However, in the 1960s the FBI renewed its interest in Zinn because Zinn was critical of the FBI. Apparently Zinn was especially critical of the FBI’s investigations of the civil rights movement. Of course, we know now that J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO project attempted to infiltrate, disrupt and marginalize the civil rights movement from within, including the nonviolent movement of Dr. Martin Luther King. Dr. King himself was under FBI surveillance for much of the last few years of his life. COINTELPRO often operated outside of the law and constitutional prohibitions on warrantless government surveillance.
How much Zinn knew about what the FBI was up to I do not know, but at a civil rights protest in the 1960s he declared the U.S. had become a “police state.” This pissed off the Bureau, which then tried to get Zinn fired from his professorship at Boston University. Which pretty much proves that Zinn had a point. Apparently the files also contain detailed accounts of Zinn’s activities in the antiwar movement during the Vietnam years. At that time I don’t believe the FBI had evidence Zinn was doing anything illegal; it just didn’t like Zinn’s politics.
But just to show that leopards don’t change their spots, or something, our buddy Robert Stacy McCain apparently spent hours piecing together whatever he could find in the documents that tied Zinn to the Communist Party USA so that he could say Zinn lied about being a member.
I read through this as much as I could stand, and it’s mostly guilt-by-association stuff. For example, McCain finds it significant that Zinn thought the state of New York was liable for property damage caused by the Peekskill riots. These were riots in 1949 that stopped a concert by Paul Robeson, the African American singer “known for his strong pro-trade union stance on civil rights and his outspoken beliefs in international socialism, anti-lynching legislation and anti-colonialist movements.” McCain sneers that the riots were “a once-famous cause célèbre of the Left,” apparently siding with the rights of real American patriots to form a riotous mob and violently attack people because of their race and/or politics.
Zinn clearly was actively engaged in many of the same causes as the old CPUSA in those years. In the 1940s he was active in the International Workers Order, an “insurance, mutual benefit and fraternal organization” affiliated with CPUSA. Whether Zinn was a card-carrying member of CPUSA itself or just a fellow-traveler isn’t really clear, though.
And in any event, given the totalitarian activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee and Sen. Joe McCarthy’s relentless witch hunts, I wouldn’t blame Zinn for lying to the FBI if he was a member.
But finally McCain gets to his smoking gun — an FBI agent found that Zinn’s name and address were on a “list of addressograph stencils at Communist Party Headquarters.” Yes, my dear, Zinn was on the Communist Party’s mailing list. So he must have been a member. Like we’re all members of every organization that sends us mail.
Hey, I get email from the Tea Party Movement. Does that make me a teabagger?
I like this bit of McCain’s —
One of the things you can learn from M. Stanton Evans’ recent book on Joe McCarthy’s investigations, Blacklisted by History, is how deeply the FBI had penetrated CPUSA. One reason that McCarthy’s was sometimes unable to publicly substantiate his accusations was that he relied on secret information passed along by the FBI. McCarthy couldn’t identity the source of his information without compromising the FBI’s investigations, so when his critics tried to make it appear that McCarthy’s suspicions were without merit, McCarthy couldn’t simply say, “Here is the FBI file.”
One of the things you learn from other books on McCarthy, such as David Oshinsky’s A Conspiracy So Immense, is that after McCarthy started making a splash with his mysterious lists of spies, Hoover began feeding him names of people the FBI hadn’t been able to find enough dirt on to prosecute, but Hoover still suspected them of something. The fact remains that no one McCarthy targeted was ever found to be guilty of espionage, and this is still true after the release of the “Venona Papers,” wingnut myth to the contrary.
The point lost on McCain is that most of the time Zinn was under surveillance, Zinn was not doing anything criminal. He was under surveillance purely because of his political beliefs.
And the great irony is that if people like McCain were allowed to run America without restraint, he’d be rounding up everyone whose politics he doesn’t like (most of us) and sending us off to re-education camps. Just like the you-know-who. If McCain had his way, he’d organize an American Stasi.
Update: More by Justin Elliott at Salon — five different FBI special agents submitted surveillance reports on Zinn’s participation at one, and the same, anti-draft public meeting. He was also found to be on the mailing list of a Communist bookstore (I don’t know if this is the same mailing list already mentioned, or not).
“There’s also a fair amount here about Zinn’s 1974 trip to North Vietnam with the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, during which they received three freed American POWs,” Elliott writes. McCain also had brought up the trip to Hanoi as proof of Zinn’s communist activities, but McCain left out the part about freeing POWs. Fascinating.
Your tax dollars at work, folks.