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Friday, January 11, 2019

A PEOPLE'S HISTORY of the UNITED STATES by Howard Zinn



Originally published in 1980 by HarperCollins. Multiple updated editions have been printed.

Howard Zinn's (1922-2010) A People's History of the United States is perhaps the most famous and most controversial history book in publication today. 

I read this book because the former governor of my home state of Indiana and current President of Purdue University, Mitch Daniels, repeatedly criticized it and actually advocated blocking its use in public schools in Indiana, including Indiana University. Governor Daniels used to be a frequent guest on a local newstalk radio station in Indianapolis and this book came up enough times in the conversations that I became aware of it. Before that I had never heard of it - but he certainly put it on my radar. That's not really what he had intended, I am sure.

I found my copy of A People's History of the United States in a local thrift shop on a half price day, which made this book a true bargain at $1. I decided that, as a good and loyal American I absolutely had to read the book that my state government's former chief executive had decided was "truly execrable" and should be removed from all classrooms and see for myself if he was right.

Zinn has a theme that he hits consistently throughout his book and it is that the "haves" are continually using and abusing the "have-nots" throughout American history although, sometimes, the "haves" give in a bit and let some of the "have-nots" get a little more because it ensures their survival at the top. He argues that this was the case during the American Revolution. He would have been a big promoter of the idea of the 1% vs. the 99% that has come into vogue lately.

He also argues that the elites stoke class envy and racial animosities to create internal rivalries among the lower classes so that they fight among themselves and fail to see who their true enemy is. Throughout the entire book, the details change but this is the basic story.

As a history book, this book succeeds fabulously at hitting that one note over and over and over and over ad nauseam. Is he right? Sure - to a point he is right throughout the book. For example, he is right that the founders envisioned limited participation from the common man in the early American republic. But, other arguments sound hollow. 


For example, on page 37 of my 1990 edition he argues that racial animosities were practically created by the elites as a way to control the slaves. It is a clever argument and it is the culmination of a long argument that he had been making in the previous pages concerning the presence of anti-miscegenation laws in the new world. His presumption that, if left to themselves, the lower classes would have not had any racial issues because the passing of these laws shows that the elites were bothered by interracial romance and conspired to stop it before the lower class united and overthrew them. This sounds too organized for my tastes. Also, I have less faith in human nature than Zinn does - the same base thoughts that he despises in the upper class exist across all of the classes.

Strengths:

-The discussion of Andrew Jackson and Indian Removal.


-The discussion of the labor movement during the Gilded Age/Robber Baron era was particularly well-written and flowed well.

-He covers the governmental overreach during World War I well.

Weaknesses:


-He wrote this book as an antidote to the "hero" version of history - the version that teaches about George Washington's battlefield exploits but overlooks the fact that he held slaves. Sadly, in his zeal to set the record straight, he often overlooks the good (or even great) points about heroes that he is out to debunk. 

-The Andrew Jackson section says literally nothing about Jackson's strongest political fight - his fight against the National Bank. I would have appreciated a look at how the defeat of this bank and the subsequent "panic" (economic recession/depression) affected regular Americans.

-Sadly, he often ignores the "people" and creates a new set of heroes to replace the ones he has debunked. But, he does little to debunk his new heroes so the reader is left with, essentially, the same problem. Also, this does not make it a true "people's" history since people like Frederick Douglass and Emma Goldman are so extraordinary that they are, by definition, not stand-ins for the "everyman".

-The sections on the Vietnam War and the 1970's suffer from just being written too close to when the book was originally printed (1980). I think he was so close to the events that he had a hard time determining what was truly important and what was trivia. This made the book bog down with things like his stories of community newspapers printed on ditto machines as a sign that media was changing. When compared to the tsunami of change that the internet brought to media just a few years later, these little stories are quaint and irrelevant. 

-During the Cold War sections, it never addresses what the other side in this Cold War was doing and at least acknowledging that America and its allies had reasons to be wary of the USSR and its allies.

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As I stated above, Zinn hits one note throughout the book. This note does appear in most mainstream history books, but not in great quantity. So, the book has value in that it does bring that part of American to the forefront. But, since it does not waver from its obsessive focus, it becomes a tool of limited value. To quote Abraham Maslow: 
  "I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail."

Now, to go back to the beginning of my review - would I outlaw this book from being used in a classroom? No, of course not. But, I do not think it should be the only text used in a class. Individual chapters are sold as smaller books and I think that would be appropriate. If it were a year-long class I might have students read the whole thing so long as they were reading lots of other works.

I don't see what the big fuss is on either side, to be honest.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: 
A People's History of the United States.

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