Dedication: Howard Zinn (1922-2010)
By Kenneth L. Brown
Howard Zinn’s classic, A People’s History of the United States, is written from the perspective of the oppressed rather than the oppressors who dominate in our history books. That perspective is so unusual that People’s History went through two dozen printings in its first decade and has sold over two million copies.
Zinn’s own life as scholar-activist testifies that both our lectures and our lives are intertwined and enriched by confronting “the reality of moral conflict in the world” (You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, p. 120). If you have not already done so, treat yourself to his autobiography. Howard grew up in Brooklyn tenement flats, son of immigrant parents who disproved the myth that in America, if you work hard, you will get rich. Zinn, at an early age, found himself in the school of hard knocks: at his very first demonstration he was knocked out by a policeman even though he was only a spectator. It was a lesson he didn’t forget.
Zinn volunteered for the Army Air Force in World War II to fight fascism, became a bombardier in the massive Allied obliteration raids in Europe, and never forgot his last run over a small French village full of fleeing German soldiers. He later visited Hiroshima, which contributed to his slowly-growing belief that, however vicious the adversary, “War itself is the most vicious of enemies; too evil to be just.” (You Can’t Be Neutral… p. 98-99).
After marriage, two children, various jobs, adjunct teaching and a Columbia Ph.D. through the G.I. bill, Zinn found his first full-time teaching position at Spellman College in Atlanta, placed by fate in the midst of the Civil Rights struggle in the South. He was fired for his involvement and carried those lessons back north to join Boston University faculty and outspoken leadership in opposition to the escalating American War in Vietnam. Noam Chomsky has called Zinn’s Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal (1967) his most important book. At a time when most historians were silent and the American Historical Association refused to condemn that ill-fated war, Zinn argued for the U.S. to withdraw from a conflict that he condemned as unjust, immoral, and misguided. In that spirit, given the current U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, Zinn’s voice is as relevant now as it was four decades ago.
As historian, Zinn chronicled America’s wars, including World War II, the “good war,” questioning their merit. “War brutalizes everyone involved, begets a fanaticism in which the original moral factor…is buried at the bottom of a heap of atrocities committed by all sides.” Fascism had to be fought, but differently.
Zinn related that when learning to fly in the air force, he almost killed his gruff instructor several times in leaning to come out of a spin. The bully instructor kept yelling at him: “Get your head out of your ass!” In all his teaching, writing and lecturing, and with the most winsome smile of any activist academic ever, that is what Howard Zinn kept saying in his gentle but forceful way. In this journal that is dedicated to nonviolent struggle for the victims of injustice and war, we at Manchester wish to honor him by remembering his witness. He died January 27, 2010. He was a much-needed prophet.
Ken Brown is professor emeritus of philosophy and former director of the peace studies program.