An Analysis of A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn Essay
An Analysis of A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
A People’s History of the United States is a 1980 non-fiction book by American historian and political scientist Howard Zinn. In the book, Zinn seeks to present American history through the eyes of the common people rather than political and economic elites. A People’s History has been assigned as reading in many high schools and colleges across the United States. It has also resulted in a change in the focus of historical work, which now includes stories that previously were ignored. The book was a runner-up in 1980 for the National Book Award. It has been frequently revised, with the most recent edition covering events through 2005. In 2003, Zinn was awarded the Prix des Amis du Monde Diplomatique for the French version of this book, Une histoire populaire des États-Unis.More than two million copies have been sold. Reviews have been mixed. Some have called it a brilliant tool for advancing the cause of social equality.
Others have called the book a revisionist patchwork containing errors. In a 1998 interview, Zinn said he had set “quiet revolution” as his goal for writing A People’s History. “Not a revolution in the classical sense of a seizure of power, but rather from people beginning to take power from within the institutions. In the workplace, the workers would take power to control the conditions of their lives.” In 2004, Zinn edited a primary source companion volume with Anthony Arnove, entitled, Voices of a People’s History of the United States. Columbus to the Robber Barons
“Columbus, the Indians, and Human Progress” covers early Native American civilization in North America and the Bahamas, the genocide and enslavement committed by the crew of Christopher Columbus, and incidents of violent colonization by early settlers. Topics include the Arawaks, Bartolomé de las Casas, the Aztecs, Hernán Cortés,Pizarro, Powhatan, the Pequot, the Narragansett, Metacom, King Philip’s War, and the Iroquois. Chapter 2, “Drawing the Color Line” addresses the early enslavement of Africans and servitude of poor British people in the Thirteen Colonies. Zinn writes of the methods by which he says racism was artificially created in order to enforce the economic system. He argues that racism is not natural because there are recorded instances of camaraderie and cooperation between black slaves and white servants in escaping from and in opposing their subjugation. “Persons of Mean and Vile Condition” describes Bacon’s Rebellion, the economic conditions of the poor in the colonies, and opposition to their poverty.
“Tyranny is Tyranny” covers the movement for “leveling” (economic equality) in the colonies and the causes of the American Revolution. Zinn argues that the Founding Fathers agitated for war to distract the people from their own economic problems and stop popular movements, a strategy that he claims the country’s leaders would continue to use in the future. “A Kind of Revolution” covers the war and resistance to participating in war, the effects on the Native American people, and the continued inequalities in the new United States. When the land of veterans of the Revolutionary War was seized for non-payment of taxes, it led to instances of resistance to the government, as in the case of Shays’ Rebellion. Zinn wrote that “governments – including the government of the United States – are not neutral… they represent the dominant economic interests, and… their constitutions are intended to serve these interests.”
“The Intimately Oppressed” describes resistance to inequalities in the lives of women in the early years of the U.S. Zinn tells the stories of women who resisted the status quo, including Polly Baker, Anne Hutchinson, Mary Dyer, Amelia Bloomer, Catharine Beecher, Emma Willard, Harriot Hunt, Elizabeth Blackwell, Lucy Stone, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Margaret Fuller, Sarah Grimké, Angelina Grimké, Dorothea Dix, Frances Wright, Lucretia Mott, and Sojourner Truth. If you look through high school textbooks and elementary school textbooks in American history, you will find Andrew Jackson the frontiersman, soldier, democrat, man of the people — not Jackson the slaveholder, land speculator, executioner of dissident soldiers, exterminator of Indians. Howard Zinn,
A People’s History of the United States
“As Long As Grass Grows or Water Runs” discusses 19th century conflicts between the U.S. government and Native Americans (such as the Seminole Wars) and Indian removal, especially during the administrations of Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren. Chapter 8, “We Take Nothing By Conquest, Thank God” describes the Mexican-American War. Zinn writes that President James Polk agitated for war for the purpose of imperialism. Zinn argues that the war was unpopular, but that newspapers of that era misrepresented the popular sentiment. “Slavery Without Submission, Emancipation Without Freedom” addresses slave rebellions, theabolition movement, the Civil War, and the effect of these events on African-Americans. Zinn writes that the large-scale violence of the war was used to end slavery instead of the small-scale violence of the rebellions because the latter may have expanded beyond anti-slavery, resulting in a movement against the capitalist system.
He writes that the war could limit the freedom granted to African-Americans by allowing the government control over how that freedom was gained. “The Other Civil War”, covers the Anti-Rent movement, the Dorr Rebellion, the Flour Riot of 1837, the Molly Maguires, the rise of labor unions, the Lowell girlsmovement, and other class struggles centered around the various depressions of the 19th century. He describes the abuse of government power by corporations and the efforts by workers to resist those abuses. Here is an excerpt on the subject of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877: Chapter 11, “Robber Barons and Rebels” covers the rise of industrial corporations such as the railroads and banks and their transformation into the nation’s dominant institutions, with corruption resulting in both industry and government. Also covered are the popular movements and individuals that opposed corruption, such as the Knights of Labor, Edward Bellamy, the Socialist Labor Party, the Haymarket martyrs, the Homestead strikers, Alexander Berkman, Emma Goldman, Eugene V. Debs, the American Railway Union, theFarmers’ Alliance, and the Populist Party.
The Twentieth Century
“The Empire and the People”, covers American imperialism during the Spanish-American War and the Philippine-American War, as well as in other lands such asHawaii, Guam, and Puerto Rico. The Teller Amendment. Zinn portrays the wars as being racist and imperialist and opposed by large segments of the American people. Chapter 13, “The Socialist Challenge”, covers the rise of socialism and anarchism as popular political ideologies in the United States. Covered in the chapter are the American Federation of Labor (which Zinn argues provided too exclusive of a union for non-white, female, and unskilled workers; Zinn argues in Chapter 24 that this changes in the 1990s),Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, Joe Hill, the Socialist Labor Party, W. E. B. Du Bois, and the Progressive Party (which Zinn portrays as driven by fear of radicalism).
“War is the Health of the State” covers World War I and the anti-war movement that happened during it, which was met with the heavily enforced Espionage Act of 1917. Zinn argues that the United States entered the war in order to expand its foreign markets and economic influence. “Self-Help in Hard Times” covers the government’s campaign to destroy the IWW, and the factors leading to the Great Depression. Zinn states that, despite popular belief, the 1920s were not a time of prosperity, and the problems of the Depression were simply the chronic problems of the poor extended to the rest of the society. Also covered is the Communist Party’s attempts to help the poor during the Depression. “A People’s War?”, covers World War II, opposition to it, and the effects of the war on the people. Zinn, a veteran of the war himself, notes that “it was the most popular war the US ever fought,” but states that this support may have been manufactured through the institutions of American society.
He cites various instances of opposition to fighting (in some cases greater than those during World War I) as proof. Zinn also argues against the US’ true intention was not fighting against systematic racism such as theJim Crow laws (leading to opposition to the war from African-Americans). Another argument made by Zinn is that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not necessary, as the U.S. government had already known that the Japanese were considering surrender beforehand. Other subjects from WWII covered include Japanese American internment and the bombing of Dresden. The chapter continues into the Cold War. Here, Zinn writes that the U.S. government used the Cold War to increase control over the American people (for instance, eliminating such radical elements as the Communist Party) and at the same time create a state of permanent war, which allowed for the creation of the modern military-industrial complex.
Zinn believes this was possible because both conservatives and liberals willingly worked together in the name of anti-Communism. Also covered is the US’ involvement in the Greek Civil War, the Korean War, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and the Marshall Plan. Chapter 17, “‘Or Does It Explode?'” (named after a line from Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem” from “Montage of a Dream Deferred”, referred to as “Lenox Avenue Mural” by Zinn), covers the Civil Rights movement. Zinn argues that the government began making reforms against discrimination (although without making fundamental changes) for the sake of changing its international image, but often did not enforce the laws that it passed. Zinn also argues that while nonviolent tactics may have been required for Southern civil rights activists, militant actions (such as those proposed by Malcolm X) were needed to solve the problems of black ghettos. Also covered is the involvement of the Communist Party in the movement, the Congress of Racial Equality, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Freedom Riders, COINTELPRO, and the Black Panther Party.
“The Impossible Victory: Vietnam”, covers the Vietnam War and resistance to it. Zinn argues that America was fighting a war that it could not win, as the Vietnamese people were in favor of the government of Ho Chi Minh and opposed the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem, thus allowing them to keep morale high. Meanwhile, the American military’s morale for the war was very low, as many soldiers were put off by the atrocities that they were made to take part in, such as the My Lai massacre. Zinn also tries to dispel the popular belief that opposition to the war was mainly amongst college students and middle-class intellectuals, using statistics from the era to show higher opposition from the working class. Zinn argues that the troops themselves also opposed the war, citing desertions and refusals to go to war, as well as movements such as Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
Also covered is the US invasions of Laos and Cambodia, Agent Orange, the Pentagon Papers, Ron Kovic, and raids on draft boards. Chapter 19, “Surprises”, covers other movements that happened during the 1960s, such as second-wave feminism, the prison reform/prison abolition movement, the Native American rights movement, and the counterculture. People and events from the feminist movement covered include Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell, Patricia Robinson, the National Domestic Workers Union, National Organization for Women, Roe v. Wade, Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will, and Our Bodies, Ourselves. People and events from the prison movement covered include George Jackson, the Attica Prison riots, and Jerry Sousa. People and events from the Native American rights movement covered include the National Indian Youth Council, Sid Mills, Akwesasne Notes, Indians of All Tribes, the First Convocation of American Indian Scholars, Frank James, the American Indian Movement, and the Wounded Knee incident.
People and events from the counterculture covered include Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan,Joan Baez, Malvina Reynolds, Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death, Jonathan Kozol, George Dennison, and Ivan Illich. Chapter 20, “The Seventies: Under Control?”, covers American disillusion with the government during the 1970s and political corruption that was exposed during the decade. Zinn argues that the resignation of Richard Nixon and the exposure of crimes committed by the CIA and FBI during the decade were done by the government in order to regain support for the government from the American people without making fundamental changes to the system; according to Zinn, Gerald Ford’s presidency continued the same basic policies of the Nixon administration. Other topics covered include protests against the Honeywell Corporation, Angela Davis, Committee to Re-elect the President, the Watergate scandal,International Telephone and Telegraph’s involvement in the 1973 Chilean coup d’état, the Mayagüez incident, Project MKULTRA, the Church Committee, the Pike Committee, theTrilateral Commission’s The Governability of Democracies, and the People’s Bi-Centennial.
“Carter-Reagan-Bush: The Bipartisan Consensus”, covers the Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush administrations and their effects on both the American people and foreign countries. Zinn argues that the Democratic and Republican parties keep the government essentially the same (that is, they handled the government in a way that was favorable for corporations rather than for the people) and continued to have a militant foreign policy no matter which party was in power. Zinn uses similarities between the three administrations’ methods as proof of this. Other topics covered include the Fairness Doctrine, the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, Noam Chomsky, global warming, Roy Benavidez, the Trident submarine, the Star Wars program, the Sandinista National Liberation Front, the Iran-Contra Affair, the War Powers Act, U.S. invasion of Lebanon during the Lebanese Civil War, the Invasion of Grenada, Óscar Romero, the El Mozote massacre, the 1986 Bombing of Libya, the collapse of the Soviet Union, theUnited States invasion of Panama, and the Gulf War. “The Unreported Resistance”, covers several movements that happened during the Carter-Reagan-Bush years that were ignored by much of the mainstream media.
Topics covered include the anti-nuclear movement, the Plowshares Movement, the Council for a Nuclear Weapons Freeze, the Physicians for Social Responsibility, George Kistiakowsky, The Fate of the Earth, Marian Wright Edelman, the Citizens’ Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes, the Three Mile Island accident, the Winooski 44, Abbie Hoffman,Amy Carter, the Piedmont Peace Project, Anne Braden, César Chávez, the United Farm Workers, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, Teatro Campesino, LGBT social movements, the Stonewall riots, Food Not Bombs, the anti-war movement during the Gulf War, David Barsamian, opposition to Columbus Day, Indigenous Thought, Rethinking Schools, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. “The Coming Revolt of the Guards”, covers Zinn’s theory on a possible future radical movement against the inequality in America.
Zinn argues that there will eventually be a movement made up not only of previous groups that were involved in radical change (such as labor organizers, black radicals, Native Americans, feminists), but also members of the middle class who are starting to become discontented with the state of the nation. Zinn expects this movement to use “demonstrations, marches, civil disobedience; strikes and boycotts and general strikes; direct action to redistribute wealth, to reconstruct institutions, to revamp relationships.” Chapter 24, “The Clinton Presidency”, covers the effects of the Bill Clinton administration on the U.S. and the world. Zinn argues that, despite Clinton’s claims that he would bring changes to the country, his presidency kept many things the same as in Reagan-Bush era.
Topics covered include Jocelyn Elders, the Waco Siege, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Crime Bill of 1996, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, the 1993 bombing of Iraq, Operation Gothic Serpent, the Rwandan Genocide, the War in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the North American Free Trade Agreement, the 1998 bombing of Afghanistan and Sudan, the Impeachment of Bill Clinton, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, Stand for Children, Jesse Jackson, the Million Man March, Mumia Abu-Jamal, John Sweeney, the Service Employees International Union, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, the Worker Rights Consortium, the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Spare Change News, theNorth American Street Newspaper Association, the National Coalition for the Homeless, anti-globalization, and WTO Ministerial Conference of 1999 protest activity.
“The 2000 Election and the ‘War On Terrorism'”, covers the 2000 presidential election and the War on Terrorism. Zinn argues that attacks on the U.S. by Arabterrorists (such as the September 11, 2001 attacks) are not caused by a hatred for our freedom (as claimed by President George W. Bush), but by grievances with U.S. foreign policies such as “stationing of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia… sanctions against Iraq which… had resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children; the continued U.S. support of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land.” Other topics covered include Ralph Nader, the War in Afghanistan, (though notably absent is any mention of the Talibangovernment in control in Afghanistan at the time, the war being launched, according to Zinn, based merely on the belief that bin Laden was hiding in the country) and the USA PATRIOT Act