Howard Zinn, Author of “A People’s History of the United States,” Dies at 87
His death was announced before the State of the Union address. This is quite a loss. He died, basically “in the saddle,” no doubt promoting the DVD edition of his famous book, The People Speak: Democracy Is Not a Spectator Sport, when he was stricken in Santa Monica, California. A tall, rugged, fairly athletic man, Zinn was doing laps in a swimming pool when he suffered a heart attack. Lifeguards immediately jumped in to assist him, but Zinn had died that quickly, and hopefully, painlessly.
Howard Zinn was 87; he taught Alice Walker, Marian Wright Edelman, and those of their generation who were in the Civil Rights struggle at Spelman College; he taught a 10-year-old Matt Damon, who used to live next door to him; and led his students against the Vietnam War and against conservative president John Silber at Boston University.
So he was not only a historian, but a civil libertarian and an anti-war activist. As a member of the Greatest Generation, Zinn served in World War II as an Army Air Corps bombadier. Zinn was more eager to fight the Nazis, however, as time went on, he wondered whether it truly mattered, which laid the outline for his later anti-war stance. Wikipedia states:
…In his books, The Politics of History and The Zinn Reader, he described how the bombing was ordered at the war’s end by decision-makers most probably motivated by the desire for career advancement rather than for legitimate military objectives.
Zinn said his experience as a bombardier, combined with his research into the reasons for and effects of the bombing of Royan, sensitized him to the ethical dilemmas faced by G.I.s during wartime. Zinn questioned the justifications for military operations inflicting civilian casualties in the Allied bombing of cities such as Dresden, Royan, Tokyo, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II, Hanoi during the U.S. war in Vietnam, and Baghdad during the U.S. war in Iraq. In his pamphlet Hiroshima: Breaking the Silence, Zinn laid out the case against targeting civilians.
He was the author of more than 20 books, but A People’s History of the United States is his legacy. It was first published in 1980, and has undergone several revisions over the years, but it has remained in print ever since. It radically changed the way in which Americans look at their own history. Many high school and college instructors use A People’s History to supplement the teaching of American history in their classrooms. It has sold over a million copies.
Some liberal historians, over the years, distanced himself from Zinn and A People’s History. The late Arthur M. Schlesinger, a mainstream “court historian” and apologist for the Kennedy Administration, disliked Zinn. Once a Boston University colleague, he declared Zinn was “a polemicist, not a historian” after he said that Zinn regarded him as a reactionary. “And I don’t take him very seriously.”
Well, many other people did. In contrast, political dissident and linguist Noam Chomsky and Globe columnist (and ex-Catholic priest) James Carroll are in mourning. “Howard was an old and very close friend,” Chomsky said. “He was a person of real courage and integrity, warmth and humor. He was just a remarkable person.”
Carroll thought of Zinn as “simply one of the greatest Americans of our time. He will not be replaced — or soon forgotten. How we loved him back.”
Bruce Springsteen loved A People’s History so much that his album, Nebraska, was inspired by his favorite chapters of Zinn’s book. It even appeared in the hands of a Sopranos character.
“Howard had a great mind and was one of the great voices in the American political life,” Ben Affleck, also a family friend growing up and Damon’s co-star in Good Will Hunting, said in a statement. “He taught me how valuable — how necessary — dissent was to democracy and to America itself. He taught that history was made by the everyman, not the elites. I was lucky enough to know him personally and I will carry with me what I learned from him — and try to impart it to my own children — in his memory.”
I rate Zinn’s book and Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire trilogy as great historical works.
Speaking of making history, what did Howard Zinn think about Barack Obama? Two weeks ago, Zinn made the following observation in The Nation, as the Obama Administration neared its first anniversary:
I’ve been searching hard for a highlight. The only thing that comes close is some of Obama’s rhetoric; I don’t see any kind of a highlight in his actions and policies.
As far as disappointments, I wasn’t terribly disappointed because I didn’t expect that much. I expected him to be a traditional Democratic president. On foreign policy, that’s hardly any different from a Republican–as nationalist, expansionist, imperial and warlike. So in that sense, there’s no expectation and no disappointment. On domestic policy, traditionally Democratic presidents are more reformist, closer to the labor movement, more willing to pass legislation on behalf of ordinary people–and that’s been true of Obama. But Democratic reforms have also been limited, cautious. Obama’s no exception. On health care, for example, he starts out with a compromise, and when you start out with a compromise, you end with a compromise of a compromise, which is where we are now.
I thought that in the area of constitutional rights he would be better than he has been. That’s the greatest disappointment, because Obama went to Harvard Law School and is presumably dedicated to constitutional rights. But he becomes president, and he’s not making any significant step away from Bush policies. Sure, he keeps talking about closing Guantánamo, but he still treats the prisoners there as “suspected terrorists.” They have not been tried and have not been found guilty. So when Obama proposes taking people out of Guantánamo and putting them into other prisons, he’s not advancing the cause of constitutional rights very far. And then he’s gone into court arguing for preventive detention, and he’s continued the policy of sending suspects to countries where they very well may be tortured.
I think people are dazzled by Obama’s rhetoric, and that people ought to begin to understand that Obama is going to be a mediocre president–which means, in our time, a dangerous president–unless there is some national movement to push him in a better direction.
Let’s hope that that it isn’t the Tea Party.
So get on with it, people. Don’t mourn. Make history yourselves. That was the whole point of Zinn’s activism and his writing and teaching–to inspire others to take stock of their own lives, even in their littleness, and to make a difference.
Zinn is survived by his daughter, Myla Kabat-Zinn of Lexington, MA; his son, Jeff of Wellfleet, MA, and three granddaughters and two grandsons. He was preceded in death, in 2007, by his long-time collaborator, his beloved wife Roslyn.