The Graciousness of Howard Zinn

Over at Religion in American History John Turner has a wonderful tribute to Howard Zinn that focuses on an experience Turner had reading A People’s History of the United States with one of his United States survey classes at the University of Southern Alabama

Turner writes:

Several years ago, one of my classes noticed a rather obvious factual error in People’s History. Zinn was trying too hard to make the case that many Americans opposed the Second World War. Thus, we fired off an email to Zinn:

“My undergraduate survey classes have been profitably reading your People’s History this semester. We’re learning to read all sources critically and have a question about a detail in your book. Can you help us resolve the following?

On p. 418 (2003 edition) you write, “Our of 10 million drafted for the armed forces during World War II, only 43,000 refused to fight. But this was three times the proportion of C.O.’s in World War I.

On p. 371 (WWI): “About 65,000 men declared themselves conscientious objectors and asked for noncombatant service.”

How could 43,000 in WWII be a larger proportion than 65,000 in WWI? Our understanding is that more individuals were drafted during the Second World War. Can you help?

The then 84-year-old Zinn promptly wrote back:

“Thank you for calling that to my attention. A gross error! I think my absolute figures are right, but what I say about “proportion” is wrong. I don’t remember where I got that information but I’ll look into it. You can use this as a lesson for your students on how historians can get things wrong!

Best wishes,
Howard Zinn

Turner concludes: “For a man who received sacks of both positive and negative mail about his work, I found the response extraordinarily gracious and a testimony to a kind and gentle spirit. May we respond similarly to our critics!”