Decoding Howard Zinn’s Dark Vision of America

In the course of a career that spanned over 50 years, one man seized the mantle of the accepted voice of critical history for the revisionist Left: Howard Zinn. His book A People’s History of the United States sought to teach young readers to see America from the perspective of the disadvantaged. What resulted was a cynical judgment of the United States as a wasteland that victimizes women, blacks, Indians and anyone who is not rich and white. 

As new racial radicals seek to purge America’s culture clean through riots and renamings, I spoke with Mary Grabar, author of Debunking Howard Zinn, about the many ways it seems Zinn’s dystopian designs on America are being carried out just 10 years after his death.

Born in Brooklyn in 1922 to poor Jewish parents from Austria and Russia, Zinn eventually served Europe in the U.S. Army Air Corps (precursor to the USAF) in World War II. Notwithstanding his hostility to fascism, he was against the war at first. Witnessing the aerial bombings of France was his stated motivation for his lifelong pacifism and his public image as an unaffiliated radical. 

As our discussion developed, however, Grabar was adamant that Zinn’s seeming disinclination to affiliate stemmed from his having something to conceal—namely what ex-Communist historian Ron Radosh of the Hudson Institute alleged were activities on behalf of the Communist Party USA that are documented in Zinn’s FBI file

In 1949, the Bureau’s New York office ordered an index card prepared for Zinn on the basis of him telling an undercover agent that he attended CPUSA meetings five times a week in Brooklyn. Zinn was also an employee of the American Labor Party, a New York-based political party largely dominated by Communists. The previous year, the ALP had been behind the electoral coalition that supported pro-Soviet former Vice President Henry A. Wallace for president against incumbent Harry Truman. This parallels today’s infiltration of the Democratic Party by members of the Democratic Socialists of America.

When I read Grabar’s critical review of Zinn’s life and book last year, I had already observed that Zinn’s objective wasn’t education but rather the mental conditioning of grade-schoolers into angry avengers of the past sins of America. But for a while I allowed myself to think that the effects of this process, while undoubtedly demoralizing and damaging to the overall image of America among the youth, had only a limited effect on their actual behavior. It’s clear that I was wrong. 

As Grabar’s book clearly shows, much of A People’s History depends on misrepresentation of contemporaneous sources and the application of moral and ethical standards decades or even centuries ahead of the subjects being examined. According to Grabar, this was simply a cynical ploy—using moralism in order to promote communism.

I asked Grabar why Zinn focused so obsessively on the life and purported crimes of Cristopher Columbus. She informed me that A People’s History was one of the first textbooks to reach back and start the story of America’s history with Columbus, and explained: “Howard Zinn’s goal is to present the United States as being something that is illegitimate . . . So you have to go back to the man—to the discoverer—who throughout our long tradition has been credited with setting things in motion.” 

By this logic, since the United States as the fruit of Columbus’ discovery is supposed to be viewed as poisonous, Zinn’s focus was on portraying the Genoese explorer as a genocidal monster.

According to Grabar, this perspective relies exclusively on the viewpoint of Bartolomé de las Casas, a Spanish priest and later bishop of Chiapas in what is now modern-day Mexico. But Las Casas arrived in Hispaniola (modern Haiti and Dominican Republic) only after Columbus had been sacked and returned to Spain. He participated in many of the slave raids on the island that he would later blame Columbus for, and only changed his attitude toward the conquest of the Americas for Christianity after his experiences in the subjugation of Cuba. 

Another angle ignored by Zinn and highlighted by Grabar was the Christian perspective that colored Las Casas’ protestations against the conquest of Indian peoples. His reports back to the Spanish crown in Madrid led to a theological showdown on slavery and the mission of Christianity with a Franciscan rival, Fr. Juan de Sepulveda, known as the Valladolid debates. Zinn excluded Las Casas’ own evolution, the fact that his opinion of Columbus was second hand, as well as the Catholic religious motivation for his criticism, creating a completely distorted judgment rather than the nuanced critique that A People’s History is supposed to be.

Dancing in the Ruins

What would Howard Zinn think about the present state of America in 2020? In light of recent riots in Minneapolis and Portland, and the subsequent decision by city governments and unruly mobs to remove the statues of historical figures like Columbus, Thomas Jefferson, and Confederate officers, I asked Grabar if he would be pleased or would rather have seen the monuments stand as a reminder. 

“This was his goal,” she said. “To wipe out all reminders of a previous life.” 

As I would later discover, the Zinn Education Project, which promoted his books during his life and continues his legacy today, also highlights the 2004 film Monumental Myths which attacked historical landmarks and monuments including Mount Rushmore due to its association with the sculptor Gutzon Borglum, a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Zinn is one of the featured commentators in the film. Ironically, Borglum would later deny membership in the Klan in an exercise of self-preservation similar to Zinn’s own denials regarding the CPUSA.

Spelman, an Atlanta Affair

Not all of Debunking Howard Zinn relates to his version of history; his character is explored as well. 

In 1956, Zinn was hired to teach at Spelman College, an all-black women’s college in Atlanta, just as the civil rights movement was heating up. Zinn’s radical views, according to Grabar, were likely unknown to the administration of the small conservative Christian school at the time. 

Zinn clashed with college president Dr. Albert Manley, the first black president of the school and a Jamaican immigrant, who wanted to maintain the decorum and Christian discipline of the Baptist institution. Manley would have Zinn dismissed in 1963 for insubordination. 

Hidden from public view, however, was the threat of a moral charge against Zinn due to an affair that Zinn was having with a student. This allegation is also supported by the gay-rights activist and historian Martin Duberman in his 2012 biography Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left, which criticizes Zinn for not including the LGBT movement in A People’s History

Zinn destroyed his personal archives in 2008, meaning that it may never be confirmed whether he was indeed guilty of misconduct with the Spelman College student. 

I asked Grabar how Zinn would have been received by today’s feminists. “I don’t know if he would have done too well with the #MeToo movement,” she said. “He had a reputation for going after students and also having a number of affairs. He even confided in his daughter when she was in her mid-20s about an affair and [how] he was thinking of leaving his wife . . . I don’t know if he would have gotten away with it. But that’s just part of his character. He was a man who really had no scruples.”

Howie Don’t TERF

In one of the chapters of A People’s History, Howard Zinn attacks American colonials and settlers for their oppressive and dismissive treatment of their women. But in the decade since his death, gender politics have become complicated by the rise of intersectional feminism which validates the idea of male-to-female transsexuals as women. I asked Grabar another speculative question about whether Zinn would have sided with the intersectional side, or rather with their adversaries the so-called Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists. 

She was surprisingly decisive: “Anything that tears apart our society, the family structure, Zinn would be for. His concern for women’s rights—that has nothing to do with actual women—is to abolish the family.” 

The irony of this perspective, hypothetical of course, is that Zinn’s chapter on feminism quotes from Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” speech, a runaway slave who had her right to raise her family denied by her slavemaster.  

The simplistic and judgmental tone of Howard Zinn’s work is echoed in the the New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning, critically acclaimed “1619 Project.” Grabar is researching but still has not seen evidence that its author Nikole Hannah-Jones is a Zinn disciple. She did note, however, that like Hannah-Jones, Zinn distorted evidence as he saw fit. 

Examples of such historical errors were Zinn’s citation of the Holocaust denier David Irving’s inflated casualty numbers from the Dresden bombing as well as his distortion of MIT historian and Vietcong expert Douglas Pike’s reports of atrocities in Vietnam. 

In parting, I asked Grabar how Zinn would be behaving in today’s environment. “He would be leading the mob. He glorified violence,” she answered. But with the surplus of Zinn disciples running wild today, it may be that he would have simply blended in among the crowd.

About Ray McCoy

Ray McCoy is a freelance journalist from the Midwest

Photo: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

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