Inside Howard Zinn’s FBI File

zinnzinnyThe FBI released 423 pages Friday from its secret file on Howard Zinn – a leading figure on the Progressive Left best known as the author of A People’s History of the United States. Zinn was actively involved in civil rights and anti-war movements until his death in January of this year.

In the files, Zinn is described as a “chief critic of the Federal Government and the war in Vietnam” with “procommunist and anti-U.S. sympathies.” His name was on a list of individuals who were to be regularly monitored, and, in the case of a national emergency, detained.

Facts have been developed which clearly and unmistakably depict the subject as a dangerous individual who might commit acts inimical to the national defense and public safety of the United States in time of an emergency. (May, 1964)

The FBI’s ‘domestic security investigation’ of Zinn commenced in 1949, in the early stages of the Second Red Scare. Agents believed him to be a member, or at least a supporter, of the Communist Party (CP). They cite an informant who says that, during one stretch, Zinn attended CP meetings five nights per week.

In 1953 – well before he gained national prominence as an activist or as a writer – the FBI placed Zinn’s home under surveillance. On two occasions, agents interviewed him about his involvement with the CP.

ZINN stated that he was not now or was he ever a member of the CP. He acknowledged that perhaps his activities in the past had opened him to charges that he was associated with the CP as a member; however he was not. He also denied that his wife was or had been a CP member. He stated that 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. He stated, however, that the individual right should not be extended to violate the rights of others. He continued that he did not believe in the doctrine of force and violence and further that any individual or organization did not have the right to advocate or teach the overthrow of the Government of the United States by force or violence. (November, 1953)

The file continues until 1974, with frequent updates concerning Zinn’s residence, occupation, publications, associations and political activities.

While early files describe Zinn as courteous and friendly, he would later stoke the bureau’s anger, as in 1962, when he published a study about the Albany Movement that criticized the FBI. “With all the clear violations by local police of Constitutional rights, with undisputed evidence of beatings by sheriffs and deputy sheriffs, the FBI has not made a single arrest on behalf of Negro citizens,” Zinn said.

The FBI dismissed the report as “slanted and biased,” and recommended that “Zinn should not be dignified by contact by this Bureau.”

But Zinn would rile them again. Speaking in front of Boston Police Headquarters eight years later, the historian was quoted as saying, “Police in every nation are a blight and the United States is no exception” and that “America has been a police state for a long time.” This time, the FBI tried to remove him from the Boston University faculty.

[Redacted] indicated [Redacted] intends to call a meeting of the BU Board of Directors in an effort to have ZINN removed from BU. Boston proposes under captioned program with Bureau permission to furnish [Redacted] with public source data regarding ZINN’s numerous anti-war activities, including his trip to Hanoi, 1/31/68, in an effort to back [Redacted’s] efforts for his removal. (April, 1970)


Flickr photo by apdonovan


  1. Zinn favored an anarchist perspective.

    I read the headline at Breibart’s site, and the info didn’t match the headline.

    I worked in coalitions with the CP, without being in the CP.

  2. Clint

    What’s the headline? Something about Zinn as a Commie Pinko, I presume?

  3. Levi

    Isn’t it noteworthy that they did stop recording 1974 onward? Or have they just opted to not declassify that info? Because otherwise there’s not too much surprising here for anyone who was aware of the operations of the FBI during the COINTELPRO years.

  4. Clint


    From the FBI:

    “The investigation ended in 1974, and no further investigation into Zinn or his activities was made by the FBI.”

    I was planning to include more about the end of the investigation, but I couldn’t figure out exactly why it ended in 1974.

    Obviously Zinn continued ‘subversive’ activities well beyond 1974 (A People’s History was published in 1980, for instance). I think a few possible explanations could be the winding down of the Vietnam War at that point, the death of J. Edgar Hoover in 72 and the resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974.

  5. Ian

    Are you just summarizing the files or am I supposed to be mad? Not trolling, just sincerely asking your intent.

    They had a pretty big file on Einstein, too. Hoover had a file on anyone noteworthy. I don’t think that kind of behavior has really changed either. Now its the Patriot Act and the persecution of Islam. The right still tries to rile up people with accusations of socialism (accusations which only indicate that the politicians and/or the populace have no idea what socialism even is).

    I think it sucks, and yeah I guess I am mad that our government behaves this way, but it isn’t shocking in the least. I mean we all read The Prince. Constitutional rights are denied very publicly today without repercussion. It is our duty as citizens to stand up for those rights, but they will always and forever be violated by someone. Someone will always seek to deny the Constitutional rights, and there will always be a crowd to support them (see the proposed “Ground Zero” mosque, for example).

  6. Clint


    It was a reporting exercise.

    As you said, it’s no surprise that the FBI had a file on him (though it is a little surprising that it began as early as it did and ended as early as it did) and on a host of other high-profile dissidents.

    I’ve followed Zinn for a bit, so I was interested in what exactly they would say about him. Worrying about Communist affiliations is typical for the FBI, but it seems like a very minor aspect of his life.