IN 1943-45 HOWARD ZINN SERVED as bombardier for a U.S. Air Force B-17. Initially, just 21 years old in the service, he found himself in transit to Europe in charge of a mess hall on the Queen Marythat served more than 15,000 men twice a day in four shifts. The armed forces were still segregated, and black soldiers were relegated to the fourth shift. After a few days a “mix-up” occurred — perhaps no accident — and black troops poured in while white troops were still eating and sat down wherever they saw empty seats. A white sergeant with a southern accent pointed to the black soldier sitting next to him and called out to young Zinn: “Lieutenant, will you ask this soldier to move from this table?” Zinn, briefly flustered, collected himself and replied: “You fellows are going overseas in the same war. Seems to me you shouldn’t mind eating together. Sergeant, you’ll have to sit there or just pass up this meal. I won’t move either of you.” The sergeant hesitated, and then picked up his fork and began eating.
Why is Howard Zinn sufficiently significant to warrant a full-scale biography, this splendid one actually being the second? (A lesser one by Davis D. Joyce appeared in 2003.) Because he was one of the most outspoken radicals of his generation concerning issues of race, class, and opposition to American intervention overseas. His anti-war rallies drew hundreds if not thousands and helped to mobilize many activists. Working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), he was a principal organizer of the March on Selma and the Mississippi Freedom Summer training schools in 1963. His People’s History of the United States (1980) has gone through multiple editions and been adopted as a text at countless schools for a full generation.
At great personal risk he sheltered Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers in his home during the winter of 1970-71 just before The New York Times published them. (Zinn was already under FBI surveillance. His telephone was later tapped.) He was a remarkable polemicist, producing numerous political tracts and essays spanning half a century, eventually harvested wholesale as The Zinn Reader: Writings on Disobedience and Democracy (Seven Stories Press, 1997). Most recently there is also The Indispensable Zinn: The Essential Writings of the “People’s Historian” (New Press, 2012) edited by Timothy Patrick McCarthy with a foreword by Noam Chomsky.
His causes were just. His heroes are instructive because they too were insubordinate, like him. They included the farmers of Shays’ Rebellion in 1786, “the black abolitionists who violated the law to free their brothers and sisters, the people who went to prison for opposing World War I, the workers who went on strike against powerful corporations, defying police and militia, the Vietnam veterans who spoke out against the war, the women who demanded equality in all aspects of life.” Along with Bernard Fall and Frances FitzGerald, Zinn was one of the earliest critics of U.S. policy in Vietnam.
He could not be more fortunate in his amicable biographer. Martin Duberman is a distinguished historian and biographer with impeccable credentials for this project. His expansive studies of Charles Francis Adams (1961), James Russell Lowell (1966), Paul Robeson (1988), and Lincoln Kirstein (2007) are thorough, thoughtfu...read more