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A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present (original 1980; edition 2005)

by Howard Zinn

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Member:mamaraby
Title:A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present
Authors:Howard Zinn
Info:Harper Perennial Modern Classics (2005), Paperback, 768 pages
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A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn (1980)

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In 1846, in Concord, Massachusetts, the writer Henry David Thoreau ran into a tax collector called Sam Staples, who asked for his poll tax. Thoreau declined to pay, refusing – he said – to contribute to what he regarded as the government's illegal war against Mexico. He was put in prison.

When Emerson visited Thoreau in jail and asked, ‘What are you doing in there?’ it was reported that Thoreau replied, ‘What are you doing out there?’

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 ‘Marxist Companion to’ American history – 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 ‘leans in a certain direction’. 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 ‘America’ 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 ‘classless’ 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 – as is the case with the settling of North America, which Zinn sees as straightforwardly genocidal, or his account of the ‘Roaring’ 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 – 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, “A most extraordinary case! Such a one never happened to me before; I really do not know what to do!” 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 – and there were a lot of awesome women involved in anarchist syndicates and that kind of thing – 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 ‘I have a dream’ speech, for instance, is ‘magnificent oratory, but’ – the crucial qualification – ‘without […] anger’.

All of the book's themes come together when it discusses war. There is a bracing résumé 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 – indeed, there is a sense that self-congratulatory cultural ‘admissions’ 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. ‘If there is a war,’ wrote Bolton Hall in an appeal to the working classes in 1898, ‘you will furnish the corpses and the taxes, and others will get the glory.’ Zinn encourages readers to consider what exactly is meant when politicians talk about the ‘national interest’, 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 ‘socialism’.) In a 1992 survey, 44 percent of people thought too much was being spent on ‘welfare’, but 64 percent thought too little was being spent on ‘assistance to the poor’. *headdesk* Vocabulary is everything…

It's true that there is, at times, an unnecessarily conspiratorial tone here – 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 – of which there are, in fact, many – are attributed to an Establishment desire for ‘long-range stability of the system’ rather than to any humanitarian motives. Where concessions have been made, ‘the chief motive was practicality, not humanity’.

Zinn does say at one point that the American system ‘was not devilishly contrived by some master plotters; it developed naturally out of the needs of the situation’, 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. ( )
1 vote Widsith | Jun 26, 2015 |
I think it's very important for the reader to understand Zinn's objective before beginning this book. The best way that I can express it is that Zinn attempts to tell the "other side" of history. Thus, for example, his piece on the Civil War focuses on the fortunes of the African-American slaves and his piece on the westward expansion focuses on its effect on the Native American populations. It is this undying commitment to finding an "alternative" explanation that is both the great strength and weakness of the book.

By searching for the "untold" or "unreported" story, Zinn's work succeeds at telling a unique American story-one much darker than the "official" version. However, in some ways, the work fails because, instead of pursuing a balanced telling, it simply chooses to follow an atypical bias. If you want a grasp of "real" American history, you've got to read Zinn AND [insert conservative historian here], divide by two, and you're probably as close as anyone will ever get to what "really" happened.

The great value of the work is not Zinn's analysis; it's his constant reminder that there is ALWAYS another side to every story and another set of values and beliefs that could serve as our guide to the meaning of life. Perhaps in the end that was Zinn's REAL objective; if so, he achieved it remarkably well. ( )
1 vote Jared_Runck | Jun 12, 2015 |
I want to make sure my son knows this book well. ( )
1 vote aegossman | Feb 25, 2015 |
A very important work in understand in American History. Though not perfect, the author creates a new narrative in weaving together various historic events. That new narrative at times seems a bit too focused on good-ordinary-people versus bad-political-elite, but worth a read nonetheless. A heavy reliance on secondary sources though, to the point where certain chapters feel like no more than a summary of various journals and other books. ( )
2 vote Thomper | Nov 21, 2014 |
(this review was originally written for bookslut)

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 factory collapsed, and against the owners who knew the construction was faulty and did nothing. It is biased in favor of the Indians who rebelled, and against the Spaniards who slaughtered them for not bringing them enough gold. This is a history that does not gloss over the faults of presidents, just because a few good things happened while they were on watch. This is a history that gives credit to the people who organized, the petitions that were sent, and the sit-ins that were held.

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. ( )
3 vote greeniezona | Sep 20, 2014 |
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Covering the period from 1492 practically to the present, this illuminating opus overturns many conventional notions, not just about America's treatment of blacks, but about Native Americans, women, and other disenfranchised groups whose perspectives have traditionally been left out of the education equation.
 
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To Noah, Georgia, Serena, Naushon, Will-and their generation
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Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island's beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat.
Quotations
While some multimillionaires started in poverty, most did not. A study of the origins of 303 textile, railroad and steel executives of the 1870s showed that 90 percent came from middle- or upper-class families. The Horatio Alger stories of "rags to riches" were true for a few men, but mostly a myth, and a useful myth for control. — chapter 11
One percent of the nation owns a third of the wealth. The rest of the wealth is distributed in such a way as to turn those in the 99 percent against one another: small property owners against the propertyless, black against white, native-born against foreign-born, intellectuals and professionals against the uneducated and the unskilled. These groups have resented one another and warred against one another with such vehemence and violence as to obscure their common position as sharers of leftovers in a very wealthy country. — chapter 24
Capitalism has always been a failure for the lower classes. It is now beginning to fail for the middle classes. — chapter 24
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Since its original landmark publication in 1980, A People's History of the United States has been chronicling American history from the bottom up, throwing out the official version of history taught in schools–with its emphasis on great men in high places–to focus on the street, the home, and the workplace.

Known for its lively, clear prose as well as its scholarly research, A People's History is the only volume to tell America's story from the point of view of–and in the words of–America's women, factory workers, African Americans, Native Americans, working poor, and immigrant laborers. As historian Howard Zinn shows, many of our country's greatest battles–for a fair wage, an eight-hour workday, child-labor laws, health and safety standards, universal suffrage, women's rights, racial equality–were carried out at the grassroots level, against bloody resistance. Covering Christopher Columbus's arrival through the 2000 Election and the "war on terrorism," ,A People's History of the United States, which was nominated for the American Book Award in 1981 and has sold more than one million copies, features insightful analysis of the most important events in our history.

This new edition contains two new chapters covering the Clinton presidency, the 2000 Election, and the "war on terrorism," continuing Zinn's important contribution to a complete and balanced understanding of American history.

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Presents the history of the United States from the point of view of those who were exploited in the name of American progress.

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