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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.”
According to the FBI, this informant gave the agency a photo of Zinn teaching his 1951 “basic Marxism” class to fellow CPUSA members in Brooklyn. That photo wasn’t included in the documents released last week, but details of the 1957 report are certainly intriguing. In the late 1940s, Zinn lived at 926 LaFayette Avenue (not “street”) in Brooklyn. George Kirschner (not “Kirshner”) was a union official at a Brooklyn brewery who, decades later, became a teacher and collaborated with Zinn on a 1995 wall-chart version of A People’s History of the United States. The informant’s account indicates that the association between Zinn and Kirschner (who died in 2008) began in the Communist Party in the late 1940s. Like Zinn, Kirschner was a World War II veteran, and they could have met through the Communist-infiltrated American Veterans Committee, in which Zinn was a ranking local official.
Given this further corroboration of Zinn’s CPUSA activities from a former comrade, the FBI evidently concluded that Zinn’s denials of party membership were lies. By 1964 — at which time Zinn was publicly denouncing Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy for allegedly being reluctant to protect civil-rights protesters — J. Edgar Hoover described Zinn as having “a background of known membership in the Communist Party.” While Zinn’s CPUSA membership seems to have lapsed in the early 1950s, Hoover noted that the professor “has continued to demonstrate procommunist and anti-United States sympathies,” including outspoken support for Fidel Castro’s Cuba.
Zinn was still a relatively obscure academic in 1964, but he gained national prominence for his subsequent anti-Vietnam War activism, leading “teach-ins” at Harvard, MIT, and other campuses, and traveling to Hanoi in 1968 with radical priest Daniel Berrigan. It was not until 1980 that Zinn published A People’s History of the United States, which gained pop-culture fame after Ben Affleck and Matt Damon featured it in their 1997 film Good Will Hunting. Zinn later became a prominent critic of the Bush administration’s foreign policy and, not long before his death in January, was lionized in a documentary called The People Speak, co-produced by Damon and starring Danny Glover, Sean Penn, and other luminaries of the Hollywood Left.
Zinn’s 21st-century influence takes on a new aspect in light of the FBI’s revelation of his Communist Party activities. Anyone might have innocently joined a Communist “front” group — indeed, during his New Deal years as a self-described “hemophiliac liberal,” Ronald Reagan had naively joined two such groups. But Zinn was implicated as a member of multiple Communist fronts and, tellingly, was a local officer of the American Veterans Committee at the very time when that group was identified as having been taken over by Communists. Given the preponderance of evidence, it is difficult to dispute J. Edgar Hoover’s conclusion that Zinn was no mere sympathizer or “fellow traveler,” but was indeed an active CPUSA member in the late 1940s and early ’50s.
The timing of Zinn’s Communist involvement is also important. Many well-meaning liberals had been drawn into the CPUSA during the “Popular Front” era of the 1930s, when America was menaced by the Great Depression at home and the rising specter of fascism abroad. Misleading press accounts of the Soviet Union’s “progress” during those years helped convinced many idealists that the Bolshevik Revolution represented a hopeful future.
By the late 1940s, however, those illusions had been shattered by the reality of Josef Stalin’s brutal totalitarianism. Stalin’s cynical 1939 treaty with Hitler — the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact — had sacrificed Poland to the Nazis, and the Red Army’s post-war occupation of Eastern Europe had crushed all democratic resistance. Even as Zinn’s wife was collecting signatures on Communist petitions in New York, Winston Churchill was decrying the “Iron Curtain” that had descended across Europe. The Communist Party that Zinn joined was already widely recognized as the agent of an aggressive tyranny, in thrall to the paranoid dictator Stalin. Zinn evidently pursued his CPUSA activism even after the Soviets exploded their first atomic weapon in 1949 and after the Cold War turned hot with the June 1950 outbreak of the Korean War.
Revelation of Zinn’s support for Stalinism is unlikely to affect his standing with liberals, whose main response to the FBI disclosures was to express shock that an official of Boston University tried to get Zinn fired in 1970. Zinn’s liberal admirers obviously share his anti-American perspective, in which the FBI poses a greater danger than any foreign enemy. It was that view Zinn meant to express when, in 1986, he condemned the U.S. bombing of Libya in response to a Libyan-sponsored terrorist attack in West Berlin. “There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people for a purpose which is unattainable,” Zinn wrote.
That such a condemnation could be applied more truthfully to Zinn’s communist heroes, who slaughtered millions of innocents in pursuit of an unattainable socialist paradise, is an irony the professor apparently never contemplated.