“If we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand Utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.” Howard Zinn
He always spoke the truth with humor and and with hope. How lucky we were to share this world and this time with him.
As Zinn wrote in his autobiography, “You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train” (1994), “From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than ‘objectivity’; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it.”
We were all his students, and we at JVP will continue to do our best to live up to his lessons.
Zinn was raised in a working-class family in Brooklyn, and flew bombing missions for the United States in World War II, an experience he now points to in shaping his opposition to war. In 1956, he became a professor at Spelman College in Atlanta, a school for black women, where he soon became involved in the Civil rights movement, which he participated in as an adviser to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and chronicled, in his book SNCC: The New Abolitionists. Zinn collaborated with historian Staughton Lynd and mentored a young student named Alice Walker. When he was fired in 1963 for insubordination related to his protest work, he moved to Boston University, where he became a leading critic of the Vietnam War.
He is perhaps best known for A People’s History of the United States, which presents American history through the eyes of those he feels are outside of the political and economic establishment.
Some years ago, when I was teaching at Boston University, I was asked by a Jewish group to give a talk on the Holocaust. I spoke that evening, but not about the Holocaust of World War II, not about the genocide of six million Jews. It was the mid-Eighties, and the United States government was supporting death squad governments in Central America, so I spoke of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of peasants in Guatemala and El Salvador, victims of American policy. My point was that the memory of the Jewish Holocaust should not be encircled by barbed wire, morally ghettoized, kept isolated from other genocides in history. It seemed to me that to remember what happened to Jews served no important purpose unless it aroused indignation, anger, action against all atrocities, anywhere in the world.
A few days later, in the campus newspaper, there was a letter from a faculty member who had heard me speak – a Jewish refugee who had left Europe for Argentina, and then the United States. He objected strenuously to my extending the moral issue from Jews in Europe in the 1940s to people in other parts of the world, in our time. The Holocaust was a sacred memory. It was a unique event, not to be compared to other events. He was outraged that, invited to speak on the Jewish Holocaust, I had chosen to speak about other matters.
I was reminded of this experience when I recently read a book by Peter Novick, THE HOLOCAUST IN AMERICAN LIFE. Novick’s starting point is the question: why, fifty years after the event, does the Holocaust play a more prominent role in this country — the Holocaust Museum in Washington, hundreds of Holocaust programs in schools — than it did in the first decades after the second World War? Surely at the core of the memory is a horror that should not be forgotten. But around that core, whose integrity needs no enhancement, there has grown up an industry of memorialists who have labored to keep that memory alive for purposes of their own.
Some Jews have used the Holocaust as a way of preserving a unique identity, which they see threatened by intermarriage and assimilation. Zionists have used the Holocaust, since the 1967 war, to justify further Israeli expansion into Palestianian land, and to build support for a beleaguered Israel (more beleaguered, as David Ben-Gurion had predicted, once it occupied the West Bank and Gaza). And non-Jewish politicians have used the Holocaust to build political support among the numerically small but influential Jewish voters – note the solemn pronouncements of Presidents wearing yarmulkas to underline their anguished sympathy.
I would never have become a historian if I thought that it would become my professional duty to go into the past and never emerge, to study long-gone events and remember them only for their uniqueness, not connecting them to events going on in my time. If the Holocaust was to have any meaning, I thought, we must transfer our anger to the brutalities of our time. We must atone for our allowing the Jewish Holocaust to happen by refusing to allow similar atrocities to take place now – yes, to use the Day of Atonement not to pray for the dead but to act for the living, to rescue those about to die.
When Jews turn inward to concentrate on their own history, and look away from the ordeal of others, they are, with terrible irony, doing exactly what the rest of the world did in allowing the genocide to happen. There were shameful moments, travesties of Jewish humanism, as when Jewish organizations lobbied against a Congressional recognition of the Armenian Holocaust of 1915 on the ground that it diluted the memory of the Jewish Holocaust. Or when the designers of the Holocaust Museum dropped the idea of mentioning the Armenian genocide after lobbying by the Israeli government. (Turkey was the only Moslem government with which Israel had diplomatic relations.) Another such moment came when Elie Wiesel, chair of President Carter’s Commission on the Holocaust, refused to include in a description of the Holocaust Hitler’s killing of millions of non-Jews. That would be, he said, to “falsify” the reality “in the name of misguided universalism.” Novick quotes Wiesel as saying “They are
stealing the Holocaust from us.” As a result the Holocaust Museum gave only passing attention to the five million or more non-Jews who died in the Nazi camps. To build a wall around the uniqueness of the Jewish Holocaust is to abandon the idea that humankind is all one, that we are all, of whatever color, nationality, religion, deserving of equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. What happened to the Jews under Hitler is unique in its details but it shares universal characteristics with many other events in human history: the Atlantic slave trade, the genocide against native Americans, the injuries and deaths to millions of working people, victims of the capitalist ethos that put profit before human life.
In recent years, while paying more and more homage to the Holocaust as a central symbol of man’s cruelty to man, we have, by silence and inaction, collaborated in an endless chain of cruelties. Hiroshima and My Lai are the most dramatic symbols – and did we hear from Wiesel and other keepers of the Holocaust flame outrage against those atrocities? Countee Cullen once wrote, in his poem “Scottsboro, Too, Is Worth Its Song” (after the sentencing to death of the Scottsboro Boys): “Surely, I said/ Now will the poets sing/ But they have raised no cry/I wonder why.”
There have been the massacres of Rwanda, and the starvation in Somalia, with our government watching and doing nothing. There were the death squads in Latin America, and the decimation of the population of East Timor, with our government actively collaborating. Our church-going Christian presidents, so pious in their references to the genocide against the Jews, kept supplying the instruments of death to the perpetrators of other genocides.
True there are some horrors which seem beyond our powers. But there is an ongoing atrocity which is within our power to bring to an end. Novick points to it, and physician-anthropologist Paul Farmer describes it in detail in his remarkable new book INFECTIONS AND INEQUALITIES. That is: the deaths of ten million children all over the world who die every year of malnutrition and preventable diseases. The World Health Organization estimates three million people died last year of tuberculosis, which is preventable and curable, as Farmer has proved in his medical work in Haiti. With a small portion of our military budget we could wipe out tuberculosis.
The point of all this is not to diminish the experience of the Jewish Holocaust, but to enlarge it. For Jews it means to reclaim the tradition of Jewish universal humanism against an Israel-centered nationalism. Or, as Novick puts it, to go back to “that larger social consciousness that was the hallmark of the American Jewry of my youth”. That larger consciousness was displayed in recent years by those Israelis who protested the beating of Palestinians in the Intifada, who demonstrated against the invasion of Lebanon.
For others — whether Armenians or Native Americans or Africans or Bosnians or whatever — it means to use their own bloody histories, not to set themselves against others, but to create a larger solidarity against the holders of wealth and power, the perpetrators and collaborators of the ongoing horrors of our time.
The Holocaust might serve a powerful purpose if it led us to think of the world today as wartime Germany – where millions die while the rest of the population obediently goes about its business. It is a frightening thought that the Nazis, in defeat, were victorious: today Germany, tomorrow the world. That is, until we withdraw our obedience.
I just learned that my friend Howard Zinn died today. Earlier this morning, I was being interviewed by the Boston Phoenix, in connection with the release in Boston in February of a documentary in which he is featured prominently. The interviewer asked me who my own heroes were, and I had no hesitation in answering, first, “Howard Zinn.”
Just weeks ago after watching the film on December 7, I woke up the next morning thinking that I had never told him how much he meant to me. For once in my life, I acted on that thought in a timely way. I sent him an e-mail in which I said, among other things, what I had often told others about him: that he was,” in my opinion, the best human being I’ve ever known. The best example of what a human can be, and can do with their life.”
Our first meeting was at Faneuil Hall in Boston in early 1971, where we both spoke against the indictments of Eqbal Ahmad and Phil Berrigan for “conspiring to kidnap Henry Kissinger,” from which we marched with the rest of the crowd to make Citizens’ Arrests at the Boston office of the FBI. Later that spring we went with our affinity group (including Noam Chomsky, Cindy Fredericks, Marilyn Young, Mark Ptashne, Zelda Gamson, Fred Branfman and Mitch Goodman), to the Mayday actions blocking traffic in Washington (“If they won’t stop the war, we’ll stop the government”). Howard tells that story in the film and I tell it at greater length in my memoir, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers (pp.376-81). But for reasons of space, I had to cut out the next section in which Howard–who had been arrested in DC after most of the rest of us had gone elsewhere–came back to Boston for a rally and a blockade of the Federal Building. I’ve never published that story, so here it is, an out-take from my manuscript:
A day later, Howard Zinn was the last speaker at a large rally in Boston Common. I was at the back of a huge crowd, listening to him over loudspeakers. 27 years later, I can remember some things he said. “On Mayday in Washington thousands of us were arrested for disturbing the peace. But there is no peace. We were really arrested because we were disturbing the war.”
He said, “If Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton had been walking the streets of Georgetown yesterday, they would have been arrested. Arrested for being young.”
At the end of his comments he said, “I want to speak now to some of the members of this audience, the plainclothes policemen among us, the military intelligence agents who are assigned to do surveillance. You are taking the part of secret police, spying on your fellow Americans. You should not be doing what you are doing. You should rethink it, and stop. You do not have to carry out orders that go against the grain of what it means to be an American.”
Those last weren’t his exact words, but that was the spirit of them. He was to pay for that comment the next day, when we were sitting side by side in a blockade of the Federal Building in Boston. We had a circle of people all the way around the building, shoulder to shoulder, so no one could get in or out except by stepping over us. Behind us were crowds of people with posters who were supporting us but who hadn’t chosen to risk arrest. In front of us, keeping us from getting any closer to the main entrance to the building, was a line of policemen, with a large formation of police behind them. All the police had large plastic masks tilted back on their heads and they were carrying long black clubs, about four feet long, like large baseball bats. Later the lawyers told us that city police regulations outlawed the use of batons that long.
But at first the relations with the police were almost friendly. We sat down impudently at the very feet of the policemen who were guarding the entrance, filling in the line that disappeared around the sides until someone came from the rear of the building and announced over a bullhorn, “The blockade is complete. We’ve surrounded the building!” There was a cheer from the crowd behind us, and more people joined us in sitting until the circle was two or three deep.
We expected them to start arresting us, but for a while the police did nothing. They could have manhandled a passage through the line and kept it open for employees to go in or out, but for some reason they didn’t. We thought maybe they really sympathized with our protest, and this was their way of joining in. As the morning wore on, people took apples and crackers and bottles of water out of their pockets and packs and shared them around, and they always offered some to the police standing in front of us. The police always refused, but they seemed to appreciate the offer.
Then one of the officers came over to Howard and said, “You’re Professor Zinn, aren’t you?” Howard said yes, and the officer reached down and shook his hand enthusiastically. He said, “I heard you lecture at the Police Academy. A lot of us here did. That was a wonderful lecture.” Howard had been asked to speak to them about the role of dissent and civil disobedience in American history. Several other policemen came over to pay their respects to Howard and thank him for his lecture. The mood seemed quite a bit different from Washington.
Then a line of employees emerged from the building, wearing coats and ties or dresses. Their arms were raised and they were holding cards in their raised hands. As they circled past us they hold out the cards so we could see what they were: ID cards, showing they were federal employees. They were making the peace-sign with their other hands, they were circling around the building to show solidarity with what we were doing. Their spokesman said over a bullhorn, “We want this war to be over, too! Thank you for what you are doing! Keep it up.” Photographers, including police, were scrambling to take pictures of them, and some of them held up their ID cards so they would get in the picture. It was the high point of the day.
A little while after the employees had gone back inside the building, there was a sudden shift in the mood of the police. An order had been passed. The bloc of police in the center of the square got into tight formation and lowered their plastic helmets. The police standing right in front of us, over us, straightened up, adjusted their uniforms and lowered their masks. Apparently the time had come to start arrests. The supporters who didn’t want to be arrested fell back.
But there was no arrest warning. There was a whistle, and the line of police began inching forward, black batons raised upright. They were going to walk through us or over us, push us back. The man in front of us, who had been talking to Howard about his lecture a little earlier, muttered to us under his breath, “Leave! Now! Quick, get up.” He was warning, not menacing us.
Howard and I looked at each other. We’d come expecting to get arrested. It didn’t seem right to just get up and move because someone told us to, without arresting us. We stayed where we were. No one else left either. Boots were touching our shoes. The voice over our heads whispered intensely, “Move! Please. For God’s sake, move!” Knees in uniform pressed our knees. I saw a club coming down. I put my hands over my head, fists clenched, and a four-foot baton hit my wrist, hard. Another one hit my shoulder.
I rolled over, keeping my arms over my head, got up and moved back a few yards. Howard was being hauled off by several policemen. One had Howard’s arms pinned behind him, another had jerked his head back by the hair. Someone had ripped his shirt in two, there was blood on his bare chest. A moment before he had been sitting next to me and I waited for someone to do the same to me, but no one did. I didn’t see anyone else getting arrested. But no one was sitting anymore, the line had been broken, disintegrated. Those who had been sitting hadn’t moved very far, they were standing like me a few yards back, looking around, holding themselves where they’d been clubbed. The police had stopped moving. They stood in a line, helmets still down, slapping their batons against their hands. Their adrenaline was still up, but they were standing in place.
Blood was running down my hand, covering the back of my hand. I was wearing a heavy watch and it had taken the force of the blow. The baton had smashed the crystal and driven pieces of glass into my wrist. Blood was dripping off my fingers. Someone gave me a handkerchief to wrap around my wrist and told me to raise my arm. The handkerchief got soaked quickly and blood was running down my arm while I looked for a first-aid station that was supposed to be at the back of the crowd, in a corner of the square. I finally found it and someone picked the glass out of my arm and put a thick bandage around it.
I went back to the protest. My shoulder was aching. The police were standing where they had stopped, and the blockade had reformed, people were sitting ten yards back from where they had been before. There seemed to be more people sitting, not fewer. Many of the supporters had joined in. But it was quiet. No one was speaking loudly, no laughing. People were waiting for the police to move forward again. They weren’t expecting any longer to get arrested.
Only three or four people had been picked out of the line to be arrested before. The police had made a decision (it turned out) to arrest only the “leaders,” not to give us the publicity of arrests and trials. Howard hadn’t been an organizer of this action, he was just participating like the rest of us, but from the way they treated him when they pulled him out of the line, his comments directly to the police in the rally the day before must have rubbed someone the wrong way.
I found Roz Zinn, Howard’s wife, sitting in the line on the side at right angles to where Howard and I had been before. I sat down between her and their housemate, a woman her age. They had been in support before until they had seen what happened to Howard.
Looking at the police in formation, with their uniforms and clubs, guns on their hips, I felt naked. I knew that it was an illusion in combat to think you were protected because you were carrying a weapon, but it was an illusion that worked. For the first time, I was very conscious of being unarmed. At last, in my own country, I understood what a Vietnamese villager must have felt at what the Marines called a “county fair,” when the Marines rounded up everyone they could find in a hamlet–all women and children and old people, never draft- or VC-age young men–to be questioned one at a time in a tent, meanwhile passing out candy to the kids and giving vaccinations. Winning hearts and minds, trying to recruit informers. No one among the villagers knowing what the soldiers, in their combat gear, would do next, or which of them might be detained.
We sat and talked and waited for the police to come again. They lowered their helmets and formed up. The two women I was with were both older than I was. I moved my body in front of them, to take the first blows. I felt a hand on my elbow. “Excuse me, I was sitting there,” the woman who shared the Zinn’s house said to me, with a cold look. She hadn’t come there that day and sat down, she told me later, to be protected by me. I apologized and scrambled back, behind them.
No one moved. The police didn’t move, either. They stood in formation facing us, plastic masks over their faces, for quite a while. But they didn’t come forward again. They had kept open a passage in front for the employees inside to leave after five, and eventually the police left, and we left..
There was a happier story to tell, just over one month later. On Saturday night, June 12, 1971, we had a date with Howard and Roz to see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in Harvard Square. But that morning I learned from someone at the New York Times that—without having alerted me—the Times was about to start publishing the top secret documents I had given them that evening. That meant I might get a visit from the FBI any moment; and for once, I had copies of the Papers in my apartment, because I planned to send them to Senator Mike Gravel for his filibuster against the draft.
From Secrets (p. 386):
“I had to get the documents out of our apartment. I called the Zinns, who had been planning to come by our apartment later to join us for the movie, and asked if we could come by their place in Newton instead. I took the papers in a box in the trunk of our car. They weren’t the ideal people to avoid attracting the attention of the FBI. Howard had been in charge of managing antiwar activist Daniel Berrigan’s movements underground while he was eluding the FBI for months (so from that practical point of view he was an ideal person to hide something from them), and it could be assumed that his phone was tapped, even if he wasn’t under regular surveillance. However, I didn’t know whom else to turn to that Saturday afternoon. Anyway, I had given Howard a large section of the study already, to read as a historian; he’d kept it in his office at Boston University. As I expected, they said yes immediately. Howard helped me bring up the box from the car.
We drove back to Harvard Square for the movie. The Zinns had never seen Butch Cassidy before. It held up for all of us. Afterward we bought ice-cream cones at Brigham’s and went back to our apartment. Finally Howard and Roz went home before it was time for the early edition of the Sunday New York Times to arrive at the subway kiosk below the square. Around midnight Patricia and I went over to the square and bought a couple of copies. We came up the stairs into Harvard Square reading the front page, with the three-column story about the secret archive, feeling very good.”