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.”