As reported on Russian TV
From the Guardian’s obituary of
Howard Zinn, who has died of a heart attack aged 87, was a much-loved and much-vituperated icon of the American left. He was an activist and historian, and later a dramatist, but always a courageous and articulate campaigner for his vision of a just and peaceful
As a white teacher at the black
Zinn always said he was not a pacifist, because he thought it was too absolute a position. But he was a passionate and highly articulate critic of the wars in
Zinn's parents were Jewish immigrants to the
Zinn worked in a shipyard after high school and was involved in demonstrations against fascism in the 1930s. He joined the US Army Air Force and during the war, flew from bases in
After the war, he went back to interview victims of the bombing, and later wrote about it in two books. His own experience and his subsequent interviews led him to conclude that the bombing had been ordered more to enhance the careers of senior officers than for any military imperative, and he later wrote about the ethics of bombing in the context of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Tokyo and Dresden, as well as Iraq.
Under the GI Bill, Zinn studied history at
Zinn went to Spelman in 1956. Among his students were Maria Wright Edelman, the campaigner for children's rights, and the future novelist Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple.
He soon became involved with the SNCC and Martin Luther King's civil rights campaign. In 1964 he published SNCC: The New Abolitionists. The book ends with a statement of his creed. What made SNCC a threat to the establishment, he wrote, was "its rejection of authority; its fearlessness in the face of overwhelming power; its indifference to respectability". Its radicalism, he went on, "is not an ideology but a mood. Moods are harder to define. They are also harder to imprison."
Zinn became involved in a conflict with the authorities at Spelman over his insistence that its students should not be trained to be ladies, but should be actively involved in politics. Although he theoretically had tenure, he was fired. At
He was soon involved in the campaign against the Vietnam war. When Daniel Ellsberg, a previously gung-ho John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson administration official, came out against the war, he gave one copy of the Pentagon Papers (officially titled United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense, the government's secret history of the war) to Zinn and his wife, Roslyn. Zinn and Noam Chomsky edited what became known as the Mike Gravel edition, published in
While the war was still raging, Zinn travelled to
For decades, he poured out articles attacking war and government secrecy. His energy and generosity extended to writing introductions to more than 30 books by other writers.
When President Ronald Reagan bombed
Not surprisingly, he drew fierce criticism from conservatives. And although his People's History was hugely popular among students, as well as the general public, even liberal historians were critical of its relentless castigation of the darker side of American history. In the New York Times, for example, Eric Foner called it "a deeply pessimistic vision of the American experience" and pointed out that "blacks, Indians, women and labourers appear either as rebels or as victims. Less dramatic but more typical lives – people struggling to survive with dignity in difficult circumstances – receive little attention." Michael Kammen, himself a historian of American radicalism, said the book was not a success.
What few could deny was the tenacity of Zinn's commitment to his core belief – that people should stand up for their rights and their vision of the good society. "Where progress has been made," he wrote near the end of his life, "wherever any kind of injustice has been overturned, it's been because people acted as citizens, and not as politicians. They didn't just moan. They worked, they acted, they organised, they rioted if necessary to bring their situation to the attention of people in power. And that's what we have to do today."
Roslyn died in 2008. Zinn is survived by a daughter and a son.
George Binette writes: By the time I reached
At first I found his lectures disorganised, bordering on the chaotic. But I soon came to appreciate that through subtly weaving considerable erudition with personal reminiscence, he was challenging the received and often cherished assumptions about
In person Zinn frequently projected a Zen-like calm. He seemed to possess exceptional patience, both for naive admirers and stridently reactionary critics, though he never concealed a zealous passion against injustice. And in contrast to many left-leaning academics, he combined his classroom stance with practical action.
As an officer of the
• Howard Zinn, historian and activist, born