Who is the most influential historian among young people? Filmmaker Ken Burns? Could it be the Democrats’ court historian, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.? Biographer David McCullough? How about the late Stephen Ambrose, whose triumphant view of American history has brought alive such colorful characters as Meriwether Lewis, Crazy Horse, and George Custer?
Though an argument exists for any one of these men (even the ones who lack the proper academic credentials), a strong case could also be made for a decidedly less establishment figure: Howard Zinn. For readers who prefer their history to be an accurate retelling of the past rather than marching orders for the present, Zinn’s writings disappoint. While every historian has his biases, Zinn makes no effort to overcome his. What is considered vice by most historians—politically motivated inaccuracies, long-winded rants, convenient omissions, substituting partisanship for objectivity—is transformed into virtue by Zinn.
“Objectivity is impossible,” pop historian Howard Zinn once remarked, “and it is also undesirable. That is, if it were possible it would be undesirable, because if you have any kind of a social aim, if you think history should serve society in some way; should serve the progress of the human race; should serve justice in some way, then it requires that you make your selection on the basis of what you think will advance causes of humanity.”
History serving “a social aim,” rather than a detached chronicling of the past, is what we get in A People’s History of the United States. Howard Zinn’s lengthy 1980 tome, after selling more than a million copies, has been recently re-released in a hardback edition. Despite its popularity, Zinn’s work—likely because of his reputation as a fringe figure—has largely been ignored by conservative skeptics. That’s a shame. While A People’s History of the United States’ ideological bent certainly qualifies it as extreme, its sales make it mainstream.
What accounts for the massive sales figures? A People’s History of the United States has been the beneficiary of fawning celebrities and zealous professors.
Zinn has discussed politics with Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and was on Rage Against the Machine’s reading list (note: beware of rock bands that issue reading lists). In Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon’s “Will Hunting” tells his psychiatrist that A People’s History of the United States will “knock you on your ass.” Damon and co-star Ben Affleck, who grew up near Zinn outside of Harvard Square, are said to be producing a miniseries based on their neighbor’s magnum opus. Zinn repaid the actors’ youthful infatuation by including them in an inconsequential paragraph in the book’s new edition.
The New York Times’ review opined that the book should be “required reading” for students. Professors have heeded this counsel. Courses at the University of Colorado-Boulder, UMass-Amherst, Penn State, and Indiana University are among dozens of classes nationwide that require the book. The book is so popular that it can be found on the class syllabus in such fields as economics, political science, literature, and women’s studies, in addition to its more understandable inclusion in history. Amazon.com reports in the site’s “popular in” section that the book is currently #7 at Emory University, #4 at the University of New Mexico, #9 at Brown University, and #7 at the University of Washington. In fact, 16 of the 40 locations listed in A People’s History’s “popular in” section are academic institutions, with the remainder of the list dominated by college towns like Binghamton (NY), State College (PA), East Lansing (MI), and Athens (GA). Based on this, it is reasonable to wonder if most of the million or so copies sold have been done so via coercion, i.e., college professors and high school teachers requiring the book. The book is deemed to be so crucial to the development of young minds by some academics that a course at Evergreen State decreed: “This is an advanced class and all students should have read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States before the first day of class, to give us a common background to begin the class.”
And what “common background” might that be?
Through Zinn’s looking-glass, Maoist China, site of history’s bloodiest state-sponsored killings, transforms into “the closest thing, in the long history of that ancient country, to a people’s government, independent of outside control.” The authoritarian Nicaraguan Sandinistas were “welcomed” by their own people, while the opposition Contras, who backed the candidate that triumphed when free elections were finally held, were a “terrorist group” that “seemed to have no popular support inside Nicaragua.” Castro’s Cuba, readers learn, “had no bloody record of suppression."
The recently released updated edition continues to be plagued with inaccuracies and poor judgment. The added sections on the Clinton years, the 2000 election, and 9/11 bear little resemblance to the reality his current readers have lived through.
- In an effort to bolster his arguments against putting criminals in jail, aggressive law enforcement tactics, and President Clinton’s crime bill, Zinn contends that in spite of all this “violent crime continues to increase.” It doesn’t. Like much of Zinn’s rhetoric, if you believe the opposite of what he says in this instance you would be correct. According to a Department of Justice report released in September of 2002, the violent crime rate has been cut in half since 1993.
- According to Zinn, it was Mumia Abu-Jamal’s “race and radicalism,” as well as his “persistent criticism of the Philadelphia police” that landed him on death row in the early 1980s. Nothing about Abu-Jamal’s gun being found at the scene; nothing about the testimony of numerous witnesses pointing to him as the triggerman; nothing about additional witnesses reporting a confession by Abu-Jamal—it was Abu-Jamal’s dissenting voice that caused a jury of twelve to unanimously sentence him to death.
- Predictably, Zinn draws a moral equivalence between America and the 9/11 terrorists. He writes, “It seemed that the United States was reacting to the horrors perpetrated by the terrorists against innocent people in New York by killing other innocent people in Afghanistan.” Scare quotes adorn Bush’s “war on terrorism,” post-9/11 “patriotism,” and other words and phrases Zinn dislikes.
Readers of A People’s History of the United States learn very little about history. They do learn quite a bit, however, about Howard Zinn. In fact, the book is perhaps best thought of as a massive Rorschach Test, with the author’s familiar reaction to every major event in American history proving that his is a captive mind long closed by ideology.
Theory First, Facts Second
If you’ve read Marx, there’s no reason to read Howard Zinn. In fact, reading the first line of The Communist Manifesto makes a study of A People’s History of the United States a colossal waste of time. The single-bullet theory of history offered by Marx—“The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle”—is relied upon by Zinn to explain all of American history. Economics determines everything. Why study history when theory has all the answers?
Thumb through A People’s History of the United States and one finds greed motivating every major event. According to Zinn, the separation from Great Britain, the Civil War, and World Wars I and II—to name but a few examples—all stem from base motives involving rich men seeking to get richer at the expense of other men.
Zinn’s projection of Marxist theory upon historical reality begins with Columbus, who, Zinn posits, repetitiously queried the Indians: where is the gold? According to Zinn, those following Columbus to the New World did so for the same reason: profit. “Behind the English invasion of North America, behind their massacre of Indians, their deception, their brutality, was that special powerful drive born in civilizations based on private profit,” maintains the octogenarian writer.
A materialist interpretation continues with the Founding. “Around 1776,” A People’s History informs, “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 the favorites of 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.”
Zinn sarcastically adds, “When we look at the American Revolution this way, it was a work of genius, and the Founding Fathers deserve the awed tribute they have received over the centuries. They created the most effective system of national control devised in modern times, and showed future generations of leaders the advantages of combining paternalism with command.” Rather than the spark that lit the fire of freedom and self-government throughout much of the world, the American Founding is portrayed as a diabolically creative way to ensure oppression. If the Founders wanted a society they could direct, why didn’t they put forth a dictatorship or a monarchy resembling most other governments at the time? Why go through the trouble of devising a constitution guaranteeing rights, mass political participation, jury trials, and checks on power? Zinn doesn’t explain, contending that these freedoms and rights were merely a facade designed to prevent class revolution.
Zinn paints antebellum America as a uniquely cruel slaveholding society subjugating man for profit. Curiously, the war that ultimately resulted in slavery’s demise is portrayed as a conflict of oppression too. Zinn writes, “it is money and profit, not the movement against slavery, that was uppermost in the priorities of the men who ran the country.” Rather than welcoming emancipation, as one might expect, Zinn casts a cynical eye towards it. “Class consciousness was overwhelmed during the Civil War,” the author laments, placing a decidedly negative spin on the central event in American history. America is in a lose/lose situation. Both slavery and emancipation, according to Zinn, were caused by the same thing: greed. Whether the U.S. tolerates or eradicates slavery, its nefarious motives remain the same. What is significant is that Zinn’s jaundiced eye fails to see the real issues surrounding the Civil War. Instead, he envisions the chief significance of the grisly conflict as being how it served as a distraction from the impending socialist revolution.
By the time the reader reaches World War I, Zinn begins to sound like a broken record. “American capitalism needed international rivalry—and periodic war—to create an artificial community of interest between rich and poor,” the Boston University professor writes of the Great War, “supplanting the genuine community of interest among the poor that showed itself in sporadic movements.” Yet another conspiracy to distract the masses from revolution!
“A People’s War?” is Zinn’s chapter on World War II, the war in which the author served his country. Zinn suggests that America, not Japan, was to blame for Pearl Harbor by provoking the Empire of the Sun. The fight against fascism was all an illusion. While Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan may have been America’s enemies, Uncle Sam’s real goal was supposedly empire. Regarding America’s neutrality in the Spanish Civil War, Zinn asks: “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.” Reality is inverted. It’s not the Soviet Union that went from being anti-Nazi to pro-Nazi to anti-Nazi. Zinn projects the Soviet Union’s schizophrenic policies upon America. While the Hitler-Stalin Pact is awkwardly excused, Zinn all but proclaims a Hitler-Roosevelt Pact.
Like all conflicts, the reader learns that the Second World War was really about—surprise!—money. “Quietly, behind the headlines in battles and bombings,” Zinn writes, “American diplomats and businessmen worked hard to make sure that when the war ended, American economic power would be second to none in the world. United States business would penetrate areas that up to this time had been dominated by England. The Open Door Policy of equal access would be extended from Asia to Europe, meaning that the United States intended to push England aside and move in.” Yet, this didn’t happen. The English Empire expired, but no American Empire moved to take its place. Despite defeating Japan and helping to vanquish Germany, America rebuilt these countries. Both are now the chief economic rivals of the U.S., not our colonies.
The profit motive certainly is central in numerous major events in American history. The discovery of gold at Sutter’s Fort in 1848, for example, is undeniably the primary reason—alongside the favorable outcome of the Mexican War—for the subsequent population explosion in California. Prior to the discovery, less than 20,000 Americans trekked westward—many of them Mormons escaping persecution. By 1860, that number had exploded to almost 300,000, with more than two-thirds of overlanders going to California—a place that had generally been forgone by travelers in favor of New Mexico, Oregon, or Utah prior to the Gold Rush. The Gold Rush is one of several occurrences in American history that conform to Zinn’s overall thesis. This is hardly proof of the validity of this rigid worldview. For every major figure or event that was motivated by economic interests, there are scores that were not. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.
To question Zinn’s method of analyses is not to say that economics does not influence events. It is to say that one-size-fits-all explanations of history are bound to be wrong more than they are right.
Case Study: The Pequot War
Zinn’s Marxism extends beyond economic concerns. If classical Marxism can be boiled down to “worker=good, entrepreneur=bad,” cultural Marxism’s primitive grunt might be translated into “minorities, good; white guys, bad.” In a “people’s history,” the “people” include feminist women, racially conscious blacks, socialists, and other politically attuned folks. Conservatives, believing Christians, rich guys, and other such people aren’t “the people,” at least the ones Zinn is referring to.
By simplistically dividing groups into oppressor/oppressed classes, one will inevitably err because the individuals who constitute these groups are too diverse to be pigeonholed into this rigid dichotomy. By taking the opening chapter’s treatment of New England’s Pequot War of the late 1630s as a case study, we see how this methodology unavoidably leads to error.
The war’s most significant event was the horrible burning of the Pequot stronghold of Fort Mystic in May of 1637. Finding themselves severely outnumbered and taking casualties, the settlers set fire to the Pequot compound. The decision would prove tragic. The hellish inferno claimed hundreds of Pequot souls, including untold numbers of women and children. If Zinn sought to use the situation to discredit the white settlers, the truth would have been enough to do the trick. Yet the activist author cannot resist the temptation of piling on, so he presents a version of the Pequot War wildly at odds with the historical record, but consistent with his theory.
Pequot violence against the whites is almost entirely absent from the text. The most Zinn can bring himself to admit is that “Massacres took place on both sides.” Also briefly mentioned is the killing of John Oldham, which Zinn justifies by labeling the murder victim a “trader, Indian-kidnapper, and troublemaker.” For reasons not hard to deduce, the author details only the atrocities committed by one side: the Puritans. Pequot atrocities are brushed aside. Graphic descriptions of Puritan violence are highlighted. What did Zinn leave out that complicates matters for his thesis? “[T]hey took two men out of a boat, and murdered them with ingenious barbarity, cutting off first the hands of one of them, then his feet,” writes 19th century historian John Gorham Palfrey about the Pequots’ assaults upon settlers. “Soon after, two men sailing down the river were stopped and horribly mutilated and mangled; their bodies were cut in two, lengthwise, and the parts hung up by the river’s bank. A man who had been carried off from Wethersfield was roasted alive. All doubt as to the necessity of vigorous action was over, when a band of a hundred Pequots attacked that place, killed seven men, a woman, and a child, and carried off two girls.” One needn’t be a rocket scientist to figure out why these troublesome facts didn’t make the final cut of this “people’s” history.
The text is also mute on internecine violence among the Indians. The Pequots not only waged war on whites, but on their fellow natives as well. They were a belligerent people feared by weaker tribes. The reader is left unsupplied with these facts that might give context to the brutal assault on Fort Mystic. Instead, Zinn frames the event to fit his thesis. The early American settlers “wanted them out of the way; they wanted their land,” he writes. Leaving aside the Pequots’ aggression that contradicts this simplistic land-grab theory, there is some debate about whether the land the Pequots occupied was in fact “their land.” Some historians have contemplated the theory that like the English and the Dutch, the Pequots were newcomers to the area, and displaced other tribes. Interjecting this debate within A People’s History would have proved inconvenient, so it too is left out.
Zinn portrays the Pequot War as a Puritan-versus-Indian conflict, but both Puritans and Indians fought against the Pequots. Whites comprised less than 15% of 500-plus men who attacked the Pequots at Fort Mystic. After the horrific conflagration ended, it was the Mohegans who executed the Pequots’ captured sachem. More importantly, leading up to the battle other Indian tribes—for example, the Narragansett—repeatedly urged the English newcomers to attack their enemies, the Pequots. Zinn writes that “Indian tribes were used against one another” by the Puritans when, in fact, the reverse was true. Indian tribes used the Puritans and their superior firepower to eradicate their fellow Indians who posed a threat to them.
Because the oppressor/oppressed dichotomy preordains how every story is told, the story of the Pequot War is grossly distorted. By reading A People’s History, you’d likely believe that the Pequot War was fought strictly by whites against Indians, that it was unprovoked aggression on the part of the whites, and that the Pequots were a peaceful people. In short, reading Zinn’s two pages on the Pequot War leaves the reader more ignorant than enlightened.
History is too complicated to find a perfect fit within any theory. For the true believer, this inconvenience can be overcome. When fact and theory clash, the ideologue chooses theory. To the true believer, ideology is truth. Time and again, A People’s History of the United States opts to mold the facts to fit the theory, leaving the reader to wonder what “people” he is referring to in the book’s title. Dishonest people? Left-wing people? Delusional people?
For instance, Zinn claims that “George Washington was the richest man in America.” He wasn’t, but it makes for a good story. Perhaps the wealthiest man being rewarded with the run of the government is too compelling a concept for a Marxist to discard—even when it isn’t true. Whatever the reason for the inclusion of this falsehood, it’s one that can be easily disproved. Despite having substantial debts owed to British moneylenders in the late 1760s and early 1770s, as well as having to borrow money to travel to New York upon his election to the presidency, George Washington certainly rose to accumulate great wealth in his lifetime—even if he was chronically cash-poor. His last will and testament estimates his accumulated wealth at $530,000. That certainly qualified him as rich, but clearly there were men of greater means roaming America during his lifetime. Robert Morris, who eventually lost his wealth, was the Founding era’s wealthiest merchant. Moses Brown, whose family’s name graces an Ivy League university, was another contemporary of Washington’s whose wealth in that era exceeded that of the nation’s first president. Zinn is wrong.
“When the Scottsboro case unfolded in the 1930s in Alabama,” Zinn writes, “it was the Communist party that had become associated with the defense of these young black men imprisoned, in the early years of the Depression, by southern injustice.” Perhaps the Party had become “associated” with the defense of the Scottsboro Boys, but in reality the Communists merely used the embattled youngsters. Richard Gid Powers points out in Not Without Honor that the Communists had raised $250,000 for the Scottsboro Boys’ defense, but had put-up a scant $12,000 for two appeals. At the time, a black columnist quoted a candid Party official who stated, “we don’t give a damn about the Scottsboro boys. If they burn it doesn’t make any difference. We are only interested in one thing, how we can use the Scottsboro case to bring the Communist movement to the people and win them over to Communism.” One might see an analogous situation in Zinn’s view of history. He is only interested in it so long as it serves as a weapon of socialist ideology.
“Unemployment grew in the Reagan years,” Zinn claims. Statistics show otherwise. Reagan inherited an unemployment rate of 7.5 percent in his first month in office. By January of 1989, the rate had declined to 5.4 percent. Had the Reagan presidency ended in 1982 when unemployment rates exceeded 10 percent, Zinn would have a point. But for the remainder of Reagan’s presidency, unemployment declined precipitously. While Zinn teaches history and not mathematics, one needn’t be a math whiz to figure out that 5.4 percent is less than 7.5 percent. Despite unleashing an economy that created nearly 20 million new jobs during his tenure, Reagan continues to be smeared by historians—and it’s not hard to figure out why. Reagan’s free market polices were anathema to Marxists like Zinn. Upset at the pleasant way things turned out—Reagan’s policies unleashed an economy that continuously grew from the fall of 1982 until the summer of 1990—historians have preferred to rewrite history.
These are but a few of Howard Zinn’s errors, which curiously seem to always bolster the left-of-center position. No error goes against the grain of the author’s general thesis. Every author makes mistakes. Zinn, it seems, would make less of them if he relied on his mind rather than his ideology to do his thinking.
By now one might be thinking: On what evidence does Zinn base his varied proclamations? One can only guess. Despite its scholarly pretensions, the book contains not a single source citation. While a student in Professor Zinn’s classes at Boston University or Spelman College might have received an “F” for turning in a paper without documentation, Zinn’s footnote-free book is standard reading in scores of college courses across the country.
Sins of Omission
More striking than Zinn’s inaccuracies—intentional and otherwise—is what he leaves out.
Washington’s Farewell Address, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and Reagan’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate all fail to merit a mention. Nowhere do we learn that Americans were first in flight, first to fly across the Atlantic, and first to walk on the moon. Alexander Graham Bell, Jonas Salk, and the Wright Brothers are entirely absent. Instead, the reader is treated to the exploits of Speckled Snake, Joan Baez, and the Berrigan brothers. While Zinn sees fit to mention that immigrants often went into professions like ditch-digging and prostitution, American success stories like those of Alexander Hamilton, John Jacob Astor, and Louis B. Mayer—to name but a few—are excluded. Valley Forge rates a single fleeting reference, while D-Day’s Normandy invasion, Gettysburg, and other important military battles are left out. In their place, we get several pages on the My Lai massacre and colorful descriptions of U.S. bombs falling on hotels, air-raid shelters, and markets during the Gulf War of the early 1990s.
How do students learn about U.S. history with all these omissions? They don’t.
Zinn utters perhaps the most honest words of A People’s History of the United States in the conclusion of the book’s 1995 edition, conceding that his work is “a biased account.” “I am not troubled by that,” he adds, “because the mountain of history books under which we all stand leans so heavily in the other direction—so tremblingly respectful of states and statesmen and so disrespectful, by inattention, to people’s movements—that we need some counterforce to avoid being crushed into submission.” Two wrongs, he seems to be saying, make a right.
More recently, Zinn made clear that it is not just the idea of objectivity that he finds fault with, but facts themselves. In the current updated version of A People’s History, the author declares: “there is no such thing as pure fact.” Whether Zinn really believes this, or if it serves to rationalize intellectual dishonesty, one can only guess.
“I wanted my writing of history and my teaching of history to be a part of social struggle,” Howard Zinn candidly remarked in an interview conducted long after the release of A People’s History of the United States. “I wanted to be a part of history and not just a recorder and teacher of history. So that kind of attitude towards history, history itself as a political act, has always informed my writing and my teaching.” Indeed it has.