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The America That Howard Zinn Made

Some are still in college. Others are older, at the zeniths of their careers. Two generations have come of age saturated by Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and its disdain for legacy America. Having sold an estimated three million copies since 1980, Zinn’s book is the nation’s best known American history. The fifth and final edition (2003) ends with the World Trade Center attacks and the war on terrorism.

A volume that began as a New Left hatchet job has become canonical. First popular with the general public, not historians, it has gradually turned into a cardinal source for academics, book editors, and film producers. Zinn’s view of U.S. history permeates what students learn about the country’s past from grade school to grad school.

His history has two sharp dimensions. The heroes are Arawaks, Cherokees, and Creeks, the Grimké sisters, Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, John Brown, figures who had previously been peripheral in U.S. history. Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, the Wobblies, Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, Sacco and Vanzetti, Rosa Parks, the Rosenbergs, Betty Friedan, and Attica prisoners are at the center of the narrative. America’s great 19th-century cities are “death traps of typhus, tuberculosis, hunger, and fire.” The people who built America were cotton pickers, factory girls, and breaker boys.

The villains are puritans and planters, settlers and pioneers, merchants and shippers, bankers and industrialists, all of them promoting a nation infected by greed, racism, and nativism. Zinn thus reverses accepted narratives of American progress and growth, deflating revered national figures and ignoring past accomplishments.

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For Zinn and his admirers, previous accounts of American history are smokescreens and calculated lies. He uncovers the cover-up, which is part of his volume’s appeal and thrill. This outlook grandly invalidates a mountain of distinguished historical scholarship that preceded his book. As Harvard historian Jill Lepore once observed, Zinn’s morality play has special appeal for the Holden Caulfields fighting the eternal contest against phonies and fat cats instead of examining tangled social contradictions. Under one cover, A People’s History offers an uncomplicated, emotional, and persuasive version of how the U.S. came to be what it is now.

Zinn’s impact can scarcely be overestimated. Here’s Jon Meacham, 49, formerly of Newsweek and Random House, talking to Boston public radio and trying to sell his new book, The Soul of America. Howard Zinn “pulls the camera back in a hugely effective and illuminating way,” Meacham professes. “I think all of us work in the reframing that he undertook.”

Meacham considers himself a liberal bellwether. In his ambitious new history, injustice, racism, and right-wing extremism repeatedly tempt the American soul. The U.S. remains tasked with redemption. It must duly prevail over political darkness and fear, redressing the nation’s original sins. Trying to reconcile Zinn’s paradigm and heroes with a benevolent American soul proves difficult, however. Meacham trots out victories over familiar demons from the Ku Klux Klan to Joe McCarthy. But ambivalent about the nation’s record beyond protest and making amends, he can only conclude with smooth platitudes about the dangers of reaction.

There’s Spenser Rapone, 26, the West Point “commie cadet” whom the Army ejected after anti-American media stunts, insults, and pronouncements on the “long march through the institutions.” Rapone openly declares Zinn to be an inspiration. At West Point, he was a protégé of history instructor and Muslim activist Rasheed Hosein, now on administrative leave [1].

Before A People’s History caught fire, Zinn was a recognized Nation magazine writer and civil rights activist. Like Senator George McGovern, he had been a bombardier in World War II and was a force in the Vietnam antiwar movement. At Boston University he was becoming president John Silber’s bête noir. His Postwar America (1973) was a short, derivative, readable, “revisionist” survey of U.S. foreign policy and the civil rights movement. Seven years later came A People’s History, a prequel and reprise of the earlier book, applying the New Left critique to the entire U.S. past. Actor Matt Damon’s 2003 audiobook and subsequent narration of the 2004 television documentary You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train vastly broadened Zinn’s audience and reach (albeit less than a decade before he died in 2010 at 87).

In A People’s History, Zinn boldly borrowed from earlier archival work. He did not offer footnotes or even much of a bibliography. Zinn was not a serious scholar. Critics and historians panned it as a simplistic cut-and-paste job. Harvard University historian Oscar Handlin condemned the “deranged quality of this fairy tale” and its “anti-Americanism” in the American Scholar. In the New York Times, Columbia University’s Eric Foner—who would act as Zinn’s lifelong champion—called the book “a deeply pessimistic vision of the American experience.”

Zinn’s version of the nation’s past featured the invasion of the New World, Indian removals, robber barons, Jim Crow, The Jungle, masters of war, and anti-communist hysteria, the stuff of Woody Guthrie, early Bob Dylan, and Phil Ochs. Its later chapters are studies in New Left triumphalism. Zinn professed that the “elite” and its “system” perpetuate vicious social and economic inequality through the seductive language of liberty and equality, and thus with a minimum of coercion. “The American system is the most ingenious system of control in world history,” he declared, “the system can afford to distribute just enough wealth to just enough people to limit discontent to a troublesome minority.” His nebulous “people”—what American historians once called the have-nots—are tricked or prevented from realizing their own interests, just like those Republican voters in Kansas [2].

When accused of bias, Zinn was arrogant. “I’m not troubled,” he retorted, since “the mountain of history books under which we all stand leans so heavily in the other direction.” But he knew perfectly well that race, class, and gender—bottom-up history—had long been the culture’s holy trinity, captivating academics, media, and style-makers.

The messianic Zinn brushed off the complaints. “Objectivity is neither possible nor desirable,” he said. “It’s not possible because all history is subjective, all history represents a point of view. History is always a selection from an infinite number of facts and everybody makes the selection differently, based on their values and what they think is important.” Well sort of—but not quite, and really not at all for learned scholars who value impartiality, detachment, and neutrality.

A People’s History is not without appeal, however, and rightists who have never read it condemn the book too quickly. Zinn’s critics often ignore the wide concerns Americans of all political backgrounds feel over past injustices and the desire to rectify them in the present. Just because Zinn called attention to America’s shortfalls does not mean they are invented or false.

 Zinn’s charisma was ultimately employed in the service of himself. He masked his righteous anger and narcissism in pieties about saving America, while pocketing millions of dollars in royalties. But what were his motives beyond celebrity? In 2013, Ron Radosh confirmed [3] Zinn’s early communist ties. His efforts to undermine confidence in the U.S. and its historical elites were evidently intentional—and wildly successful.

Zinn hoped to stir a “quiet revolution,” he once said, “not a revolution in the classical sense of a seizure of power, but rather from people beginning to take power from within the institutions.” That takeover is fait accompli. What he pushed with brio and showmanship throughout his long career has altered establishment creed and priorities, Antonio Gramsci-style.

Forty years after it was written, A People’s History seems more ideologically akin to Bernie Sanders than Ta-Nehisi Coates. Still, Zinn did more than anyone else to turn the prevailing American narrative from one of national pride and triumph to centuries of dishonor. His book’s impact on how the nation’s post-patriotic establishment thinks is unique and possibly accelerating.

Gilbert T. Sewall is co-author of After Hiroshima: The United States Since 1945 [4] and editor of The Eighties: A Reader [5].

71 Comments (Open | Close)

71 Comments To "The America That Howard Zinn Made"

#1 Comment By Anna On July 11, 2018 @ 10:02 pm

(another) Anna – we’re a homeschooling family, and we’ve used Zinn’s book. In our homeschool, we treat (academic) history as a conversation — no one work or one historian gives the full picture. Edward Gibbon, for example, may be a master but his work includes a distorted treatment of the Byzantines. Thus, one should use other sources as well – more up to date, different perspectives, etc. to get a fuller picture of Byzantine history. This is also the case with US history. Zinn’s work is a supplement to standard histories; treating it as a full picture of US History is just as sloppy as treating any one work as the last word on the subject. Whatever this country is, it’s never been perfect; that people choose one narrative or another instead of a balanced investigation is unfortunate, and at least demonstrates a disinterest in the study of history.

#2 Comment By GreenOaks1234 On July 12, 2018 @ 6:22 am

There’s very little actual critique or rebuttal of Zinn’s work here, only lamenting the fact that it’s a shame that he has stopped us all from joining in to glorify our rich, white male hereoes.

A popular history book written to be read by millions rather than just other historians doesn’t necessarily need footnotes, and the lack of footnotes doesn’t make what he said any less valid.

He doesn’t need footnotes to make some of us his most damning points. When you read quotes directly from the mouths of people like Christopher Columbus you’ll never look at them the same way again, and also wonder why you didn’t hear this side before.

#3 Comment By Michael Skaggs On July 12, 2018 @ 7:33 am

Re: historians and objectivity – there’s a certain amount of truth to what Zinn said, quoted in the article above. Historians have to make hard choices about what to look at, how to interpret it, what to exclude, etc – Sewall knows that. That nuances the ultimate goal of “learned scholars who value impartiality, detachment, and neutrality.” Unless we are horribly boring people, we aren’t really neutral on the things we write about, but we should strive to take ourselves out of it as much as possible. Absolute impartiality isn’t really possible; a better metric is probably the degree to which historians *try* to see their subject from all sides and make the best possible argument from the evidence at hand.

#4 Comment By Brother John On July 12, 2018 @ 9:16 am

I think the comment thread here does even more than the article itself to demonstrate Zinn’s relativistic, emotion-driven, revisionist impact.

#5 Comment By Brother John On July 12, 2018 @ 9:17 am

The comment thread does even more than the story itself to illustrate Zinn’s emotion-driven, revisionist, relativistic impact.

#6 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 12, 2018 @ 9:33 am

history is not subjective. the events occurred in a certain, time, manner and composition. history is fact. what history means is another matter. how it may or may not impact our understanding about who we are is also another matter.

sadly, so much of history about who we are is missing from the record because so much of history for most people takes place during our formative years and during my life those years are a perspective designed to paint a positive image, so positive, it distorted reality. Hence the shock from reading history on one’s own or in upper teir college classes, mostly reserved advanced course work. the advent of the internet of course has shattered who own the telling of history and a dirth of the unknown or once unknown is becoming known and some of it is distasteful.

Clearly Dr. Zinn’s work is not the history of the us (never read it despite its popular current off the shelf mystique). And that is unfortunate that as opposed to filling in the gaps of what ,might otherwise be a contributor of national identity, instead it is a competitive contextual narrative of the same. We need to know about our hypocrisy, but that needs presentation in context of our straight and narrow pursuit of good/righteousness, generosity in ourselves and for others of the same.

one aspect is for certain, the notion that we stole the southwest from mexico is utter and complete nonsense.

our mistake has been that some much of our errors or wrongness has been under the carpet and tragically liberals and foreigners with an agenda have taken ownership of to their own end.

#7 Comment By Sid Finster On July 12, 2018 @ 11:13 am

To echo the comments that others have made:
What specific concrete factual objections does the author have to Zinn’s works?

The only thing I learned from the article is that Zinn is apparently wrong because the author doesn’t approve of his point of view. Not a single refutation of anything Zinn ever said or wrote.

Also, while I am all in favor of rooting out trolls and spammers, your verification system is a pain.

#8 Comment By MM On July 12, 2018 @ 12:14 pm

Sid: “What specific concrete factual objections does the author have to Zinn’s works?”

I can’t speak for the author, but Zinn’s omission of relevant historical facts is what makes his “People’s History” of dubious value. And intentional omission is just another form of lying.

#9 Comment By Radish On July 12, 2018 @ 4:23 pm

Horace Greeley’s 2 volume history of how we got into the civil war, and how we got out of it, is just as damning of national greatness and Manifest Destiny narratives as Zinn’s book is. The undisputable reality of our nation’s love of slavery throughout the colonial period, the formation period, and the entire 18th and more than 1/2 of the 19th century is laid out in Greeley’s book with ample direct sources. How many of our wars and national policies were at the behest of the Slave Power, which controlled 100+ congressmen and 100+ electoral votes until it was whipped in the war it started against the Nation …

#10 Comment By Guy On July 12, 2018 @ 10:18 pm

The greatest put down of Zinn I’ve ever seen was by the editor of a Marxist (I can’t remember his name alas) calling his work “bad history” and describing A People’s History Of The United States a caricature, more or less.

#11 Comment By Anna On July 12, 2018 @ 11:01 pm

@David: “@Anne – If possible, would you please send your footnotes you shared with you class about People’s History of the United States? Thank you.”

I was talking about the footnotes in Zinn’s own book. And what happens when you pursue them – i.e., find the sources they’re referencing, and read them for yourself. You can do it to! Buy the book and look at the footnotes, then read the sources they claim to reference – it’s pretty easy in the age of the internet.

#12 Comment By Ivo Olavo Castro da Silva On July 12, 2018 @ 11:52 pm

There is no need to waste words on Zinn’s work. It’s 100 % communist propaganda. Pure and simple.

#13 Comment By Fred Firetail On July 13, 2018 @ 8:23 am

For MM: A relevant fact would be that you apparently never read past either chapter 2 or 3 out of 25. Those chapters detail the establishment in colonial times of a tiered class system based on racial identities, in order for the powerful to suppress combinations of the black & white underclass which would be inimical to the wealthy’s exploitation of their labor. From the beginning of chapter 2 (Drawing the Color Line): “There is not a country in world history in which racism has been more important, for so long a time, as the United States.”

Zinn did not lie by omission. Every history has a scope & a perspective. His people’s history is one where “people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win” over against dominant forces. He did not overlook the Aztecs’ cruelty; it just was not relevant to his focus on the United States. And horrible as they were, the Nazis, South Africa’s apartheid, and slave trafficking around the world were also outside the scope of this book. Zinn does talk about religion, but again in the context of episodes of oppression and resistance.

Does that help clarify some of your problems with the book?

#14 Comment By MM On July 13, 2018 @ 10:39 am

Fred: “A relevant fact would be that you apparently never read past either chapter 2 or 3 out of 25.”

That would be wrong. He also made false and misleading statements later on in the books about Japanese imperialism and WW2. Strike one.

Fred: “‘There is not a country in world history in which racism has been more important, for so long a time, as the United States.’… Zinn did not lie by omission.”

When he makes an unqualified statement like that and fails to mention countries with categorically worse histories of racial violence, that’s the definition of lying by omission. Strike two.

Fred: “Does that help clarify some of your problems with the book?”

Since you’ve set yourself up as an ideological apologist for a dubious and morally dishonest book, here’s your chance to get on base instead of striking out: Explain Zinn’s total disregard of pre-Columbian human sacrifice, warfare, and slavery among the Aztecs and Mayans.

Or it’s strike three for you.

Thanks!

#15 Comment By MM On July 13, 2018 @ 11:56 am

Fred, by the way, none of your responses thus far have invalidated any of my points.

“Beyond the scope of the book” is not a counter-argument, simply because Zinn himself made broad sweeping generalizations about America vs. the rest of the world. He brought such comparisons into the scope of his own book.

And regarding Aztec and Mayan atrocities, which you have yet to address by the way, he mentions them himself and dismisses them as unimportant when compared to the Spanish. Sorry, that’s in the scope of the book.

Here’s another dishonest point I remember him making, much like many present-day progressives: The U.S. Constitution does not grant the federal government any power to regulate immigration into the country, despite clear references like “provide for the common defense” and “uniform rule of naturalization.” And the fact that no sovereign nation in the 18th Century or today lacked a border and the power to regulate it.

I could go on, there’s a lot more rubbish in this book, but I think I’ve made a valid enough argument, whether you like it or not.

#16 Comment By cka2nd On July 13, 2018 @ 12:45 pm

MM says: “When he makes an unqualified statement like that [‘There is not a country in world history in which racism has been more important, for so long a time, as the United States.’] and fails to mention countries with categorically worse histories of racial violence, that’s the definition of lying by omission.”

Zinn’s statement isn’t limited to violence, MM, and sets two standards: the importance of racism to a nation, and the length of time that racism has been important in that nation. As I haven’t read Zinn, and only have Fred Firetail’s comment to provide context, it seems Zinn included in his statement the U.S.’s English colonial era, to which I would reply that one could argue that racism has played an important part in the history of every nation of the Western Hemisphere since the Spanish Church debated the enslavement of native Americans and began the process of developing the modern ideology of racism. And, of course, many of the Spanish and Portuguese colonies of the New World pre-date the English colonies that would form the United States. Now, Zinn may have been U.S.-centric in making his statement, but then again, maybe he had considered the importance of racism, perhaps even as both a system and an ideology, and had decided that as important as it had been in Brazil and Mexico and Haiti, it had either been less important or important for a shorter period of time than in the United States. What I would be curious to know from you is:

1. What other countries you think have had a history as marked by racism as the U.S., and for as long as the U.S. (i.e., Zinn’s standards)?

2. What other countries you would argue have had “categorically worse histories of racial violence” than the United States?

I’m not sure what the Aztecs and the Mayans have to do with a book titled, “A People’s History of the United States.” If Zinn tried to present the history of North American Indians as some kind of idyllic, “noble savagery,” that’s clearly a problem, but I don’t think native Mexican and Central American civilizations are really within the purview of his book. Did I perhaps miss a reference by Rod or in the comments to Zinn bringing up the Aztecs and the Mayans himself?

#17 Comment By sglover On July 13, 2018 @ 4:12 pm

Explain Zinn’s total disregard of pre-Columbian human sacrifice, warfare, and slavery among the Aztecs and Mayans.

Were the Aztec and Mayan states part of the United States? Talk about revisionist history!

#18 Comment By MM On July 14, 2018 @ 6:41 pm

cka2nd: “That’s clearly a problem.”

Uh, do you people ever read what is written around here?

That’s explicitly what I said. Zinn HIMSELF brings them up himself, in the very first paragraph of that particular chapter, and then diregards all pre-Columbian violence as merely expressions of an innocent developing society.

It is revisionist history, of the worst kind. And I felt sufficiently justified by it to reject his entire pseudo-Marxist hypothesis of American history, and toss his book in the donation bin.

I encourage anyone else with an open-mind to read it and pay attention to his mountain of sloppy moral fallacies…

#19 Comment By Fred Firetail On July 15, 2018 @ 3:32 am

MM: Sorry, your first comment gave me the impression you had gotten rid of the book shortly after reading the opening of the chapter on the “color line”.

Yes, Zinn did mention the Aztec empire’s ritual human sacrifice. This is not from his book, but the total number of people sacrificed per year was quite high, the best estimates being some tens of thousands. Inhumane as it was, it still did not reach the level of reducing a society to scattered remnants. And the Spaniards’ ethnic cleansing of the Aztecs, Mayas, and Incas set an infamous precedent for European practice against many other peoples in the Americas, whereas the tradition of Aztec (and, in general, Mesoamerican) ritual sacrifice to satisfy debts to their gods ended with the dissolution of their culture. So, that would be, absent being able to ask the man himself, likely why Zinn focused on the latter and not the former. But even his telling of the Spanish conquest only occupied a few paragraphs.

I can’t find Zinn making such a point about immigration. There is a section in a chapter covering the Clinton presidency where he detailed a federal crackdown on both legal and illegal immigrant welfare beneficiaries. In it, he quoted the inscription from the Statue of Liberty, which suggests he favored some sort of welcoming policy, but there’s no argument that regulating immigration is unconstitutional.

MM & cka2nd: The unqualified statement on the enduring importance of U.S. racism comes in the second paragraph of a chapter about how poor whites and enslaved blacks resisted and at times allied during the English colonial period. So, it’s probably more rhetorical than anything. That is part of Zinn’s approach, which, yes, leaves a lot to be desired in terms of precision. I’m not some blinkered “apologist” for the book, although I find it a helpful source for the underside of narratives of American greatness.

#20 Comment By Youknowho On July 15, 2018 @ 9:26 am

@sglover

The Aztec and Mayans belong to Spanish revisionist historians who spend a great deal of time bemoaning the “black legend” spread by Protestant powers to disparage what Spain did in America.

They are the ones that point out that the charges of genocide levied against Spain can be disproven by seeing how Latin America is full of descendants of native people, while in the U.S. they are few and far between and inside reservations.

Also in some respects Spanish colonies were more enlightened than English ones In Spanish one, for example, in the eyes of the law a black man or woman was presumed free unless it was proven he or she was a slave.

Also, in what is now Florida, at one point some escaped slaves reached it, and they were allowed to set up a settlement, provided they swore allegiance to the King of Spain and were expected to take arms in his defense when needed.

Again, how that has to do with Howard Zinn escapes me.

#21 Comment By MM On July 16, 2018 @ 1:43 pm

Fred: “Inhumane as it was, it still did not reach the level of reducing a society to scattered remnants.”

The Spanish were certainly destructive, but they didn’t do that. Epidemics of disease, which were introduced by the Spanish but preceded their arrival in most areas, did that.

And the Aztecs and Mayans totally wiped out smaller tribes they conquered. Some tribes allied with the Spanish for that reason alone. In all my years of history courses in college, no professor ever dared to call that ethnic cleansing, even though it was.

Fred: “So, it’s probably more rhetorical than anything.”

In my book, when you preface an entire topic with broad statements like that, and then never qualify them with any international comparisons, your argument is no longer valid. Logic > politics in my book.

Anyway, Zinn is like Chomsky: They’re only useful if you proceed from the position that America, or Western European powers, are bad actors in everything they do. Chomsky did so with the Khmer Rouge: Their propaganda about there being no genocide, while they were committing it was golden because the U.S. government always lies. It’s PC in the truest sense of the phrase: Pathologically cynical, which is the New Left in a nutshell.

Case in point: In his opening chapter on WW2, which served in by the way, I recall Zinn essentially repeating Imperial Japanese propaganda for its attacks on Pearl Harbor, Singapore, etc.

The Allied Powers cut off shipments of war material, and then petroleum, to Japan in 1940-1941, which was construed as “unfriendly” acts which justified their subsequent attacks.

Per my reading, Zinn seemed to have an ideological problem with America and its allies making it harder for Japan to wage destructive warfare on mainland China, killing > 10 million civilians in the process.

Any comment on that one, sir?