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FBI admits probing ‘radical’ historian Zinn for criticizing bureau

By Daniel Tencer
Friday, July 30, 2010 15:22 EDT
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FBI files show bureau may have tried to get Zinn fired from Boston University for his political opinions

Those who knew of the dissident historian Howard Zinn would not be surprised that J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI kept tabs on him for decades during the Cold War.

But in a release of documents pertaining to Zinn, the bureau admitted that one of its investigations into the left-wing academic was prompted not by suspicion of criminal activity, but by Zinn’s criticism of the FBI’s record on civil rights investigations.

“In 1949, the FBI opened a domestic security investigation on Zinn,” the bureau states. “The Bureau noted Zinn’s activities in what were called Communist Front Groups and received informant reports that Zinn was an active member of the CPUSA; Zinn denied ever being a member when he was questioned by agents in the 1950s.

“In the 1960s, the Bureau took another look at Zinn on account of his criticism of the FBI’s civil rights investigations.”

On Friday, the FBI released a 243-page file on Zinn, who died in January at age 87. The release describes the historian as “radical.” The documents show the bureau taking an active interest in Zinn since the late 1940s, when he was a student at New York University. The interest continued through the 1950s, as Zinn worked on his PhD at Columbia University.

When the FBI again took an interest in Zinn in the 1960s, documents show the bureau evidently tried to have the historian fired from his job as professor at Boston University.

In a document from the Boston FBI office (see PDF file here), an FBI “source,” whose name was redacted from the publicly released documents, was quoted as being outraged over Zinn’s comment at a protest that the US had become a “police state” and that prosecutions of Black Panther Party members were creating “political prisoners.”

The bureau’s Boston office then indicated it wanted to help the source in his or her campaign to unseat Zinn. “[The] Boston [office] proposes under captioned program with Bureau permission to furnish [name redacted] with public source data regarding Zinn’s numerous anti-war activities … in an effort to back [redacted] efforts for his removal.”

The bureau’s response to the request does not appear to have been included in the released documents.

(Raw Story reporters will continue to mine through the documents for more details. If you want to help, you can view the FBI files here, here and here (PDF). Send us what you find to tips@rawstory.com.)

The FBI notes that its investigations of Zinn — three in total, over 25 years — “ended in 1974, and no further investigation into Zinn or his activities was made by the FBI.”

Zinn had harsh words for the FBI during his academic career. In a paper published not long before his death, Zinn said the best thing the public could do to curb the FBI’s powers was to “continue exposing them.”

Of the FBI, he said, “They don’t like social movements. They work for the establishment and the corporations and the politicos to keep things as they are. And they want to frighten and chill the people who are trying to change things. So the best defense against them and resistance against them is simply to keep on fighting back, to keep on exposing them.”

 
 
 
 
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