Howard Zinn spied on by FBI and put on detention list - 2 part series
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08/06/10 Seán Kinane
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Howard Zinn spoke at USF Tampa in November 2004. The FBI released its files on Zinn last Friday, 6 months after he died.


photo by Seán Kinane (Nov. 2004)

Historian, author, and activist Howard Zinn died in January. He may be best known for his book A People’s History of the United States. Last Friday the FBI released more than 400 pages of files it has kept on Zinn since March, 1949. That’s when J. Edgar Hoover’s agency first created a “Security Index card” on Zinn when they suspected he was associated with the Communist Party.

When I interviewed Zinn in 2006, I asked him whether the government spied on him.

“I have no doubt of it. Well, I received, back in the sixties, I sent away for my Freedom of Information file. There were hundreds of pages of evidence that the FBI had spied on my activities when I was in the South and in the Civil Rights movement, [they] had spied on my activities in the movement against the war in Vietnam. Hundreds of pages.”

According to the documents, the FBI kept track of Zinn even further back than that. It began while he was working at the American Labor Party Headquarters in Brooklyn in the 1940s, and continued when he was an undergraduate student on the G.I. Bill at Washington Square College of New York University in 1950. They continued to keep files on Zinn while he was earning his Master's and Doctorate degrees at Columbia University. A 1957 FBI document indicates that during those McCarthy-era years in New York, up to sixteen informants claimed as early as 1947 that Zinn was associated with the Communist Party and what they considered Communist front groups.

Their first major report summary in March 1949 noted that the FBI verified Zinn's home address by asking "the subject's sister, DORIS ZINN ... under a suitable pretext." But the editor of The Progressive magazine, Matthew Rothschild, confirmed through Howard Zinn's daughter that the FBI was wrong -- Zinn did not have a sister.

“Yeah, his daughter is Myla Kabat-Zinn, and she said that Howard never had a sister, much less a sister named Doris. So, if that’s the accuracy of the information in the file, she said she can’t really think that there’s much to these files. She can’t rely on anything in there and doesn’t think anyone else should.”

In the early 1950s Zinn was stopped on the streets of New York on two different occasions (11/6/53 & 2/9/54) by the same two FBI assets, and asked about his connections with the Communist Party. Zinn admitted association with what the FBI considers Communist fronts, but he denied membership in the Party. He said he would not give information about others or use violence to overthrow the government. According to the documents, those two factors seem to have played a role in the FBI deciding in 1955 that Zinn was not of much interest - "The [Security Index] card on Howard Zinn was canceled."

But then in 1956 Zinn took a job at Spellman College in Atlanta, an historically black women's college. The Atlanta office of the FBI became interested in Zinn and in 1957 the FBI Director authorized the Atlanta Division "to conduct a security investigation of Howard Zinn" … in accordance with a manual "governing individuals holding academic positions in an institution of learning." Again, Matthew Rothschild.

“Well, it’s clear that Zinn caught the attention of the FBI when he was in Atlanta at Spellman College because he was criticizing the FBI itself. He had criticized the FBI in a report he did on civil rights down there, and how the FBI wasn’t protecting anyone who was advocating peacefully for civil rights, and that they just weren’t doing their job, and that got the FBI’s attention when the report surfaced in a New York newspaper. Also, there was an indication that Martin Luther King, Jr. had read what Zinn had reported and agreed to it, in one of the more chilling passages in the file. The FBI agent says ‘we should send two or three people down there to straighten Martin Luther King out.’”

The renewed interest by the FBI in Atlanta coincides with a source claiming to have a photo of Zinn that allegedly shows him teaching a seminar on Marxism in 1951. This is despite the New York office essentially closing its case on Zinn two years earlier. But now there are references in the Atlanta documents claiming Zinn is an actual Communist, even though the New York documents claimed that he was just associated with front groups.

In 1962 Zinn wrote an article about how the FBI was failing African-Americans in the South, the FBI Director wrote on a clipping of the New York Post article, 'What do we know of Zinn?'

“Yeah, it’s amazing that the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation would be following so closely the writing of a particular dissident in the United States. It shows how obsessed and paranoid J. Edgar Hoover was, and how he was trampling on people’s basic First Amendment rights, the right to dissent ... And again, it makes me feel uncomfortable that with homeland security, and with the CIA, and the FBI, and the NSA, and all of these other agencies that are peering into our lives. And given how much easier it is to peer into our lives than it was back when Howard Zinn was being followed by the FBI, gives me pause.”

The FBI tracked Zinn’s newspaper articles as well as his travel within the U.S. and outside the country. In our 2006 interview, Zinn seemed incredulous that the FBI would spy on such mundane behavior of American citizens.

"What you learn when you send away for your FBI files, under the Freedom of Information Act, is you learn that they are recording the most innocuous, the most harmless kinds of activities. ‘Oh, he made a speech here. Oh, he wrote this article.’"

Zinn wrote a monthly column for The Progressive magazine from the late 1990s until he died in January. His editor at The Progressive, Rothschild, agrees that the FBI seemed obsessed with minor details of Zinn's everyday life.

“Well, the report is just ridiculous to read because they were so bureaucratic. They were omnipresent. They were recording the most protected aspects of the First Amendment, if anyone would in engage in them, and what magazines they read. There was a notation that he subscribed to the National Guardian, which is now defunct, but it was a good left wing magazine. He went to some peace marches in the late 1940’s. He was picketing a butcher shop in 1946, they had that down. I mean, it’s unbelievable the level of detail they have on every single aspect of his political activity. It’s just chilling to those of us who respect our First Amendment rights to see what was happening then, and to wonder if it’s happening now.”

Besides spying on every day activities, another theme that emerges from looking at the FBI's documents on Zinn is the frequency with which they use deception and lying to get information. For example, a 1957 memo from the FBI Director to the Special Agent in Charge in Atlanta admits the document is classified because "it contains investigative techniques, and contacts with confidential Informants." Some of those techniques include the FBI calling Spellman College and lying about the pretext of the call claiming they were out-of-town friends of Zinn and in another case that they were doing a credit inquiry. Rothschild says this practice is not uncommon.

“Well, it’s not ethical to my mind. I believe it is legal. Certainly, police are allowed to lie to people when they’re questioning people, so I assume the FBI is allowed to lie to people too. I was astonished by this so-called ‘pretextual’ word in a lot of these documents. What was astonishing in reading the whole file, 423 pages of it, was how creepy these McCarthyism days were, where your neighbor, your friends, your colleagues, your employers, the landlord, the post office delivery man, I mean, everybody was ratting you out. It was just amazing to me. And the infiltrators they had throughout the Communist Party. I mean, they had Communist Party informants in every chapter around the country, it seems, from reading this big file.”

But these FBI files on Zinn don't just reveal mundane facts; they also reveal how much power the FBI had. They included Zinn in what's called the “Reserve Index, Section A, since he is a professor and writer who has a background of known membership in the Communist Party (CP) and has continued to demonstrate procommunist and anti-United States sympathies.” That's a direct quote from one of the documents. So what does it mean to be on the Reserve Index? The FBI's files on Zinn tell us it “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.” Rothschild couldn't believe the FBI considered Zinn a “dangerous individual who might commit acts inimical to the national defense and public safety of the United States in time of an emergency.”

“Well, this was shocking to me. Actually, he was on this list. Originally, J. Edgar Hoover said that he shouldn’t be on the most serious, so called, security risk. What the FBI had, was a program to detain hundreds of thousands of people in times of a national emergency, when a national emergency would be declared by the President, for instance. So they had a list of people whose political beliefs they disagreed with. They were on one of two, or a couple of files. One was called the Reserve Index. This was people who weren’t quite as dangerous, according to the FBI, as the other people who were in the Security Index. Howard Zinn was first put on the Reserve Index, and then Hoover approved putting him on the Security Index. So, the idea that the FBI had this list, and I think a lot of your listeners won’t know this, had this list of hundreds of thousands of people that they’d summarily interrogate and arrest in case of an emergency, that’s shocking. And again, I wonder whether a similar list exists today. Whether the No-Fly List is the comparable list in today’s America.”

WMNF: *“And we know how accurate the No-Fly List is.”*

“Yeah, it doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence when the wrong name is in there; the wrong person with the same name is on there. And we know that there’s been all sorts of mischief – Sen. Ted Kennedy’s name was on the No-Fly List for God’s sakes.”

The FBI even alerted the Secret Service about Zinn. In 2006 Zinn said that the government spying on its citizens can have a chilling effect on free expression.

"Now, what in the world is the government doing recording what citizens do in the normal course of their lives, when they’re exercising their right of free speech or free press. If what you write and what you speak, you begin to feel is being recorded by the government for who knows what reason. Then it has what they call in Constitutional law, chilling effect on your ability to be able to speak freely or write freely. You think that ‘well, I’d better be very careful what I say.’ Well, we shouldn’t have to be very careful of what we say in a democracy where we have a First Amendment, and where freedom of speech is supposedly one of our cherished principles.”

The FBI continued to track Howard Zinn through the Vietnam War, including when Zinn went to North Vietnam to facilitate the release of American war prisoners. The most recent file is from 1974.

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The FBI files on Howard Zinn

The Progressive magazine

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