Two weeks ago, the FBI released 423 pages from its files on the late radical historian Howard Zinn. The bureau kept tabs on him for over 25 years, long before he became the bestselling author of A People’s History of the United States. Followers of Zinn’s career will not be surprised to hear the major revelation: Zinn was an active member of the Communist party (CPUSA)—a membership which he never acknowledged and when asked, denied.
When the file was started in 1949, Zinn was a few years out of the Army, where his experience as a bombardier in World War II would decades later lead him to accuse the United States of having perpetrated mass atrocities against civilians in that war. He was working as vice-chairman for a Brooklyn branch of the American Labor party (ALP), by then a group run and dominated by Communists. (New York’s Liberal party was created when anti-Communist liberals and laborites left the ALP in 1946.)
In 1948, the ALP backed Henry Wallace for president. Wallace, the former secretary of commerce in Harry Truman’s cabinet, ran emphasizing civil rights for blacks at home and appeasement of the Soviet Union as his main foreign policy plank. The campaign was run entirely by the CPUSA, and Wallace was its leading dupe. The ALP was but the first of many Communist-led groups with which Zinn would lend both his name and his active participation.
Zinn’s lifelong silence about his membership fits the profile of most American Communists of that era. Fearing that the Truman administration was taking the nation towards “fascism,” some Communist leaders went underground. Most members were covert and were told to infiltrate liberal groups, pretend to be regular progressives, and try to get the gullible to adopt pro-Soviet positions. Of course, Zinn’s defenders claim that anything in the FBI files has to be ignored. Noam Chomsky told the Daily Beast that a good deal of their reports are “mostly false,” since they were taken from informants.
My experience working with FBI dossiers (including my own 500-page file) suggests this is not the case. What one does find are exaggerations or gross mistakes when agents venture their own analyses or summaries, since these reflect their limited knowledge of American Communism. But when an informant offers a straight report about what he or she saw as a result of infiltrating (or belonging to) a Communist organization, it is usually accurate.
The FBI files show that one informant described Zinn as “a person with some authority” in the CP group to which he belonged. He was regarded as so knowledgeable that he taught a class to his comrades on “basic Marxism,” which, he instructed them, was an adequate guide to understanding how society worked. In 1948, a confidential informant took part with Zinn in a White House protest, where Zinn indicated “that he is a member of the Communist Party and that he attends Party meetings five times a week in Brooklyn.” Another informant who was his seatmate on a train going to a Washington demonstration said that Zinn told him he was a party member. Zinn might have been bragging to impress a mere fellow traveler; more likely, Zinn thought the person was a viable candidate to recruit.
Most damning was a June 12, 1957, report from informant T-1, who was a party member from 1948 to 1953. In a memo called “Affiliation with Communist Movement,” the informant told the FBI that when he was transferred to the Williamsburg 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.” He told the FBI that Zinn as a general rule was always present when meetings took place.
Like other American Reds, Zinn took the course of denial and lying. In 1953, he found himself interviewed by two agents who reported, “Zinn stated that he was not now or was he ever a member” of the party. In fact, Zinn told the agents much the same thing the party instructed its members to tell anyone who queried them—that “he was a liberal” though “perhaps some people would consider him to be a ‘leftist.’ ”
No one in the bureau was fooled. Indeed, it appears that there was virtually no front group to which Zinn did not belong. His memberships and activity included working in the ALP, the American Veterans Committee, the American Peace Mobilization, the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, and many, many others. Some would claim that Zinn might have been an idealistic, left-wing activist, eager to join the campaign of many single issue groups. This, however, is more than doubtful. By those years, most people joining these pro-Soviet groups were Communists. To those familiar with how American Communists operated, his memberships appear to be a party assignment.
Zinn had clearly left the party’s ranks by the time the New Left and the civil rights movement came on the scene. Indeed, his politics were to the left of the party. The CP supported “Negotiations Now” as a way out of Vietnam; Zinn proposed unilateral withdrawal. To be sure, he supported Third World Marxist regimes like Vietnam and Cuba. He toyed with radical groups at home such as the Maoist Progressive Labor party and the Trotskyist Socialist Workers party. He also gave his support to the young black militants of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Black Panther party.
But in a 1965 article found in the FBI files, Zinn praised “college radicals” for having “no illusion about Reds.” They “have seen Stalinism unmasked,” he wrote. “They have watched aggression, subversion and double-dealing engaged in by all sides, West as well as East, ‘free world’ as well as ‘Communist world.’ ” His position was now that of moral equivalence. It allowed him to be “critical” of the East while saving most of his fire for the “imperialist” policies of the United States. While the Communists “will use any means to gain their ends,” as Zinn put it, the horrors in Vietnam convinced him that the United States too “will use any means to gain its ends.” It was a position many ex-Communists still on the left would take; criticize the CPUSA for slavishly following the Soviets, but save most of your ammunition for condemning the United States.
Soon, Zinn would be taking students out of his Spelman College classes to join protest marches, declaring that the United States had “been a police state for a long time,” and traveling to North Vietnam in 1968. A short time afterwards, he began to write his simplistic paean to the “people,” and to develop a new far left narrative about America’s past. As one of his supporters wrote last week, “he was . . . an example of how genuine intellectual thought is always subversive.” Writing his tendentious history, which influenced a new generation to regard our country’s past with disdain, became his substitute for the old activism. That legacy is worse than anything he ever did as a member of the Communist party.
Ronald Radosh, adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute and a blogger for Pajamas Media, is author of Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left.