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Authors: Howard Zinn

The Zinn Reader

BOOK: The Zinn Reader
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To Noah, and his generation.


I must first thank my editor and publisher, Dan Simon of Seven Stories Press, not just for initiating this project, but for carrying it through all the way with extraordinary intelligence and energy. He is an ideal editor, clear in his vision of what a book should be, firm in pursuing that vision, and still sensitive to the needs of the writer—altogether a pleasure to work with.

My wife Roslyn, as always, encouraged me to do what had to be done, providing wise counsel again and again.

Thanks also to HarperCollins for permission to use material from my book
Declarations of Independence,
to Beacon Press for permission to use material from my book
You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train,
to the University of Illinois Press for permission to use material from my book
The Politics of History.


This seems to me a big book to swallow, and I blame it on the fact that in 1978, when I was teaching in Paris, I looked up the son of friends back in the States, a young man of college age. He was working in a tiny restaurant in the Latin Quarter—indeed with only one table—Le Petit Vatel. This was the start of a friendship with Dan Simon, who went on to become the ingenious editor and publisher of the small, independent, much-respected Seven Stories Press, and who proposed the idea of a Zinn Reader.

I delayed my response for two years, to give the appearance of modesty, and then agreed. I wanted to think of it as a generous act—giving all those who know my biggest-selling book
(A People's History of the United States)
a chance to sample my other work: books out of print, books still in print, essays, articles, pamphlets, lectures, reviews, newspaper columns, written over the past thirty-five years or so, and often not easy to find. An opportunity, or a punishment? Only the reader can decide.

My first published writings came out of my seven years in the South, teaching at Spelman College, a college for black women in Atlanta, Georgia. I was finishing my Ph.D. in history at Columbia University, with the indispensable help of the GI Bill, after serving as a bombardier with the Eighth Air Force in World War II.

My years at Spelman were 1956 to 1963, and I became involved, with my students, in the Southern movement against racial segregation. My very first published article, in
Harper's Magazine
in 1959 ("A Fate Worse Than Integration"), became the basis for a larger essay "The Southern Mystique," which appeared in
The American Scholar.

I was invited to become a member of the executive board (as an "adult adviser") of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which had come out of the sit-ins and was, I think it is fair to say, the leading edge of the Southern civil rights movement. In the next several years I became an observer-participant in demonstrations in Atlanta; in Albany, Georgia; Selma, Alabama; and Hattiesburg, Mississippi. I was now writing for
The Nation, The New Republic, The Crisis,
and other publications.

The historian Martin Duberman, whose documentary play,
In White America,
I had greatly admired, asked me to write an essay comparing the Civil War-era abolitionists with the activists of the Sixties. It appeared in a volume he edited called
The Anti-Slavery Vanguard,
and I called it "Abolitionists, Freedom Riders, and the Tactics of Agitation." It was an approach I was going to use again and again—to find wisdom and inspiration from the past for movements seeking social justice in our time.

There was never, for me as teacher and writer, an obsession with "objectivity," which I considered neither possible nor desirable. I understood early that what is presented as "history" or as "news" is inevitably a selection out of an infinite amount of information, and that what is selected depends on what the selector thinks is important.

Those who talk from high perches about the sanctity of "facts" are parroting Charles Dickens' stiff-backed pedant in
Hard Times,
Mr. Gradgrind, who insisted his students give him "facts, facts, nothing but facts." But behind any presented fact, I had come to believe, is a judgment— the judgment that
this fact
is important to put forward (and, by implication, other facts may be ignored). And any such judgment reflects the beliefs, the values of the historian, however he or she pretends to "objectivity."

I was relieved when I decided that keeping one's judgments out of historical narrative was impossible, because I had already determined that I would never do that. I had grown up amidst poverty, had been in a war, had witnessed the ugliness of race hatred, and I was not going to pretend to neutrality.

As I told my students at the start of my courses, "You can't be neutral on a moving train." That is, the world is already moving in certain directions—many of them horrifying. Children are going hungry, people are dying in wars. To be neutral in such a situation is to collaborate with what is going on. The word "collaborator" had a deadly meaning in the Nazi era. It should have that meaning still.

Therefore, I doubt you will find in the following pages any hint of "neutrality."

The GI Bill paid my way all through undergraduate and graduate school. While my wife, Roslyn, worked, and our two kids were in nursery school, we lived in a low-income housing project on the Lower East Side. I attended classes during the day and worked the four to midnight shift loading trucks at a Manhattan warehouse. It is hardly surprising that I was to have a persistent interest, as a historian, in the issue of economic justice.

For my doctoral thesis at Columbia University I chose as my subject Fiorello LaGuardia. He was known best as the feisty, rambunctious mayor of New York in the New Deal era, but before that, in the Twenties, he was in Congress, representing a district of poor people in East Harlem.

As I began reading through his papers, left to the Municipal Archives in New York by his widow, he spoke to my young radicalism. He was on his feet in the House of Representatives perhaps more often than any other member, demanding to be heard above the din of the Jazz Age, crying out to the nation about the reality of suffering underneath the spurious "prosperity" of the Twenties.

My thesis, "Conscience of the Jazz Age: LaGuardia in Congress," won a prize from the American Historical Association, which sponsored its publication by Cornell University Press. Out of that came an essay published in my book
The Politics of History.
It was a glimpse of LaGuardia at work against the hypocrisy of "a booming economy" which concealed distress. We see that today in the exultation accompanying every upward leap in the Dow Jones average, even while a quarter of the nation's children grow up in poverty.

Reading on my own, I became fascinated by the history of labor struggles in the United States, something that was absent in my courses in American history. Reaching back into that history (often disheartening, often inspiring), I began to look closely into the Colorado coal strike of 1913-14, and my essay "The Ludlow Massacre" comes out of that.

Later, when I was asked to edit a volume of writings on
New Deal Thought,
I found even the welcome reforms of the New Deal insufficient. My introduction to that volume, printed here as "The Limits of the New Deal," points to the inability of the Roosevelt reforms to cure the underlying sickness of a system which put business profit ahead of human need. There were thinkers in the Thirties who understood this, and I used the volume to present their ideas.

In 1963, Roz, our children, and I left Spelman College and Atlanta and headed to Boston. Although I was a full professor, with tenure, and head of the department at Spelman, I had been fired for "insubordination." I suppose the charge was accurate; I had supported the Spelman students in their revolt against a tyrannical and patronizing administration.

I continued to go back and forth to the South, participating (with Roz) in the Mississipi Freedom Summer of 1964, joining the Selma to Montgomery march, and writing about my experiences. That year in Boston I wrote two books about the South and the Movement:
SNCC: The New Abolitionists
(Beacon Press) and
The Southern Mystique
(Alfred Knopf).

An invitation came to join the department of political science at Boston University just about the time the United States was intensifying its military intervention in Vietnam. I became active in the movement against the war and began writing about it with the same sense of urgency that surrounded my writing on events in the South.

I reprint here some material from my book
Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal,
published in early 1967 by Beacon Press. There had been a number of books published on the war, but mine was the first, I believe, to call for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam. Its final chapter, which I include in this volume, is a speech I wrote "for Lyndon Johnson" (no, he didn't ask for it) in which I have him announcing such a withdrawal and explaining his reasons to the nation. This speech was reproduced in a number of newspapers around the country.

Even before American intervention in Vietnam, the problem of war was a central preoccuption for me. I had been a bombardier, an enthusiastic one, in the "good war," the war against Fascism, and yet, when the war was over, I began to rethink the question of whether there was such a thing as a good war, a just war. I explore that in the opening essay of the section on War in this reader.

I did a good deal of research on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki while I was a Fellow in East Asian Studies at Harvard University in 1961, and wrote an article for the
Columbia University Forum
called "A Mess of Death and Documents." Later, I made a connection between the bombing of Hiroshima and a much smaller event of World War II, but one in which I had been a participant, the bizarre and deadly napalm bombing of the French town of Royan just before the war's end. In 1967, I visited the town which I had bombed, pored through its records, and wrote an essay which then appeared in my book
The Politics of History,
and which I reproduce here.

In the tumultuous years of the movement against the Vietnam War, the issue of civil disobedience, the role of law in society and its relation to justice, became for me important philosophical problems, as well as practical ones. (I was arrested myself a number of times for protesting the war.)

You will find reprinted here some of my writings on those issues, as well as descriptions of my experience as witness in the Pentagon Papers case and other trials of war protesters. In one essay, I examine critically the views of Plato on obligation to the state. This appeared as an essay in
Z Magazine
(a friendly venue for radical writers) and was reproduced in my book
Failure to Quit.

In 1974, with the Vietnam war coming to a close, I was invited by the
Boston Globe
(along with a militant student activist named Eric Mann) to write a bi-weekly column. We did that for over a year, until our columns became a little hard to take. The liberalism of the
had its limits. I wrote an anti-war, anti-militarism column for Memorial Day, 1976 (reprinted here), and after it appeared I was informed that my column was no longer wanted.

I was by profession a historian, by choice an activist, and the tension between the two was something I thought about constantly. What was the proper (or improper) role of the historian in a time of crisis. That was the subject of my book
The Politics of History
(first published by Beacon Press in 1970, reissued later by the University of Illinois Press). I reprint here several essays illustrating my approach to history, as in the talk I gave at the University of Wisconsin during the 1992 quincentennial discussions of Columbus.

And what should be the function of a university when the world outside is in turmoil? At Boston University, faculty and students found themselves debating such questions, and I was very much in the midst of that. Once more, I was being "insubordinate" in my relations with the university administration, and several of the essays in this volume reflect that. One of these "A University Should Not Be A Democracy" (a quote from my university president) appeared in
The Progressive.

Throughout my activity and my writings, questions arose, both practical and theoretical, of how injustice can be remedied. How does social change come about, and what tactics are both effective and morally acceptable in that process? And what reason do we have to be hopeful? The final set of essays, dealing with such issues, are drawn from
The Nation, Z Magazine, The Boston Globe,
from other periodicals, and from my memoir
You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train.

I have certainly not been neutral. I have tried to keep moving. I hope a few readers will come along with me.

—Auburndale, MA

July 1997

BOOK: The Zinn Reader
9.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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