At the beginning of summer I picked up David Halberstam’s The Fifties. Halberstam, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his journalism in Vietnam, put his research skills to work during the next four decades of his life writing books on history. The Fifties puts his talents on display as he effortlessly and colorfully takes us on a fantastic trip through one of America’s most storied decades. It’s a joy to read a work that is not only well-researched but well-written.
One thing about good history is that it has a tendency to surprise you. When a writer inhabits the past fully, leaving behind his 21st century prejudices, unique and unexpected things begin to pop out of the woodwork. One particular historical nugget caught my eye in Halberstam’s work: his account of Earl Warren. And then I thought of my whipping boy, Howard Zinn, and couldn’t resist taking him to task yet again.
Zinn: A Brief Introduction
Tired of the white man’s version of American history (whatever that might be), Howard Zinn published in 1980 his now famous A People’s History of the United States. Since then the work has gone through numerous republications and become a popular textbook in American high school.
The work is balderdash.
Zinn lacks many of the traits of a good historian, but chief among them is his inability to leave behind his prejudices. Subsequently the story he tells, while compelling, does hold up under any sort of mild scrutiny.
This has as much to do with his distorted analysis and loaded questions as the omission of inconvenient details, because, heaven forbid, the past does not align into a neat categorizations of good vs. evil, oppressor vs. oppressed, majorities vs. minorities. To call Zinn an historian is an insult to historians. To call him a social and political activist that uses history as a weapon is more to the point. Zinn’s power does not then derive from his acumen in his supposed profession but in his ability to tell a great story replete with long litanies of America’s evils and ex post facto castigation of sinners with starry-eyed accounts of the occasional fist-pumping victories achieved by the oppressed. Great theater; awful history. And this is why it is so entertaining to interrupt the joy and fury of Zinn’s work.
Zinn vs. History
So here we find two, seemingly unrelated tales in Zinn’s history, that Halberstam connects in a very inconvenient way for Zinn. Mind you, Halberstam is just doing history and has no bone to pick with Zinn. I’m the one doing the picking.
The first tale demonstrates Zinn’s fury: he rages against the evils of locking up Japanese citizens in concentration camps during WWII. The second tale shows Zinn’s joy: he praises the decisive Brown v. Board of Education decision. In both case, Zinn is onto something, but that’s what makes him dangerous: he’s superficially right while being fundamentally deceitful in his analysis as he covers over inconvenient details (I actually think it’s more likely that he just stopped reading once he found what he was looking for. I try to avoid attributing malicious intent to that which can be explained in terms of mere stupidity. Either way it does not bode well for Zinn. I digress).
Ultimately there’s one notable man that connects both of these event: Earl Warren. On this Zinn is silent. But more on Warren in a second.
On to the excerpts!
Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, chapter 16, “A People’s War?”
“Franklin D. Roosevelt did not share this frenzy, but he calmly signed Executive Order 9066, in February 1942, giving the army the power, without warrants or indictments or hearings, to arrest every Japanese-American on the West Coast-110,000 men, women, and children-to take them from their homes, transport them to camps far into the interior, and keep them there under prison conditions. Three-fourths of these were Nisei-children born in the United States of Japanese parents and therefore American citizens. The other fourth-the Issei, born in Japan-were barred by law from becoming citizens. In 1944 the Supreme Court upheld the forced evacuation on the grounds of military necessity. The Japanese remained in those camps for over three years.
Michi Weglyn was a young girl when her family experienced evacuation and detention. She tells (Years of Infamy) of bungling in the evacuation, of misery, confusion, anger, but also of Japanese-American dignity and fighting back. There were strikes, petitions, mass meetings, refusal to sign loyalty oaths, riots against the camp authorities. The Japanese resisted to the end.
Not until after the war did the story of the Japanese-Americans begin to be known to the general public. The month the war ended in Asia, September 1945, an article appeared in Harper’s Magazine by Yale Law Professor Eugene V. Rostow, calling the Japanese evacuation “our worst wartime mistake.” Was it a “mistake”-or was it an action to be expected from a nation with a long history of racism and which was fighting a war, not to end racism, but to retain the fundamental elements of the American system?”
It was a war waged by a government whose chief beneficiary- despite volumes of reforms-was a wealthy elite. [emphasis mine].
Zinn continues his analysis later in the 1950s.
“Meanwhile, the Supreme Court was taking steps-ninety years after the Constitution had been amended to establish racial equality-to move toward that end. During the war it ruled that the “white primary” used to exclude blacks from voting in the Democratic party primaries- which in the South were really the elections-was unconstitutional.
In 1954, the Court finally struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine that it had defended since the 1890s. The NAACP brought a series of cases before the Court to challenge segregation in the public schools, and now in Brown v. Board of Education the Court said the separation of schoolchildren “generates a feeling of inferiority .. . that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” In the field of public education, it said, “the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.” The Court did not insist on immediate change: a year later it said that segregated facilities should he integrated “with all deliberate speed.” By 1965, ten years after the “all deliberate speed” guideline, more than 75 percent of the school districts in the South remained segregated.
Still, it was a dramatic decision—and the message went around the world in 1954 that the American government had outlawed segregation. In the United States too, for those not thinking about the customary gap between word and fact, it was an exhilarating sign of change [emphasis mine].”
Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, Chapter 17, “Or Does it Explode?”
As usual, Zinn outlines America’s crimes in scathing detail, and then highlights the occasions something goes right for the oppressed. But Earl Warren is the detail that links these two stories and complicates the narrative.
In 1953 Earl Warren was sworn as Chief Justice of the United States. Warren was described by the public intellectual Anthony Lewis as “the closest thing the United States had to a Platonic Guardian, dispensing law from a throne without any sensed limits of power except what was seen as the good of the society. Fortunately, he was a decent, humane, honorable, democratic Guardian.” (Halberstam, The 1950s, 420). A firm believer in equality, education, and people being able to pursue the American Dream free of prejudice, Warren used his great political skill and leadership to rally the divided Court and pass Brown v. Board of Education—a true hero who exercised his power judicially. As Zinn correctly wrote, “It was a dramatic decision” and in making it Warren became a hero of the Civil Rights Movement. For those skeptical about progressivism and technocratic elites,there is something certainly creepy about Lewis’ description of Warren and much could be said about the court’s justification for its ruling on the case despite it’s arguably good intentions, but Zinn loves it indiscriminately. And yet it’s a dishonest (or stupid) love.
Twelve years previously, Warren was the Attorney General of California. And when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and California went into a frenzy. Tens of thousands of Japanese had settled in the Golden State, and the state and Federal government, fearing a fifth column and a second Pearl Harbor, rolled out a plan to intern 110,000 Japanese in concentration camps. Warren, as Attorney General, led the charge and signed the order to begin rounding up the Japanese. Later, as governor in 1943 he declared “If the Japs are released, no one will be able to tell a saboteur from any other Jap.” Later he expressed regrets about this decision, but still remained somewhat defensive (Halberstam, 417-418). Oh the contradictions (or should we say, inconsistencies? But that’s a separate story for Jacques Barzun.)!
In Warren we have both racial oppressor and supporter of an imperialistic nation waging a word war to increase its power while hypocritically declaring freedom for the oppressed (Zinn’s take). On the other hand we have the Warren who was an advocate of the oppressed and prime mover in the Civil Rights movement (Zinn’s take).
The Historic Villainy of Zinn
The problem here is not just that Zinn obscures the fact that his hero and villain are one in the same, it’s that he’s telling a very lackluster story about a very compelling and complex tale. How can one be both an enabler and an opposer of oppression? Zinn doesn’t have time to ponder such a fascinating question. Instead he steamrolls over difficulties to tell his tale of America the oppressor and oppressed stripped of all its nuance or detail. Zinn’s mind was so regimented into the oppressor-oppressed categories that the complexity of the human soul and human situation never occurred to him. His simplicity is compelling but ultimately childish and brutish. In his effort to expose truth he obscures truth. He tells lies to correct lies (white man only history). Such barbarism a real historian would never consider.