America the Awful - Howard Zinn's History


Ron Radosh is an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute and professor emeritus of history at the City University of New York. This piece originally appeared at Minding the Campus.

Howard Zinn's death yesterday affords us the opportunity to evaluate the remarkable influence he has had on the American public's understanding of our nation's past. His book A People's History of the United States, published in 1980 with a first printing of 5000 copies, went on to sell over two million. To this day some 128,000 new copies are sold each year. That alone made Zinn perhaps the single most influential historian whose works have reached multitudes of Americans. Indeed, Zinn found that his book was regularly adopted as a text in high schools and most surprisingly, in many colleges and universities.

One can easily summarize the argument Zinn makes in that book, as well as on his recent television special on The History Channel and soon to be released DVD, called "The People Speak." America, he charges, was guilty of waging war on those who really made the American nation: Native Americans, African-Americans, the working-class, the poor, and women. American history, as Zinn saw it, was that of a history of "genocide: brutally and purposefully waged by our rulers in the name of progress. He claimed that these truths were buried "in a mass of other facts, as radioactive wastes are buried in containers in the earth."

Zinn was aided in getting his book attention by two youthful neighbors, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. When both became movie stars, they used their celebrity to popularize Zinn's work and to help bring it to a wide audience. As Damon told the press recently, Zinn's message showed that what our ancestors rebelled "against oftentimes are exactly the same things we're up against now." Zinn himself added a few weeks ago that his hope was that his work will spread new rebellion, and "lead into a larger movement for economic justice."

Zinn wrote his history from the perspective of those in America he claimed were the victims of the nation's rulers, people who were overlooked in the textbooks. Of course, as any student well knows, "bottom up" social history focusing on gender, class and race has dominated the historical profession for the past few decades.

From Zinn's perspective, history should not be told from the standpoints of generals or presidents, but through that of people who struggle for their rights, who engage in strikes, boycotts, slave rebellions and the like. Its purpose should be to encourage similar behavior today. Indeed, Zinn candidly said that history was not about "understanding the past," but rather, about "changing the future." That statement alone should have disqualified anyone from referring to him as a historian.

Zinn did not exempt President Barack Obama who he thought was both "a mediocre" and "dangerous president" from his criticism. In the last article he wrote, that appeared in The Nation last week, Zinn argued that Obama's foreign policy was "no different from a Republican," that he was "nationalist, expansionist, imperial and warlike." As for his proposed domestic programs, he found them "limited" and "cautious." He also did not approve of the apparent decision to try those responsible for 9/11, and referred to them as "suspected terrorists," who "have not been found guilty."

Zinn was certainly entitled to his perspective, widely held by many in the academy, but its danger lies in the favorable reception he often got from those who know little. As one of his proteges, Dave Zirin, writes on The Huffington Post: "With his death, we lose a man who did nothing less than rewrite the narrative of the United States." That, precisely, is the problem.

One TV critic writing in The Los Angeles Times, said what she learned from Zinn was a "horrifying reminder of not just our indomitable ability to change but also this country's collective history of oppression." Zinn, she wrote, showed that patriotism was not only "the last refuge of scoundrels" but that those who worried about our national security were "the whip and cattle prod used by the power elite." True to form, Zinn, like the right-wing isolationist Pat Buchanan, portrayed even World War II as a false model of American military domination over the world.

Even good leftist historians sometimes broke from the applause given Zinn. While Columbia University professor Eric Foner endorsed his recent TV special and appeared with Zinn before it aired at a Cooper Union forum in the same Great Hall where Lincoln once spoke, Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin wrote that Zinn "reduces the past to a Manichean fable and makes no serious attempt to address the biggest question a leftist can ask about U.S. History: why have most Americans accepted the legitimacy of the capitalist republic in which they live?" As Kazin argues, Zinn always depicted the people as rather stupid, since they always lost as the majority accepted rule by "a new, privileged [and greedy] leadership." As he wisely put it: "Ordinary Americans seem to live [for Zinn] only to fight the right... and inevitably, to be fooled by them."

Zinn ransacked the past to find alternative models for future struggles. That, of course, is not the job of the historian, but of the propagandist. Zinn did serve his country during the Second World War as a bombardier, for which he should be commended. Possibly he felt guilt at the collateral deaths of civilians his wartime service may have caused. That is understandable. It does not, however, excuse his distortions of the past or his use of it to promulgate left-wing solutions in the present.

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Maarja Krusten - 2/5/2010

Thanks for posting this, it beautifully illustrates my point above as to issues with which the right (represented by NRO) and the left (Zinn) both struggle. The U.S. need not be viewed either as perfect or a "great" success nor a great failure. We don't view our spouses, our partners, our children, our colleagues that way. A mature approach requires acknoweldging that relatively speaking our nation has handled some things very well but that there also are things we've done badly. Such candor is a key element in a continuous improvement setting of the type found in many workplaces. You can't learn without examining what you've done well and what you haven't. Thanks for posting the reminder of how striking the right balance can be a struggle for right and left both.

Patrick Murray - 2/4/2010

Mr. Marino has produced one of the most thoughtful responses that I have read on HNN in its history. Zinn can be judged on his work as well as his life's work.

John R. Maass - 2/4/2010


Paul Mocker - 2/3/2010

It just struck me that I really don't have a beef toward either side. After reading this article I had the insight that I like these opposite types of histories. I like Zinn's books for fairly and accurately portraying the denial of justice to people and I like the books of Will Durant for fairly and accurately portraying the greatness of Europe and Western Civilization (and by extension, America.) Maybe that makes me warped. But I think all people can appreciate, understand, and be sympathetic to views of the right and left.

Kevin Eric Kennedy - 2/3/2010

Typical. The crimes committed by the Soviet Union and Communist China, which were indeed great, somehow excuplate the United States of its own misdeeds. Conservatives cry for balanced history, but don't seem to mind when the history of the US is portrayed as a grand tale of progress, with freedom, liberty, and opportunity for all. They demand balanced history, but "balanced" towards their own hagiographic views, with no mention of the real problematic nature of American history.

Reid Reynolds - 2/3/2010

"But to deny that we have done terrible things..."

What do you mean "we", Kemo Sabe? I'm not here to be your confessor.

...or to attack those who point it out...

I attack those who present a shallow, one-sided, black and white, shorn of context, inquisitorial pseudo-history with the same zeal of a Torquemada demanding that the heretic confess his crimes and be burned at the stake in cleansing ritual, or resist the Eminence's authority, and be burned at the stake.

In an imperfect world, our record is more perfect than any other of our stature. And, I refuse this biblical insistence that I do penance for the real or purported sins of our forefathers.

A REAL historian would present the whole story, with the transgressions of both sides of every transaction or conflict, not convene a kangaroo court to convict on the basis of a standard of perfection which is never to be attained by anyone in this world.

Zinn's heroes who ran the Soviet Union and China, among other miscreants, were responsible for the slaughter of over 100 million people in the last century, a record of violence and brutality which we do not even come close to matching. Not. Even. Close.

Michael Green - 2/2/2010

It is as silly to attack Zinn for presenting a critical version of the American past as it is to attack, say, Ronald Radosh for presenting the American past as completely glorious. But to deny that we have done terrible things, or to attack those who point it out, is to assault history and our sensibilities. Indeed, it is to be downright McCarthyistic--and I note that some even prostitute history to defend him!

Gregory Marino - 2/2/2010

I like how those who disparage Zinn act like the left historians are the only ones to use their craft for some political purpose. I also find it obnoxious that there is this idea that because someone lets their bias be known in historical writing that they are writing "bad" history. That's nonsense. Every piece of writing has a bias and I commend Zinn for having been up front about it.

He never once said this is the be all end all of American history. The title of the book is "A People's History of the United States" not "A Complete History of the United States from Everyone's Perspective" It's also a fleeting history, and intended for non scholars, so he inevitably is going to have to leave stuff out and make it accessible to the public. I still don't think that makes him a "propagandist" I think it's using history for something much greater and more meaningful than most "scholars."

Every historian interprets history differently, something you learn in your intro classes. Zinn's work shows the voices of the past that are usually left out of our historical memory. To say he presents the people as weak and always succumbing to the will of those in power says that you have not read anything written by Zinn. That kind of statement suggests your impression of Zinn is based on his reputation, not his work. His message is clear, throughout US history there was a whole ton of racism, class warfare, sexism, and other forms of oppression. People often fought these obstacles and sometimes they won. Without radicals in our history we would not have had abolition when we did, women would not have had the right to vote, black people would still be segregated, we would have stayed in Vietnam much longer. To me, that is the most important thing to take from Zinn.

Our textbooks and most other mainstream history presents our leaders and powerful businessmen as heroes and idols. Zinn brings them back to earth and shows that, like those in power today, they were often not willing to give up their power and wealth for the sake of the people.

Zinn's work needs to be complemented with other works. It should not be taken as the definite history, but there is no history that should be taken as a complete history Unfortunately, not everyone is a scholar, and they indeed do take certain books as the only historical reality, but there is no reason to bash Howard Zinn for this reality.

Reid Reynolds - 2/2/2010

You've given me another epiphany. These events are unique in all of human history, and the US is uniquely evil, racist, and genocidal, and the victims of these massacres and pogroms were just standing idly by, worshiping nature, when all of a sudden Whomp! They were snuffed out in the prime of life. It's too bad such an oppressive, maniacal society would never allow these truths to be uttered, let alone published, and anyone who tried would be banished to a lifetime of obscurity and penury, if they were lucky.

Oh, wait...


When one takes the oath in a court of law, one is admonished to tell "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." These words have a precise meaning. Zinn did the bare minimum to comply with the first plank, and made no effort whatsoever on the other two. But, judging by your criticism, perhaps you believe we should do away with courts of law, and just allow the prosecutor to read off the indictment before sentencing?

Zinn's epitaph should read, "Per suus lacuna, sit redarguo."

Maarja Krusten - 2/2/2010

History is made up of events and actions and those, of course, are best examined from the bottom up and top down and everywhere in between. Just as a well run organization solicits 360 feedback which shows how things look to clients, customers, employees, mid-level managers and senior executives. No one component is the only “authentic” one or has the “real” answer because perspectives and interpretations of what constitutes product quality, institutional obligations, risk management, risk mitigation, and stewardship vary and differ. Unfortunately, what is widely accepted in the working world in terms of soliciting and analyzing feedback does not translate readily into the political world. And rarely do historians seem to consider the larger result of how they write and how they discuss each other.

The big problem with the “history wars” lies with the way they’ve been handled outside the academy more so than within, although the latter has affected the former. You don’t hear much from historians who accept the concept of 360 examination of events, as I and many others do. Instead, some historians get caught up in the same “blame/praise” arguments that politicians do. Ironically for Zinn’s bottom-up approach, the culture wars seem to have convinced some members of the public that there exists an “elite” which is incapable of understanding “real Americans” and whose goal is to tear down and harm the United States.

I believe general backlash against elites is one reason we nowadays hear some voters call for “instinctual leaders,” ordinary people whom they believe should be elected by virtue of having managed households and juggled family and workplace duties. Some of this stems from people such as Zinn. Zinn could have popularized the bottom up approach with less baggage. Of course, there are problems among some of the critics as well. Some critics of the academy gripe about the “elites” in such a manner as to raise questions about whether truly accept that critical analysis lies at the foundation of learning. Where does this leave people who believe that effectively run institutions, including the government, have to be tough enough to hear feedback from multiple levels and to be in continuous learning mode?

Neither those who lean towards deconstruction nor those who lean towards triumphalism convey a sense that they value balance in assessment. Nor do the ordinary voters who argue about praising or blaming America. Not all who lambaste “elites” cite historians, per se, since the number of people who read history is not large. But they do seem to be in the mix, indirectly if not directly. If you look at political message boards, you see people who argue passionately about what goes into American values. These battles lead some centrist voters to conclude that it may be risky to hand the keys to power to the right (which claims it values responsibility but seems to struggle with the idea of negative feedback) or to the left (which can sound as if it is blind to what is good about the U.S.). No wonder so many people are Independents these days. Maybe some of them are searching for the calm, rational acceptance of balance and 360 feedback which surrounds them in well-run workplaces.

Kevin Eric Kennedy - 2/2/2010

You really called it with Zinn's "fake" histories. The expulsion of the native Americans from their land and their mass slaughter, the enslavement of blacks and the oppression, discrimination, and terror they were subjected to until the 1960's, the violent repression of the labor movement and the imperialist wars in Vietnam, South and Central America and the Middle East. None of it ever happened. Just the "fake" history concocted by Zinn and other lefties as part of their Bolshevik plot to overthrow America.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/1/2010

Sorry about the error.

Grant W Jones - 2/1/2010

This article was written by Ron Radosh. Seesh.

Reid Reynolds - 2/1/2010

I'm sure this idea isn't new to me, but it hit me this morning whilst shaving. I was thinking along the lines of, why do men like Zinn, Chomsky, et al., conjure up these malign fake histories in order to convince us that we were born in sin, the stain of which can never be washed free?

Then, it hit me: that is exactly what this is, the doctrine of Original Sin. Everyone knows the Left has long been busy creating their own religion. They've got the creation myth (Evolution - not as the Origin of the Species, but as Genesis), and they've got the God ("Science") whom they can invoke to justify policy prescriptions, on pain of eternal damnation and destruction to those who disobey His commandments, as interpreted through them. And, here, they have the concept of Original Sin, just in case any of you get uppity and think you are worthy of running your own lives.

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss. We got fooled again.