The People's Historian?
Howard Zinn was a master of agitprop, not history
Last week, The New York Times' somnolent columnist Bob Herbert complained that we live in a "nit-wit era," a time when it is "fashionable to bad-mouth labor unions and feminists even as workers throughout the land are treated like so much trash and the culture is so riddled with sexism that most people don't even notice it."
One person who did notice, says Herbert, was Boston University academic and radical historian Howard Zinn, who died last week at the age of 87, though not before bequeathing to America a series of books hostile to sexism and rather friendly to labor unions. "That he was considered radical," writes Herbert, "says way more about this society than it does about him."
But as the effusive encomiums from his peers and cheerleaders in both the media and academia suggest, "society" did look upon Zinn with admiration. Even the Associated Press rhapsodized that "Zinn himself was an impressive-looking man, tall and rugged with wavy hair. An experienced public speaker, he was modest and engaging in person, more interested in persuasion than in confrontation." The novelist Dave Eggers similarly praised Zinn in The New Yorker, arguing that "his effect on how we see and teach history is immeasurable."
Eggers is right about that. I'm sorry to sound a discordant note about this "great" man (The Guardian), this historian and activist of "limitless depth" (RT, who ceded hours of its coverage to the "American mahatma"). But while Zinn might have been an effective activist and a man of great modesty, he was an exceptionally bad historian.
It's a mystery how A People's History of the United States, which has sold over a million copies and currently sits at number fourteen on the Amazon bestseller list, has become so popular with students, Hollywood types, and academics. It is a book of no original research and no original ideas; a tedious aggregation of American crimes (both real and imagined) and deliberate elisions of inconvenient facts and historical events.
Much of the criticism of Zinn has come from dissenters on the left. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. once remarked that "I don't take him very seriously. He's a polemicist, not a historian." Last year, the liberal historian Sean Wilentz referred to the "balefully influential works of Howard Zinn." Reviewing A People's History in The American Scholar, Harvard University professor Oscar Handlin denounced "the deranged quality of his fairy tale, in which the incidents are made to fit the legend, no matter how intractable the evidence of American history." Socialist historian Michael Kazin judged Zinn's most famous work "bad history, albeit gilded with virtuous intentions."
Just how poor is Zinn's history? After hearing of his death, I opened one of his books to a random page (Failure to Quit, p. 118) and was informed that there was "no evidence" that Muammar Qaddafi's Libya was behind the 1986 bombing of La Belle Discotheque in Berlin. Whatever one thinks of the Reagan administration's response, it is flat wrong, bordering on dishonest, to argue that the plot wasn't masterminded in Tripoli. Nor is it correct to write that the American government, which funded the Afghan mujahadeen in the 1980s, "train[ed] Osama bin Laden," a myth conclusively debunked by Washington Post correspondent Steve Coll in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Ghost Wars.
Of Cuba, the reader of A People's History is told that upon taking power, "Castro moved to set up a nationwide system of education, of housing, of land distribution to landless peasants." Castro's vast network of gulags and the spasm of "revolutionary justice" that sent thousands to prison or the executioners wall is left unmentioned. This is unsurprising, I suppose, when one considers that Zinn recently told an interviewer "you have to admire Cuba for being undaunted by this colossus of the North and holding fast to its ideals and to Socialism….Cuba is one of those places in the world where we can see hope for the future. With its very meager resources Cuba gives free health care and free education to everybody. Cuba supports culture, supports dance and music and theatre."
There is also no mention of the Khmer Rouge or Pol Pot, though in a misleading digression into the so-called Mayaguez Incident, Zinn mentions that "a revolutionary regime had just taken power" in Cambodia and treated its American prisoners rather well. And it is untrue, as Zinn claims, that President Gerald Ford knew Cambodia had released its American captives in 1975 but still allowed a small Marine invasion simply to show American muscle after the Vietnam humiliation.
A People's History is full of praise for supposedly forgotten truth-tellers like "Dalton Trumbo and Pete Seeger, and W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson," all apologists for Stalinism. (Both Du Bois and Robeson were awarded the Stalin/Lenin Peace Prize by the Kremlin, and both enthusiastically accepted.) There is no accounting of communism's crimes, though plenty of lamentations that, after the Second World War, "young and old were taught that anti-Communism was heroic." Indeed, in the comic book version of A People's History, Zinn writes that the Cold War "would last for over 40 years" but "to keep it going required political and social repression on both sides" (emphasis in original).
Despite conclusive evidence from Russian archives, Zinn suggests the atom spies Morton Sobel and Julius Rosenberg were railroaded with "weak" evidence and their subsequent trials were simply to show "what lay at the end of the line for those the government decided were traitors." When Sobel confessed his espionage to the The New York Times earlier this year, Zinn told a reporter, "To me it didn't matter whether they were guilty or not."
This is a strange sentiment for someone whose job, one assumes, is to mine the historical record in search of historical truth. But Zinn wasn't, as Schlesinger correctly said, a historian in any traditional sense. Zinn abjured footnotes (there are a number of quotes in A People's History that I couldn't verify), his books consist of clip jobs, interviews, and recycled material from A People's History, and he was more likely to be found protesting on Boston Common than holding office hours at Boston University. But it is clear that those who have praised his work do so because they appreciate his conclusions, while ignoring his shoddy methodology.
This helps explain why few of his acolytes mention the effusive blurbs Zinn provided for David Ray Griffin's two books of 9/11 conspiracy theories, Debunking 9/11 and The New Pearl Harbor, or why A People's History uses the work of Holocaust denier David Irving to inflate the civilian death toll at Dresden.
His hometown newspaper, The Boston Globe, celebrated Zinn as "an activist who fought injustice wherever it festered," without pointing out that he defended injustice in the name of socialism, communism, and, in the case of Imperial Japan, anti-Americanism. A eulogist writing in The Guardian gushed that Zinn was an American "dissident," a term usually reserved for people like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, not those making documentaries for the History Channel alongside Josh Brolin and Matt Damon.
Call him what you will—activist, dissident, left-wing muckraker. Just don't call him a historian.
Michael C. Moynihan is a senior editor at Reason magazine.