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THE CLASSIC NATIONAL BESTSELLER
"A wonderful, splendid bookâ??a book that should be read by every American, student or otherwise, who wants to understand his country, its true history, and its hope for the future." â??Howard Fast
Historian Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States chronicles American history from the bottom up, throwing out the official narrative taught in schoolsâ??with its emphasis on great men in high placesâ??to focus on the street, the home, and the workplace.
Known for its lively, clear prose as well as its scholarly research, it is the only volume to tell America's story from the point of view ofâ??and in the words ofâ??America's women, factory workers, African-Americans, Native Americans, the working poor, and immigrant laborers. As Zinn shows, many of our country's greatest battlesâ??the fights for a fair wage, an eight-hour workday, child-labor laws, health and safety standards, universal suffrage, women's rights, racial equalityâ??were carried out at the grassroots level, against bloody resistance.
Covering Christopher Columbus's arrival through President Clinton's first term, A People's History of the United States features insightful analysis of the most important events in our history. This edition also includes an introduction by Anthony Arnove, who wrote, directed, and produced The People Speak with Zinn and who coauthored, with Zinn, Voices of a People's History of
The ultimate impression the book leaves one with is that the United States is controlled by a slim percentage of extremely rich people, that domestic and foreign policy is entirely revolved around protecting âthe national interestâ (i.e. corporate interest), that the government, judiciary and media all work diligently to maintain this status quo, and that this state of affairs dates all the way back to the Revolution. Most people already know this, but to see it so thoroughly and articulately documented and summarised is quite shocking.
The book is, obviously, quite biased. Zinn openly admits this, and declares that he is ânot troubled by that, because the mountain of history books under which we all stand leans so heavily in the opposite direction â so tremblingly respectful of states and statesmen and so disrespectful, by inattention, to peopleâs movements â that we need some counterforce to avoid being crushed into submission.â
Iâm not sure to what level I agree with that; I certainly thought he was stretching it at some points in the book, such as his portrayal of Native American society as a perfect harmonious utopia, or his steadfast opposition to all wars, even World War II and Korea. I do not subscribe to the belief that when arguing a point you should misrepresent, or entirely omit, the viewpoint of your opponent. If you are in the right, their arguments will ultimately be defeated; if not, perhaps you should rethink your opinion.
When describing the SS Mayaguez incident, for example, Zinn makes passing reference to âa revolutionary regimeâ that had recently seized power in Cambodia. That regime was, of course, the Khmer Rouge, one of the 20th centuryâs most incomprehensibly evil governments. Perhaps the Mayaguez incident really was all about propaganda â and Zinn makes a compelling case for that â so why avoid mentioning the Khmer Rouge? Because Zinn knows the connections a well-educated reader will draw? Because it brings up the fact that regadless of motive, rescuing the captured crew was the correct course of action? Zinn details how the crew were well-treated by their captors, as though that made it okay, despite previously discussing how the relatively happy lives of many American slaves did not make their slavery one jot less cruel.
This is just one example of many small incidents throughout the book where I found myself disapproving of Zinnâs technique. I hesitate to draw comparison to Michael Moore, because Moore is much less elegant and refined and serious than Zinn, but heâs the only comparable figure I can think of: somebody presenting a one-sided argument that might even be called propaganda, and which should not be tolerated simply because itâs propaganda for what is good and right and just.
Of couse Zinn, as mentioned above, openly acknowledges his bias and the motive behind it, and I would greatly prefer for people to read something that admits its bias rather than falsely claiming objectivity. The other important factor is, of course, that I am not the intended target for this book. A Peopleâs History of the United States was written by an American, for Americans, in an effort to undermine the false assumptions and accepted wisdom prevalent in American culture, and particularly in American schools. As an Australian, I come from a culture where the United States is generally regarded quite poorly. Yet I could still draw parallels; although Australia is a far more egalitarian society, with a political system less corrupted by lobbyists and business interests, we too have classes, and politicans here also exploit our fears of foreigners as a convenient boogeyman. Here, too, the lower and middle classes are often bizarrely opposed to trade unions. Huge swathes of A Peopleâs History of the United States, particularly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, revolve around the labor movement: the strikes, the protests, the sit-ins and the struggles. Although I also found these sections to be the most tedious, it was quite eye-opening to see a vision of the United States during a time when the poor were not held in Stockholm Syndrome with the rich.
Clearly Iâm not the best person to judge the value of this book. I certainly donât think itâs a book you should read uncritically, nor without reading other books on American history. But it certainly has a valuable place in American political and historical discourse, and the purpose Zinn wrote it for is a noble one. Apparently he copped a lot of flak because the outlook of the book was so depressing, but I actually found his personal opinion to be quite positive, particularly in chapters towards the end where he describes his vision of the future, where the military-industrial complex has been overthrown and the American government concerns itself with all of its people, not just the wealthiest. This is not a belief I share; I look at Americans protesting Obama, a man no different from any of his predecessors except in the colour of his skin, chanting about how he is a socialist and a Marxist and a communist. I look at them and I wonder how they can possibly be so oblivious, how they can possibly not realise that all their beliefs and values have been shaped by think-tanks and politicians with the delibarate intent of keeping theem in check; no different, except in volume, from working class Australians who vote for the Liberal Party because theyâre frightened of boat people. I could wish that every American would read A Peopleâs History of the United States, but a good chunk of them would throw it aside as âcommunist rubbish,â and another good chunk would lap up every thing Zinn says without thinking laterally, and would then go spraypaint a local council chamber while listening to Muse. I think what Iâm saying is that most people are idiots and deserve what they get from the government.
Um, I mean, it was a bit boring sometimes but a really thought-provoking book. Recommended.
Howard Zinn readily admits that his A People's History of the United States is a biased work. What is unique about his telling of history is the direction of the bias. This is a history biased in favor of the workers (mostly female) who died when a
There are a few points in the book where even I, whose often knee-jerk progressive/liberalism makes my fathers teeth grind, felt that the book was *too* biased. That the expectations Zinn appeared to have were entirely unreasonable for the time periods he was talking about. Upon reflection, these points only served to make clear just how biased our objective history textbooks really are. Columbus exterminating an entire culture was just a misunderstanding. Right. Just like all the Native Americans were savages and all the slaves were resigned to their lot. Zinn provides numerous and clear counter-examples to those historical claims that I have always doubted told the true story. But what is less comfortable, is the laying bare of the weaknesses of the men I would like to like. Adams, Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt. Men whom I may still choose to like, but with eyes less clouded than before.
Of course in 655 pages, it is difficult to cover comprehensively everything that happened in this country from when Columbus first set foot on some of the nearby islands to the present. One of my favorite things about this book is that it offers so much direction in the way of further reading. When many of the chapters left me thirsty for more, I didn't even have to turn to the extremely thorough bibliography in the back, many books which informed the times and which were inspired by the times were discussed in the text. Zinn's work is not an ending place. One cannot read this book and know everything there is to know about the history that was not taught to you in school. This book is a starting place. An opening door to a new way of thinking. To the realization that ordinary people have changed the history of this country time and time again. And perhaps you can too.
Howard Zinn is not in jail (he's dead), but the message to readers is much the same. This is a big book with a big chip on its shoulder. It's not really a history of the US at all, it's a kind of âMarxist Companion toâ American history â but none the worse for that, and Zinn can hardly be accused of concealing his biases. He's very upfront about the fact that this book âleans in a certain directionâ. His reading of history is one dominated by social and economic inequality presided over by governments that protect capitalist interests at the expense of people's lives. And, as you might imagine, he's not short of examples.
It's interesting that many of those who dislike this book seem almost personally offended by it. That is worrying, because it suggests that American patriotism (which is almost a state religion) has succeeded in convincing people to identify themselves with their governments, one of the things that Zinn is trying, passim, to argue against. Certainly âAmericaâ as a state does not come out of this very well, but I rather doubt that Zinn believes any other countries are much better; the point is only that the US is no different.
Instead of memorable dates or acts of statesmanship, then, we have a history of the disenfranchised and the working-classes, from Columbus to the War on Terror, demolishing the fiction that the US is a âclasslessâ society and establishing the importance of protest and activism in achieving any meaningful social advances.
In some cases this means coming at the familiar stories of American history from a new angle â as is the case with the settling of North America, which Zinn sees as straightforwardly genocidal, or his account of the âRoaringâ 1920s, which focuses on the country's staggering wealth disparity. Sometimes again, Zinn's approach is more or less in line with traditional narratives, as for instance when it comes to the civil rights movement. And finally there are the stories in here which you don't typically see in histories of the U.S. at all, such as the rise and ultimate fall of American unionism, something I, like most people in Europe, have often wondered about.
What I love about books that focus on protest movements is that they help break down the idea that countries are monolithic, or that the behavior of a state is even moderately successful in enacting the wishes of its populace. And the US has had some of the most courageous and eloquent protesters anywhere. Emerson may not have gone to jail for his beliefs like his friend Thoreau, but consider the letter he wrote to President Van Buren in 1838, on the subject of Indian Removal. The policy, he says, is
a crime that really deprives us as well as the Cherokees of a country for how could we call the conspiracy that should crush these poor Indians our government, or the land that was cursed by their parting and dying imprecations our country any more?
Others had the presence of mind to produce this stuff on the fly. Eugene Debs, jailed for speaking out against the First World War, told his judge in court:
Your honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.
(And critics call this an anti-American book! You're cheering over heroic Americans the whole way through â they just happen to be in confrontation with their government most of the time. It's very moving, and I was a bit of an emotional wreck for much of the three weeks I spent reading it.) The gradual emancipation of women furnishes some of the best anecdotes. Elizabeth Blackwell, a doctor who got her medical degree in 1849 from Geneva College, wrote about one of her first cases, where she called in a local physician for consultation on a pneumonia patient:
This gentleman, after seeing the patient, went with me into the parlour. There he began to walk about the room in some agitation, exclaiming, âA most extraordinary case! Such a one never happened to me before; I really do not know what to do!â I listened in surprise and much perplexity, as it was a clear case of pneumonia and of no unusual degree of danger, until at last I discovered that his perplexity related to me, not to the patient, and to the propriety of consulting with a lady physician!
It was interesting to discover that many of the radical female activists of the early twentieth century â and there were a lot of awesome women involved in anarchist syndicates and that kind of thing â were ambivalent on the question of suffrage, regarding votes as, at best, a distraction from the real issue of class warfare. Zinn is broadly sympathetic, just because he likes people who are angry; indeed activists who take a more conciliatory approach don't always come off well here. Martin Luther King's âI have a dreamâ speech, for instance, is âmagnificent oratory, butâ â the crucial qualification â âwithout [âŠ] angerâ.
All of the book's themes come together when it discusses war. There is a bracing rĂ©sumĂ© of the US's appalling military interference in Central America, and cynical (but convincing) discussions of Korea and Iraq. On Vietnam, Zinn is even more scathing than conventional wisdom would suggest â indeed, there is a sense that self-congratulatory cultural âadmissionsâ of failure have served to gloss over the ugly realities. Consider the 660 Vietnamese civilians massacred at My Lai, for example. The soldiers of Charlie Company took their time raping and dismembering the women, rounding up and killing the children, and forcing the rest of the villagers to lie down in ditches while they walked up and down shooting them, while divisional command staff watched from a helicopter. None of the anguished, important, self-examining Hollywood treatments of the conflict have come close to facing up to this kind of thing.
War is recognised here as a class issue. âIf there is a war,â wrote Bolton Hall in an appeal to the working classes in 1898, âyou will furnish the corpses and the taxes, and others will get the glory.â Zinn encourages readers to consider what exactly is meant when politicians talk about the ânational interestâ, so often to be equated with corporate profits. But more generally, there is a welcome consideration of the justification for spending citizens' money on vast military projects instead of on ways to help those of them with no food, housing, or employment. As Eisenhower said, in a moment of rare presidential clarity:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in a final sense a theft from those who are hungry and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.
Welfare is one of the many issues on which both sides of the American political spectrum have united in inactivity, allowing the term itself to become almost a dirty word. (A similar process has happened with âsocialismâ.) In a 1992 survey, 44 percent of people thought too much was being spent on âwelfareâ, but 64 percent thought too little was being spent on âassistance to the poorâ. *headdesk* Vocabulary is everythingâŠ
It's true that there is, at times, an unnecessarily conspiratorial tone here â the implication that some knowing capitalist-patriarchal cabal is deliberately manipulating events to the people's detriment. Events are manipulated to the people's detriment, but the reason is systemic rather than down to individual villains (though yes, there are some conspicuous exceptions). And the ruling classes can't win: advances in social justice or economical equality â of which there are, in fact, many â are attributed to an Establishment desire for âlong-range stability of the systemâ rather than to any humanitarian motives. Where concessions have been made, âthe chief motive was practicality, not humanityâ.
Zinn does say at one point that the American system âwas not devilishly contrived by some master plotters; it developed naturally out of the needs of the situationâ, but such reminders are only necessary because they are belied by his general stance. Still, over the 700-odd pages, I think the system is illustrated rather well. The account left me energised, fired-up. And people should be angry. As Zinn's history shows, the advances in American society have only come about because people got angry and forced the government to act. Now is certainly no time to stop.
In Zinn's "Afterwards", (which I feel should always be read first), he explains how he felt misled about how he was taught U.S. history; always with a positive slant and patriotic view of the U.S. being all good. Zinnâs motives are not aligned with a belief in democracy and capitalism, to show its shortcomings to make it better. On the contrary, A People's History appears to be fodder for future generations stimulated by radicalism and Marxist theories that taken to conclusion would result in an overthrow of the government. Zinn has been credited with writing a history that teaches students to think for themselves. Unfortunately, throughout A People's History he uses ellipses to evade a more nuanced perspective, thus leading the reader/student in a way that suggests conclusions they should reach regarding the matter being discussed, then asking for an answer or agreement with a suggestion, similar to a reporter formulating a question while at the same time suggesting the answer. Zinn doesn't use accepted citing references for his sources but instead will state the name of a book or other publication, suggesting you can read it and figure out what his point was, making it tedious (unlikely), to learn what was left out by the use of ellipses. In several cases, I followed where it lead, discovering the larger meaning and how misleading his statements were, like politicians taking their opponent's statements out of context to advance their cause. Over and over while I read I wanted to scream; No! You canât leave it like that and just move on!
After criticizing Zinn for this unfortunate book, from a literary view it is well written considering his objective. However I would not recommend it as a definitive history of the USA especially if this is the first or only history to be read.
It is NOT a balanced view of our history & is proposed reading for schools (minus 1 star). It shouldn't be unless read with other materials as it only tells part of the story. If you want to know anything about how minority groups were mistreated, you'll find it here. While accurate, the view is so unbalanced as to become nauseating after a while (minus another star). While most historians have an axe to grind, most do it more subtly than Zinn does.
To the best of my knowledge, he doesn't gossip nor present any incorrect facts, he does present his facts in such a way as to slam our government at every turn. He does bring up some points that many other histories have glossed over, though (add one star).
For instance, in the early history of the United States, he is very careful to point out every group not represented by the Constitution, yet makes no mention of the fact that these people were not represented before the Revolution either. It's good that he brings up the point, but not so great that he leaves the impression that they obviously should have been. It wasn't obvious to the people of that time that they should have been represented. Men of property made the decisions & always had. Women, slaves & men without property didn't get a say. That they eventually did says a lot for the foundation these men laid, which Zinn carefully avoids.
So overall it is a good thing to read, but only with another history to balance it at hand.
A well written and dense work. I would suggest the potential reader start with Chapter 23 where Zinn is more direct in his purpose where he summarizes "the Establishment cannot survive without the obedience and loyalty of millions of people who are given small rewards to keep the system going".
No matter what your political leaning, there is something for you in this book - outrage at the atrocities of the "elites", or outrage at Zinn's sometime simplistic hinting that America is run by a group of "elites" conspiring to keep everyone else down.
For one, Zinn openly sets out his project from the beginning: to understand the oppression in the past as a way to prevent it in the future. If traditional history is "written by the winners" (as the quip goes), Zinn's job is to channel the losers. He hits up most of the major events in US history, but doesn't really feel bound to telling a continuous narrative in most cases. Instead, the book serves as a sort of marginalia to the mythic past, a course-correction for our self-knowledge as an American people.
One of the problems with Zinn's scope is the pace precludes much attempts at historiography. We're shown dissenting accounts, troublesome facts without any attempt at examining whether most modern-day historians actually concur with the analysis presented. As said before, he clearly states his biases and overall project in the very first chapter. However, the reader needs to synthesize his story with the larger narratives at playâa more difficult task than he seems to admit.
And the disposition of those larger narratives is something that Zinn can be kind of squirrely about. To hear his first chapter, you'd think that the history books whitewash, or at least minimize, the atrocities and casual inhumanities of the past. But once you get into actual scholarship, at least in my experience, that tendency disappears. Zinn even implicitly admits as much, when he marshals both other historians and contemporary accounts to supply evidence for his claims. Charles Beard, who he makes into an underdog by saying he received a "denunciatory editorial in The New York Times", was actually a major influence in the field. Indeed, his economic interpretation of the American Revolution held sway for decades before being more recently (think '70s) replaced by a renewed appreciation for the ideology and ideas also at work.
Exacerbating matters is Zinn's clear pop-history approach to the subjects; he forgoes formal citations (footnotes and endnotes alike), instead throwing together a bibliography at the end of the book. Enjoy that Douglass quote and want to see whether the context strengthens or weakens it? Too bad! The scope also keeps him from complicating the story too much, or even treating some subjects in-depth. For example, the gay rights movement gets only three paragraphs in the entire 700-page book.
I know it sounds like I'm being 100% critical of the book, but there were good chunks of the book that I found pretty enthralling. The rise of workers' rights movements is something Zinn's clearly passionate about, and it comes across in his writing. (It doesn't hurt that their rise serves as welcome emotional relief after 10 chapters of horrible depravity.) I can recognize that the book probably isn't for me, as I've read about most of the material before. But as most people's introduction to left-leaning history, especially as taught in some high schools such as my own, I'm really sensitive to worries that it might fuck up the process and unnecessarily turn people away.
To strengthen Zinn's case, we might instead revise his project slightly: to prevent the political misuse of history. As much as I hold Lies my Teacher Told Me at a skeptical distanceâit seems like an even more pop version of dissident historyâexamining historical events from the perspective of textbooks might be more instructive in understanding how ideology is propagated through studying history. It may be that our impulse to protect children from the horrors of the past is actually ensuring that they'll be perpetuated.
Perhaps the most political use of history is in using the Founding Fathers as props to support such and such modern day policies. Zinn points out several times that he isn't trying to villify such historical figures, mindful that they swamâmany upstreamâin the currents of institutional racism, sexism, classism, and the like. Yet all too often, he crosses that line and condemns them directly and forcefully for their hypocrisy. Indeed, part of his project is in showing a second path, by pointing out those individuals who were able to see the bigger picture at the time, and spoke uncomfortable truths to those in power.
So we're back at the central problem: how do we reconcile Zinn's account with the complexities of the full picture? Is there a way to recognize the tremendous steps those figures took towards a better future, even with their fatal flaws? Can there be an American Exceptionalism (or even a national identity!) that doesn't celebrate genocide, imperialism, slavery, racism, sexism, economic oppression? On this question, Zinn remains silent.
While I LOVE the idea of telling the story of group's whose voices are traditionally left out, I was disappointed in some of the voices that were left out still. Although he
But, that aside, this is a very thorough book. For the critics who say that he is bias, hell yes he is. But so is every author of any textbook that teachers give their students. It's time for a revision of our history books. It may not inspire patriotism, but it will spur thought. It is only a matter of what we want as a society, a people of unthinking, super patriotic people, or a society of those who question their government and think for themselves. (This is obviously NOT the desire of those in power...)
Anyone interested in knowing some of the alternate histories of the United States, this book is for you. However, I caution you to take the reading slowly. This is a nonfiction history book, and it is not a quick read. Somehow I managed it in 2 months--a feat I deem a miracle. Read this book a little at a time...
The book includes no illustrations,
Despite that it sat on my shelf unread for at least a year, its actually quite readable. In fact Zinn's version of American history is engaging partly because it is so different from what you learned in grade school. What is history but a compendium of facts? Well Zinn's 'People's History' demonstrates that "his"tory is indeed quite different than "our"story. An examination of the facts from the people's perspective reveals the hypocrisy of America - the story of Democracy verses the reality. Gone are the great highs we celebrated - the Boston Tea Party, the Louisiana Purchase, WWII - in 'People's History" they're all sullied. Looked at through Zinn's lens its difficult to not feel a little cynical about the governing class and a lot skeptical about their rationale for action.
That said, I have renewed appreciation for what "the people" can accomplish with a little passion and creativity. Rather than progress being the result of great acts by "great men", Zinn leads us to believe that most good things have come about due to an unruly public clamoring for their rights. Evidence that indeed "Well-behaved women rarely make history".
I don't regret being rooted in the idealistic image of America, but Americans should be equally versed in this side as well. For the answer to the question of 'why do they hate us?' you need look no further.
ETA that the next time the Schuykill came up the narrator improved it to "Skooler." The first time he mentioned the president who came between Cleveland's two terms, he said "Harris." Also, god help me, he sang a song, a dirge that arose from farmers getting the short end of the plough.
But I also donât trust it as history. You wonât find sources cited in this book--itâs a popularization, a synthesis, based on secondary sources with a very pointed agenda. Itâs blatant propaganda--not history. I have heard a couple of good things about this book even from those who are opposed to Zinn politically--that it did help influence people to look beyond the âgreat manâ triumphalist narrative of history and look at the contribution ordinary people make--and that at least Zinn is no respecter of the powers that be. Iâm a little skeptical though that Zinn had much influence on creating a more diverse narrative of American history--there were a lot of true scholars, who did do original research, involved in that revolution of how we look at history. And by the way the parts I was assigned didnât actually involve the history per se, but Zinnâs views on democracy itself--thatâs what I was tested on. But reading through his villainization of America was depressing and annoying. I think itâs because I just have encountered too many Marxists in college--and life. It made Zinnâs take not enlightening and exciting but very predictable.