By Paul Kengor
After years of digging into countless pages of FBI files, KGB documents, Soviet media archives, dusty old copies of the Daily Worker, declassified Comintern Archives on Communist Party USA, and much more, my book was finally going to press, exposing how the communist movement, from Moscow to New York, cynically manipulated — read: duped — liberals/progressives for nearly a century.
Among the words haunting me as I delivered the final manuscript were these: “I am open to the possibility that herein I myself have been duped on occasion.” I acknowledged the likelihood that later declassified documents might reveal certain “innocents” in my book as actually something far worse.
Indeed, my research had affirmed what I long suspected: Many self-professing “liberals/progressives,” especially those railing against the alleged evils and excesses of America and, more so, of America’s anti-communists, were, in fact, hardened communists — albeit closet communists. To cite a few now being carefully reevaluated: Arthur Miller, Harry Hopkins, I.F. Stone, and Howard Zinn.
Yes, Howard Zinn. I include Zinn among an ignominious group of leftist writers whose screeds against the Vietnam War were used by the Vietcong to indoctrinate American POWs in places like the Hanoi Hilton — to learn the “truth” about America’s intentions in Vietnam. Can you imagine? The Vietcong actually assigned books by the likes of Zinn to our POWs.
And imagine: Today, liberals, under no threat of coercion by captors, celebrate the works of Zinn as nuggets of wisdom to educate themselves and America’s youth, on subjects including Vietnam. They have made Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States a bestseller, core reading for classroom pedagogy and, further amplifying the absurdity, the basis for documentaries like the History Channel’s “The People Speak.”
As for my book, we placed Zinn’s name on the dust jacket, lumping him with both “dupes” and “dupers,” allowing that Zinn might fit either category.
So imagine my reaction when — just as we were going to press — I got an e-mail from my editor with the subject head “Zinn.” It noted that the late professor’s FBI file had just been released, and, according to some interpreters, it showed that Zinn had been a communist.
There it was: Another long-awaited file revealing the subject not as a duped liberal, but (perhaps) as a duping communist. If that’s indeed the case with Zinn, then his victims are legion.
What does the FBI file say?
Relying on testimony from insiders and informants, the file (click here) maintains that Zinn joined the Communist Party after World War II and was so devoted that by 1948, he attended five party meetings per week. (See screen 21.)
FBI agents asked Zinn about such doings. He was cooperative, but he insisted he had never been a party member. He said he was a “liberal,” and that some would describe him as a “leftist.” (See screen 24.)
Of course, secret party members almost always denied membership or (under oath before Congress) pleaded the Fifth Amendment, even when presented with irrefutable evidence like CPUSA card numbers — the kind of evidence, incidentally, that the House Committee on Un-American Activities presented against Hollywood Ten figures such as John Howard Lawson, Dalton Trumbo, Alvah Bessie, and Albert Maltz, all of whom liberals still defend.
For the record, the lack of such evidence in Zinn’s file will fuel liberals scurrying to defend him. They will do what they do best: blast the anti-communists as the villains.
The reaction to the file has fallen along predictable ideological lines. Here, I’m not going to parse whether Zinn was or wasn’t a party member. Instead, I’d like to address what may be the most hideous, neglected aspect of the 400-plus-page file, especially for a man who is now the American left’s historian of choice, including the darling of entertainment-industry intellectuals like Bruce Springsteen, Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon. To wit:
The file notes Zinn’s reported involvement with the American Peace Mobilization. (See screens 30, 33, 34.) Why was this bad?
The American Peace Mobilization was created in the summer of 1940 as a communist front organization to sway American opinion against stopping Nazi Germany. Why? Because at that point, Hitler was allied with Stalin, specifically via the August 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact. Thus, American communists, who fastidiously followed orders from Moscow, followed Stalin’s lead — right alongside the Führer. Putting aside their usual hatred of Hitler, they obeyed the “master’s voice,” as George Kennan put it. Their default position, their first priority, was always Stalin’s. They were loyal Soviet patriots.
Worse, this meant that the American Peace Mobilization vigorously opposed American aid to Western allies like Britain, which was desperately defending itself against Hitler’s hellacious assault. The mobilization protested Lend-Lease, a vital Roosevelt administration policy to provide aid to embattled allies. Worse still, the mobilization’s comrades accused Britain of engaging in total war — that is, widespread, intentional targeting of non-combatants — when, in fact, that was Nazi policy.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the mobilization made outrageous accusations against Franklin Delano Roosevelt, dubbing the Democratic Party icon a “fascist” and “imperialist” pining for war to reward greedy arms manufacturers. This was nothing new: The communists demonized every Democratic administration, from Woodrow Wilson to FDR to Truman to Kennedy to Johnson.
Of course, the true intentions of the American Peace Mobilization were concealed at the time. The organization’s ringleaders assured their duped liberal friends that they simply wanted peace. Too many liberals swallowed the bait, especially “social justice” Christians, who were consistently the communists’ biggest suckers.
Amazingly, that party line turned hawkish literally overnight (June 22, 1941), the minute news arrived that Hitler betrayed Stalin and invaded the USSR. Unbelievable as it may sound, the group instantly changed its name to the American People’s Mobilization. It immediately became pro-war.
I know that’s laughable. Who would buy it? Well, liberals — at least some liberals.
A newsworthy side note: This party line was toed flawlessly by Frank Marshall Davis, Barack Obama’s mentor, but that’s another column for another day.
When did we learn all of this sordid history?
Some of it was publicly documented after World War II by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Liberals, of course, have never had a kind word to say about “HUAC,” but here was a case where they should profusely thank the committee for what it exposed. It described the American Peace Mobilization as “one of the most seditious organizations which ever operated in the United States,” “one of the most notorious and blatantly communist fronts ever organized in this country,” and an “instrument of the Communist Party line.”
That was dead-on. Even then, not until I dug into the Comintern Archives on CPUSA was I aware of just how hideous was this group. I discovered documents not available to “HUAC” at the time, given that they were in the Soviet Union’s possession, and not declassified by Russia until the 1990s. I have an April 2, 1941 memo, written by Eugene Dennis (1905-61), a major Comintern operative and globetrotter, stating flatly that the American Peace Mobilization “was organised on the initiative of our [Communist] Party in Chicago in September, 1940.”
This brings me back to Howard Zinn and his FBI file. Most disturbing about Zinn’s potential involvement with this group is that it came after the war, a war in which he himself had served as a bombardier. By then, most non-communist supporters of the mobilization had bolted, as they came to see its true colors after its flip-flop in June 1941. They smelled a rat. Who couldn’t?
Well, perhaps Zinn. Of course, that depends on whether Zinn was a dupe or duper, a gullible liberal or conniving communist.
Compounding the historical injustice, I’d be shocked if any of these facts about the mobilization are recorded in Zinn’s books, or made the History Channel.
Finally, I should add that Zinn’s FBI file also placed him (he admitted to this) at the infamous Paul Robeson concerts in Peekskill, New York in 1949, which erupted into riots. (See screens 13, 26, 32.) Not only was Robeson a well-known communist — and close friend to Obama mentor Frank Marshall Davis — but he had also performed at the first major American Peace Mobilization rally in New York in April 1941, which Eugene Dennis and the Comintern helped organize.
I could say much more, but I’ll finish with this word of caution to liberal Democrats enraged at me, the messenger, rather than at their beloved court historian: As I’ve intimated, bear in mind that the presidents and presidential administrations savaged by their so-called “friends” at the extreme left were Democratic Party icons: Wilson, FDR, Truman, JFK. In fact, in the latter half of Zinn’s FBI files, moving into the 1960s, we find Zinn steadfastly against the Kennedys — JFK and RFK — and for Fidel and Che. (See screen 101.) He is listed among those who protested Kennedy’s blockade of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
I urge Democrats to understand: These guys from the far left were not your friends.
Alas, my pleas likely will be in vain. As the late James Burnham, himself an ex-communist, observed: For the left, “the preferred enemy is always to the right.” Like moths to a flame, liberals get torched again and again by their communist “friends.”
Which — and when — was Howard Zinn?
Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His books include The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism and the forthcoming Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.