Howard Zinn’s, People’s History of the United States


Not long ago, I reviewed the A Young Peoples History of the United States.  This was the short simpler version.  Now I have finished reading the long and very tedious full history.  My reason for reading this was that my daughter told me that his young people’s edition was being widely used in high schools.  This would explain the anti-American slant of many young adults today.  Zinn’s book is largely a Marxist version of history.  It is astonishing to think that a Marxist oriented text is widely used in the United States.  I would like to know how school boards embraced his book as a text. 

The larger, more comprehensive book is so slanted that it is hard to believe.  Yes, it documents many instances of injustice in the history of the United States, and how the powerful and wealthy have oppressed the lower economic classes.  Some of this is not new, and with regard to African Americans and Native Americans, the injustices were quite well exposed in our history classes even in my days in high school over 55 years ago.  

What was alarming was what I would call the totalism of the book.  All political and business leaders of significant importance come out bad or evil in this book.  Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe were all bad and in it for the preservation of their own wealth and power.  Lincoln was quite mixed and a lot of bad.  Teddy Roosevelt was bad, Franklin Roosevelt somewhat bad but with some good, Eisenhower somewhat good and bad, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, bad. Reagan, really bad, Bush bad and Clinton very bad.  Most of these historical figures are given a one-dimensional interpretation.  They all sought to preserve the wealth and privilege of the elites and only did something for the needy as necessary for their self-preservation.  

Now there is some truth to this history, but the imbalance is amazing. Yes, greed in American history is quite amazing but it is common to all fallen human beings.  If one would read the the  writings of many of these historical figures, of their goals and what they were trying to accomplish, one would find that some really wanted to see the ordinary people lifted and prosper. Adams really did want to lift the blacks.  His writings and efforts show this.  His son John Quincy was a consistent fighter against slavery.  Washington did want to see the people lifted as a whole in a process of progress over time.  Lincoln grew and probably was converted to Christian belief. He really came to believe in a more just society for all.   His speeches show this, and Dr. Ronald Reitveld’s work on Lincoln show this growth. However, such nuance is not present in Zinn.  John Adams fought against slavery, but this is not mentioned, only his support for the Alien and Sedition Act.  One has to read the writings of leaders to find out where they were coming from and not just Zinn’s interpretive and dogmatic assumptions; sometimes he is right and sometimes wrong. On Native Americans and Blacks until the 1960s, he is very right.  There is nothing of the revivals and the Christian Evangelicals who led the way in seeking emancipation, fair labor laws, anti-child labor laws and so much more. These folks do not exist in Zinn’s history. 

Then there is the sympathetic Marxist socialist evaluation.  Yes, Zinn thinks Marx is credible.  He thinks socialism really can work, but that the communist states abandoned it for a type of tyranny.  His presentation is devoid of an understanding of economics which overwhelmingly concludes that without the motive of free enterprise one does not expand the wealth pie but brings unending poverty for most.  Every movement of class rebellion is good in Zinn.  Indeed, some were just, but in his view, if you have a movement that strikes, rebels, marches, etc. it is good.  It is totalism again.  Those who were Marxists and socialists are extolled.  While there were reasons for protest indeed against terrible worker exploitation, the solutions offered by the Marxists and socialist would have been a disaster.  Union leaders who embraced free enterprise but with more wealth distribution are slammed as well. I write this as one who does not believe in the concentration of the wealth in a few, but also as one who does not believe in equal distribution, but adequate distribution.  Again, the book is again one dimensional totalism.  

The wars of the United States, in almost all cases, were fought for the sake of enriching the military industrial complex.  World War II squeaks by as just, but Zinn is very critical of the way it was fought. Yes, there were indeed there were too many civilians killed in bombings.  He has an absolutely dogmatic conclusion on the nuclear bombing of Japan, and argues that they were ready to surrender.  Other historians say that he is wrong, and the evidence is that it saved many lives on both sides. He declares the spies for Russia, the communist Rosenbergs who were executed, to have been innocent.  Now, the Russian archives opened after the fall of communism proved they were really guilty.

Zinn has to grudgingly admit that for the majority of Americans the system has produced a decent life, but the significant minority is still the issue for Zinn.  And indeed, it is for me as well, but socialism is not the answer.  The conclusion for Zinn is that the issue is the poor minority and the answer is socialism.  

The history of America is not as good as we learned in Junior High, but we had more nuance in High School.  But among nations, America produced great good.  However, America is a great idea, that “All men (persons) are created equal” and therefore share fundamental rights. “Out of many one.”  It is not a nation defined by ethnicity but is defined by joining in the republic in this great idea.  However, the structure of government provides the way of correcting injustice. It is a long hard struggle.  However, Zinn’s history will produce those who despise America. Now I see why so many young adults despise America. They were raised on Zinn’s history and this continued into College.  Their solution will not be to raise up the poor minorities but to bring about a crushing governmental tyranny.