Howard Zinn: Historian whose criticisms of American social policy made him a hero of the Left

In 1980, the historian and activist Howard Zinn published The people's history of the United States, which turned inside out the traditional perspectives of American history. Zinn portrayed many of America's heroes as perfidious villains and transformed the triumphalist narrative of American progress into a litany of unfettered power-abusing and exploitation of the poor, people of colour, immigrants, workers, and all the disenfranchised who had lacked a voice in mainstream histories. Originally published with a print run of 5,000, the book became a staple of many history courses, and its spin-offs, including a young-people's version, a comic-book, and an abridged history of the 20th century, have gone on to sell 2 million copies.

Critics, and even some obituarists, accused Zinn of failing to show "balance", but Zinn insisted his book was one small counterweight to the overwhelming bias of mainstream history toward the political, economic, and social elites, and its implicit assumption of idealistic nationalism, capitalism, and imperialism. His refusal to credit the likes of Jefferson, Lincoln, or the Roosevelts with progressive achievements, while highlighting their shortcomings, infuriated mainstream "liberal" historians, while his steadfast opposition to wars saw right-wingers targeted him as an "appeaser".

But unlike many of his most virulent critics, Zinn had lived out the positions he argued. He opposed war as a decorated military flyer, championed labour as a former shipyard worker, and had risked jobs and jail protesting and working for civil rights and against the Vietnam war. Indeed, this willingness to ignore careerism appeared to infuriate many of his fellow academics as much as his insistence that meaningful change could only arise from the collective will of ordinary people, not heroic leaders. His views, and his passionate presentation of them, made him a favourite of successive younger generations; Zinn's History is the book Matt Damon extols in the movie Good Will Hunting.

Although a public figure in Boston, Zinn was born in Brooklyn to Jewish immigrant parents. His father ran candy stores, peddled off a push-cart, worked in factories, and moved the family through what Zinn called "every slum in Brooklyn" staying ahead of landlords. His parents introduced him to books via an edition of Dickens sold as a premium with the New York Post, and he studied writing in high school. After graduating he went to work in Brooklyn's navy yard, and at 17 he joined an anti-fascist rally organised by the Communist Party in Times Square, and got his first lessons in the uses of power when police attacked the peaceful demonstrators.

With the outbreak of war he could have stayed in his essential shipyard job but he joined the Army Air Corps, flying as a bombardier on B-17s from Britain. He dropped the first napalm attack, on retreating German soldiers at Royan, France, killing hundreds of civilians. He learned another indelible lesson; after the war he sealed his medals in an envelope marked "Never Again". Nine years later he returned to Royan, gathering documents and testimonies that proved that the official military history of the bombing, which minimised civilian casualties, was a lie.

After the war he married Roslyn Schecter, whom he had met at the Navy Yards, and after working as a labourer entered New York University on the GI Bill, receiving his BA in history in 1951. He took his MA and PhD at Columbia University; his masters' thesis examined the Colorado mining strikes that culminated in the infamous Ludlow Massacre, while his dissertation, on the radical Congressional career of New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, became a prize-winning book in 1959.

However, by the time his PhD was awarded in 1958 he was already head of the history department at Spelman, an historically black women's college in Atlanta, where his students included the future novelist Alice Walker. He became advisor to the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), then at the forefront of the civil rights movement, and his frequent clashes with Spelman's administration over its resistance to its students being involved in the civil rights struggle led to his being fired, despite being a tenured department head, in 1963. Meanwhile, he wrote two books, a study of segregation's background called The Southern Mystique (1964), and, in the same year, a study-cum-manifesto, SNCC: The New Abolitionists, whose call to rejection of authority and respectability echoed the course of Sixties radicalism and Zinn himself.

He began teaching at Boston University in 1964. Having studied East Asian politics as a visiting fellow at Harvard, he became deeply involved in the anti-war movement, publishing Vietnam: the logic of withdrawal in 1967. In 1968, Zinn travelled to Hanoi with Father Daniel Berrigan, and negotiated the release of three captured American pilots. And when Daniel Ellsberg leaked classified Defense department documents, known as the Pentagon Papers, to the press, he left a copy with the Zinns, and Howard edited, along with his friend Noam Chomsky, the Beacon Press edition. He also testified for nearly a full day at Ellsberg's trial, explaining to the jury the history of US involvement in South-east Asia.

Although his classes at Boston University were popular with students, Zinn inevitably clashed with the university's administration. He led faculty strikes and refused to cross picket lines of university workers, and on his final day of teaching, in 1988, he ended his last class early to join a picket line. Upon his retirement, Zinn's book output grew to match the demand created by the success of the People's History, and he kept busy with lecture tours and journalism, particularly in the left-wing weekly The Nation. He wrote his first play, Daughter of Venus, in 1984, and later updated it from the cold war to terrorism; two more plays, Marx in Soho (1999) and Emma (2002) about the anarchist Emma Goldman, followed. His memoir, You can't be neutral on a moving train (1994) was billed as a "personal journey".

The second Iraq war found Zinn's commentaries more in demand than ever. His textbooks and theories may have drawn sharp criticism, but his political stances had most often been proven right by history, and he became a lightning-rod around whom opponents of the Bush-Cheney invasion could rally and at whom defenders of the establishment could direct their opprobrium, something Zinn relished. But it was worrying that the leaders of anti-war activism were men who had been elder statesmen to a generation of protest four decades earlier.

Zinn was honoured many times for his activism, being given the Thomas Merton, Eugene Debs, and Upton Sinclair awards; he also received a Lannan literary prize. Roslyn's death in 2008 slowed him only slightly. He died on a lecture tour of a heart attack suffered while swimming.

Michael Carlson

Howard Zinn, historian and activist: born Brooklyn, New York 24 August 1922; married Roslyn Schecter (died 2008; one son, one daughter); died Santa Monica, California 27 January 2010.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?