The passing last October of the 98-year-old Gough Whitlam—Australia’s Prime Minister from 1972 to 1975—provoked a renewed realization that not so long ago numerous prominent socialists existed who, whatever the faults of their programs, had done honorable service in the Second World War. However dire various aspects of Whitlam’s administrative behavior, one merit of his cannot be gainsaid: in 1942, after three years in the national army reserve, Whitlam became navigator for the Royal Australian Air Force’s No. 13 Squadron. Though this gave him a much higher life expectancy than was enjoyed by the average Bomber Command pilot in the European theater, it remained a dangerous, nerve-tearing job, one he could easily have avoided through familial prosperity and successive undergraduate deferments. He chose, instead, to take it on. There are worse epitaphs for high achievers than that.
It is curious to think that at the very time of Whitlam’s combat duty, a leftist with still graver impairments of political vision could be found as bombardier for Uncle Sam’s Eighth Air Force, flying at great personal risk over Hungarian, Czech, and French as well as German soil. According to his New York Times obit of January 28, 2010, the leftist concerned got home, “deposited his medals in an envelope and wrote: ‘Never again’.” No less a hater of canting sentimentalism than Orwell once admitted that a homicidal combatant preaching peace always “makes an impressive figure, like a reformed burglar at a Salvation Army meeting.” The name of this particular ex-combatant became known to multitudes who never suspected what his wartime experiences had involved. His name was Howard Zinn.
When I stumbled upon Zinn’s existence, I had no great desire to salute him and several solid excuses for shunning him. No one ever obliged to plow through the bureaucratic verbiage of British Marxists like Christopher Hill, who not only thought like Stalin but wrote like Brezhnev, and Czech Marxists like J.V. Polisensky—are even Laotians still compelled to read him these days?—would lightly seek more such cruel and unusual punishment. Eric Hobsbawm, operating at a higher literary level than those apparatchiks, spent so many decades as an unrepentant Stalinist that one soon ceased to trust even his page numbers. More odious still was Hobsbawm’s sheer spinsterish euphemism. Falstaff’s rollicking deceits have for centuries furnished good clean farce, but anyone who, like Hobsbawm, can solemnly refer to “temporary episodes such as 1939-41”—meaning, ahem, the Nazi-Soviet Pact—would try even Polonius’s patience.
Zinn’s output, I assumed, might be no worse than Polisensky’s or Hobsbawm’s but was unlikely to be better. Yet Zinn had produced at least one million-selling book. Though a million-selling book might be as pernicious as Fifty Shades of Grey, it can hardly fail to provoke interest, if only pathological. So I sought out A People’s History of the United States, hoping for the best, fully expecting the worst.
Perhaps an Australian such as myself may, by his ex officio postcolonial baggage, supply a fresh view of Zinn’s work. Among the Cold War’s most comprehensively forgotten truths is the Americanization that even Australia’s infantile leftists—as well as, no doubt, Canada’s and New Zealand’s—usually underwent. However many American flags they burned, however many visiting Lyndon Johnsons and Hubert Humphreys they booed, they never in their bones regarded America as their chief cultural enemy because that role was supplied by Britain. For them, any stick to beat the British—even a stick manufactured in Foggy Bottom, or, preferably, by Sinn Fein—would do. Therefore, those Australian adolescents who were taught American history imbibed it in so banal a form that to call the outcome Whiggish would insult Macaulay. Deep down, it was Beltway-Hollywood Ataturkism. At least with Zinn, I told myself, we could be spared that.
Whether we would be spared much else, I could not at first determine. Any lawyer can appreciate the desirability of hearing the case for the prosecution before hearing the case for the defense. And with Zinn, the case for the prosecution can be mounted without undue trouble. There are, for one thing, the problems from which almost every book released in 1980 suffered concerning Cold War archives. (That 1980 edition had a print run of just 5,000. Few, least of all Zinn, imagined it would become a favorite. One copy made its way to the library of Monash University in Melbourne, but I have not a clue what befell the other 4,999.) Post-Venona, any belief in the Rosenbergs’ and Alger Hiss’s innocence of deliberate pro-communist treason belongs in la-la land. Interestingly, A People’s History, for all its strenuous attempts to extenuate the most celebrated power couple ever to occupy the electric chair, avoids doing the same for Hiss.
Then we are faced with Zinn’s moralizing. Expecting Zinn to sprout adequate nuance is like expecting the Venus de Milo to sprout adequate arms. Near the start of A People’s History Zinn says: “I will try not to overlook the cruelties that victims inflict on one another … . I don’t want to romanticize them.” But romanticizing them is what he often ends up doing. Princeton’s Sean Wilentz rebuked Zinn thus: “his view of history is topsy-turvy, turning old villains into heroes, and after a while the glow gets unreal.” Now and then A People’s History resembles a first draft of Dave Barry Slept Here, with that masterpiece’s clockwork invocations of the “many women and minorities [who] were also making important contributions.” When Zinn announces that “I prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish,” cynics might well find themselves remembering General Patton’s solemn and likewise unfalsifiable belief that in previous lives he had himself fought for both Hannibal and Napoleon.
So much for the faults of Zinn’s first chapters and his last. Between the prelude and the postlude falls… the shadow. As for what Zinn sometimes attains in that shadow which might interest readers of this magazine, it is worth casting one’s mind back to the year when that small, 5,000-copy print run rolled off the presses.
In 1980 Carter’s presidency had become not so much lame duck as dying duck. The USSR, posing as liberator of Afghanistan, looked so utterly invulnerable that when Encounter started publishing essays of the “Will the Soviet Union survive until 1984?” type, numerous subscribers feared for editor Melvin Lasky’s mental health. And when Norman Podhoretz told Gore Vidal, “To me the Civil War is as remote and as irrelevant as the War of the Roses,” he just expressed, in unusually coherent form, the default approach of 1980s mainstream right, whether American or Australian. Ideologues and honest citizens alike had arrived at Henry Ford’s conclusion: where America was concerned, “History is more or less bunk.”
Then Zinn came along. It was thanks to A People’s History, and to that alone, that hundreds of thousands if not millions of young people made their first acquaintance with a) the extent of black participation on the Loyalist side in the Revolutionary War, b) the sheer personal wealth of Washington himself, c) Shays’ Rebellion, d) the scale of cross-party opposition to the Mexican War, e) the Emancipation Proclamation’s inapplicability to slaveholding behind Union lines, f) New York City’s draft riots, g) Colorado’s Ludlow Massacre of 1914.
Now, it is perfectly true that every individual reading these words in 2015 will have known about those phenomena for ages, Zinn or no Zinn. (The first was pretty much summed up in Dr. Johnson’s renowned plaint, which A People’s History nowhere cites: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?”) There could already be found in 1980 large academic bibliographies on all of these subjects. Richard Hofstadter, long before his death in 1970, had popularized several of them. At a lower level, the Encyclopedia Britannica could have disgorged substantial data on most of them. But Zinn was actually getting the kids interested in them.
Before reading Zinn, I, for one, had been absolutely unaware of the gun-ownership enthusiasm to be found among certain NAACP leaders. Amazingly enough, during 1957, whiffs of black-fired grapeshot in North Carolina proved most effective at dispersing Klan thugs. (After 9/11, Condoleezza Rice tried explaining similar anti-Klan strategies, from her own Deep Southern childhood, to the man whom she politely addressed as “Mr. Prime Minister,” Australia’s center-right John Howard, then still flush with his own gun-stealing enthusiasm. Of course her attempt failed.) To examine Zinn in his unconsciously libertarian-populist moments is to be reminded of the late 16th-century Jesuit mission’s much-quoted verdict on Hideyoshi, the Japanese tyrant: “This man seems to have been chosen by God to prepare the way for [us], without understanding what he is doing.”
A crucial factor in the acclaim Zinn enjoyed was the simple truth that he, unlike Hill and Polisensky, could write. (He could also orate, as YouTube video footage of him shows.) For all his sub-Manichean simplifying, he conveyed his authorial intent in such a fashion as to make his readers want to turn each page. Active-voice sentences. Abundant monosyllables. A spartan vocabulary redolent of Somerset Maugham’s. These feats—as any professional writer can confirm—are by no means negligible, nor are they swiftly acquired.
Compare and contrast Zinn’s idiom with the following Chekist tripe, nigh inescapable in Australian undergraduate humanities departments during my youth—this is from Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, 1923:
But in the case of the proletariat such a consciousness not only has to overcome these internal (bourgeois) contradictions, but it also conflicts with the course of action to which the economic situation necessarily commits the proletariat (regardless of its own thoughts on the subject). The proletariat must act in a proletarian manner, but its own vulgar Marxist theory blocks its vision of the right course to adopt. The dialectical contradiction between necessary proletarian action and vulgar Marxist (bourgeois) theory becomes…
And so on for a further 400 pages of the ostensibly English translation.
In 2013, three years dead, Zinn hogged the headlines again when it emerged that erstwhile Indiana governor Mitch Daniels had frantically tried to get Zinn’s work removed from pedagogical curricula. Daniels’s complaints included a charmless, “ding-dong-the-witch-is-dead” reaction to Zinn’s actual demise, coupled with fears about what, on his watch, might have been entering hormonal teens’ heads: “This terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away … Can someone assure me that it [A People’s History] is not in use anywhere in Indiana? If it is, how do we get rid of it before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?”
What emerges from these snarls—elsewhere Daniels elegantly described Zinn as “crap”—is how the ex-governor had accepted the Servile State’s premises while purporting to reject them. He did not do what might have cost money and effort: commission a more satisfactory chronicle of American history. Instead, he demonstrated the same failure of the imagination which so many other censors have revealed: inability to appreciate that for several million slothful kids, the sole alternative to perusing objectionable books is to peruse no books whatever. Once Daniels had agitated for Zinn to be banned, hordes of real-life Beavises and Butt-Heads—“I hate words. Words suck. If I wanted to read, I’d go to school”—sought out Zinn on principle. They thus upheld the authentic tradition of those Louisa May Alcott youngsters who suddenly spotted the enchanting epistemological innovations implicit in the order “Don’t put beans up your noses.”
Do post-Cold-War officeholders really suppose that they are aiding Western Civ when they insist that American history be forever bowdlerized? Does it not occur to them that the more they inflict on their charges such bowdlerizing, the greater will be those charges’ indignation when they learn from other sources—as learn they invariably shall, not least from Google exposure—of American leaders’ most grievous sins? Could such elected Comstocks not, at least theoretically, discern the wisdom in Alfonso XIII’s contrasting attitude to the fatherland’s annals? The Spanish boy-king, his 1963 biographer relates, had a tutor who showed squeamish reluctance to reveal aspects of post-Napoleonic national administration; and indeed, this administration exhibited Spain’s leadership at something like its nadir. Young Alfonso specifically told the tutor to bowdlerize nothing: “Please don’t hesitate. These matters belong to history, and I must know the truth.”
Howard Zinn loathed monarchs per se and probably never knew of that anecdote. But between his historical approach and Alfonso’s there exist obvious parallels. By contrast, all that today’s younger neocons—as opposed to, say, Gertrude Himmelfarb—can produce are third-rate fantasies upon Churchill’s vainglorious theme: “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” Let those who think this policy a legitimate research method remember, in shame, that leader’s derisive response to the discover of bodies at Katyn: “There is no use prowling morbidly round the three-year-old graves at Smolensk.” The first sentence, in its intellectual and moral bankruptcy, guaranteed the second. Zinn, to do him justice, penned nothing as straightforwardly noxious as either remark.
One final observation is relevant to Zinn’s attitude. When an English periodical’s staffers genuinely imagined that they were complimenting Dwight Macdonald by calling him “a good American,” the angry target of their admiration shot back:
How do you know I am a good American? I’m certainly a Critical American … . A bad American, cynical and traitorous, might still make perfectly sound criticisms of his country. And if they were sound, it would be your editorial duty to print them. It’s in the other place to the East [the Soviet empire] that civic virtue is the indispensable passport to print.
Dwight had a point, no?
R.J. Stove lives in Melbourne, Australia.