Everyone knows that “history is written by the victors.” Many people will have also heard Lord Acton’s dictum that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Rather than being thought of as cliches, I would classify these two sayings as something closer to axiomatic principles of history, if such things exist. The truthful core at the heart of these two memorable principles could be summed up as something approximating: “there is injustice in the world, and the strong always prey on the weak.” Such negative sentiments, though universally acknowledged, are therefore easier to dismiss with a simple epigram in order to move on to more urgent matters of the vita quotidiana. By opening with a mention of these two maxims, my aim is not to dismiss them as a somber epitome of the historical injustice in the world and our powerlessness to affect it, however, but to use them as a foundation for how we can learn lessons from the past to shape our thinking about the present. As George Orwell understood: “Who controls the present controls the past; who controls the past controls the future.” Never has this been more true than the present. The solution: education and the study of history.
The subject of this essay is Howard Zinn, an American historian and activist whose most famous book is A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present. The book was first published in 1980 and was revised and updated several times until the author’s death in 2010. It has sold millions of copies and has had a profound impact on teaching and raising a new awareness and perspective of American history. The premise of the book is the simple but bold idea to write the history not from the point of view of “the great men” — presidents, generals, and other political elites — but from the point of view of the natives, the slaves, and the common people, whose voices had never been important enough to be recorded in textbooks. I first heard of Howard Zinn via the film Good Will Hunting, during the scene in which the title character berates his erstwhile psychologist about “surrounding yourself with the wrong books”. He goes on to advise that “if you want to read a real history book, read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History and the United States. That book will knock you on your ass.” It was not until years later that I rediscovered the book, began to read it, and — as predicted — got knocked on my ass. In this post, I will mostly provide a selection of the most relevant or striking (in my opinion) quotes from the work, some criticisms, and my conclusions on its importance.
The book opens with a description of life among the Arawaks of Hispaniola at the time of Columbus’ arrival in 1492. We learn how Columbus was not only a great sailor but also engaged in genocide and single-handedly started the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Zinn tells us in this first chapter of his own method and emphasis of historiography (all emphases and italics are mine): “My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different: that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of afamily, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.”
He goes on with a general overview of his historical perspective in the book: “Thus, 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 blacks in Harlem, the postwar American empire 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. My point is not to grieve for the victims and denounce the executioners. Those tears, that anger, cast into the past, deplete our moral energy for the present. And the lines are not always clear. In the long run, the oppressor is also a victim. In the short run (and so far, human history has consisted only of short runs), the victims, themselves desperate and tainted with the culture that oppresses them, turn on other victims. Still, understanding the complexities, this book will be skeptical of governments and their attempts, through politics and culture, to ensnare ordinary people in a giant web of nationhood pretending to a common interest. I will try not to overlook the cruelties that victims inflict on one another as they are jammed together in the boxcars of the system. I don’t want to romanticize them. But I do remember (in rough paraphrase) a statement I once read: “The cry of the poor is not always just, but if you don’t listen to it, you will never know what justice is.”
And then: “I don’t want to invent victories for people’s movements. But to think that history-writing must aim simply to recapitulate the failures that dominate the past is to make historians collaborators in an endless cycle of defeat. If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win. I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past’s fugitive moments of compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare. That, being as blunt as I can, is my approach to the history of the United States. The reader may as well know that before going on.”
Responding to critics who say that historical injustices were necessary or worth the cost in order to achieve progress, Zinn has this to say: “If there are necessary sacrifices to be made for human progress, is it not essential to hold to the principle that those to be sacrificed must make the decision themselves? We can all decide to give up something of ours, but do we have the right to throw into the pyre the children of others, or even our own children, for a progress which is not nearly as clear or present as sickness or health, life or death? What did people in Spain get out of all that death and brutality visited on the Indians of the Americas? For a brief period in history, there was the glory of a Spanish Empire in the Western Hemisphere. As Hans Koning sums it up in his book Columbus: His Enterprise: For all the gold and silver stolen and shipped to Spain did not make the Spanish people richer. It gave their kings an edge in the balance of power for a time, a chance to hire more mercenary soldiers for their wars. They ended up losing those wars anyway, and all that was left was a deadly inflation, a starving population, the rich richer, the poor poorer, and a ruined peasant class.”
On the Declaration of Independence, Zinn has this to say: “To say that the Declaration of Independence, even by its own language, was limited to life, liberty, and happiness for white males is not to denounce the makers and signers of the Declaration for holding the ideas expected of privileged males of the eighteenth century. Reformers and radicals, looking discontentedly at history, are often accused of expecting too much from a past political epoch-and sometimes they do. But the point of noting those outside the arc of human rights in the Declaration is not, centuries late and pointlessly, to lay impossible moral burdens on that time. It is to try to understand the way in which the Declaration functioned to mobilize certain groups of Americans, ignoring others. Surely, inspirational language to create a secure consensus is still used, in our time, to cover up serious conflicts of interest in that consensus, and to cover up, also, the omission of large parts of the human race.”
I find it very telling that this short paragraph is the entire description of the actual events and battles of the American Revolution in Zinn’s history: “The Americans lost the first battles of the war: Bunker Hill, Brooklyn Heights, Harlem Heights, the Deep South; they won small battles at Trenton and Princeton, and then in a turning point, a big battle at Saratoga, New York, in 1777. Washington’s frozen army hung on at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, while Benjamin Franklin negotiated an alliance with the French monarchy, which was anxious for revenge on England. The war turned to the South, where the British won victory after victory, until the Americans, aided by a large French army, with the French navy blocking off the British from supplies and reinforcements, won the final victory of the war at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781.” Obviously, these events take up multiple chapters in a typical textbook with rival generals and troop movements described in great detail. That is not the focus here. Zinn chooses to tell more about the situation of the poor soldiers fighting for the new nation, as seen here: “Edmund Morgan sums up the class nature of the Revolution this way: “The fact that the lower ranks were involved in the contest should not obscure the fact that the contest itself was generally a struggle for office and power between members of an upper class: the new against the established.” Looking at the situation after the Revolution, Richard Morris comments: “Everywhere one finds inequality.” He finds “the people” of “We the people of the United States” (a phrase coined by the very rich Gouverneur Morris) did not mean Indians or blacks or women or white servants. In fact, there were more indentured servants than ever, and the Revolution “did nothing to end and little to ameliorate white bondage.”
On the Constitution and the Founding Fathers in general, I will provide two representative quotes: “When economic interest is seen behind the political clauses of the Constitution, then the document becomes not simply the work of wise men trying to establish a decent and orderly society, but the work of certain groups trying to maintain their privileges, while giving just enough rights and liberties to enough of the people to ensure popular support.” And then here: “Were the Founding Fathers wise and just men trying to achieve a good balance? In fact, they did not want a balance, except one which kept things as they were, a balance among the dominant forces at that time. They certainly did not want an equal balance between slaves and masters, propertyless and property holders, Indians and white.”
On the chapters dedicated to describing the growing industrial power and wealth of America, Zinn comments: “Middle-class politicians soon led each group into a different political party (the nativists into the American Republican party, the Irish into the Democratic party), party politics and religion now substituting for class conflict. The result of all this, says David Montgomery, historian of the Kensington Riots, was the fragmentation of the Philadelphia working class. It “thereby created for historians the illusion of a society lacking in class conflict,” while in reality the class conflicts of nineteenth-century America “were as fierce as any known to the industrial world.”
In some cases he tells a lot with a single sentence, as in this case: “Racist hostility became an easy substitute for class frustration.”
On World War One, Zinn attempts to do what has never been successfully done–explain why America entered the war: “The United States fitted that idea of Du Bois. American capitalism needed international rivalry–and periodic war–to create an artificial community of interest between rich and poor, supplanting the genuine community of interest among the poor that showed itself in sporadic movements. How conscious of this were individual entrepreneurs and statesmen? That is hard to know. But their actions, even if half-conscious, instinctive drives to survive, matched such a scheme. And in 1917 this demanded a national consensus for war.”
On World War Two and a controversial perspective on America’s reasons for foreign intervention, I have chosen this long quote: “For the United States to step forward as a defender of helpless countries matched its image in American high school history textbooks, but not its record in world affairs. It had opposed the Haitian revolution for independence from France at the start of the nineteenth century. It had instigated a war with Mexico and taken half of that country. It had pretended to help Cuba win freedom from Spain, and then planted itself in Cuba with a military base, investments, and rights of intervention. It had seized Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, and fought a brutal war to subjugate the Filipinos. It had “opened” Japan to its trade with gunboats and threats. It had declared an Open Door Policy in China as a means of assuring that the United States would have opportunities equal to other imperial powers in exploiting China. It had sent troops to Peking with other nations, to assert Western supremacy in China, and kept them there for over thirty years. While demanding an Open Door in China, it had insisted (with the Monroe Doctrine and many military interventions) on a Closed Door in Latin America–that is, closed to everyone but the United States. It had engineered a revolution against Colombia and created the “independent” state of Panama in order to build and control the Canal. It sent five thousand marines to Nicaragua in 1926 to counter a revolution, and kept a force there for seven years. It intervened in the Dominican Republic for the fourth time in 1916 and kept troops there for eight years. It intervened for the second time in Haiti in 1915 and kept troops there for nineteen years. Between 1900 and 1933, the United States intervened in Cuba four times, in Nicaragua twice, in Panama six times, in Guatemala once, in Honduras seven times. By 1924 the finances of half of the twenty Latin American states were being directed to some extent by the United States. By 1935, over half of U.S. steel and cotton exports were being sold in Latin America. Just before World War I ended, in 1918, an American force of seven thousand landed at Vladivostok as part of an Allied intervention in Russia, and remained until early 1920. Five thousand more troops were landed at Archangel, another Russian port, also as part of an Allied expeditionary force, and stayed for almost a year. The State Department told Congress: “All these operations were to offset effects of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia.” In short, if the entrance of the United States into World War II was (as so many Americans believed at the time, observing the Nazi invasions) to defend the principle of nonintervention in the affairs of other countries, the nation’s record cast doubt on its ability to uphold that principle. What seemed clear at the time was that the United States was a democracy with certain liberties, while Germany was a dictatorship persecuting its Jewish minority, imprisoning dissidents, whatever their religion, while proclaiming the supremacy of the Nordic “race.” However, blacks, looking at anti-Semitism in Germany, might not see their own situation in the U.S. as much different. And the United States had done little about Hitler’s policies of persecution. Indeed, it had joined England and France in appeasing Hitler throughout the thirties. Roosevelt and his Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, were hesitant to criticize publicly Hitler’s anti-Semitic policies; when a resolution was introduced in the Senate in January 1934 asking the Senate and the President to express “surprise and pain” at what the Germans were doing to the Jews, and to ask restoration of Jewish rights, the State Department “caused this resolution to be buried in committee,” according to Arnold Offner (American Appeasement). When Mussolini’s Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, the U.S. declared an embargo on munitions but let American businesses send oil to Italy in huge quantities, which was essential to Italy’s carrying on the war. When a Fascist rebellion took place in Spain in 1936 against the elected socialist-liberal government, the Roosevelt administration sponsored a neutrality act that had the effect of shutting off help to the Spanish government while Hitler and Mussolini gave critical aid to Franco. Offner says:… the United States went beyond even the legal requirements of its neutrality legislation. Had aid been forthcoming from the United States and from England and France, considering that Hitler’s position on aid to France was not firm at least until November 1936, the Spanish Republicans could well have triumphed. Instead, Germany gained every advantage from the Spanish civil war. Was this simply poor judgment, an unfortunate error? Or was it the logical policy of a government whose main interest was not stopping Fascism but advancing the imperial interests of the United States? For those interests, in the thirties, an anti-Soviet policy seemed best. Later, when Japan and Germany threatened U.S. world interests, a pro-Soviet, anti-Nazi policy became preferable. Roosevelt was as much concerned to end the oppression of Jews as Lincoln was to end slavery during the Civil War; their priority in policy (whatever their personal compassion for victims of persecution) was not minority rights, but national power.”
And on the end of World War Two, Zinn, who was himself a bombardier during the war, has this to say: “And so, the saturation bombing of German cities began with thousand-plane raids on Cologne, Essen, Frankfurt, Hamburg. The English flew at night with no pretense of aiming at “military” targets; the Americans flew in the daytime and pretended precision, but bombing from high altitudes made that impossible. The climax of this terror bombing was the bombing of Dresden in early 1945, in which the tremendous heat generated by the bombs created a vacuum into which fire leaped swiftly in a great firestorm through the city. More than 100,000 died in Dresden. (Winston Churchill, in his wartime memoirs, confined himself to this account of the incident: “We made a heavy raid in the latter month on Dresden, then a centre of communication of Germany’s Eastern Front”) The bombing of Japanese cities continued the strategy of saturation bombing to destroy civilian morale; one nighttime fire-bombing of Tokyo took 80,000 lives. And then, on August 6, 1945, came the lone American plane in the sky over Hiroshima, dropping the first atomic bomb, leaving perhaps 100,000 Japanese dead, and tens of thousands more slowly dying from radiation poisoning. Twelve U.S. navy fliers in the Hiroshima city jail were killed in the bombing, a fact that the U.S. government has never officially acknowledged, according to historian Martin Sherwin (A World Destroyed). Three days later, a second atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki, with perhaps 50,000 killed. The justification for these atrocities was that this would end the war quickly, making unnecessary an invasion of Japan. Such an invasion would cost a huge number of lives, the government said a million, according to Secretary of State Byrnes; half a million, Truman claimed was the figure given him by General George Marshall. (When the papers of the Manhattan Project–the project to build the atom bomb–were released years later, they showed that Marshall urged a warning to the Japanese about the bomb, so people could be removed and only military targets hit.) These estimates of invasion losses were not realistic, and seem to have been pulled out of the air to justify bombings which, as their effects became known, horrified more and more people. Japan, by August 1945, was in desperate shape and ready to surrender.”
On the Vietnam War, it goes without saying that Zinn favors the anti-war movement, but he also connects it with the civil rights movement which was one of the earliest and strongest forces against the war. “Some of the first signs of opposition in the United States to the Vietnam war came out of the civil rights movement–perhaps because the experience of black people with the government led them to distrust any claim that it was fighting for freedom. On the very day that Lyndon Johnson was telling the nation in early August 1964 about the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and announcing the bombing of North Vietnam, black and white activists were gathering near Philadelphia, Mississippi, at a memorial service for the three civil rights workers killed there that summer. One of the speakers pointed bitterly to Johnson’s use of force in Asia, comparing it with the violence used against blacks in Mississippi… When Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara visited Mississippi and praised Senator John Stennis, a prominent racist, as a “man of very genuine greatness,” white and black students marched in protest, with placards saying “In Memory of the Burned Children of Vietnam.”
And again here: “Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke out in 1967 at Riverside Church in New York: ‘Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours.’”
On the Cold War and its end, I find this passage quite revealing, as it goes against the prevailing view that we have been taught: “In the United States, the Republican party claimed that the hard-line policies of Reagan and the increase in military expenditures had brought down the Soviet Union. But the change had begun much earlier, after the death of Stalin in 1953, and especially with the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev. A remarkably open discussion had been initiated. But the continued hard line of the United States became an obstacle to further liberalization, according to former ambassador to the Soviet Union George Kennan, who wrote that “the general effect of cold war extremism was to delay rather than hasten the great change that overtook the Soviet Union by the end of the 1980s.” While the press and politicians in the United States exulted over the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kennan pointed out that, not only did American policies delay this collapse, but these cold war policies were carried on at a frightful cost to the American people: We paid with forty years of enormous and otherwise unnecessary military expenditures. We paid through the cultivation of nuclear weaponry to the point where the vast and useless nuclear arsenal had become (and remains today) a danger to the very environment of the planet.”
Zinn concludes with some thoughts on the state of American society in general: “With the four or five hundred billion dollars gained by progressive taxation and demilitarization, there would be funds available to pay for health care for everyone, to guarantee jobs to anyone willing and able to work. Instead of giving out contracts for jet bombers and nuclear submarines, contracts could be offered to nonprofit corporations to hire people to build homes, construct public transport systems, clean up the rivers and lakes, turn our cities into decent places to live. (One of Marge Piercy’s poems ends with: “The pitcher cries for water to carry/And a person for work that is real.”) The alternative to such a bold program was to continue as before, allowing the cities to fester, forcing rural people to face debt and foreclosures, offering no useful work for the young, creating a larger and larger marginal population of desperate people. Many of these people would turn to drugs and crime, some of them to a religious fanaticism ending in violence against others or themselves (in 1996, one such group committed mass suicide), some to a hysterical hatred of government (as in the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing at least 168 people). The response of the authorities to such signs of desperation, anger, alienation has been, historically, quite predictable: Build more jails, lock up more people, execute more prisoners. And continue with the same policies that produced the desperation. But another scenario remained possible, one that envisioned a time, somewhere around the beginning of the new millennium, when citizens would organize to demand what the Declaration of Independence promised: a government that protected the equal right of everyone to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This meant economic arrangements that distributed the national wealth rationally and humanely. This meant a culture where the young no longer were taught to strive for “success” as a mask for greed.”
And finally here: “The system, in its irrationality, has been driven by profit to build steel skyscrapers for insurance companies while the cities decay, to spend billions for weapons of destruction and virtually nothing for children’s playgrounds, to give huge incomes to men who make dangerous or useless things, and very little to artists, musicians, writers, actors. Capitalism has always been a failure for the lower classes. It is now beginning to fail for the middle classes.”
It is not hard to imagine why A People’s History of the United States has been branded as subversive since it was first published. It remains controversial and reactionaries have sought to ban it many times, especially from use in public education (It has been banned in Arizona as recently as 2012 and Indiana in 2013, and probably many other times that I do not know about. It’s funny how authorities, even in freedom-loving America, still try to ban books to stop their ideas from being spread, when it always does exactly the opposite).
There are certainly real criticisms we can list against Zinn’s book. Its declared purpose of telling history from a certain point of view will by definition render it too biased to be taken seriously by “real” historians (similarly to Gibbon’s Decline and Fall). It is very anecdotal with more secondary than primary sources, and is also intentionally tendentious and too often heavy-handed. Here is an informative article from American Educator that provides much more detailed criticisms of the work.
On the other hand, why would I bother discussing and excerpting so much of A People’s History if I thought that it was flawed? The point is, no work of history, or any other field, is ever perfect, and history in particular is always written with bias. One way or the other, the things that are included or omitted, and the way things are described already reveal the sympathies of each author. If Zinn was more open about his purpose and politically active in support of his opinions than the typical academic or professional historian, I cannot fault him. What his book has done is open up discussion of American history and admit that there are things to be criticized in a country which often, and falsely, paints itself as a perfect model of democracy and equality. In Zinn’s book, no one comes out unscathed. The freedom of speech guaranteed in the Bill of Rights (which Zinn is still able to criticize) allow for books like this to be written, and we should celebrate the fact that historians, scholars, and citizens are able to criticize aspects of their government’s policy when they do not agree.
The point of history, in my opinion, is to increase one’s awareness about the world, and to reflect on how the past influences the present. In the case of A People’s History of the United States, I could not help but read about many unfortunate, and often unfamiliar, episodes from America’s past and imagine how the same things are still happening in my country. Some examples would be the lingering problems of racism, nativism and xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, foreign intervention, the growth and dominance of the military-industrial complex, the prison and punishment complex, and the political influence and exploitation of capitalists like large banks and corporations. For all of these things, I have seen countless past historical examples, but I have not yet seen a present solution.
Along with the growing awareness one gains from reading history, we will also gain a heightened sense of empathy for the suffering people of the world, and a righteous indignation against injustice and the power elite who perpetuate it. One of the most important uses of history is not theoretical, but to make wiser and more well-rounded and informed citizens who create or maintain their democracy. Zinn is a model of the activist who fights for ideals of justice and equality, even when history shows it is always difficult to achieve (here is an article by Frances Fox Piven detailing Zinn’s life of activism and his book of essays Some Truths are not Self-Evident). That his book has been published and taught in America shows that the dream is not dead. I will conclude by affirming the powerful truth of yet another maxim: “knowledge is power.”