maoist Progressive Labor Party, the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party, and the Third World revolutionary nations of Cuba and North Vietnam.  One did not need FBI reports to learn what he stood for. In a 1965 article found in the files, Zinn praised the New Left for having “no illusions about Reds,” and for seeing “Stalinism unmasked.” His position was one of “moral equivalence,” in which he equated the totalitarian East with the democratic West as evil centers of power, the United States being the most culpable.

Before long, he would write his book on America’s history which has found its way into many American homes and classrooms.  A mega hit, the book put Zinn’s name before the public as a major cultural figure. No longer a Communist, history became a more effective vehicle for presenting his ideas.

“He who controls the past controls the future.”  George Orwell, 1984

Update and an answer to some critics: Sat, Aug.7, 12:30 pm est

I have a new article on Zinn that takes a slightly different take than the blog. It is now available at: It may answer some of the points various commentators have made.

I do have two points to make. First, some have said that the American Veterans Committee was not a Communist front. True, it was born in the waning days  of the Popular Front, but like Ronald Reagan who had himself joined it, those in the know got out when they saw that the Communists were trying to control it, and making good on their efforts. The group quickly faded away, along with the Popular Front. It was similar in character to the Hollywood artists’ group that ended up with only Communists in it, and became a group working for the Communist created 3rd Party candidacy of Henry A. Wallace.

The second point concerns the group “Negotiations Now,” which one person writes was created by Penn Kemble and the social-democrats. That may have been true, but the CPUSA supported it as well,and urged its members to join. It vigorously opposed both the Mobilization Against the War and the call for unilateral withdrawal or victory for the Viet Cong. A parallel took place during Jimmy Carter’s Presidency. At that time, DSA created “the Democratic Agenda,” a broad left group from which democratic socialists hoped to influence the Democratic Party.Mike Harrington convened a Washington DC meeting to coincide with the mid-term primaries. The keynote speaker was Bella Abzug. The CP asked Mike if they could attend. He said: “Anyone can attend. It’s an open event. You just can’t claim it’s your operation.” They did attend, were warmly welcomed byHarrington. The next day’s issue of  The Daily World, the NYC CP paper, ran a headline saying “Communist Party plays major role at Democratic Agenca conference,” or something to that effect. It was untrue, but they coulde not resist heralding their welcome participation.

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