The FBI’s dogged pursuit of a “native-born Communist”

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J. Edgar Hoover had an urgent request.
“You will prepare without delay a 5″ by 8″ white card captioned as above and reflecting your investigative case file number for filing in your Confidential Security Index Card File.”
Hoover’s 1949 memo, now declassified, contained all the terrible details about an American writer and historian named Howard Zinn.
The FBI described him as native-born Communist who worked at the American Labor Party headquarters in Brooklyn. He was 26 years old.

Howard Zinn. Photo: walterlippman.com

Decades later, in the 1970s, Zinn traveled to Cuba with a group of Canadian tourists. He returned to the island in 2004 during the height of Bush administration hostilities toward the Castro regime.
Once back on American soil, he told an interviewer:
“…You have to admire Cuba for being undaunted by this colossus of the North and holding fast to its ideals…”
Zinn’s sympathy for leftist causes drew J. Edgar Hoover’s attention. Now declassified FBI documents say that Zinn had admitted to someone who turned out to be an FBI informant that he had protested outside the White House on March 26, 1948, and attended Communist Party meetings five nights a week in Brooklyn.
Zinn’s father was born in Austria and his mother in Russia.
Zinn served in the U.S. Army during World War II.
After leaving the Army, he worked as a shipping clerk and studied at New York University, his declassified FBI file shows. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1951.
An Oct. 12, 1953, FBI memo shows that the agency had decided to put Zinn under “discreet surveillance” and then have two agents approach and interview him.
The agents stopped him on the streets of New York City on Nov. 6, 1953. “He was told that he was not being contacted with the idea of intimidating himself but for the purpose of determining his attitude toward aiding the United States Government. It was noted that he was a citizen of this country, a parent and veteran and had certain responsibilities to himself, his family and country.”
Agents told him they had information about his ties to the Communist Party and wanted to give him the opportunity to discuss it.

Howard Zinn. Photo: walterlippman.com

They said, “Zinn stated that he was not now or was he ever a member of the CP. He stated that he was a liberal and perhaps some people would consider him to be a ‘leftist.'”
Zinn also said he didn’t support the use of violence to overthrow the government and would advise the FBI if he knew of anyone who advocated that approach.
Agents reported afterward that they didn’t believe Zinn’s denials about the Communist Party, and recommended he be contacted again for a follow-up interview.
They talked to him again in 1954 and decided that they would not be able to turn him into an informant as they’d hoped or convince him to testify against others.
Zinn later accepted a teaching job in Georgia. The FBI’s Atlanta office began a new investigation of him and his wife, Roslyn. A May 14, 1957, FBI memo stated:
“Howard Zinn has recently joined the faculty of Spelman College, a Negro girls school in Atlanta. He and his wife are white.”
Several years later, Zinn drew attention over Cuba.
A Nov. 27, 1962, memo stated:

Files indicate that Zinn has been active in protesting policies of this country concerning Cuba.
It was reported that Zinn was one of a group of about 20 racially mixed individuals who walked the picket line in Atlanta on 10-24-62 and held a meeting protesting the President’s decision concerning the quarantine of Cuba.

In 1963, an FBI memo stated that Zinn, his wife and his daughter had “participated in public protests” of then-President Kennedy’s request that Soviet missiles be withdrawn from Cuba.
Spelman dismissed Zinn in 1963. Administrators evidently disagreed with his activism.
Zinn took a teaching job in Boston, where he continued to draw attention from the FBI.
The U.S. government issued Zinn passport #F285869 on April 26, 1965. “The passport was valid for three years’ travel to all countries except Albania, Cuba and those portions of China, Korea and Vietnam under communist control,” according to a once secret and now declassified FBI memo dated March 7, 1968.
The memo stated:

Informants familiar with some phases of Communist Party activity in the Greater Boston area advised in February, 1968, that they had no information concerning any subversive activities on the part of the subject.

Zinn died in Massachusetts in 2010 at the age of 87.

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