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Why the Feds Fear Thinkers Like Howard Zinn

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Posted on Aug 1, 2010
AP / Dima Gavrysh

By Chris Hedges

(Page 2)

The FBI spent years following Zinn, and carefully cutting out newspaper articles about their suspect, to amass the inane and the banal. One of Zinn’s neighbors, Mrs. Matthew Grell, on Feb. 22, 1952, told agents that she considered Zinn and another neighbor, Mrs. Julius Scheiman, “to be either communists or communist sympathizers” because, the agents wrote, Grell “had observed copies of the Daily Workers in Mrs. Scheiman’s apartment and noted that Mrs. Scheiman was a good friend of Howard Zinn.”

The FBI, which describes Zinn as a former member of the Communist Party, something Zinn repeatedly denied, appears to have picked up its surveillance when Zinn, who was teaching at Spelman, a historically black women’s college, became involved in the civil rights movement. Zinn served on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He took his students out of the classroom to march for civil rights. Spelman’s president was not pleased.

“I was fired for insubordination,” Zinn recalled. “Which happened to be true.”

Zinn in 1962 decried “the clear violations by local police of Constitutional rights” of blacks and noted that “the FBI has not made a single arrest on behalf of Negro citizens.” The agent who reported Zinn’s words added that Zinn’s position was “slanted and biased.” Zinn in 1970 was a featured speaker at a rally for the release of the Black Panther leader Bobby Seal held in front of the Boston police headquarters. “It is about time we had a demonstration at the police station,” Zinn is reported as telling the crowd by an informant who apparently worked with him at Boston University. “Police in every nation are a blight and the United States is no exception.”

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“America has been a police state for a long time,” Zinn went on. “I believe that policemen should not have guns. I believe they should be disarmed. Policemen with guns are a danger to the community and themselves.”

Agents muse in the file about how to help their unnamed university source mount a campaign to have Zinn fired from his job as a professor of history at Boston University.

“[Redacted] indicated [Redacted] intends to call a meeting of the BU Board of Directors in an effort to have ZINN removed from BU. Boston proposes under captioned program with Bureau permission to furnish [Redacted] with public source data regarding ZINN’s numerous anti-war activities, including his trip to Hanoi, 1/31/68, in an effort to back [Redacted’s]  efforts for his removal.”

Zinn and the radical Catholic priest Daniel Berrigan had traveled together to North Vietnam in January 1968 to bring home three prisoners of war. The trip was closely monitored by the FBI. Hoover sent a coded teletype to the president, the secretary of state, the director of the CIA, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Department of the Army, the Department of the Air Force and the White House situation room about the trip. And later, after Berrigan was imprisoned for destroying draft records, Zinn repeatedly championed the priest’s defense in public rallies, some of which the FBI noted were sparsely attended. The FBI monitored Zinn as he traveled to the Danbury Federal Prison in Connecticut to visit Berrigan and his brother Philip. 

“Mass murders occur, which is what war is,” Zinn, who was a bombardier in World War II, said in 1972, according to the file, “because people are split and don’t think … when the government does not serve the people, then it doesn’t deserve to be obeyed. … To be patriotic, you may have to be against your government.”

Zinn testified at the trial of Daniel Ellsberg, who gave a copy of the Pentagon Papers to Zinn and Noam Chomsky. The two academics edited the secret documents on the Vietnam War, sections of which had appeared in The New York Times, into the four volumes that were published in 1971.

“During the Pentagon Papers jury trial, Zinn stated that the ‘war in Vietnam was a war which involved special interests, and not the defense of the United States,’ ” his FBI file reads.

By the end of the file one walks away with a profound respect for Zinn and a deep distaste for the buffoonish goons in the FBI who followed and monitored him. There is no reason, with the massive expansion of our internal security apparatus, to think that things have improved. There are today 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies working on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States, The Washington Post reported in an investigation by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin. These agencies employ an estimated 854,000 people, all of whom hold top-secret security clearances, the Post found. And in Washington, D.C., and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together, the paper reported, they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings—about 17 million square feet.


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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
humorous.

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

Sincerely,

dkenneth
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?

Report this
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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