Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

howard_zinn

Author Howard Zinn speaks during the People Speak ASCAP Music Cafe performance held during the 2009 Sundance Music Festival on January 22, 2009 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images)

Remembering Howard Zinn, The People's Historian, at 100

Through his example, his activism, and the enduring relevance of his writings, we can commit, on the centennial of his birth, to reiterate one of his central messages: war is not the answer to conflict in the 21st century.

Amy GoodmanDenis Moynihan

 by Democracy Now!

August 24th marked six months since Russia launched its war on Ukraine, with millions displaced and tens of thousands of civilians and soldiers killed. That same day, August 24th, marked the centennial of the late historian Howard Zinn's birth. Zinn was an author, professor, and anti-war activist. His seminal book, A People's History of the United States, revealed a different, dissident perspective on the historical arc of the Western hemisphere, from Christopher Columbus' arrival in 1492 to the so-called "War on Terror." First published in 1980, A People's History has become a standard text, with over 2 million copies in print. Howard Zinn died in 2010, at the age of 87. His words, more than a decade after his death, are still worth hearing in a world wracked by war, racism and inequality.

"War poisons everybody who engages in it."

"War poisons everybody who engages in it," Howard Zinn said in a 2006 address in Madison, Wisconsin. The United States was waging two major wars at the time, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and supporting ongoing conflicts elsewhere. Howard Zinn continued, "We've had a history of war after war after war after war. What have they solved? What have they done?"

Howard Zinn volunteered to serve in World War II, becoming a bombardier. He participated in the bombing of Royan, a small town along the coast of France, in April, 1945:

"This was a few weeks before the war was going to be over, and everybody knew it was going to be over," Zinn said on the Democracy Now! news hour in 2005. "There was a little pocket of German soldiers hanging around this little town of Royan on the Atlantic coast of France, and the Air Force decided to bomb them—1,200 heavy bombers, and I was in one of them, flew over this little town of Royan and dropped napalm—first use of napalm in the European theater. We don't know how many people we killed, how many people were terribly burned as a result of what we did. But I did it, like most soldiers do, unthinkingly, mechanically, thinking we're on the right side, they're on the wrong side, and therefore we can do whatever we want, and it's OK."

Howard Zinn visited the French seaside resort in 1966 to speak with survivors. He wrote a detailed history of the raid and its consequences. "It was…a very great sobering lesson about so-called good wars."

In Zinn's 2006 Wisconsin speech, he described "the different ratio of civilian-to-military deaths in war… in World War I, 10 military dead for one civilian dead; in World War II, it was 50-50, half military, half civilian; in Vietnam, it was 70% civilian and 30% military; and in the wars since then, it's 80% and 85% civilian."

Howard Zinn taught at Spelman, a historically Black women's college in Atlanta, during the height of the civil rights movement. Among his students were author Alice Walker and Children's Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman. Zinn explained on Democracy Now!, "At Spelman, I got involved with my students in the actions that were going on in the South, the sit-ins, the demonstrations, the picket lines." His solidarity got him fired. In 2005, Professor Zinn was invited back to Spelman to deliver the commencement address.

Howard Zinn became a prominent opponent of the war in Vietnam. In 1968, he and activist priest Father Daniel Berrigan flew to North Vietnam, coordinating the first release of U.S. prisoners of war held there. When renowned whistleblower Dan Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers, the U.S. government's secret history of its involvement in Vietnam, Howard Zinn and his late wife Roz hid a copy of the documents in their home. His dedication to peace and anti-war activism continued unabated throughout his life.

August 24th, in addition to the anniversary of Zinn's birth, is also the day that Ukraine marks its independence from the Soviet Union. This year, independence celebrations were banned across Ukraine for fear of Russian attacks. Russia did attack a rail station on that day, in the eastern Ukrainian village of Chaplyne, killing at least 25 people, including children. On the same day, President Joe Biden announced an additional $3 billion in military aid to Ukraine, bringing the total in U.S. military aid to Ukraine since Biden took office to $13.5 billion.

Howard Zinn is not here to condemn this war, or any of the others now being fought. But through his example, his activism, and the enduring relevance of his writings, we can commit, on the centennial of his birth, to reiterate one of his central messages: war is not the answer to conflict in the 21st century.


The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Amy Goodman

Amy Goodman

Amy Goodman is the host and executive producer of Democracy Now!, a national, daily, independent, award-winning news program airing on over 1,400 public television and radio stations worldwide.

Denis Moynihan

Denis Moynihan

Denis Moynihan has worked with Democracy Now! since 2000. He is a bestselling author and a syndicated columnist with King Features. He lives in Colorado, where he founded community radio station KFFR 88.3 FM in the town of Winter Park.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

Citing Need for 'New, Inclusive Leadership,' Chuy García Files for Chicago Mayoral Race

"We have an opportunity to elect a trusted and experienced leader with a history of building coalitions and a vision for a brighter future for all Chicagoans," said the Democratic congressman.

Jessica Corbett ·


On Cyber Monday, Climate Activists Take Aim at Fashion Industry

"The fashion industry is one of the largest polluting industries globally. We can all do better, but it's on companies to make this industry better for workers, the planet, and consumers alike."

Jessica Corbett ·


Biden Accused of Selling Out Rail Workers by Urging Congress to Prevent Strike

"Biden is siding with corporate rail bosses over the rank-and-file workers who voted against this agreement," said one progressive commentator after the president urged lawmakers to take action to force through a deal without paid sick leave.

Brett Wilkins ·


Analysis Finds State Legislators Proposed 306 Bills Targeting Trans People in Past 2 Years

"Right-wing state lawmakers are obsessed with taking away the rights of trans people and we're obsessed with knocking them out of public office," said one rights group.

Julia Conley ·


Biden Mulls Sending Long-Range Missiles to Ukraine

While Ukrainians and supporters welcomed Boeing's proposal to arm Ukrainian forces with long-range precision-guided bombs, one anti-war voice accused the American military-industrial complex of "dictating the U.S. foreign policy and profiteering from wars."

Brett Wilkins ·

Common Dreams Logo