Howard Zinn was a Historian, Author, Pofessor, Playwright
Howard Zinn was a historian, author, professor, playwright and activist.[footnoteRef:1] He first gained his Bachelor’s degree in New York University and then proceeded to study in Columbia University to earn his Masters and Doctor’s degree in history. At 39 years old, he was offered to teach and be the chair of the History Department at Spelman College at Atlanta. Being close with his students influenced and then led him to be active in civil rights movement. [1: “Howardzinn.org.” howardzinn.org. https://www.howardzinn.org/about/biography/ (accessed April 28, 2019)]
The book of Howard Zinn is indeed unlike other books that tackle about the History of United States of America. His work that was published in 1980 is entitled A People’s History of the United States. It is a 614-page book that tells about the History of the United States of America but in the perspective of the marginalized people. But before he started off to laying down the historical facts, he emphasized the shortcomings of most of history books about America. He pointed out how scholars, when relaying historical facts, should not emphasize only on the good things that resulted from the event but also mention and discuss thoroughly on its negative impact in order for the reader to have a better judgment. The author also illustrated how the biased works of several authors affects the whole story.
How it works
In the first few pages of the book, he discussed how if an author focus on a specific topic, although not completely ignoring the other but more like making the other topics seem less important in a way, affects the opinion of the readers. An example is his critique on Samuel Eliot Morison’s book about how he focused on Columbus’ heroism while somehow deemphasizing the genocide that happened will make the readers think how these “”atrocities”” are an acceptable price to pay for what America is today.
The discussion then jumps back and forth from the perspective of the author and of Columbus. He lays down the writings of Columbus on his arrival in the “uncharted land that lay between Europe and Asia”, which was now United States and how he was welcomed by naked men and women that were called the Arawak people. The author then proceeds to discuss about the arrival, how the Indians showed their hospitality by bringing Columbus and his men several things like parrots and balls of cotton and spears. But despite the warm welcome Columbus saw them as nothing but a means to fulfill his mission which was to find gold. Unfortunately for the Indians, Columbus was no longer just aiming to get gold found in the island but he also saw an opportunity to capture them and make them slaves. And throughout the first part of the chapter, author didn’t miss the chance of showing Columbus’ failed expeditions. He revealed how Columbus failed to fulfill his aim of getting gold and slaves.
In continuation, Zinn then used the point of view of the young priest Bartolome de las Casas and shed light on the cruelty that the Indians suffered under the hands of the Europeans. Not only does he point out the role of the Indian men and women, he also the harshness of the colonizers to the Indians in specific details. And to start his critiques on how the other scholar’s objectivity affects the notion of the readers in regards to the history of America, the author points out how slavery, bloodshed and death were the beginning of Americas history and not a “”heroic adventure”” as what other books would tell. He then proceeds to remind how it is deadly for the scholars to objectively “”bury them (information) in a mass of other facts, as radioactive wastes are buried in containers in the earth””. He also argues on Henry Kissinger’s thoughts on how “”History is the memory of states””. For him, telling the history of the United States should not be presented as “”a memory of our own”” because in a world filled with conflict, majority are focused on the perspective of the victors setting aside the misery of the victims. Although he doesn’t mean that authors should focus on trying to sympathize with the victims but more like try to interpret history from different points of view instead of just the perspective of the victor. Basically, he means that in history scholars should not conceal other parts of the story but lay it down as it is. These were the few things he wanted to disclose to the reader before continuing on the next chapter.
Like other books about the history of United States of America, after discussing the arrival of Columbus he begun on the explaining the early European settlements. The author explained the settlements thoroughly from the coming of the Europeans in search of a place to settle in, up to how they used force to drive away the Indians from their own lands. So basically, the European settlements in America emerged from annihilating Indians. And also, as to Zinn’s interpretation of the annihilation of the Indians was that it was the result of the European’s search for satisfying their need for land. Which he then followed up by questioning if the genocide was a necessity for human progress and if it is morally right for scholars to emphasize on progress while somehow discrediting the pain of the victims and make it seem like human progress won’t be achieved without the bloodbath.
In the proceeding chapter Zinn now discusses the emergence of black slavery in America and tries to connect it several topics such as the rise of racism in area. Along with that, he illustrated the frustration of the Europeans because they saw themselves as the superior being and yet felt inferior when they saw the Indians way of taking care of themselves despite being not technologically advanced. So in order to not feel inferior Europeans took black African slaves in America. Aside from class consciousness, this act was accordingly one of the reasons why black slavery was introduced and became popular in the country. Speaking of class consciousness, this topic was also thoroughly discussed by Zinn in which not only did he show the battle between classes, but also the battle of the classes against its administration. This conflict resulted to the classes practicing liberty and equality. The union and loyalty that was created helped them when they fought to win over their Independence from England in the 17760s.
This battle over America’s independence was then discussed in the fourth chapter of the book and was entitled “”Tyranny is Tyranny””. This was the point where “”important people in the English colonies”” or also known as the Founding Fathers, realized how building a nation and separating from the British Empire will make them have the upper hand, meaning they will no longer be under the British administration and be forced to follow unreasonable laws. With the union of the group called patriots, they encouraged the others to follow their lead and go against the British administration. But the impressive story of revolution somehow ended up with the Americans going up against each other because the administration at that time was ruled by the privileged elites. It seemed like the colonist have realized how they have been fooled with the thought gaining independence from the British when in reality they only replaced the former dictatorial system with of governance with people of their own.
And along with this Zinn then revealed in the following chapter that a huge number of colonists that joined the revolution didn’t fully support the patriots for the sole reason of gaining independence, but rather they aided their help because of their own reasons. And one of these reasons was for money, many poor colonists decided to become part of the militia because the salary and the benefits were really promising. Because not only do they have money they also gain a higher social status in the society. And as what other scholars fail to do, Zinn shed light on the huge contribution of the black slaves in the war and how they ended up not gaining anything from it. To end Zinn’s discussion about the Revolutionary War, he showed how the war that majority claimed to be beneficial for America was in fact only beneficial to the colonists that had a higher social status. In fact this benefits that the elites experienced are actually reflected on the first constitution drafted. And according to Zinn, the main problem of the administration during the post-Revolution was how they catered to the rich. He then wraps up the chapter by pointing out how the Founding Fathers did not really care about the balance between the rich and the poor, the Indians and the white, the slaves and the masters. They only focused on maintaining the balance of dominant powers within the society for their own selfish desires and even forgot to look out for the women of early America. The way history has ignored women and treated them as if they weren’t involved is very disheartening. As Zinn puts it, the women’s invisibility back then if compared to the way the black slaves were treated was in the same level. And that back then, men saw women as nothing more but a “bearer-teacher-warden” of his heirs. And just like other scholars when talking about the role of women in history, Zinn used the theory of feminism as he proceeded to list series of events that involved women.
In the next chapters, Zinn proceeds to discuss the injustices that the Indians have faced during American’s expansion to the west. The resettlement of the Native Americans was the sacrifice that was made by invaders of their lands for the sake of agriculture, for the sake of commerce, for the sake of money. The irony of these things is that the Indians suffered for money that wouldn’t even be theirs. They have undergone to the injustices for the benefits that only the white Americans would experience. The author then continues to discuss how the Indians suffered under the administration of different presidents. In fact, if you take a closer look in the series of presidents that have reigned, you can see how every single one of them had were involved with several Indian Removal Acts. Series of events that involved the removal of the Indians from their territories were shown by Zinn. So with the continuous resettlement of the Indians along with the expansion of America’s territories in the west, you expect that they will be contented with expanding along those lines but unfortunately it still wasn’t enough. This is then the next topic being discussed by the author in the following chapter. See when U.S. purchased Louisiana for the expansion of its territory, it created tension between Mexico and America. And as tension grew even more between the two, the breakout of war was inevitable. In fact, this Mexican-American War somehow foreshadowed the growing tension between the anti-slavery Northerners and the pro-slavery Southerners. The war was even labeled by the Northerners as a “plot by the slave owners”.
As other scholars glorify the Mexican-American War for being the reason for America’s great territorial expansion, Zinn on the other hand argues that the armed conflict was more than just the glorious achievement of gaining land. Rather scholar should start to consider it as the most gruesome wars in the American history because of the casualties that it caused on both sides.
It was in the ninth chapter of the book, when Zinn started to delve in deeper on the topic of slavery. According to him, the American government supported slavery because of overpowering practicality. Basically, he pointed out how black slavery happened not because Americans were down right racist in the beginning, instead it was mainly for the economy. Racism was then developed later on, as a way of justifying their actions against their enslavement of the African people. He also argued that the Southern states weren’t the only ones to be blamed in the shameful act of enslavement; he revealed that tolerating the acts of the Southerners made the American government an accomplice in the act. In fact, Zinn also added that black slavery was a disgraceful act that the entire American State should bear the guilt of, since there were still involved with it in some way.
In the same chapter, Zinn revealed how Abraham Lincoln himself wasn’t a heroic figure as other scholars deemed him to be. Accordingly, he is just like any other politician that aimed to retain slavery. And with what happened in the Civil War, Zinn still holds on to his argument that the American government didn’t fight to end slavery but rather to retain its power. And although he mainly highlighted the cruelness that the black people faced, he also showed how the white Americans with a lower status were being discriminated by the society and compares the difference with how they persecuted the black people. In additional to what previously happened was the growing inequality in the American continent, because of this it is no longer surprising that people started to go against the government. And with the advantage of being able to travel and publicize a person’s view on what was happening, the elites realized that they needed to stop this ongoing dissatisfaction in order to still keep the lower ranks on a leash. See the civil war didn’t end on Lincoln’s administration. With the governments continuous display of inequality, several protests from the working class started to arise, and according to Zinn, even though these protests did not succeed, it somehow helped them prepare for successful strikes in the future. By the second half of the 19th century, the separation between the rich and the poor became worse. Basically, the elites benefited from the hard work of the poor Americans. And although the federal government has passed several legislatures, for Zinn, those were nothing but sugarcoated laws that were for the interest of the elites. And while the elites were getting richer, the working class was still blind and started to blame each other instead of blaming the people of higher status that were the ones behind their dilemma.
America’s expansion overseas was the author’s target topic in the next chapters after discussing about America’s inner conflict. In fact, there were several reasons for expanding the American territory, and one of these reasons was that the expansion was necessary in order to make sure that there is enough available land for everybody. Which Zinn then connects with the wars that they were involved in was so that they could obtain the territories that they wanted. But since the author did clarify in the beginning that he will express the perspective of the minority, it was expected that the ended the chapter by focusing on the small amount of Americans that opposed the wars because it was not morally right.
The start of the twentieth century marked the return of the class anger that was deeply buried right after fooling the working class with legislatures that benefited the elites. This is also where Zinn commended on journalists that mustered up the courage to challenge the authority of the elites and made the public know that they were actually wolves in sheep’s fur because of how corrupt they really were. And when this became known to the public, the working class caused an uproar and went against the administration. They went to the streets in union and protested, these unions then became organizations. And according to Zinn, these groups still excluded the blacks.
While starting to discuss about the involvement of America in World War I, Zinn talked about how the governments of these nations battling against each other are doing fine while their people on the other hand are fighting for their lives. According to Zinn, America’s involvement in the First World War was determined by its ties with Cuba and the Philippines. Now as we all know, World War I began because of the western nation’s need to have control over the territories in Africa so that they can freely exploit on its territories. Zinn also mentioned how the Americans weren’t in a rush to go to war despite the country declaring it. Instead they went on several meetings before making a decision. And as he implied, the American government just used World War I as an excuse to tighten its control over its own people. What the government really wanted was to have an excuse to restrict the citizens especially those who had a history of going against the administration and the elites, because by this time, the elites still feared that the working class will march up against them in numbers. Zinn then proceeds to discuss on the following chapter, the challenges that the working class had gone through under the administration of the elites. Despite the reforms that were laid down in order for them to settle, still a huge number of those who belong in the working class, be it women or the blacks, they worked out their differences and decided to work together to fight against capitalism.
After discussing about the involvement of America in World War One and how the American government used it to their advantage. Zinn gets on with discussing the Second World War and how it impacted the North American continent. He revealed how America was able to be tied with fascist countries in Europe, which meant that despite the differences the American government doesn’t let it interfere with business. He also mentioned that he is suspicious of whether or not the American government purposely tried to go against the foreign powers during the war in the 1940s because the war affected the government positively in a way that they benefitted from the armed conflict. America involvement in wars have somewhat distracted the citizens from going against the government for slowly turning into a growing corporatization.
The author also mentioned in his book that, since the American government was so slow in battling racism and discrimination, the citizens got tired of waiting for government action and decided to work together to in changing their society. And unlike other historians, Zinn looks at the Civil Rights Movement with despair. Because for him, despite the achievements of the activists, the American government still didn’t take immediate action in fighting for the equality of the black community.
In this chapter, Zinn talks about the Vietnam War and identify it as something rare, because it isn’t actually very common to find populism influencing government policies for the betterment of its citizens. He also regards the withdrawal of America from Vietnam as a triumph for the American populist. He then proceeds to enumerate several populist causes that happened in the 1960s, in which according to him was quite outstanding because of how populists used tactics in lobbying for their society’s rights and freedom. He ends this chapter by mentioning ahead about how the elites tried to regain back their power in the government, in which he then continued onto the next chapter.
In the 1970s, the system of the American government went spiraling out of control because of the people fighting over to gets to dominate the administration. It was so chaotic that Americans from distinct backgrounds had to interfere. They gathered together and went against the American government and the large corporations while refusing to label themselves with Republic and Democratic parties. And despite the growing power of the corporations and the government, the Americans stood their ground and continued to protest against the higher ranks. Zinn then points out how those that are educated and have power and wealth tend to help each other out than cooperate with mere lower ranked civilians. He also revealed that despite acting like they are sincerely tending to the needs of the American people, the Republican and the Democrats are actually on the side of the elites protecting their interests and their property. Zinn also shows that no matter what happens the American government will still prioritize the interest of its economy. In fact, even after the Soviet Union met its downfall in the 1990s America did not change its foreign policies. As a matter of fact, to ensure that the American businesses are still growing successfully it continued to send troops all around the globe.
Throughout the topics of government propaganda and jingoism, Zinn has never failed to applause the resistant of the American people. He praised them for being able to be brave enough to stand firm, protest, and create non-violent resistance and not be afraid of showing disagreement with the administrations doings. But with the mention of the Republicans and Democrats, Zinn expressed how being a part of a different party doesn’t affect the common man’s mindset in correcting the unjust actions of the American government. All throughout the chapters of this book, Zinn have presented several arguments of how the American government controls its people in a non-communist way. Unlike other countries, America is giving its citizens enough free and income in order to avoid dissatisfaction.
History is for the victors, the quote itself says how History is often told in the point of victors of the conflict and not of the victims themselves. And while several books are the embodiment of the quote because of how they fail to mention the side of the victims, and others mention the genocide but rather emphasizes on the end result. But Howard Zinn’s work on the other hand expresses the different series of event in different perspectives, and these perspectives are from the victim’s point of view. But despite that, he does not forget to mention and emphasize on the pros and cons of every incident mentioned in order for the reader to judge and understand the events comprehensively. And unlike other historians, although Zinn includes his own ideologies and arguments in the book, he doesn’t fail to recognize how it is for the Americans at that time to challenge the “power of the Establishment.”
The book is composed of 614 pages including the index. It is also divided into 24 chapters that start from the arrival of Columbus in America up to the revolt in which the author states is not a prediction but in a sense a breakthrough from the administration. The book is recommendable to those studying the History of the United States of America in order to have a grasp of the different perspectives of the groups involved in the series of events. By reading this book the reader will be able understand the celebration of the hardships that America has encountered while at the same time acknowledging the injustices that the victims have faced.”