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A People's History of the United States
Howard Zinn
read on November 12, 2013

In the first chapter of this incredible work, Zinn breaks down his motivations and intent behind writing A People's History; which I enjoyed so much I want to replicating in part here:

My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different: that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex...

Thus, in that inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history, I prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees...

My point is not to grieve for the victims and denounce the executioners. Those tears, that anger, cast into the past, deplete our moral energy for the present. And the lines are not always clear. In the long run, the oppressor is also a victim...

Still, understanding the complexities, this book will be skeptical of governments and their attempts, through politics and culture, to ensnare ordinary people in a giant web of nationhood pretending to a common interest...

That, being as blunt as I can, is my approach to the history of the United States. The reader may as well know that before going on.
And so begins the best history book I'm likely to ever read. Beginning with Columbus and ending with the modern era, Zinn describes each major period in our history from the viewpoint of the oppressed.

And so begins the best history book I'm likely to ever read. Beginning with Columbus and ending with the modern era, Zinn describes each major period in our history from the viewpoint of the oppressed.

As evidenced elsewhere on this site, I was at best marginally aware of the standard American history before reading this book. Given that Zinn circumvents the standard narrative, it's pretty fair to say that everything here was new to me. While reading this book I discovered again and again, to an embarrassing degree, how clueless I was about the foundational events that have shaped our past.

For a while I thought I'd review this book by writing all the things I learned about it down, but that really wouldn't work. Some chapters I literally felt like I was highlighting more text than I wasn't. (Plus, since Zinn is often used as a textbook for history courses, the internet seems pretty full of chapter-by-chapter summaries anyway). I think instead I'd rather just focus on the parts and themes that spoke to me the most, which were:

  • Using conflict and hardship as a system of control. Throughout the book, Zinn characterized many (all?) of the wars that we've fought as an intentional and manufactured effort of the established class to distract/unite/further oppress the lower classes. While I don't buy into that 100%, he makes compelling points with ample evidence.
    Racism was becoming more and more practical. Edmund Morgan, on the basis of his careful study of slavery in Virginia, sees racism not as natural to black-white difference, but something coming out of class scorn, a realistic device for control. If freemen with disappointed hopes should make common cause with slaves of desperate hope, the results might be worse than anything Bacon had done. The answer to the problem, obvious if unspoken and only gradually recognized, was racism, to separate dangerous free whites from dangerous black slaves by a screen of racial contempt.
  • The next thing for me was in general the atrocities we committed against Native Americans for the last, well, 300 years. I knew Americans certainly hadn't gone out of their way to make things easy for them, but my general impression was that Native Americans just sort of went away over time. Clearly it wasn't something I had ever given very much thought to and it was appalling to realize the truth, that we have systematically been committing genocide against that race since colonial times. I thought it was particularly disgusting the way we repeatedly made treaties and promises to different tribes, and then broke them without hesitation. I mean, the president of the United States would sign a document saying that such-and-such tribe could have X many acres of land in perpetuity, and then as soon as it was even remotely inconvenient to white settlers, we just tore up the treaty and ran the Indians off the land.
  • I think it can be logically (though not necessarily morally) argued that removing the Native Americans was just the cost of doing business, and a necessary sacrifice on the way towards building the most economically productive nation in the history of the world. But the manner in which we went about it, with lies on top of lies on top of lies, about how we were great partners and just need them to move west 'just this one last time' was/is disgusting and shameful. (And, I'll mention, it is not yet over.)
  • My last great takeaway was just getting an overall better understanding of the class struggles between the revolutionary war and WWI. I didn't know too much about early American history outside of slavery and WWI, but (unsurprisingly) there was an awful lot going on. It was interesting to get more color on the growing manufacturing and industrial industries and the fights for unionization. I've never been a fan of modern-day unions, and I always sat on the excuse that they were probably appropriate at some point in the past, but no longer. It was quite a thing to read indeed just how appropriate and necessary they were in the past 200 years.
  • Overall the books as fantastic, and should be required reading for every high schooler in the country. It wasn't perfect though - towards the end I really felt like Zinn got way too preachy, and I felt like he forgot that his perspective is not the only one. What I liked so much about the beginning of the book (his mission to tell the untold stories) turned into, ironically, a denunciation of everything else. He seemed to forget or disregard that the lines between good and bad are not always clear, especially during the moment. It's easy from our perspective now as the undisputed dominant world power to look back with disgust at some of our historical actions - but it does the audience a disservice to condemn those events without considering the implications of having gone with the alternative. Most disturbingly, Zinn advocates several times for what I would consider ridiculously radical policy changes (e.g., a 90% flat tax on the wealthy), without substantially defending those policies or their implications.

Again though, a fantastic and enlightening book.

Author Bio:

Howard Zinn (August 24, 1922 – January 27, 2010) was an American historian, playwright, and social activist. He was a political science professor at Boston University. Zinn wrote more than twenty books, including his best-selling and influential A People's History of the United States. In 2007, he published a version of it for younger readers, A Young People′s History of the United States. Zinn described himself as "something of an anarchist, something of a socialist. Maybe a democratic socialist." He wrote extensively about the Civil Rights Movement and anti-war movement, and labor history of the United States. His memoir, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train, was also the title of a 2004 documentary about Zinn's life and work. Zinn died of a heart attack in 2010, aged 87.