Howard Zinn, author of 'People's History of the United States,' dies at 87

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 28, 2010; 6:31 PM

Howard Zinn, 87, an activist historian whose "People's History of the United States" resurrected neglected stories of the country's past and became a surprise bestseller in the 1980s and beyond, died Jan. 27 of an apparent heart attack in a swimming pool in Santa Monica, Calif., where he was on a speaking tour.

First published in 1980 with a print run of just 5,000 copies, the book sold more than 2 million copies, including condensations such as "The 20th Century" and "A Young People's History of the United States." In writing about the economics of the slave trade, the effect of robber barons on ordinary people, the violence against the American labor movement and the long struggles of the women's movement, Dr. Zinn provided an alternative to the then dominant "dead white male" version of history.

The approach resonated with readers, who by word of mouth drove it to bestseller status. Dr. Zinn, who had taught at Boston University since 1964, focused "not on the achievements of the heroes of traditional history, but on all those people who were the victims of those achievements, who suffered silently or fought back magnificently," as he said in the preface to one edition.

"His writings have changed the consciousness of a generation, and helped open new paths to understanding and its crucial meaning for our lives," Noam Chomsky, the left-wing activist and MIT professor, wrote of his friend. "When action has been called for, one could always be confident that he would be on the front lines, an example and trustworthy guide."

Dr. Zinn's best-known book became a text in high schools and colleges and was endorsed by a former neighbor, actor Matt Damon, in the Academy Award-winning film "Good Will Hunting."

But it was not universally appreciated. Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., generally considered a liberal, called Dr. Zinn a polemicist rather than a scholar. Other critics, though acknowledging his originality, said Dr. Zinn was both too left-wing in his view of history and too selective, leaving religious and technological thinkers out of his synthesis.

He fully agreed. Traditional American history, he noted, had neglected the stories of workers, women, minorities and those who are not considered society's winners in power or wealth. His work was a starting point to correct that imbalance, he said. Christopher Columbus committed genocide against the Arawak Indians, he wrote, and World War I brought repression and prison to American dissidents. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was not the unalloyed hero of the working man depicted in popular history.

"There is no such thing as impartial history," he told biographers Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller. "The chief problem in historical honesty isn't outright lying. It is omission or de-emphasis of important data."

He was well prepared for the job of documenting and popularizing an alternative version of history. A civil rights agitator since his days as history chairman at Atlanta's Spelman College, he was one of two adult advisers to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and wrote a 1964 book about the group. He penned one of the first anti-Vietnam War books, "Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal" (1967) and accompanied radical priest Daniel Berrigan to Hanoi in 1968 to secure the release of three U.S. bomber pilots who had been shot down. Dr. Zinn was jailed more than a half-dozen times for civil disobedience.

Daniel Ellsberg, the former Rand Corp. analyst who leaked a secret history of the Vietnam War to Congress and the press, called Dr. Zinn his hero. In his own book about the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg noted that Dr. Zinn had hid copies of the Pentagon Papers for him when the FBI was expected to raid Ellsberg's apartment.

In December, Dr. Zinn was an executive producer and narrator of a History Channel documentary, "The People Speak,'' in which a cast of Hollywood celebrities read first-person historical documents such as Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I a Woman" and socialist Eugene Debs's call to activism. Dr. Zinn, an outspoken opponent of the Iraq War, wrote a short essay for the Nation magazine last week critiquing President Obama's first year in office.

A Folder Marked 'Never Again'

Howard Zinn was born in New York on Aug. 24, 1922, to working-class Jewish parents. When he was 17, he took part in a Communist-led political rally in Times Square, where he and other demonstrators were clubbed and beaten by police even though the rally was peaceful, he said. He said it was a shocking lesson in power.

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