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American History. ‘A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present » by Howard Zinn’ is an interesting review of this well known book. American History

« In my humble opinion this is the best book in the world to read if you are interested in American History. It certainly was both memorable and a real eye opener for me. » Jeanette

Why is history important to society?

History Helps Us Understand People and Societies

In the first place, history offers a storehouse of information about how people and societies behave. Understanding the operations of people and societies is difficult, though a number of disciplines make the attempt.

Why is the history of America important?

Gaining a strong background in American history helps to understand the evolution of the country and what it means to be an American. More than a knowledge of key facts and figures, knowing history can equip individuals with a broader perspective on current events and how society can progress.

Without the American Revolution that happened between 1775 and 1781, the United States would not be. If America was under British rule for much longer, who knows how the world might have looked today.

A People’s History of the United States is by far Howard Zinn’s most popular book. It’s a 600 page history of the United States (as the title indicates.) Why is it called A People’s History?

As Zinn explains:

« The treatment of heroes (Columbus) and their victims (the Arawaks)-the quiet acceptance of conquest and murder in the name of progress-is only one aspect of a certain approach to history, in which the past is told from the point of view of governments, conquerors, diplomats, leaders. »
— Chapter 1, A People’s History

This book is an attempt to create a people’s history instead of a leaders’ history of the United States. The theme is history of the oppressed, the downtrodden, and the screwed. To that end, Zinn focuses on, for example, the way the Revolutionary War affected poor colonials, or the actual conditions of women during the « Golden Age of Women ».

Zinn doesn’t write a history composed of one event followed by another, with footnotes about oppression along the way. Instead, the book is organized around the oppression of different groups around certain time periods – the Indians during the exploration of America, Mexicans during the Mexican-American war, laborers in the late 1800’s, and so on.

The book is full of eye-opening stories about oppression and how prolific it is in U.S. history. The main shocker is that, believe as we might that this country has been land of the free, home of the brave, and true as that may be for some people, there is a huge number of people for which that belief is ridiculous.

I should mention that this is a very Marxist history – a lot of the book deals with the economic forces behind a given social policy. Zinn is a democratic socialist.

Some people will charge that Zinn exaggerates certain things to get a point across. And he probably does. But he nevertheless displays the spirit of the time period very well. And then what he does is either shed light on some interesting things you probably didn’t know, or take things that you did know and raise some serious questions that challenge a whole host of myths, or question the goodness and badness of those myths.

So what is he driving at? He reveals it quite plainly in the last full chapter, « The Coming Revolution of the Guards. » The middle class has been created as a buffer between the hungry lower class and the well-fed upper class. By taking resources away from the poor and giving away just enough resources to the middle class, the upper class causes enough tension between the two classes to divert attention from the real crook, itself.

Look, here’s an example. In « Self-Help in Hard Times, » he is writing about the labor unrest around the time of World War I. There were some really neat strikes – including that of the International Workers of the World (the Wobblies) in Seattle, where the entire city was shut down but order was peacefully maintained by a really fun labor « government. » However:

« When the twenties began, … the situation seemed under control. The IWW was destroyed, the Socialist party falling apart. The strikes were beaten down by force, and the economy was doing just well enough for just enough people to prevent mass rebellion. »
— Self-Help in Hard Times (emphasis added)

The idea is that the upper class throws enough crumbs to the middle class to make the latter think that things are okay and as they should be – turning the middle class into « guards » » for the upper class.

Zinn’s prediction for the future is that the situation will eventually become so terrible that the middle class will turn its anger against the upper class, the basic cause of all the misery and suffering. He cites the recent proliferation of unbearable crime waves and unemployment:

« The threat of unemployment, always inside the homes of the poor, has spread to white-collar workers, professionals. A college education is no longer a guarantee against joblessness, and a system that cannot offer a future to the young coming out of school is in deep trouble. If it happens only to the children of the poor, the problem is manageable; there are the jails. If it happens to the children of the middle class, things may get out of hand. The poor are accustomed to being squeezed and always short of money, but in recent years the middle classes, too, have begun to feel the press of high prices, high taxes. »
— The Coming Revolt of the Guards

The history Zinn writes is not just about oppression, although that is revealed and explored thoroughly. The book is very hopeful, and has many accounts of the successes of oppressed people. Zinn refers to the past as proof of trends of the present, and as an indication of the exciting things to come.

I’ve tried to include several long quotations because I think Zinn’s style is absolutely delightful. In this book more than any other I’ve read, Zinn writes with a fluid flow and creative diction that renders exactly the right meaning to every quote. Although the writing is not so condescending as to lay things out perfectly clearly, there is no mistake about what he is trying to get across.

One final word – Zinn himself quotes quite liberally from the people who make the history he writes. The quotes are commonly inspiring and always illuminating. Here’s one with an interesting reference to the « Apparatus, » later known as the « Establishment »:

« Whether the mask is labeled Fascism, Democracy, or Dictatorship of the Proletariat, our great adversary remains the Apparatus-the bureaucracy, the police, the military. Not the one facing us across the frontier or the battle lines, which is not so much our enemy as our brothers’ enemy, but the one that calls itself our protector and makes us its slaves. No matter what the circumstances, the worst betrayal will always be to subordinate ourselves to this Apparatus, and to trample underfoot, in its service, all human values in ourselves and in others. »
— French worker/philosopher Simone Weil