A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn

A People's History of the United States

Known for its lively, clear prose as well as its scholarly research, A People's History of the United States 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....

Title:A People's History of the United States
Author:
Rating:
ISBN:0060838655
Edition Language:English
Format Type:Paperback
Number of Pages:729 pages

A People's History of the United States Reviews

  • Megan
    Jun 12, 2007

    I finally finished this after slogging through it for two weeks, and it was definitely worth it. Besides being a good refresher in U.S. history, particularly from a non-nationalist perspective, I learned a lot about people's movements, and the ways that people (as opposed to 'the great men of history') have created change in our country.

    It's good to know that some of what Zinn covers in A People's History, even though unorthodox at the time he wrote it, has already filtered into public education

    I finally finished this after slogging through it for two weeks, and it was definitely worth it. Besides being a good refresher in U.S. history, particularly from a non-nationalist perspective, I learned a lot about people's movements, and the ways that people (as opposed to 'the great men of history') have created change in our country.

    It's good to know that some of what Zinn covers in A People's History, even though unorthodox at the time he wrote it, has already filtered into public education. For instance, it was very clearly taught in my high school U.S. history course that Columbus was not the genteel 'discoverer' of the Americas but rather the wealth-obsessed leader of a genocide against indigenous people in the Caribbean.

    However, we didn't cover the fact that even as late as the 1960s and '70s the U.S. government was supporting violence against American Indians. Or that 'equal protection' under the 14th amendment was granted to corporations many decades before it was granted to women. (Literally, judges declared that corporations were considered 'persons' - just as they had finally said black men were persons and not just property - and then they later ruled that the term didn't apply to women.) And we certainly didn't cover the continuous use of military forces by both corporations and government against worker protests, events like the Ludlow Massacre (a strike by miners against the Rockefeller family's Colorado Fuel & Iron Corporation), where first the Rockefeller's own hired thugs, and then the government's attempts to bring in strikebreakers, did not break the determination of the workers, and eventually the National Guard launched machine gun fire on a tent colony of workers and their families. And while we maybe mentioned the death of civilians at Hiroshima, we didn't talk about the millions of civilians killed by U.S. troops in the Philippines, Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and both directly/indirectly in numerous Central and South American countries.

    The gist of Zinn's book (and this is a long gist, but it's a long book): the U.S. was founded to protect the interests of the wealthy, and continuous class conflict has been suppressed regularly through the creation of nationalist sentiment, as well as through the pitting of oppressed social groups one against the other (for instance, poor blacks against poor whites, or the lower class against the middle class). Furthermore, as we have accepted 'history' as it has been given to us in school textbooks, we've allowed ourselves both to believe the myth that 'the people' are actually represented by the government, and that we have democracy, while allowing a rich elite to maintain power and help create the continuous war economy we now live in, in which we continuously say we cannot afford to provide people with jobs, food, or education, but yet somehow shell out trillions to military contractors to create weapons we should never even be thinking about using.

    Some of this I had already picked up here and there, but Zinn's book is a sort of a thick concentration of it all, a thorough look at who "we" as the United States really are. While certainly not a pretty self-portrait, it does end on a hopeful note: 'the people' have created change, and we can do it again.

    The catch: change has always been achieved by direct action (violent and non-violent). It has never been achieved by voting.

  • Billy
    Aug 11, 2007

    DO NOT READ THIS BOOK! EVER! BURN IT! HOWARD ZINN SHOULD BE DRAWN AND QUARTERED IN A PUBLIC FORUM!!!

    Seriously though, when I describe my highschool sophomore year history class I generally use the following sentence, "The theme of sophomore year history was: White people - bad, the downtrodden - good." Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States" was our textbook. I HATE THIS BOOK! His basic thesis is that America was built on the blood and suffering of the poor. And while this is def

    DO NOT READ THIS BOOK! EVER! BURN IT! HOWARD ZINN SHOULD BE DRAWN AND QUARTERED IN A PUBLIC FORUM!!!

    Seriously though, when I describe my highschool sophomore year history class I generally use the following sentence, "The theme of sophomore year history was: White people - bad, the downtrodden - good." Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States" was our textbook. I HATE THIS BOOK! His basic thesis is that America was built on the blood and suffering of the poor. And while this is definitely a perspective that should be considered and included in any comprehensive understanding of American history, it SHOULD NOT BE THE PRIMARY MEANS OF INTERPRETING OUR HISTORY!!!!

    Zinn is one of those people who will ALWAYS find something to bitch and moan about. There are other histories out there that cover the time, and do so well, probably even delving into many of the situations and events that Zinn does. But Zinn's is book is much closer to propaganda than history. It's necessary to have a bias in your writing, but some level of impartiality is also useful.

    Anyway, there's my take, do with it what you will, but when I count up the list of my most reviled books/ideas that I've ever been exposed to, Mr. Zinn's "A People's History of the United States" ranks up near the top of the list.

  • Jeffrey
    Sep 23, 2008

    Actually, if you're even somewhat familiar with American History (and I'm not talking about what you learned in your politically correct high school readers, even though in recent years more of the 'bad stuff' is leaking out to our high school students), there's nothing new here. So why are so many upset by Zinn? Most say they are bothered by Zinn's subjectivity (but who cares? after all, it's his book) and what some say is his "whining" tone. Hey, this will help you build your critical thinking

    Actually, if you're even somewhat familiar with American History (and I'm not talking about what you learned in your politically correct high school readers, even though in recent years more of the 'bad stuff' is leaking out to our high school students), there's nothing new here. So why are so many upset by Zinn? Most say they are bothered by Zinn's subjectivity (but who cares? after all, it's his book) and what some say is his "whining" tone. Hey, this will help you build your critical thinking skills and delaing with the reality of bias (never, ever read just one book on complex issues to get it all, or at least most of the true picture) And if he does focus excessively on the rich as creators and cause of all negatives historically, well, he's not too far off (for more, read The End of Money and The Future of Civilization by Thomas H. Greco). But there certainly are positives within most existing negatives (for more read A Patriots History of the United States).

    But back to all the people whining about Zinn's whining (yeah, I know, funny, huh? ;o)What frequently happens is that people respond emotionally and within that emotion analyze incorrectly, therefore, missing the mark and attacking the author (not always, but often). What is most likely affecting most people is an initial exposure to long-covered truths, something Zinn has nothing to do with. And if you love your country and you're getting pummeled by constant negatives about that country, well . . . from that emotional state you shoot missing the mark.

    But there's nothing new here, and you don't have to take my word. If you're looking for different perspectives on the same material, try this short list:

    Revisiting America: Readings in Race, Culture, and Conflict;

    : Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong; and to add to the fire, Noam Chomsky's Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance (yes, the one Hugo Chavez shot to the top of the bestsellers list); Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy; What We Say Goes: Conversations on U.S. Power in a Changing World; ad infinitum. Basically anything Chomsky.

    As for the conservative reading list, there's . . . ahhhh . . . wait a tic? I don't see anything beyond the one book mentioned above. Hmmmmmmmmmmmmm. Let me get on the phone to McCain. I'll be right back.

  • Mike (the Paladin)
    Nov 10, 2009

    Update: I took this out of the library to attempt a reread...no changes, wanted to be fair. Still don't care for it. As noted, no changes.

    Oh my goodness aren't we brave to tell (re-tell) American history this way? "You've been lied to and only I have the strength of character to tell you about it"

    Yeah, yeah, yeah I've heard it all before. In C.S. Lewis' Great Divorce there's a high churchman of the Church of England who's going on about how brave he was to take a secular stand and renouncing "t

    Update: I took this out of the library to attempt a reread...no changes, wanted to be fair. Still don't care for it. As noted, no changes.

    Oh my goodness aren't we brave to tell (re-tell) American history this way? "You've been lied to and only I have the strength of character to tell you about it"

    Yeah, yeah, yeah I've heard it all before. In C.S. Lewis' Great Divorce there's a high churchman of the Church of England who's going on about how brave he was to take a secular stand and renouncing "traditional" beliefs. The "person" he's talking to (who was with him at that time) calls him on it and says you were never in danger of being renounced. You were in the main stream and only pretending (or possibly fooling yourself to put the best face on it) to go against the main stream. That's what we've got here, Since the 70s it's been "fashionable" to try and "debunk" American values and heroes. This one goes right down the line from going for the worst take possible on Columbus to attacking the motives of everyone involved in the American Revolution.

    You want to read this, fine. But let me suggest some balance, bias is bias no matter which side it comes from or comes down on.

    I won't debate (for example) Christopher Columbus' motives here...just realize he like everyone else was a product of his times and if you read his own writings you'll find "slavery and genocide" were the farthest things from his mind.

    European "industrial" culture met a hunter gatherer culture and we got the predictable result. Does anyone really think that maybe fencing off the "New World" and making it a sort of preserve for tribal culture would ever have happened? Yes there were tragedies (I am not taking them lightly, all human history is rife with tragedy) but the continual self flagellation and the "let's all hate America and feel guilty about history-ism" has gotten silly. If we can't look at it for what it is and was and then move on we'll destroy ourselves.

  • J.G. Keely
    May 03, 2013

    Howard Zinn saw a problem in the world, a great bias in our understanding of history, a history written by the winners--by tyrants and industrial magnates and warmongers--and so he did something about it: he created an equally flawed and opposed bias, just as carefully constructed to prop up his own one-sided conclusion, in an act which always calls to my mind Bob Dylan's line:

    Howard Zinn saw a problem in the world, a great bias in our understanding of history, a history written by the winners--by tyrants and industrial magnates and warmongers--and so he did something about it: he created an equally flawed and opposed bias, just as carefully constructed to prop up his own one-sided conclusion, in an act which always calls to my mind Bob Dylan's line:

    A staunch idealist, Zinn's standard method is to throw out the baby with the bathwater: he finds an imperfection in a plan or event, and declares that, since it it not perfect, it should be rejected, outright. There is no pragmatism, no sense of compromise, no utilitarian notion of 'the greater good' for Zinn--if there is a flaw in an action, then that action must be condemned.

    He has come out as saying that war is never a solution, that since people died, the conflict of World War II is not excusable, that the cessation of the Fascist war machine was not worth the cost. Of course, this beggars the question: what else? Is there some better solution to the problem, is there anything else that could have been done to prevent it?

    Likewise, he has rejected US intervention in Korea, despite the fact that when we look at the split Koreas today--the North a wasteland of violence, malnutrition, and ignorance, the South a modern nation with a thriving economy--it is difficult to argue that, despite the deaths in that war, the intervention was not, overall, a positive.

    Certainly, I am not of the camp who believes the US to be some sort of 'World Hero', that we are justified in policing the world, or in enforcing our ideals upon other nations, but neither do I buy the image Zinn paints of the US as a hand-wringing Disney villain that ruins everything it touches--the real truth of the matter is somewhere in between.

    Some things which the US has done, such as our interference in Afghanistan--well on its way to becoming a modernized, self-sustaining nation in the mid-20th Century--tearing down its government, arming its warlords, and making it the staging ground for our Cold War battles with Russia--are awful examples of selfishness forced upon the world. The actions of our government and intelligence community there were not for the greater good, they were at the expense of the Afghans to our own benefit, and there are many such damning examples, but to focus solely on them is just as bad as ignoring them entirely.

    Zinn has received much credit for revealing truth, for reinvigorating our education system and our view of history, but honestly, his work was a bit late for that--already, such diverse perspectives were emerging, and while it took some time for them to trickle down to Middle Schools and the public consciousness, nothing in his book was a revelation to devoted students of history.

    Even those historians who were sympathetic to minority experiences and opposed to the white-washing of history

    for cobbling together a poorly-researched work which took only those parts that were convenient to his thesis and left out all else--and beyond that, twisting and misrepresenting his sources to his own ends.

    But his work is sensationalistic, and work of that sort has a way of finding its way into popular discussion, whether it is accurate or not. His opponents can cite him of an example of 'all that is wrong with that point of view', while his supporters are attracted by the fact that his work tends to cast as the true heroes of history the uninvolved thinker, the academic who talks a great deal, attends protests, but does not get his own hands dirty, since in Zinn's approach, to interact directly with the imperfect world is to sully one's self.

    It's hardly surprising that, in the modern age of 'Entertainment News', as represented by the vehement spewing of incoherent bias, figures like Zinn and

    should become elevated. Zinn's book is like the 'documentaries'

    , or

    , like Daniel Quinn's

    or Hesse's

    , or the writing of

    --all works that are fundamentally more concerned with the author's prejudice than with anything resembling fact.

    In college, it's not uncommon to find folks who are devoted to

    of the above--and if there's a better way than that to say

    , I don't know it. But then, such works are liable to spark off movements--not because they are accurate or well-written, but because they flatter certain preconceptions in the person who reads or watches them--meaning that the movements they inspire are not far removed from cults, centered as they are on philosophies which do not correspond to reality.

    It is truly sad that, in the end, the common state of politics can be boiled down to a question like 'Do you follow rush Limbaugh, or Kieth Olbermann?', when in fact both of them are equally sensationalistic purveyors of half-truths delivered by way of ideology-filled rants. One sometimes wonders what we might achieve if we were able to think of the world in terms other than false dichotomies--but since I, unlike Zinn, am not an idealist, I shall have to accept the fact that it's simply how the human mind works, and do my best to work within that system.

  • Diane
    Mar 24, 2014

    I loved this so much that I'm going to resort to hyperbole: If you read only one book about American history, let it be this one.

    This is not a typical history book. Instead of telling the stories of the victors, Howard Zinn focused on those who have been oppressed in the United States. The minorities. The protesters. The downtrodden.

    In the preface to the updated edition about the Twentieth Century, Zinn wrote: "It is obvious in the very first pages of the larger

    , when I tell ab

    I loved this so much that I'm going to resort to hyperbole: If you read only one book about American history, let it be this one.

    This is not a typical history book. Instead of telling the stories of the victors, Howard Zinn focused on those who have been oppressed in the United States. The minorities. The protesters. The downtrodden.

    In the preface to the updated edition about the Twentieth Century, Zinn wrote: "It is obvious in the very first pages of the larger

    , when I tell about Columbus and emphasize not his navigational skill and fortitude in making his way to the Western Hemisphere, but his cruel treatment of the Indians he found here, torturing them, exterminating them in his greed for gold, his desperation to bring riches to his patrons back in Spain. In other words, my focus is not on the achievements of the heroes of traditional history, but on all those people who were the victims of those achievements, who suffered silently or fought back magnificently."

    I listened to this on audio CD (read by the talented Matt Damon), and the edition focused on the events of the Twentieth Century, including the Vietnam War, the women's movement, the Civil Rights Era, the Clinton presidency and the infamous Bush v. Gore election of 2000. My favorite sections were about the 60s: civil rights, war protests, and the rise of feminism. The complete edition of

    is more than 700 pages and starts back in 1492 (when "Columbus sailed the ocean blue...").

    I first read Zinn's book back in the 90s, but I didn't fully appreciate it. Having more life experience and seeing how much power the rich and powerful really have, I got so much more out of this book this time. I've even referenced it in the sociology class I teach, because so many elements are still relevant.

    In his afterword, Zinn wrote: "I wanted, in writing this book, to awaken a greater consciousness of class conflict, racial injustice, sexual inequality, and national arrogance." Sir, you have succeeded.

  • Warwick
    May 28, 2015

    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.

    Howard Zinn is not in jail (he's dead), but the message to read

    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.

    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,

    , 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

    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:

    (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:

    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:

    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

    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.

  • Michael Finocchiaro
    Sep 01, 2016

    This is one of the most eye-opening books I have ever read. The late Howard Zinn takes off the filters with which American history is taught in schools and takes an unflinching look at how the US has not been the benevolent protector of democracy that propaganda would like us to believe. Not that the founding principles were wrong - they were ideal then and with some modifications re slavery and women's rights are still relevant today - but American domestic and foreign policy has been held host

    This is one of the most eye-opening books I have ever read. The late Howard Zinn takes off the filters with which American history is taught in schools and takes an unflinching look at how the US has not been the benevolent protector of democracy that propaganda would like us to believe. Not that the founding principles were wrong - they were ideal then and with some modifications re slavery and women's rights are still relevant today - but American domestic and foreign policy has been held hostage by Big Capital and Old Money for over two centuries. It should be made essential reading for high school seniors and college freshmen to avoid the kind of knee-jerk reactionism that resulted in Drumpf's election in 2016. The US is not a perfect country and has its share blood on its hands and conscience and ignoring that ensures that we will repeat the same errors resulting in the deaths of innocent people again and again. An absolutely critical read.

    Especially in the current hagiography of praising America's past as the if there was some lost utopia to which Drumpf, Inc wants to return to "Make America Great Again", Zinn's open-eyed, factual, and documented history reveals that this is all pure right-wing propaganda. All corporate and imperialistic entities commit atrocities in order to rise and maintain power, and the US is no exception to that. Yes, there is an ideal of freedom but it is one that has to be fought for generation after generation or it will be lost forever - THAT is what Zinn's book is all about and why it is important now!

    The news just gets worse every day and the truth ever more elusive. Zinn's book remains a critical assessment of American history and a reminder that all of our rights from the Constitution to Social Security to Civil Rights to the Great Society were paid for with blood and sweat and must be preserved despite the constant attacks by Drumpf and his Republican cronies.


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