by James C. Sherlock
A People’s History of the United States
In pursuit of an understanding of the sources of so much nihilistic rage by some of America’s young people in the streets, I recently read Howard Zinn’s book, ‘A People’s History of the United States’, originally published in 1980. It has sold more than 2.5 million copies. At 729 pages it is a heavy lift.
It’s genre is specified as non-fiction – history. We’ll see.
It is assigned in high school and college classrooms to teach students that American history is an endless rosary of oppression, slavery, and exploitation, hoping to establish truth by early and repeated assertion, after which the case is closed.
Zinn’s book, first published in 1980, is perhaps the most famous American history textbook ever written, and certainly the most pessimistic. His goal was to change the way Americans saw their own history by writing his interpretation of the perspective of those not discussed in most histories.
Remember that in 1980, the type of proud Marxist that Zinn represented could still see in the Soviet Union and Cuba models they admired and thought most surely would succeed.
Fair enough. He is entitled to his ideals. And certainly America historically has struggled to achieve the goals so clearly laid out in founding documents. Slavery will always be a stain. But those truths were explored by historians long before 1980.
Any objective historian when discussing the shortfalls in 500 years of American history must explain why America has lasted so long, accomplished so much, is the freest land on the planet and is still the place where the world’s strivers want to come and stay.
So what does Mr. Zinn’s book do, how does it do it and why?
Zinn starts with his Marxist world view and, with very selective and heavily edited stories, he carved out the parts that he presented as supportive of his philosophy and painted America as an inherently evil nation. He ferrets out two or three anecdotes in each chapter and claims, with no evidence but his assertion, that they reveal broader, sometimes all-encompassing truths.
He did not hide behind “objectivity.” He disdained footnotes to make the book more “accessible.” Like Trotsky in his introduction to his History of the Russian Revolution, Zinn considered impartiality “treacherous.”
Zinn wrote in his introduction to People’s History:
“In that inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history, 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, of the Mexican war as seen by the deserting soldiers of Scott’s army, of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile mills, of the Spanish-American War as seen by the Cubans, the conquest of the Philippines as seen by black soldiers on Luzon, the Gilded Age as seen by southern farmers, the First World War as seen by socialists, the Second World War as seen by pacifists, the New Deal as seen by peons in Latin America. And so on, to the limited extent that any one person, however he or she strains, can “see” history from the standpoint of others.”
He made no claim to offer context or any unique historical insight into the stories he told. He claimed to be simply illuminating facts that had been lsuppressed.
He had a higher purpose -turning Americans sour on their own history and leading them to understand that all of it was the result of a never-ending class war that only Marxism can end.
I was not stunned in reading Zinn’s book, because it is 40 years old and quite famous, in many cases infamous. I am stunned that so many American academics and their have been either gullible or willful enough to suspend disbelief and accept its central theme.
Zinn’s Critics and their Criticisms
Among supporters, even the website marxist.com, whose banner states: “In Defense of Marxism,” in 2010 upon Zinn’s death published an article with the descriptor “Class Struggle in the USA” that after 14 paragraphs got around to this:
“Nonetheless, Zinn’s approach was not without its weaknesses, and we would be doing no service, either to Zinn’s memory or to the working class, which he wrote so passionately of and for, if we ignored what we consider to be an occasional one-sidedness in his method. Zinn’s “bottom-up” analysis is both his work’s greatest virtue and its greatest weakness. This method seeks to combat what is known as the “great man” theory of history, which in short, is the notion that what we call history is little more than the product of great minds and/or great individuals, who shape history through their independent actions or wills. … This is an extremely one-sided view of history, which Zinn and others have clearly shown to be riddled with problems. However, in combating this “great man” theory, Zinn, at times, presents a version of history that can be just as one-sided, albeit from a different angle.”
That piece’s editors at marxist.com must have cashed in after 10 or 12 paragraphs. Perhaps they have been cancelled.
Mary Grabar’s 2019 book, Debunking Howard Zinn: Exposing the Fake History That Turned a Generation against America, demolishes Zinn’s Marxist talking points.
You will see those claims painted on signs or serving as guides to the demolishing of statues of Columbus, the Founders and even abolitionists at a demonstration near you.
I found Ms. Grabar’s book a very effective refutation of Zinn by a historian that offered facts and context that Zinn purposely omitted. Problem is, Zinn’s book has sold 2.6 million copies. Grabar’s has not.
“In light of the latest dubious attempts to rewrite American history, such as The New York Times’ 1619 Project, Grabar’s book is an important read. It is a blueprint for how to study history honestly and for how to spot those who are using history in the service of a political ideology.”
Zinn’s book has affected the way an entire generation sees their country. Most of the debates in the public square today have been influenced one way or another by Zinn’s ideology hidden in the guise of history.
“Zinn’s propaganda has been spectacularly effective. His dishonest American history is not the only factor in Americans’ turn away from their heritage of freedom toward communist fantasies… but he has been instrumental in this destructive transformation,” Grabar writes.
Howard Zinn’s American History
“Around 1776, certain important people in the English colonies made a discovery that would prove enormously useful for the next two hundred years. They found that by creating a nation, a symbol, a legal unity called the United States, they could take over land, profits, and political power from favorites for the British Empire. In the process, they could hold back a number of potential rebellions and create a consensus of popular support for the rule of a new, privileged leadership.”
The Founders, wealthy and powerful white men, were to Zinn incapable of virtue, of seeking freedom for all rather than simply protecting their privileges. The fact that they established a representative government, not a hereditary aristocracy, escaped notice in his work.
Krystina Skurk offered this observation:
“Zinn’s chapter about the American Revolution is titled “A Kind of Revolution” because a republic founded on the principle that “all men are created equal” is not revolutionary enough for Zinn, Grabar explains. Zinn’s utopian vision for America included toppling the budding capitalistic system and those men who ran it. Zinn believed the American Revolution helped the ruling class keep their power. Grabar writes that Zinn’s focus in this chapter was more on the conflict between the rich and poor than between the Americans and British.
However, Grabar points out that from the very beginning America offered opportunities for rich and poor alike. Grabar details how Zinn gives misinformation to his readers about how much land changed hands as a result of the Revolution and in whose hands that land ended up. Grabar points out that three-fourths of all colonists owned property and it was primarily the Loyalists, not the Patriots, who came from the upper-levels of society. Further, the Founders risked much by rebelling against the British. Victory was not an inevitability for the patriots, and if they lost they would have lost everything.”
The Civil War
Grabar’s view of the civil war was of a piece with his view of the founding. Ms. Skurk wrote:
“Zinn attempted to prove that capitalism was at the root of racism. Zinn argues that the Civil War was a missed opportunity. It would have been better for the North to overthrow the capitalistic system that breeds racism, he argued. Further, Zinn attempts to discolor every action Lincoln took to free slaves.
He paints the Emancipation Proclamation as nothing more than an act of military expediency and claims that Lincoln only advocated abolition as a war measure. Grabar disagrees, arguing that Lincoln fought for the new territories to be free and argued for gradual emancipation prior to the war. Further, Lincoln was elected on an anti-slavery ticket, something Zinn ignores, she writes.
“For Zinn, the very real horrors of slavery are simply more fodder for his war against America and Western civilization,” Grabar writes. “The fact is, Zinn will do anything to make America look bad; he simply cannot allow his reader to give the first Republican elected president credit for freeing the slaves – and for going about it in a principled and prudent manner. That would mean giving the American people credit for abolishing slavery, and it would undermine Zinn’s picture of America as a uniquely racist country,” argues Grabar.”
Zinn’s leftist biographer Martin Duberman concluded in Howard Zinn : A Life on the Left that Zinn’s
“disparagement of Lincoln is part of a general problem with the way he assigns motivation to individuals. With few exceptions, only members of the working class or minorities (or their champions) are allowed to represent human nobility and selflessness.”
Stanford University professor Sam Wineburg is the most famous critic of Zinn’s book and thus the most attacked. Zinn argued that the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan was unnecessary — that the Japanese were on the brink of surrender — but rather “a flexing of American muscle.” Wineberg’s assessment offered much evidence to the contrary.
He then wrote:
“The counterfactuals’ qualifiers and second-guesses convey the modesty one is obliged to adopt when conjuring up a past that did not occur. But when Zinn plies the counterfactual, he seems to know something no one else knows — including historians who’ve given their professional lives to the topic: “If only the Americans had not insisted on unconditional surrender — that is, if they were willing to accept one condition to the surrender, that the Emperor, a holy figure to the Japanese, remain in place — the Japanese would have agreed to stop the war.” Not might have, not may have, not could have. But “would have agreed to stop the war.” Not only is Zinn certain about the history that’s happened. He’s certain about the history that didn’t.”
The Cold War
“No amount of proven treason, agitation for violent revolution, or for that matter, mass murder and the immiseration of millions by socialist governments across the globe would ever persuade Zinn to dial down his indignation at what he characterized as ‘hysteria’ about Communism.”
The Civil Rights Movement
Grabar points out that Zinn had no interest in highlighting moderate, non-communist black civil rights leaders.
“In A People’s History, Zinn did everything he could to foment bitterness and anger about that historical injustice – not for the sake of civil rights for blacks, but to further his socialist cause.
Of Zinn’s praise for communism, Grabar writes:
“Those who know history know what this Marxist siren song leads to. The only way to disguise it is to ignore the more than one hundred million corpses that it produced in the twentieth century and to present the United States, the freest nation in world history, as a tyrannical, murderous, and imperialistic regime – which is exactly what Zinn has done in his History. He has done this by lying, distorting, and misusing evidence, hijacking other historians’ work, and falsifying the facts…”
Ms. Skurk observes:
“Most of Zinn’s bad history comes from the fact that he was willing to falsify American history to promote communism. “Zinn wanted to abandon ‘disinterested scholarship’ to effect ‘a revolution in the academy,’ and ultimately in the larger world,” writes Grabar. Zinn constantly chose ideology and propaganda over a true telling of history.”
Grabar summed up Zinn’s book in one sentence:
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“The stories he put into A People’s History of the United States weren’t balanced factual history, but crude morality tales designed to destroy Americans’ patriotism and turn them into radical leftists.”