Howard Zinn is probably best known for his book A Peoples History of the United States. Having sold more 1.7 million copies world-wide it still apparently sells 100,000 copies a year.
It is a classic of “history from below” and tells the story of the US from the point of view rarely heard from, charting as it does the struggles of people from the Native Americans resisting European invasion and conquest to the struggle against slavery and the civil war up to the sixties and seventies and Rivil Rights, women’s liberation and a lot more in between.
He was fired from his tenured professorship at Spelman College in Georgia in 1963 for Civil Rights activities. Active in the movement he was an advisor to SNCC. The Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee was the most militant wing of the Civil rights movement and lead the famous sit-ins against segregation in public amenities. It was also to be the seedbed for much of the new left, such as the SDS, that would emerge later in the sixties.
Zinn was also to become involved at early stage in the movement against Vietnam War and visited Hanoi during the Tet Offensive of 1968.
Daniel Ellsberg entrusted Zinn with a copy of the Pentagon Papers. He annotated them long with Noam Chomsky. It was this edition of the papers that came to be known as the Mike Gavel edition.
The story of the Pentagon Papaers is bizarre even by the standards of those turbulent times.
In 1967 Robert McNamara, then Secretary of Defence, and the one of the chief architects of the continuous military escalation in Vietnam, commissioned a secret report charting the US’s involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. It was compiled by a team of 36 and comprised more than 4,000 pages of documents.
Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst, and one of the few people to have access to the whole set of documents had a Damascene conversion in shock at the cynicism of the US Government and military. The documents revealed that they had long since known that the war was unwinable and that the casualty count was going to be huge. The papers revealed that they had lied, and lied, and lied to the American people.
Ellsberg photocopied the whole set of documents and leaked them.
To cut a long and convoluted story short the Nixon Administration tried to suppress their publication by the New York Tines, but was only partially successful. But by that point the US establishment was tearing itself apart over the war. In order to circumvent these attempts at suppressing the papers Mike Gavel, a Senator for Alaska and an opponent of the war, exercised his immunity from prosecution for things said on the Senate floor to had 4,100 pages of papers read into the Senate record. This was the Zinn version.
The papers were a bombshell on the US establishment discrediting not only the Vietnam War and the Nixon administration but also the previous Democratic Administrations of Johnson and Kennedy.
Ellsberg himself was eventually prosecuted and faced life imprisons for his “crimes” charged as he was with theft, conspiracy and espionage. The trial spectacularly collapsed when it emerged that his psychiatrist had been burgled in search of material to smear him with. The burglary had been carried out by G Gordon Liddy and E Howard Hunt, who were of course two of Nixon’s “plumbers”, employed by him to stop leaks. Thus the whole affair became swept up in the Watergate Scandal.
Zinn is still active and continues to be a thorn in the side of the powers that be in the United States and long may he continue to be so.