People’s historian of United States passes away

 Howard Zinn, 87 died of a heart attack last Wednesday in Santa Monica, California. He was an extra ordinary personality. He was a Historian, author, teacher and  an activist in civil rights,civil liberties and anti-war movements of USA. He was the author of more than 20 books, including  the very popular ‘A People’s History of the United States’.
Born in New York in 1922, Mr. Zinn was the son of Jewish immigrants who as a child lived in a rundown area in Brooklyn.
Zinn  joined the  Air Force during World War II to fight fascism, and he bombed targets in Germany, France,Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Zinn’s later anti-war stance was, in part, formed by his own experiences in the military.

After the war, Zinn attended University  graduating with a B.A. in 1951 and  an M.A. (1952) and a Ph.D. in history.

Zinn worked as Professor at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia and Boston University. He was also Visiting Professor at both the University of Paris and University of Bologna.

A People’s history of the United States

He wrote his most famous book ‘ A People’s history of United States’ in 1980. Zinn  believed that the point of view expressed in traditional history books was often limited to that of conquerors and victors. The ‘other’ view point is always absent. This book was his attempt to shine light into hidden truths.

Published  with little promotion “A People’s History” slowly became a people’s best-seller, attracting a wide audience through word of mouth and reaching 1 million sales in 2003.  His book was even taught in some high schools and colleges  as an alternative to standard textbooks , and numerous companion editions were published, including “Voices of a People’s History,” a volume for young people and a graphic novel. It has been frequently revised, with the most recent edition covering events through 2003.

Here are some excerpts from the ‘People’s History’.

About the wiping out of original inhabitans of Americas by Europeans…

Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island’s beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts……….

These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the American mainland, who were remarkable (European observers were to say again and again) for their hospitality, their belief in sharing. These traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance, dominated as it was by the religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas, Christopher Columbus…….

Columbus and his successors were not coming into an empty wilderness, but into a world which in some places was as densely populated as Europe itself, where the culture was complex, where human relations were more egalitarian than in Europe, and where the relations among men, women, children, and nature were more beautifully worked out than perhaps any place in the world.

They were people without a written language, but with their own laws, their poetry, their history kept in memory and passed on, in an oral vocabulary more complex than Europe’s, accompanied by song, dance, and ceremonial drama. They paid careful attention to the development of personality, intensity of will, independence and flexibility, passion and potency, to their partnership with one another and with nature.

Was all this bloodshed and deceit-from Columbus to Cortes, Pizarro, the Puritans-a necessity for the human race to progress from savagery to civilization?
how certain are we that what was destroyed was inferior?

About the ‘noble’ intentions of ‘founding fathers’ of USA he writes,

Were the Founding Fathers wise and just men trying to achieve a good balance? In fact, they did not want a balance, except one which kept things as they were, a balance among the dominant forces at that time. They certainly did not want an equal balance between slaves and masters, propertyless and property holders, Indians and white.

As many as half the people were not even considered by the Founding Fathers …. They were not mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, they were absent in the Constitution, they were invisible in the new political democracy. They were the women of early America.

About Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation against slavery:

When in September 1862, Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, it was a military move, giving the South four months to stop rebelling, threatening to emancipate their slaves if they continued to fight, promising to leave slavery untouched in states that came over to the North:

Thus, when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued January 1, 1863, it declared slaves free in those areas still fighting against the Union (which it listed very carefully), and said nothing about slaves behind Union lines…

About US as a ‘defender of helpless countries’:

For the United States to step forward as a defender of helpless countries matched its image in American high school history textbooks, but not its record in world affairs. It had opposed the Haitian revolution for independence from France at the start of the nineteenth century. It had instigated a war with Mexico and taken half of that country. It had pretended to help Cuba win freedom from Spain, and then planted itself in Cuba with a military base, investments, and rights of intervention. It had seized Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, and fought a brutal war to subjugate the Filipinos. It had “opened” Japan to its trade with gunboats and threats. It had declared an Open Door Policy in China as a means of assuring that the United States would have opportunities equal to other imperial powers in exploiting China. It had sent troops to Peking with other nations, to assert Western supremacy in China, and kept them there for over thirty years. …….

Zinn’s book was critisized by many Historians as subjective, incomplete,too radical etc.
In a 1998 interview with The Associated Press, Mr. Zinn acknowledged he was not trying to write an objective history, or a complete one. He called his book a response to traditional works, the first chapter — not the last — of a new kind of history.
“There’s no such thing as a whole story; every story is incomplete,” Mr. Zinn said. “My idea was the orthodox viewpoint has already been done a thousand times.”

A life of activism

During the civil rights movement, Zinn served as an adviser to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and in 1964, he wrote the book SNCC: The New Abolitionists. Mr. Zinn encouraged his students to request books from the segregated public libraries and helped coordinate sit-ins at downtown cafeterias. Mr. Zinn also published several articles, including a then-rare attack on the Kennedy administration for being too slow to protect blacks.

He was loved by students, but not by administrators. In 1963, Spelman fired him for “insubordination.” (meaning activism) .
His years at Boston University were marked by opposition to the Vietnam war. Zinn wrote one of the earliest books calling for the U.S. withdrawal from its war in VietNam. (VietNam: The Logic of Withdrawal 1967) A year later, he and Father Daniel Berrigan traveled to North Vietnam to receive the first three American prisoners of wars released by the North Vietnamese.


Along with Noam Chomsky, Zinn edited and annotated the copy of ‘The Pentagon Papers’ which described the internal planning and policy decisions of the United States government during the Vietnam War.
Later in a criminal trial for theft, conspiracy, and espionage in connection with the publication of the Pentagon Papers Zinn was a witness for the Defense.
He said
“…there was nothing in the papers of military significance that could be used to harm the defense of the United States, ….the information in them was simply embarrassing to our government because what was revealed, in the government’s own interoffice memos, was how it had lied to the American public. The secrets disclosed in the Pentagon Papers might embarrass politicians, might hurt the profits of corporations wanting tin, rubber, oil, in far-off places. But this was not the same as hurting the nation, the people,

Mr. Zinn retired from the University in 1988, spending his last day of class on the picket line with students in support of a strike. Over the years, he continued to lecture at schools and to appear at rallies and on picket lines.

Besides “A People’s History,” Mr. Zinn wrote several books, including “The Southern Mystique,” “LaGuardia in Congress” and the memoir, “You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train,”  He also wrote three plays.

Some of ZInn’s famous quotes include:

“Historically, the most terrible things – war, genocide, and slavery – have resulted not from disobedience, but from obedience.”

““We need to decide that we will not go to war, whatever reason is conjured up by the politicians or the media, because war in our time is always indiscriminate, a war against innocents, a war against children””

“How can you have a war on terrorism when war itself is terrorism?”
“Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.”
Noam Chomsky, USA’s best known dissident intellectual and also Zinn’s close friend and associate paid tribute:
‘He was just—he was fearless. He was simple. He was straightforward. He said the right things, said them eloquently, and inspired others to move forward in ways they wouldn’t have done, and changed their minds. They changed their minds by their actions and by hearing him. He was a really—both in his life and in his work, he was a remarkable person, just irreplaceable.

Links and references
A People’s history of United States
Howard Zinn


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