FBI files show Stalinist past of the “people’s history” author.
Howard Zinn was teaching a class, but he wasn’t yet a professor and his classroom wasn’t at a university. It was late 1951, and the students who gathered for Zinn’s lessons in Brooklyn were his fellow members of the Communist Party USA.
One of Zinn’s comrades described him as “a person with some authority” within the local CPUSA section and said that Zinn’s class was on “basic Marxism,” the theme being “that the basic teachings of Marx and Lenin were sound and should be adhered to by those present.”
That description, furnished to the Federal Bureau of Investigation by a former Communist in 1957, is included in more than 400 pages of Zinn’s FBI file made public last week.
The FBI files demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that Zinn — author of A People’s History of the United States, widely used as a textbook or supplement in many of our nation’s high schools and universities — was a card-carrying Communist at a time when the Soviet Union was America’s most dreaded enemy.
File No. 100-360217 was begun in March 1949 in response to an order from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to Edward Scheidt, special agent in charge of the Bureau’s New York office. Zinn’s name had previously surfaced in connection with other FBI investigations of Communist Party activities, but a new report from an unnamed agent marked Zinn as a subject of special interest.
In 1948, an FBI confidential informant had spoken to Zinn at a protest in front of the White House and reported that, during the course of their conversation, “Zinn indicated that he is a member of the Communist Party and that he attends Party meetings five nights a week in Brooklyn.” Zinn, who was then a 26-year-old Army Air Force veteran attending New York University, expressed to the informant his support for Henry Wallace’s third-party “Progressive” presidential campaign, “indicating that the Communist Party was 100% behind this Movement,” according to the FBI file.
Additional investigation showed that Zinn was active in several Communist-dominated “front groups,” and that in 1947 Zinn was a delegate to a conference of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, which had been designated a subversive organization by the Attorney General pursuant to a 1947 executive order of President Truman. Furthermore, according to another informant, Zinn’s Brooklyn address “appeared on a list of addressograph stencils at Communist Party Headquarters” in New York.
In response to this report, Hoover directed the New York office to develop a “Security Index” file on Zinn. Scheidt was “requested to conduct further investigation in an effort to obtain additional information concerning this subject’s membership in the Communist Party or concerning his activities in behalf of the party,” Hoover wrote on March 30, 1949. “Particular emphasis should be placed on obtaining admissible evidence.”
Continuing investigation determined that in 1946, Zinn’s wife had solicited petition signatures for the New York Communist Party, and that Zinn and his wife had both joined the International Workers Order, another designated subversive group. An FBI informant had reported in 1948 that “Howie Zinn was believed to be one of a group of individuals selected from the 6th [Assembly District], Kings County Communist Party as a fraternal delegate to the New York State Convention of the Communist Party.”
No further agency action followed until November 1953, when two agents from the New York FBI office interviewed Zinn as part of the bureau’s Security Informant Program and filed a detailed report: “Zinn stated that he was not now or was he ever a member of the [Communist Party]. He acknowledged that perhaps his activities in the past had opened him to charges that he was associated with the CP as a member; however, he was not…. He stated that he was a liberal and perhaps some people would consider him to be a ‘leftist.’… According to Zinn, he was not ashamed of his past activities and did not believe that he or his activities constituted a threat to the security of this country or our government.”
Zinn’s denial of Communist Party membership during this interview (which the agents duly reported as having been conducted “between Fifth and Sixth Streets and Avenue D” in Manhattan) is problematic. Multiple informants had already identified Zinn as a CPUSA member, and he was involved in several different Communist front groups, as well as Communist-infiltrated groups such as the American Veterans Committee and the American Peace Mobilization. His address was reportedly on the mailing list at the party’s headquarters, and he had helped lead a 1948 protest against the so-called Nixon-Mundt Bill which, eventually incorporated into the McCarran Act, required members of the Communist Party to register with the attorney general.
A few weeks later, in February 1954, FBI agents again interviewed Zinn, informing him that they “were giving him an opportunity to further discuss his former activity with certain subversive organizations.” Whereas previously Zinn had flatly denied attending the New York Communist Party convention, in the second interview “he could not recall” attending, nor could he recall attending the 1947 Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee conference. More to the point, Zinn “stated that under no circumstances would he testify or furnish information concerning the political opinions of others.”
Zinn’s non-cooperation duly noted, his FBI file remained fairly dormant for three years, as he completed his Ph.D. at Columbia University. But a report from the New York office in June 1957, in response to an inquiry from the bureau’s Atlanta office (Zinn was then teaching at Atlanta’s Spelman College), contained details indicating that Zinn’s earlier denials were false.
The FBI’s unnamed informant had joined the CPUSA in 1948 and remained a member for five years. The party was divided into “sections” and “branches” and the informant told the FBI that he had been transferred to the party’s section in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn in 1949.
“At that time, Howard Zinn was already a member of that section,” the informant said in 1957, according to the report by FBI Special Agent Edward P. Grigalus. “Informant stated it was his impression that Zinn was not a new member, but had been in the CP for some time.… Informant stated he attended numerous section meetings with the subject between about 1949 and about the summer of 1953.… The meetings were held either at the section headquarters or at the home of one of the members. Informant recalled that some meetings were held at [Zinn’s] home or at the home of one George Kirshner on Lafayette Street in Brooklyn.”
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