By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 29, 2010; B07
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 wrote 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 hidden 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.'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.
He got a job at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, building battleships and landing ship tankers, but he quit to join the Army Air Forces during World War II. He was made a bombardier and flew missions over Europe. In his 1994 autobiography "You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train," Dr. Zinn wrote that in April 1945, the airmen were told that they would not be using the normal demolition bombs but 30 100-pound canisters of what was called jellied gasoline, now known as napalm. The bombs were dropped on Royan, France, where several thousand German soldiers were posted. According to press accounts, hundreds of French civilians were also killed.
Upon his military discharge, he gathered his Air Medal, other awards and documents and put them in a folder he labeled "Never again."
He graduated from New York University and completed a master's degree in history in 1952 and a doctorate in history in 1958, both at Columbia University. His doctoral dissertation on New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia's congressional career was published in 1959 as "LaGuardia in Congress," the first of about 20 books.
In 1956, he began teaching history at Spelman, an African American women's school. For the next seven years, he advocated for desegregation and voter registration, encouraging students such as Marian Wright Edelman and Alice Walker. Fired in 1963 for insubordination concerning his civil rights activities, he returned to give the commencement address in 2005, which has become a cult classic.
"The lesson of that history is that you must not despair, that if you are right, and you persist, things will change. The government may try to deceive the people, and the newspapers and television may do the same, but the truth has a way of coming out. The truth has a power greater than a hundred lies," he said. "My hope is that you will not be content just to be successful in the way our society measures success; that you will not obey the rules, when the rules are unjust; that you will act out the courage that I know is in you."
Survivors include his wife of 50 years, Roslyn Zinn of Auburndale, Mass.; two children, Myla Kabat-Zinn of Lexington, Mass., and Jeff Zinn of Wellfleet, Mass.; and five grandchildren.
"I guess if I want to be remembered for anything it's for introducing a different way of thinking about the world, about war, about human rights, about equality," Dr. Zinn told BigThink.com, a policy and ideas Web site, in 2008. "Also, getting more people to realize the power which rests so far in hands of people with wealth and guns, that the power ultimately rests in people themselves and they can use it. And at certain points in history they have used it . . . . I want to be remembered as somebody who gave people a feeling of hope and power that they didn't have before."