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Why the Feds Fear Thinkers Like Howard Zinn

Posted on Aug 1, 2010
AP / Dima Gavrysh

By Chris Hedges

On Monday I will teach my final American history class of the semester to prison inmates. We have spent five weeks reading Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.” The class is taught in a small room in the basement of the prison. I pass through a metal detector, am patted down by a guard and walk through three pairs of iron gates to get to my students. We have covered Spain’s genocide of the native inhabitants in the Caribbean and the Americas, the war for independence in the United States and the disgraceful slaughter of Native Americans. We have examined slavery, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, the occupations of Cuba and the Philippines, the New Deal, two world wars and the legacy of racism, capitalist exploitation and imperialism that continue to infect American society.

We have looked at these issues, as Zinn did, through the eyes of Native Americans, immigrants, slaves, women, union leaders, persecuted socialists, anarchists and communists, abolitionists, anti-war activists, civil rights leaders and the poor. As I was reading out loud a passage by Sojourner Truth, Chief Joseph, Henry David Thoreau, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B Du Bois, Randolph Bourne, Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, I have heard students mutter “Damn” or “We been lied to.”

The power of Zinn’s scholarship—which I have watched over the past few weeks open the eyes of young, mostly African-Americans to their own history and the structures that perpetuate misery for the poor and gluttony and privilege for the elite—explains why the FBI, which released its 423-page file on Zinn on July 30, saw him as a threat. 

Zinn, who died in January at the age of 87, did not advocate violence or support the overthrow of the government, something he told FBI interrogators on several occasions. He was rather an example of how genuine intellectual thought is always subversive. It always challenges prevailing assumptions as well as political and economic structures. It is based on a fierce moral autonomy and personal courage and it is uniformly branded by the power elite as “political.” Zinn was a threat not because he was a violent revolutionary or a communist but because he was fearless and told the truth. 

The cold, dead pages of the FBI file stretch from 1948 to 1974. At one point five agents are assigned to follow Zinn. Agents make repeated phone calls to employers, colleagues and landlords seeking information. The FBI, although Zinn is never suspected of carrying out a crime, eventually labels Zinn a high security risk. J. Edgar Hoover, who took a personal interest in Zinn’s activities, on Jan. 10, 1964, drew up a memo to include Zinn “in Reserve Index, Section A,” a classification that permitted agents to immediately arrest and detain Zinn if there was a national emergency. Muslim activists, from Dr. Sami Al-Arian to Fahad Hashmi, can tell you that nothing has changed.


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The file exposes the absurdity, waste and pettiness of our national security state. And it seems to indicate that our security agencies prefer to hire those with mediocre or stunted intelligence, dubious morality and little common sense. Take for example this gem of a letter, complete with misspellings, mailed by an informant to then FBI Director Hoover about something Zinn wrote.

“While I was visiting my dentist in Michigan City, Indiana,” the informant wrote.  “This pamphlet was left in my car, and I am mailing it to you, I know is a DOVE call, and not a HOCK call. We have had a number of ethnic groups move into our area in the last few years. We are in a war! And it doesn’t look like this pamphlet will help our Government objectives.”

Or how about the meeting between an agent and someone identified as Doris Zinn. Doris Zinn, who the agent says is Zinn’s sister, is interviewed “under a suitable pretext.” She admits that her brother is “employed at the American Labor Party Headquarters in Brooklyn.” That is all the useful information that is reported. The fact that Zinn did not have a sister gives a window into the quality of the investigations and the caliber of the agents who carried them out. 

FBI agents in November 1953 wrote up an account of a clumsy attempt to recruit Zinn as an informant, an attempt in which they admitted that Zinn “would not volunteer information” and that “additional interviews with ZINN would not turn him from his current attitude.” A year later, after another interrogation, an agent wrote that Zinn “concluded the interview by stating he would not under any circumstances testify or furnish information concerning the political opinions of others.”

While Zinn steadfastly refused to cooperate in the anti-communist witch hunts in the 1950s, principals and college administrators were busy purging classrooms of those who, like Zinn, exhibited intellectual and moral independence. The widespread dismissals of professors, elementary and high school teachers and public employees—especially social workers whose unions had advocated on behalf of their clients—were carried out quietly. The names of suspected “Reds” were handed to administrators and school officials under the FBI’s “Responsibilities Program.” It was up to the institutions, nearly all of which complied, to see that those singled out lost their jobs. There rarely were hearings.  The victims did not see any purported evidence. They were usually abruptly terminated. Those on the blacklist were effectively locked out of their professions. The historian Ellen Schrecker estimates that between 10,000 and 12,000 people were blackballed through this process.

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By balkas, August 2, 2010 at 6:24 am Link to this comment

What hedges reveals had been happening since first govt had been established by priests in sumerian cities such as lagash, nippur, eridu, et al.

The sole difference between sumer and US is that US has much greater population, money to spend than sumer did.

But there is no slightest difference in-thought between ruling class in US from the ruling classes in any asocialistic structures of society.

Not that it is of no value what chris reveals to americans class nine, eight, seven, six.

Asocialistic structures of society—in all degrees—appear as iniquitous; thus, can only bring us woes, warfare, exploitation, deceptions, lies, demonization of critics and alien peoples.

And in US all that appears not only permissible, but also constitutional commands.

For what is any constitution in classful societies, but a set of ‘laws’; i.e., diktats?

In such societies, we’ve lived in lawlessness for at least 8 k yrs!
Hedges had said that US constitution does not need changing.
Maybe not. But if ruling class via their judges solely interpret it, we’ll continue to undergo same or worse or treatments.

It is fact, that most or all salient statements contained in bible, quran, or any writ cannot be ever understood—it can be only intepreted.

And only lawyers, banksters, priests, and judges are permitted to interpret ?all ‘laws’ tnx

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By elisalouisa, August 2, 2010 at 6:22 am Link to this comment

Teaching a history class from Howard Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States in any prison is indeed altruistic and also dangerous considering the content of Chris Hedges’ article. Hopefully, the satisfaction gained from helping others understand the real history of our country and thus more understand who they are made such an unselfish act worthwhile.

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By norman birnbaum, August 2, 2010 at 5:58 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Not only our splendid colleague Ellen Schrecker has written about assaults on academic freedom, the Columbia historian and sociologist Sigmund Diamond did so in his book, Compromised Campus, which sheds some stark light on Harvard, amongst other places. Perhaps the chief effect of the Cold War in our faculties, however, was the limit it set on general exploration of our world—-implicit, sometimes unseen, intellectual boundaries gew were able or willing to cross…....but nothing excuses the plebian vulgarity and self-righteous bullying of
John Silber as BU President, a very intelligent and even learned man contorted by the inner demons which drove him to external conformity…

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By Anthony, August 2, 2010 at 5:43 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I’m happy to see that we have something in common, Mr. Hedges.  We both teach in prisons.  There is only one thing that matters to these kids—authenticity—, brutal or otherwise.  It is the dysfunctional, mendacious and cult-like atmosphere on the outside that invariably puts these kids in the position that they are in.  Thank you for not giving up.

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By ardee, August 2, 2010 at 5:04 am Link to this comment

Anna Nomad, August 2 at 7:06 am #

Yes, very nice words about Howard Zinn, who was indeed a respectable person. 

But governments do what governments have always done; leaders do what leaders have always done; activists do what activists have always done; teachers do what teachers have always done; writers do what writers have always done; humans do what humans have always done.

So what effect do you imagine Zinn’s actions or words could possibly have on the course of human events when, after millennia of outstanding prophets, philosophers, teachers, thinkers, writers, and leaders, we are where we are today?

How many changes have occured by people remaining silent? There have been changes made during those millenia you speak of, and, your pessimism notwithstanding, change will continue to occur.

I think you take a very closeted view of our history and succumb to hopelessness when hope is much more worthy of your time and energies.

Words and ideas have remained with us, some for two thousand years and more in fact, and some will never be forgotten, some have moved us to make great changes, others to make small ones. Yours ,however, will quickly be dismissed and forgotten as we move to correct injustices.

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JohnnyOstentatious's avatar

By JohnnyOstentatious, August 2, 2010 at 4:49 am Link to this comment

Wow, I hadn’t even heard about the release of that file (thank you, mainstream media). And let’s not forget that Zinn didn’t go it alone; if memory serves, he almost gave up on writing PEOPLE’S HISTORY because of the immensity of it, but his wife encouraged to keep plowing on. Glad she did.

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By octopus, August 2, 2010 at 4:48 am Link to this comment

RIP Howard Zinn
Last of the true Patriots.

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By Terminator, August 2, 2010 at 4:31 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

When will the silly liberals and progressives join the Libertarians in calling for an abolition of the FBI? Stop being girlie men and avenge Zinn’s persecution.

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By tedmurphy41, August 2, 2010 at 4:30 am Link to this comment

It is apparent that our “great” democracies didn’t dump everything used by the Nazi party in Germany following
the end of the war.

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By Terminator, August 2, 2010 at 4:29 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

When will the silly liberals and progressives join the Libertarians in calling for an abolition of the FBI? Stop being girlie men.

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By davidreese, August 2, 2010 at 4:15 am Link to this comment

I heard Zinn speak a few years ago.  Zinn was naturally gifted as a speaker, with an incisive mind and a compassionate, gentle spirit.  His knowledge of society and culture and politics was encyclopedic.  He handled questions with brilliant analysis and disarming grace.

We’ll not see his like again.

(Apropos whether Zinn was accessible to the poor.  The lecture I attended was held in an inner city auditorium.  It was free and open to the public.  Zinn donated his time.)

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By parnell44, August 2, 2010 at 4:11 am Link to this comment

Thanks for this column!  I have long admired Howard
Zinn but was unaware of his involvement in the Pentagon
Papers.  My admiration has risen yet again.  I am glad
to see you are involved in prison teaching.  I am
involved in something similar and have found the people
I teach to be smart, curious and eager to learn.

Keep up these columns!

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dkenneth's avatar

By dkenneth, August 2, 2010 at 3:34 am Link to this comment

Dear Mr. Hedges,

Thank you for today’s column (Aug 2, 2010), about J. E. Hoover’s persecution of
Howard Zinn during a time in our national history which might become, I fear,
different from today’s relationship between the National Security State and its citizens
only in the sophisticated public relations the state employs, and the advanced
technology available for its surveillance and data collection.

One last thing: was the 7th paragraph in your column inadvertently spell checked by
your editor?

The informant’s letter, you wrote, is presented in your column “complete with
misspellings,” but there is none.

I would like to see the informant’s letter to the Bureau reproduced as you said it would
be, complete with misspellings. I don’t like to feel that I’ve missed reading something

I don’t see much else in my day to make me grin.


Los Angeles

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Anna Nomad's avatar

By Anna Nomad, August 2, 2010 at 3:06 am Link to this comment

Yes, very nice words about Howard Zinn, who was indeed a respectable person. 

But governments do what governments have always done; leaders do what leaders have always done; activists do what activists have always done; teachers do what teachers have always done; writers do what writers have always done; humans do what humans have always done.

So what effect do you imagine Zinn’s actions or words could possibly have on the course of human events when, after millennia of outstanding prophets, philosophers, teachers, thinkers, writers, and leaders, we are where we are today?

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Robespierre115's avatar

By Robespierre115, August 2, 2010 at 12:25 am Link to this comment

While Howard Zinn’s work is priceless, one wonders if the poor actually have access to people like him. Did he ever speak at public schools? I only ask because a friend of mine in Santa Monica has a kid attending the prestigious Crossroads school where Zinn was scheduled to speak the day after he ended up passing away.

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