May 2, 2022
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Eager to fight fascism, Zinn joined the United States Army Air Forces during World War II and became an officer. He was assigned as a bombardier in the 490th Bombardment Group, bombing targets in Berlin, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. As bombardier, Zinn dropped napalm bombs in April 1945 on Royan, a seaside resort in western France. The anti-war stance Zinn developed later was informed, in part, by his experiences.
On a post-doctoral research mission nine years later, Zinn visited the resort near Bordeaux where he interviewed residents, reviewed municipal documents, and read wartime newspaper clippings at the local library. In 1966, Zinn returned to Royan after which he gave his fullest account of that research in his book, The Politics of History. On the ground, Zinn learned that the aerial bombing attacks in which he participated had killed more than a thousand French civilians as well as some German soldiers hiding near Royan to await the war’s end, events that are described “in all accounts” he found as “une tragique erreur” that leveled a small but ancient city and “its population that was, at least officially, friend, not foe.” In The Politics of History, Zinn described how the bombing was ordered—three weeks before the war in Europe ended—by military officials who were, in part, motivated more by the desire for their own career advancement than in legitimate military objectives. He quotes the official history of the U.S. Army Air Forces’ brief reference to the Eighth Air Force attack on Royan and also, in the same chapter, to the bombing of Plzeň in what was then Czechoslovakia. The official history stated that the Skoda works in Pilsen “received 500 well-placed tons”, and that “because of a warning sent out ahead of time the workers were able to escape, except for five persons. “The Americans received a rapturous welcome when they liberated the city.
I recalled flying on that mission, too, as deputy lead bombardier, and that we did not aim specifically at the ‘Skoda works’ (which I would have noted, because it was the one target in Czechoslovakia I had read about) but dropped our bombs, without much precision, on the city of Pilsen. Two Czech citizens who lived in Pilsen at the time told me, recently, that several hundred people were killed in that raid (that is, Czechs)—not five.
Zinn said his experience as a wartime bombardier, combined with his research into the reasons for, and effects of the bombing of Royan and Pilsen, sensitized him to the ethical dilemmas faced by G.I.s during wartime. Zinn questioned the justifications for military operations that inflicted massive civilian casualties during the Allied bombing of cities such as Dresden, Royan, Tokyo, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II, Hanoi during the War in Vietnam, and Baghdad during the war in Iraq and the civilian casualties during bombings in Afghanistan during the war there. In his pamphlet, Hiroshima: Breaking the Silence written in 1995, he laid out the case against targeting civilians with aerial bombing.
Six years later, he wrote:
Recall that in the midst of the Gulf War, the U.S. military bombed an air raid shelter, killing 400 to 500 men, women, and children who were huddled to escape bombs. The claim was that it was a military target, housing a communications center, but reporters going through the ruins immediately afterward said there was no sign of anything like that. I suggest that the history of bombing—and no one has bombed more than this nation—is a history of endless atrocities, all calmly explained by deceptive and deadly language like ‘accident’, ‘military target’, and ‘collateral damage’.
After World War II, Zinn attended New York University on the GI Bill, graduating with a B.A. in 1951. At Columbia University, he earned an M.A. (1952) and a Ph.D. in history with a minor in political science (1958). His master’s thesis examined the Colorado coal strikes of 1914. His doctoral dissertation Fiorello LaGuardia in Congress was a study of Fiorello LaGuardia’s congressional career, and it depicted “the conscience of the twenties” as LaGuardia fought for public power, the right to strike, and the redistribution of wealth by taxation. “His specific legislative program,” Zinn wrote, “was an astonishingly accurate preview of the New Deal.” It was published by the Cornell University Press for the American Historical Association. Fiorello LaGuardia in Congress was nominated for the American Historical Association’s Beveridge Prize as the best English-language book on American history.
His professors at Columbia included Harry Carman, Henry Steele Commager, and David Donald.