Zinn’s life was a testament to possibility
HOWARD ZINN had just buckled his seat belt when the flight attendant’s voice came over the speakers with the pre-flight routine - the welcome aboard and identification of crew members. At mention of the pilot’s name, Zinn’s eyes lifted, and he wondered - could it be the same man? Years before, Zinn, and fellow anti-war activist Father Daniel Berrigan, had traveled to Hanoi for the purpose of accepting the release from North Vietnam of three American prisoners of war - downed US flyers. They were the first prisoners to be released, but the condition was that they be handed over not to American officials, but to representatives of the anti-war movement.
The three prisoners were subdued and skeptical - obviously beaten down by their ordeal. The empathy Zinn felt was rooted in his own having been an Army Air Forces bombardier during World War II. Zinn and Berrigan reassured them, and soon the five men were flown out of Hanoi - freedom! While changing planes in Laos, they were intercepted by the US ambassador, who took custody of the POWs. Zinn wished them luck, and that was the last he had ever seen of them.
But now he had just heard the name of one of the three - the man at the controls of his airliner. Could it be? When the flight was underway, Zinn asked an attendant to tell the pilot his name. Soon, the captain came walking down the aisle. They recognized each other, exchanged a friendly greeting - and that was it. Some moments in life are too multi-layered for words. When Zinn told me this story, he said he was glad to see the man looking well, but that their brief meeting left him feeling sad. Beyond acknowledgment, there was simply no way to reckon with what they had shared. For Zinn’s part, he realized that the intense bond he felt with the former POW was unbroken.
I thought of that encounter when Zinn died last week. It embodied what set him apart from other powerful figures of radical criticism. Yes, his rebukes of war-making, racism, and inequality were always stinging. But Zinn’s uncompromising readiness to speak truth to power (a cliché he would never have used) came hand-in-hand with a rare capacity for human connection.
While many social critics of class ranking, for example, reproduce the hierarchy with moral ranking, putting themselves at the top, Zinn was never about ranking. In saying what he thought, he never made it about himself. When it came to violence or injustice, he had moral clarity and fierce judgment - but without being moralistic or judgmental. A man of deep knowledge, he never made a self-important display of erudition. Attuned to complexity, he refused to be imprisoned by it. The way to end the Vietnam war, he argued with stunning simplicity, was to end it - a position denounced in 1967 as naïve, but embraced in 1973 as national strategy. In the difference of timing between Zinn’s early stance and Washington’s later one were buried hundreds of thousands of corpses.
The most striking fact of his life story, what set him apart from every other left-wing prophet of the movement heyday, is that his voice continued to be heard, generation in and generation out. Wherever he went, young people - high school students, as well as college - flocked to his lectures and lined up to greet him. I saw it in the late 1960s and I saw it a couple of months ago. Why was that? The young recognized two rare gifts in Zinn. He could share the wisdom of his long work as a professional historian, and as one who’d actually put his convictions into action - but without in any way condescending. Zinn genuinely believed that young people have a special capacity for ethical insight, and he addressed it.
Secondly, even as he blistered the hypocrisies of conventional thought, they always heard from him a profound message of hope. Unlike many radicals, he was no mere denouncer. He so believed in America that he believed it could transcend itself. He lifted up alternative futures, and insisted they were possible. Indeed, Zinn’s life was a testament to possibility, as all who revere his memory know from their own experience.
James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.