Howard Zinn, the late author of the million-selling A People’s History of the United States, turns out to have been a people’s historian in the same way that China is a people’s republic. Recently released FBI files detail allegations from numerous Communist Party members that Zinn served as a secret Communist in the 1940s and ’50s.
According to FBI informants, Zinn attended Communist Party meetings five nights a week, won election as a delegate to the 1948 New York Communist Party convention, taught classes in “Basic Marxism” to CP members, and even distributed and solicited subscriptions for The Daily Worker.
But when the FBI questioned him, “Zinn stated that he was a liberal and that perhaps some people would consider him to be a ‘leftist.’” The history-class meme about the postwar crusade against domestic subversion is that anticommunists crudely mistook liberals for Communists. But as the cases of Howard Zinn and so many other reds-mistaken-for-liberals demonstrate, Communists themselves counted on liberal gullibility to view real Communists as garden-variety liberals. Two decades after the fall of Euro-Communism, this delusion endures.
Reasonable people concluded that Alger Hiss spied for the Soviet Union because of a cache of physical evidence, such as classified documents copied by Alger Hiss’s typewriter, and witnesses, such as Whittaker Chambers, Hede Massing, Elizabeth Bentley, and Nathan Weyl, who fingered him as a Communist spy. Former Nation editor Victor Navasky balked.
After Allen Weinstein published the definitive book on the controversy, 1978’s Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case, Navasky trashed the Amherst College historian, who had believed Hiss innocent before writing, as “an embattled partisan” who “confuse[d] his beliefs with his data.” In the 1990s, a decrypted Venona intercept pointed to Hiss as “ALES,” the code name for the Kremlin’s man who worked in the State Department, partook in espionage as a family vocation, and travelled to Moscow after the Yalta conference. Navasky dismissed the cable, which matched Hiss and nobody else, as “cryptic and fragmentary,” even going so far as to find Venona “exculpatory rather than incriminating.” Later, when KGB files corroborated and added to the earlier mountain of evidence, it appeared that fate had played a cruel joke on Navasky. The former editor of The Nation was reduced to muttering aloud: “Espionage, is it really so wrong?”
After decrypted Venona intercepts, declassified FBI files, and opened KGB archives confirmed that the Rosenberg spy ring was no anticommunist delusion, convicted conspirator Morton Sobell finally came clean in 2008 about supplying military secrets to the Soviet Union. Former supporters expressed fury at the 91-year-old—not because he had spied for Stalin or had lied about it for so long, but because he had made their comforting narrative untenable. Sydney Gurewitz Clemens, Sobell’s own step-daughter, lashed out at him for having “complicated history and the personal histories of the many millions of people, all over the world, who gave time, energy, money and heart to the struggle to support his claims of innocence.”
Journalist Izzy Stone was prone to making outlandish assertions, such as parroting the North Korean line that the Korean War started as a result of South Korea’s invasion of the Communist North and signing a 1939 manifesto—issued a few days before the announcement of the Nazi-Soviet Pact—asserting that it was “a fantastic falsehood that the U.S.S.R. and totalitarian states are basically alike.” So, when Eric Alterman responded to Stone’s 1989 death by opining that “U.S. journalism could use a few more outlaws like Stone” and that “America could use a few more such patriots,” many wondered exactly which “Izzy Stone” Alterman had in mind.
KGB General Oleg Kalugin’s revelation, reported by Herb Romerstein in Human Events in 1992, that Stone had been an agent of the Soviet Union didn’t shake Alterman’s faith in his mentor’s innocence. Neither the Venona cable that relayed a Soviet spymaster’s message home that Stone would “give us information” and “would not be averse to having a supplementary income,” but did not want “to spoil his career,” nor a 1936 cable found in the KGB archives that Stone and his Soviet handlers had commenced “the channel of normal operational work” (which ultimately included helping to recruit the U.S. ambassador to Germany’s son for covert work) altered Alterman’s opinion. He remains unconvinced: “He was, after all, a journalist; sharing information was actually his job.”
If far more comprehensive evidence has failed to spark a reassessment of the likes of Hiss and Stone among true believers, then it is unlikely that Howard Zinn’s FBI file will cause fans of the celebrity historian to reevaluate his legacy. After more than a half-century of denial, the American Left is too heavily invested in the group lie to bail out now. In poker parlance, they are “all in.” It is no coincidence that the people most fervently denouncing charges that Howard Zinn was a Stalinst are the same people who would be the least troubled by Zinn’s membership in the late totalitarian cult.