07.30.10

Inside Howard Zinn's FBI Files

The historian and activist died in January, but the 400 pages the FBI compiled on him for over 25 years are just being released. Friends Noam Chomsky and others tell Clark Merrefield what they mean.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s 423 pages on historian and self-described “democratic socialist” Howard Zinn, released Friday morning, outline a record of investigation spanning 25 years, beginning in 1949 with his alleged involvement in communist front groups.

Zinn, who died in January and was best known for his influential A People’s History of the United States, was studying at New York University on the GI Bill when J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI opened its first files on him. He was working as vice chairman for the Brooklyn branch of the American Labor Party and living at 926 Lafayette Avenue in what is an area now considered the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn.

FBI files from this period tend to be “mostly a mixture of things that they’ve picked up here and there which is mostly false,” says close friend Noam Chomsky.

An internal memo dated March 9, 1949, recommended that Zinn’s first FBI Security Index Card be swiped with two X marks—one indicating he was born in the United States, and the other identifying him as a communist. A confidential informant within the ALP had previously told FBI officials that at a picket in Washington, D.C., in 1948, Zinn divulged that he was a member of the Communist Party and regularly attended party meetings.

Sometime during the summer of 1950 the FBI caught on that Zinn was attending NYU, after its first investigation into Zinn’s activities was complete. No further investigation at NYU was needed, according to the files.

Friends of Zinn’s say that the FBI’s watchful eye was never a major concern—but was always an underlying, if mostly listless presence.

“I don’t remember him saying anything,” says Staughton Lynd, a former colleague who is mentioned in the files as a member of various progressive groups at Harvard University. “I of course knew him best when we taught together at Spelman from 1961 to 1963.”

FBI files from this period tend to be “mostly a mixture of things that they’ve picked up here and there which is mostly false, things they’ve gotten from informants that are mostly false. We took for granted that obviously we were being monitored by the FBI,” says Noam Chomsky, a historian and close friend of Zinn’s.

Indeed, the first 21 pages on Zinn serve more as a background to Zinn’s early academic life than a narrative of someone the FBI considered a threat. Zinn’s employment as a shipping clerk with Associated Transport, the Stutz Textile Company, and Lerner Shops are mentioned, as is his work with the New York City Housing Authority and his involvement with numerous groups considered to be on the political left. Fifteen confidential informants are mentioned in these pages—nearly half of whom provided no useful information, according to the files.

But by 1953, with McCarthyism and the second Red Scare in full swing, the FBI moved from surreptitious research to direct contact. In November 1953 Zinn was surveilled by two agents and was approached outside his apartment in the Alphabet City section of New York City in order to “avoid any possible embarrassment to him at his home or employment,” according to the files.

The agents wanted to know if Zinn had ever been a member of the Communist Party—he had, after all, allegedly told an informant he was a card-carrying member. He told them he was not now, nor had he ever been, a member of the party.

“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,” the files say. Zinn, later noted for his firm anti-war stance, agreed to inform the FBI if he observed acts of sabotage or espionage—and that he would “defend” the U.S. in wars against any enemy. Zinn reiterated the same points in a second interview with the agents.

The bulk of the investigation up to 1957 is a stockpiling of Zinn’s alleged involvement in communist front groups, with a consistent viewpoint that, despite the pages upon pages of information from informants, no further interviews were necessary.

In November 1962, Zinn was working as a history professor at Spelman College and re-caught the FBI’s eye with an academic paper and a newspaper article critical of a previous government investigation into the civil rights movement in Albany, Georgia. The theories espoused in these writings were, at worst, viewed with contempt by the FBI. “Zinn does not add anything to the clarification of the racial problem in the South,” the files say. “Zinn should not be dignified by contact by this Bureau.”

“It would have been an automatic assumption for someone of Howard Zinn’s character that he would have been followed and his phone would have been tapped, but he and I got into this really because of the Daniel Ellsberg business,” says Paul Buhle, a professor emeritus at Brown University who corresponded on and off with Zinn since 1971 and who edited a recent comic book adaptation of A People’s History of American Empire. “That would have been the moment at which the FBI scrutiny would have been most intense.”

Buhle is referring to Daniel Ellsberg, a former researcher at the RAND Corporation, who gave a copy of The Pentagon Papers—a classified policy analysis of the Vietnam War—to Zinn and Chomsky in the early 1970s. Zinn and Chomsky edited the documents into the four volumes released by Senator Mike Gravel and Beacon Press starting in 1971.

The FBI files posted online Friday make scant mention of The Pentagon Papers. “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,’” according to the files.

By 1974, with the slow but ongoing integration of the Jim Crow South and the zeitgeist shifted away from perceived communist threats, the FBI closed its two decades-and-a-half investigation on Zinn. The results of that investigation amount to a massive, largely furtive backgrounding, from articles and other writings, to alleged memberships in communist front groups, to traffic violations—of ultimately unclear value to the FBI.

Full text of the FBI files on Howard Zinn is available here.

Clark Merrefield is a reporter, researcher and writer based in New York.