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The FBI just released a voluminous file on progressive historian Howard Zinn.
The file alleges that Zinn was a member of the Communist Party in the late 1940s and early 1950s, though he steadfastly denied it when the FBI twice interviewed him.
Reading the file takes you back to the creepiest days of McCarthyism, as neighbors and ostensible friends ratted Zinn out to the FBI, and as agents would call up his landlords and employers seeking information. Even a postal carrier was used as an informant. The file shows that the FBI had informants throughout the Communist Party.
Oddly, the FBI even tried to turn Howard Zinn into an informant, but when he refused to play ball or name names, they gave up on him. Later, in the 1960s, they deemed a high security risk to the country, a category that allowed them to summarily arrest him if an emergency were to be declared, the documents show.
The file also refers to Zinn’s influence on Martin Luther King’s attitude toward the FBI, with the agency adding that it should straighten King out.
Several documents also refer to Zinn’s wife, Roslyn, whom the FBI claimed was affiliated with the Communist Party for a while, as well.
J. Edgar Hoover himself kept apprised of Zinn’s activities from the earliest years. President Lyndon Johnson received FBI memos from Hoover about Zinn when he and Daniel Berrigan went to North Vietnam in 1968 and won the return of two captured U.S. airmen.
The first document, March 3, 1949, relies on information supplied by a “confidential informant” who said Zinn “is a Communist Party member and attends Party meetings five times a week in Brooklyn.” It also lists some of his political activities.
It says that Zinn picketed the White House on March 26, 1948, with the “American Committee to Protect the Jewish State and the United Nations.”
It says he was a “delegate to the American Peace Mobilization in Chicago.”
It says he was “picketing butcher shops” in Brooklyn on July 18, 1946.
It says his “name appears on letterhead of Brooklyn Citizens’ Committee for Right of Bank Workers to Organize.”
And it says he was a member of American Veterans Committee.
It also says that “an inquiry was made of the subject’s sister, Doris Zinn, 926 Lafayette Avenue, under suitable pretext.”
Zinn’s daughter, Myla Kabat-Zinn, is struck by this reference.
“My father never had a sister,” says Kabat-Zinn, who perused some pages of the file. “It’s just bizarre. If they thought he had a sister, I have to question a lot of what’s in the file.”
The second released document, dated March 30, 1949, and with “Director, FBI” on it, has Zinn’s name in caps and the words “Security Matter” under it. The New York office is instructed “to obtain additional information concerning this subject’s membership in the Communist Party or concerning his activities in behalf of the party.” The last line reads: “Particular emphasis should be placed on obtaining admissible evidence.”
The FBI kept track of Zinn while he was attending NYU, and the agency noted that “Zinn filed claim for ‘property damage’ against the State of New York” after the police failed to prevent anti-communist mobs from using violence to disrupt Paul Robeson’s performances.
In the strangest part of the file, the FBI tries to recruit Zinn as an informant. A document dated October 12, 1953, and sent to J. Edgar Hoover, outlines the effort. “When the subject is observed leaving his residence alone, and when he is a discreet distance from his place of residence, he will be contacted in a direct manner by two agents assigned to the Security Informant Program.”
On November 6, 1953, two agents of the FBI watched Zinn leave his home and then approached him, according to a document to Hoover dated November 25, 1953. “The agents introduced themselves to Zinn and advised him that they had a confidential matter to discuss with him,” the document says. “He was told that he was not being contacted with the idea of intimidating or having him incriminate himself but for the purpose of determining his attitude towards aiding the United States Government. It was noted that he was a citizen of this country, a parent and veteran, and had certain responsibilities to himself, his family, and country.”
Then they made their accusations. “He was advised that the Bureau had received information concerning his associations with the CP and was affording him this opportunity to discuss it with agents of the FBI,” the document says. “Zinn stated that he was not now or was he ever a member of the CP.”
Zinn told them “he was a liberal and perhaps some people would consider him to be a ‘leftist.’ Zinn said that he had participated in the activities of various organizations which might be considered Communist fronts but that his participation was motivated by his belief that in this country people had the right to believe, think, and act according to their own ideals. . . . According to Zinn, he was not ashamed of his past activities and did not believe that he or his activities constituted a threat to the security of this country or Government.”
Toward the end of this four-page “Letter to Director,” the agents describe Zinn as “courteous, friendly, and willing to discuss his activities except for the denials noted previously. He was reluctant, however, to discuss other persons who were associated with him in the various Communist front organizations.” The agents recommended that “Zinn should be recontacted under the Security Informant Program.”
That recontact occurred on February 8, 1954, according to a document to Hoover dated February 24 of that year. Again, Zinn denied that he or his wife had ever been a member of the Communist Party. And again, Zinn refused to name names. “He stated under no circumstances would he testify or furnish information concerning the political opinions of others.” The agents concluded that it was no use. “It is believed that additional interviews with Zinn would not turn him from his current attitude; therefore he will not be reinterviewed under the SI program, and this matter will be closed.”
After that, the FBI continued to keep tabs on Zinn, his political activities, his attendance at Columbia, and his move to Atlanta to teach at Spelman College. It even noted that he “subscribed to the ‘National Guardian’ in 1953,” according to a document dated March 29, 1957. The FBI also got a hold of a 1950 letter Zinn wrote to the Supreme Court about the trial of eleven Communists under the Smith Act. Wrote Zinn to the Court: “Free speech is the cornerstone of a free America and it cannot be preserved unless the Smith Act is declared unconstitutional.”
For a few years, Zinn’s time at Spelman didn’t concern the FBI. But then Zinn wrote a report for the Southern Regional Council about race relations in Albany, Georgia. Zinn was harshly critical of the FBI in that report, noting that “the FBI has not made a single arrest on behalf of Negro citizens.” The New York Post ran an article about his criticisms on November 16, 1962. On a copy of the clipping, Hoover himself wrote: “What do we know of Zinn?”
Agency officials responded with a memo on November 27, 1962, rehashing the old accusations against Zinn. It added: “Files indicate that Zinn has been active in protesting policies of this country concerning Cuba.” The memo was sent to assistant director Cartha “Deke” DeLoach. Handwritten at the bottom is the notation: “Suggest our friends on Georgia papers be alerted.”
On December 23, 1962, an FBI document again refers to Zinn’s Albany report and notes that it “has also been commented upon by Reverend Martin Luther King. King went along with the general theme of the article.” It added: “Assistant Directors Sullivan and DeLoach have made an attempt to contact Reverend Mr. King to straighten him out concerning the work of this Bureau.”
On May 21, 1963, an FBI document reported that Zinn had participated on a panel about blacks in the media. “Zinn was critical of the Administration, the President, and the Vice President concerning their position on civil rights. He also stated, ‘Our Attorney General is callous, and the FBI incompetent to deal with civil rights problems.’ ” Clyde Tolson, associate director of the FBI, was reported asking, “What do our files show on Zinn?”
On May 29, 1963, another FBI memo, with the director’s name on it, orders agents to dig up and spread information about Zinn. “You are instructed to review your files, contact logical sources, and submit an up-to-date report suitable for dissemination. This report should include all pertinent public source information concerning the subject.”
On July 31, 1963, the FBI noted that “subject dismissed from position at Spelman College.” The agency followed him back to Newton, Massachusetts, and obtained “four photos of subject, wife, and daughter,” according to another memo to Hoover dated November 18, 1963. It listed Zinn’s occupation as “self-employed—writer.”
On January 8, 1964, an FBI memo discussed a Boston Globe article that covered Zinn’s repeated criticism of the FBI for failing to protect blacks against white mob violence. As before, the recommended action: “friendly news sources in the Boston area may be contacted concerning our role in civil rights matters.”
On January 10, 1964, Hoover wrote a memo ordering Zinn’s name to be “included in Reserve Index, Section A,” a classification that would mean he could be rounded up if an emergency were declared. In this memo, Hoover says Zinn “has continued to demonstrate procommunist and anti-United States sympathies.”
The FBI repeatedly asked its contacts within the Communist Party in the Boston area about Zinn, but “they did not know the subject and could furnish no information concerning him,” notes one document from the Boston office on February 18, 1964. (Several subsequent documents all show the Boston office finding no contacts between Zinn and the Communist Party there.)
On May 18, 1964, an FBI memo discusses an article Zinn wrote for The Nation entitled “Incident in Hattiesburg” about the FBI and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. This prompted the FBI to classify Zinn as an even higher security risk.
“Because of lack of evidence of membership in a basic revolutionary organization since 1953, subject’s name was included in the Reserve Index, Section A, rather than in the Security Index,” states the document from the FBI’s J. F. Bland to assistant FBI director W. C. Sullivan.
Bland then spells out what these classifications mean. “The Reserve Index represents a special group of individuals scheduled to receive priority attention with respect to investigation, interrogation, or detention under the terms of the Emergency Detention Program following invoking of the Program and arrest of all Security Index subjects.” (NB: The original is not in bold.)
Bland goes on to explain why Zinn deserves to be placed in the higher-risk category. “Subject’s activities make this a close case as to whether he belongs on the Reserve Index or the Security Index. He can, however, be included on the Security Index under the criterion “facts have been developed which clearly and unmistakably depict the subject as a dangerous individual who may commit acts inimical to the national defense and public safety of the United States in time of an emergency.’ ”
On May 19, 1964, a memo with “Director, FBI” on it, says: “The Bureau is of the opinion that subject’s name should be included in the Security Index.”
On March 7, 1966, Hoover wrote the director of the Secret Service about Zinn, Hoover did so again exactly a year later. The reason: “Because of background is potentially dangerous; or has been identified as member or participant in communist movement; or has been under active investigation as member of other group or organization inimical to U.S.”
The FBI followed Zinn’s civil rights and anti-Vietnam War activities, noting his “Logic of Withdrawal” pamphlet and the fact that he spoke at a 1967 rally in New York with Martin Luther King and Dr. Benjamin Spock.
The file also reveals that 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 Zinn took with Berrigan to free the two U.S. airmen on January 31, 1968.
The last document, dated April 2, 1968, refers to an anti-draft rally planned for the next day in Boston Commons. “This demonstration is expected to last approximately two to three hours and attract some 10,000 persons,” the document says. “Howard Zinn, well-known Boston University professor and Security Index subject, and Avram Noam Chomsky, a Selective Service subject, will be among the speakers.”
Zinn’s daughter, Myla Kabat-Zinn, isn’t shocked that the FBI kept such a voluminous file on her dad.
“We all expected this,” she says. “This is not a surprise. Anybody who was active in protesting and speaking out at that time kind of expected to have an FBI file. My father always knew they had a file on him.”
If you liked this story by Matthew Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive magazine, check out his article “Student Activists Prevail Over Nike.”
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