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The America That Howard Zinn Made

The radical historian had an unequaled impact on our country's post-patriotic narrative.
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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.

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.

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.

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 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 and editor of The Eighties: A Reader.