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

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Howard Zinn was an American historian, a playwright and an active social activist. He attended college on the G.I. Bill, earning a B.A. at New York University; and went on to earn a master’s degree and a doctorate at Columbia University. Zinn later on became chairman of the history department in 1956 at Spelman College. Before completing his academic endeavors, Zinn joined the Army Air Corps in 1943, which would make him a bombardier. Embodying his socialist views, Zinn opposed the subsequent wars at the time – the Vietnam War and the Iraq War. In this book and in his many works, Zinn had implored the significant role played by the people in shaping the history of a nation. Moreover, he strongly believed that the ordinary people should go against injustice and fight to create a righteous society. Thus, this particular book is described as a narrative that provided the unusual perspectives of the working poor, of people of color, and of the dispossessed in telling the history of a nation. The book showcases a different approach on United States historiography as it tells the history of the country by looking into the experience of its people, different from the usual approach to history wherein leaders and their government were the center of discussion. Just few sentences into the first chapter, the reader gets a glimpse of how the contents of the book were narrated into a story of a people, different in each period but are an integral part of a whole. Compelling, blunt and with a purpose of telling the truth despite the ugly and the hurt, the history of United States is told in this book through the standpoint of its most important interior - its people.

In the first chapter, titled ‘Columbus, the Indians and Human Progress’, Zinn opens the story in the exploration of Christopher Columbus to the Americas through the perspectives of the Arawaks, the native settlers in the area at the time of Columbus’ arrival. It describes the nature and atmosphere of the pre-colonial American land, filled with Indian natives who were hospitable but primitive to the eyes of the European explorers. Later on in the discussion was the revelation of the slaughter of the native Indian population by Columbus’ troops when the latter started to explore the interior for gold and resources, ordering the natives to search for gold and taking children and women as captives for sex and labor. The Arawaks exerted resistance to the cruelty of the Europeans. There were those who defeated the European troops, but still a great number of Indians were brutally and mercilessly killed. As written by Zinn of this injustice and hypocrisy: “Thus began the history, five hundred years ago, of the European invasion of the Indian settlements in the Americas. That beginning, when you read Las Casas – even if his figures are exaggerations (were there 3 million Indians to begin with, as he says, or 250,000, as modern historians calculate?) – is conquest, slavery, death. When we read the history books given to children in US, it all starts with heroic adventure – there is no bloodshed – and Columbus Day is a celebration”.

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Furthermore, in this chapter Zinn explained why he chose to use this approach in writing the history of the United States. Zinn contends that telling the past in the point of view of the governments, conquerors, diplomats and leaders is only one aspect of a certain approach to history. In this book, he wanted to tell the story of the past in from the standpoint of ‘others’ – the people. Of Columbus’ time, it was the Indians. The chapter points out the strategic oppression and injustices done by the European colonizers to the Indians in the name of conquest and gold. And how a newly found group of people, with complex but rich culture and tradition (but primitive to the Europeans’ eyes), was unjustifiably sacrificed for the so-called ‘human progress’ – which implies annihilation of races to turn the settlement from savagery to ‘civilization’.

Chapter two, titled ‘Drawing the Color Line’, talks about the slavery and racism in America in the early 17th century. It shows the oppression of the black population in America, told through their experiences of discrimination and injustices. The chapter was titled as such as it shows how the black people were treated differently from the whites. They may have been enlisted as ‘servants’, like the many white indentured servants brought from Europe, but they were viewed as being different from the whites, were treated differently, and in fact were slaves. Although in Africa, slavery existed, it was different from the slavery in the Americas. In Africa, slaves can be equaled to a serf, meaning they were just like most population in Europe. On top of that, they had rights. But in America, these slaves worked primarily as laborers who were gravely mistreated and oftentimes experienced discrimination. As Zinn states: “African slavery is hardly to be praised. But it was far different from plantation or mining slavery in the Americas, which was lifelong, morally crippling, destructive family ties, without hope of any future”.

Further discussed was the dreadful slave trade with bought black slaves dying while still on board the ships to the Americas. They were shoved in pens with other blacks in different tribes, where they either died of suffocation or killed by other slaves who were desperate to breathe. All these unfortunate experiences were done by the whites in their desperate need for labor in the plantations. Slave resistance later on occurred, and some whites were involved to the rebellions, especially those who were servants and slaves themselves. This point has shown that the ‘discrimination’ or ‘inferiority’ of the blacks were not really natural, meaning the white population did not initially ‘hated’ the blacks but rather it was because of those years of black enslavement that whites believe blacks are inferior to them.

In chapter three, discussed was the complex oppression in America in the 17th century wherein white middle class – which was composed of servants, merchants, and immigrants – went against the rich and were raiding the Indians in the west frontiers. Highlighted was the Bacon’s Rebellion, in which the situation was projected. The rebellion started with the conflict over how to deal with the Indians. In Jamestown, white settlers were rejected when its huge land grants were given away and they were pushed to go west to find lands. They had encountered Indians upon their arrival and faced resistance. When they planned to raid the Indians, they were reprimanded by the colony’s government. This reaction had resulted to the resentment of the rebels on the government. Meanwhile, because of the raids, Indians turned into guerilla warfare, contributing to the chaos of this time. Servants readily supported the Bacon rebellion because they felt so violated and were in fact abused by their masters and yet, justice for them was never served. Entitled ‘Persons of Mean and Vile Condition’, the whole chapter ultimately talked about the situation of these persons – the middle class composed of poor white settlers, black and white servants, merchants, immigrants and slaves, who felt oppressed by the privileged – the rich.

Chapter four further discussed the growing resentment towards the rich and the powerful in the America, whose control and manipulation were addressed as tyranny. In the 18th century, growing dissatisfaction of the English leaders to the British government had led to the eventual American Revolution. Principal actors of this time were the Founding Fathers, who were believed to be the ones who helped and sacrificed themselves for the liberation of their nation from the British. But the accounts in the chapter suggest that although the Founding Fathers worked to abolish ‘tyranny’ of the British in their country, they incorporated their own tyranny towards their people by deceiving the working-class to sacrifice their lives for Revolution in order to harness their goal. The existing conflict between the rich and the poor within the country was used to direct the violence towards the British instead of solving the very problem. Resentment from some of the working-class population then emerged that although the plight of the Founding Fathers gave birth to the Declaration of Independence, rioters had expressed that it was not right to repress tyranny with tyranny. To them, the end did not justify the means. Entitled ‘Tyranny is Tyranny', the chapter implies that although the Founding Fathers were successful in culminating the Revolution that has resulted to liberty, but they were not truly liberating colonists from the tyranny of the British, instead they were only replacing it with a subtler kind.

Chapter five, which tells about the period of the American Revolution up to the creation of the Constitution, continues on to tell about the hidden realities of the mobilization of people for the liberation. Entitled ‘A Kind of Revolution,’ the chapter tells about the following points: a) not everyone who joined the Revolution were doing it because they adhere to the Founding Fathers’ plight of patriotism, instead most of the middle-class revolutionist joined in because they believed serving in the military would provide them fortune afterwards; b) the conflict between the poor and the rich still existed during the revolution and it allowed for the wealthy to become wealthier and more powerful; c) the revolution became a milestone for both Indians and blacks as colonists grab Indian lands and reject their petition to end slavery in exchange for their enjoinment to the cause; d) the Constitution was not crafted primarily to protect the public interest, which includes the slaves, Indians and the oppressed, but was done to create a government that could repress future national uprisings in order to protect the properties middle-class – merchants, traders and artisans; and lastly e) Zinn reveals the realities of the Founding Fathers’ mobilization of people for Revolution; that in textbooks they are painted as heroic and exceptionally successful in their quest for American liberation, but some historians says that they might have been only tricking their followers for a cause that was not entirely nationalistic as it seemed to be.

In chapter six, Zinn discussed the plight of the women in the 19th century and their resistance to be mistreated forever. Entitled ‘The Intimately Oppressed’, the chapter opens on how the women were viewed as inferior as the slaves in the society. It further provides testimonies of slave women’s situations of injustices and exploitation – in private – by their husbands and masters. Childbearing was the only role women played that the society viewed as essential, they were reprimanded to do other things and were strictly subjected to follow orders of obedience, modesty and purity. But the chapter also tells about how the women expelled all those strictly-imposed expectations of them and fought against sexism. The chapter tells about these women, such as Anne Hutchinson of the early Massachusetts Bay Colony and Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams during the American Revolution. Furthermore, the chapter speaks of the changing face of the women’s situations in society, with them working on factories and as primarily school teachers. Women educated themselves and learned about resistance to oppression and injustice, that by the end of the 19th century, movements against slavery were largely led by women. Ultimately, the chapter shows the situation of the woman in the colonies but Zinn also points out that they were much needed in the society, thus they were treated in much less cruel force. On the other hand, the Indians were the most vulnerable part of the population.

Chapter seven, entitled ‘As Long as Grass Grows or Water Runs’, Zinn talked about the long years of cruelty to the Indians, in the period of the expansion of American colonies. The growth of United States was done at the expense of the Indians tribes such as the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Seminole and many others, wherein they were drove away from their original lands and settlements. Coined as the Indian Removal, the chapter shows the events wherein Americans proceeded on eradicating the Indians who were viewed as refusing to integrate themselves into the ‘white man world’ but in reality were only refusing to surrender their valuable lands to the hands of the colonies. Both chapter shows the irony of the American Liberation and Independence (also the time of the War of 1812), wherein the colonies harness their goals at the expense of their vulnerable population, refusing to halt the oppression women and slaves, and neglecting the Indian population entirely.

Chapter eight, entitled ‘We Take Nothing By Conquest, Thank God’, continues to talk about the expansion of American territories southwest and towards Mexico, following the Louisiana Purchase. This commenced into the Mexican-American War, which viewed United States as victorious upon successfully expanding its territories but, again, at the expense of the soldiers dying of awful diseases and who fought for a cause they were not really integrated into. The move for expansion was not supported by the entire American population; there were politicians who were skeptical of the plans. But as Zinn puts it, the expansions were done out of greed of its elite citizens. In the end, half of Mexico was purchased by virtue of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo signed in 1848, which led for the elites to conclude, “We take nothing by conquest, thank God…”

Chapter nine discusses the period of Civil War slanted on the perspectives of slavery, as it was the root-cause of the conflict between Northern and Southern States. Titled ‘Slavery Without Submission, Emancipation Without Freedom’, the chapter tells about the complexities of the events that transpired during the period. In the hopes of preserving the Union, the presidents in the years leading up to the Civil War, had difficulties in conciliating both the Northern and Southern interests. Mentioned as well were the uprisings initiated by the blacks in the North, supporting the Abolitionists, for anti-slavery movements. During the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1862, followed by a Constitutional amendment, banning slavery. However, despite the existence of the Proclamation, racism was still there; thus absolute ‘freedom’ of the slaves was not served.

Titled ‘The Other Civil War’, chapter ten talks about the conflict among classes in the American society, as inequality became prevalent. In the previous chapters, Zinn has been pointing out the conflict between the rich and the poor, the middle-class and the working class, the elites and the slaves. This chapter mentions about the populists movements, the uprising of the labor class who felt oppressed. Starting from Dorr’s Rebellion up the Railroad Strike, it talks about how feelings of discontentment fueled the American workers conduct demonstrations against the injustices of the government. In Philadelphia, workers protested against long work hours and low wages. Unfortunately, most strikes failed in attaining their goals of decreasing work hours and increasing wages. However, as Zinn puts it, the strikes and resistance were important because they prepared the American workers for strikes on the future.

Chapter eleven, titled ‘Robber Barons and Rebels’, talks about the principal actors of the period of American industrial state – the ‘robber barons’. In the 19th century, robber barons were considered to be the ‘pillars of society’ as they were the ones supplying military and economic resources to the government, in spite the fact that they made their fortunes by deceiving or hurting other people. Playing an important role to the federal government, Zinn sees the policies of the court system during this time as protecting the fortunes of the robber barons at the expense of the people – composed of black labor, white labor, Chinese and European labor, and of the immigrants. This has resulted to further populist movements in the era, which unfortunately failed once again in their endeavor as they became integrated to mainstream political party, such as the Democratic Party. Zinn concludes that radical, left-wing political groups should remain independent so they could move through their endeavors.

Chapter twelve now opens the American expansion overseas as it has already become a major military power with its industrial sources of steel and steam. Entitled ‘The Empire and the People’, the chapter deals with the imperialism of the United States over the countries of Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. The chapter generally shows how the United States government incorporated their tactic of appearing nice and friendly but pressuring the neighbor country to cooperate in their imperialistic goals. US interventions to the national activities of the countries of Cuba and the Philippines had led for the countries to be under the US’ sphere of control, extracting them of their economic resources and other valuable things. Further discussed was the criticism and resistance of the populists on the imperialism of the US government, expressing the hypocrisy of its ‘propaganda’ – wherein it preaches patriotism and liberation when in fact, it has still not resolved the conflicts and discontentment among the classes in its own territory; when it still continues to reprimand and neglect what its black population has been asking of them – equality and respect, above all other things.

In chapter thirteen, discussed were the socialist movements in the United States in the early 20th century. Titled ‘The Socialist Challenge’, the chapter tells about the emergence of ideas opposing the capitalists’ too much power over the country. It shows the rise of the socialist movers, expressing their aspirations through journalism and other means of platform to bring into public’s attention the issues surrounding the working-class. The novel by Upton Sinclair entitle ‘The Jungle’ was said to have exposed the harsh conditions and treatment of working in factories were published, criticizing the corruption of the government and the industries. The chapter also mentions of Frederick Taylor, who had provided theories of management science which were instrumental in simplifying the workers’ duties and dividing up the different steps in labor to make the jobs expendable and to deskill the labor force for more efficient work turnouts. Also mentioned were Hellen Keller and the worker union of I.W.W – International Workers of the World, both adheres to socialist movements. Lastly, mentioned was the Lawrence Strike of 1912, wherein it incorporated a diverse group of strikers, including immigrants from many different countries and the women of the American society.

Chapter fourteen is entitled ‘War is the Health of the State’ and it talks about the enjoinment of the United States to the First World War in the spring of 1917. It exposes the cruelties of the war, with nations fighting against each other and sacrificing millions of soldiers. It further states that the governments of these very nations were doing well while their people were dying in the battlefields, and those with most number of casualties were hidden from the public so as not to stir feelings of upheaval. But intellectuals, philosophers and writers, such as Ernest Hemingway, were vocal, expressing their opposition of the war in various ways such as in writing fictional stories depicting the cruelties. Most of the population in the United States, and of the other countries involved in the war, were unsupportive of it, as Zinn states, and those who supported were only fooled into doing so by the government’s propaganda of waging war against nations for imperialism goals, masked in the cause of economic necessity or the act of patriotism.

In 1919, the war was still not over and populism in United States began to take center stage again when 100, 000 workers in Seattle, Washington from virtually every country went on strike, putting the city into a ‘shut-down’. Entitled ‘Self-Help in Hard Times’, chapter fifteen opens with the coalition of the labor union I.W.W and AFL to declare strike in opposition of the American capitalism. The strike was viewed as a major threat to the American elites as it symbolized the unity of the American people, despite their initial differences. However, the strike was short-lived because the federal government reacted by imprisoning many union leaders and harassed its members and immigrations were halted. Furthermore, Zinn contends that the demonstrations died down because the federal government increased the wages just enough to prevent the workers from striking any further. The chapter also mentions of the Great Depression, which reveals the instability of the American economy. In response to the Great Depression, the government signed reforms such as the National Recovery Act but it was designed to protect business interests and the economic status quo while providing concessions to the poor. Thus, the people were resolved to protect themselves and each other. Zinn further provides examples of how the workers looked out for one another in order to protect their common interests.

In chapter sixteen, discussed is the United States’ involvement in the Second World War. Entitled as ‘A People’s War?’, Zinn’s discussions in the chapter were intended for readers to contemplate if whether it indeed was a ‘people’s war’ – where capitalists, communists, working-class, and upper-class of United States supported the cause of the war – or not really. Zinn points out that not everyone in the population were supportive of the war; black leaders opposed the war as they believed it would still do nothing for the black community in the country and some socialist group who protested against the war. Nevertheless, the US joined the war after Japan bombed the Pearl Harbor in Hawaii in 1941. Accordingly, the US got itself involved to the war as a defender against Fascist Europe and fought against Hitler for that very moral reason. But Zinn contends that the US government ‘lied’ again this time because as he sees it, it was for economic interests, which at large benefitted the American elites. Also, Zinn points out that there is a clear ground for believing that the involvement of the US to the war was not for moral reasons as it shows that in the 30s and 40s, the government still had not resolved the racism and problems of class conflicts in its own country.

Chapter seventeen talks about the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s and the American government’s reaction to it. Entitled ‘Or Does it Explode?’, Zinn opens the chapter with an excerpt from a poem by Langston Hughes, which conveys the feelings of hope and disillusionment of the black community for equality. Oppressed blacks found a way to express their anger and resentment of the American discrimination and humiliation through arts, music and poetry. The chapter mentions about the black movements for civil rights, supported by the socialists within the society. In 1946, the Truman government responded by forming the Committee on Civil Rights, but it was found to have failed to completely end segregation among race in schools and institutions. Mentioned as well were the prominent protesters at the time such as Martin Luther King, and the black activist group Congress of Racial Equality or CORE.

Titled ‘The Impossible Victory: Vietnam’, chapter eighteen tells about the Vietnam War and how, once again, the American government ‘initiated’ it for its interests. Clothed as a front to prevent the spread of communism in Southwest Asia, the United States purposely waged war against Vietnam. The war was brutal for the Vietnamese people; episodes of the massacre of women and children by American troops and bombing of the civilians followed. Many in the American society opposed the war, arguing that the country was violating the international law. Martin Luther King criticized it as an effort to send black people to die for a war that had no relevance to them. Students also expressed their opposition; they held demonstrations in the universities. These oppositions were said to have contributed to the government’s decision to end the war and have proven that popular opinion could influence the government policies, so long as it’s intact and strongly upheld.

Subsequently, the next chapter talks about the other movements held by the people against the American government. In chapter nineteen entitled ‘Surprises’, Zinn talks about the other populist causes of the 60s, led by women, black people, homosexuals, immigrants and the Native Americans. It further shows how each group of oppressed people in the American society worked together to further each one another’s agendas. Zinn talks about the feminist movements against sexism and misogyny, the movements against the prison system, which seemed to more likely arrest and unjustly convicts the poor, black, homosexuals, and the radicals rather than those who commit crimes from the upper-class, white and conservative class; and lastly of the Native American liberation movement, forming the National Indian Youth Council. The council petitioned the government to address the Indian treaties that it had broken over the years. The amount of radicalism sprouting from the majority of the American population – the oppressed – was considered to have gone far beyond the radicalism of the earlier decades because it challenged cultural norms, profanity and violence.

The radicalism of the 60s had affected the American authorities so much that by the 70s, most of the population had lost their trust to the federal government. Chapter twenty entitled ‘The Seventies: Under Control?’ talks about the consequences of this distrust. The people challenged the authority more as its political scandals and corruption began to appear on the limelight. In order to divert the public’s attention, the government used the ‘war game card’ again with the Cambodian incident. Around this time, international economy was growing and the government used it, too, to decrease the people’s paranoia. However, the growth of corporations had only made the government become more powerful. The Americans continued to rebel against control.

Zinn finishes the book with chapter twenty-one, entitled ‘The Coming Revolt of the Guards’. He opens the chapter by confessing that since this book was written in the perspectives of the people, it is indeed biased. However, Zinn hopes that in the end it gave light to this portion of history and to this approach into writing it. As a social activist, Zinn has embodied his views in writing this book – being skeptical with the governments and bringing into light the importance of the movements pioneered by the people to bring about change. The plight of the people in America throughout its history was quite moving, and the book initially provided for the best insights of their experiences. Although Zinn had pointed out that the book was not written solely to have readers sympathize with the people’s bitter experiences, the initial feelings after reading it would be pity (of what has transpired in the past) and contempt (to the American authorities of the past). And above all, the book opens the readers’ eyes on the realities of the wars, wherein billions of population are sacrificed for a cause that in reality only benefits the few of the society. Though biased and at some point dramatic, Zinn indeed made a huge point in writing book – that history of a nation is shaped not by a single man, but of every single persons in the society.

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Review of Howard Zinn’s ‘A People’s History of the United States’. (2022, August 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 18, 2024, from
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