A People's History of the United States

by Howard Zinn

Publisher: HarperPerennial
Copyright: 1980
Printing: 1990
ISBN: 0-06-090792-4
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 582

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(Note: I read the original edition of this book; there is now a revised edition available that adds coverage of the 1980s and early 1990s.)

This is a book to read critically and accompanied by other history texts, but I wish everyone with an orthodox education in US history would read this book.

A People's History of the United States is an attempt to balance the scales by writing about the parts of US history that aren't often covered in depth. It focuses particularly on the effects of government policy on the poor, women, and non-whites throughout US history, documents labor movements and equality movements in more depth than one normally sees, and points out the mixed and disappointing records of US cultural heroes. It is, in other words, an attack on assumptions and accepted wisdom about the heroes and important events in history, and on the stories we tell ourselves as a culture.

It is, also, openly biased. Zinn deals with this directly near the beginning of the final chapter:

This makes it a biased account, one that leans in a certain direction. I am not troubled by that, because the mountain of history books under which we all stand leans so heavily in the other direction — so tremblingly respectful of states and statesmen and so disrespectful, by inattention, to people's movements — that we need some counterforce to avoid being crushed into submission.

That's a sentiment with which I agree strongly, but it does mean that you need to already know US history fairly well to read this book. Zinn is writing a survey of his topic, but not a survey of US history. Many of the well-known milestones are left without direct description and simply taken for granted as part of the shared knowledge with the reader while Zinn dives into details relevant to his intent. Furthermore, this book is clearly not balanced in itself, but rather is intended to balance a conventional history. Reading A People's History without that background would leave you with a skewed and incomplete picture.

All that being said, for quantity of information communicated this is one of the most informative books on US history I have ever read. Bias does not get in the way of thorough research, and substantial portions of the text are quotes from original source materials. Zinn is a professional historian and behaves like one. And the nuggets and details that he digs up are fascinating and felt like a stretching and fleshing out of my picture of US history. A People's History is excellent at providing a feel for what life was like for the poor and working class citizen of the country and what their political concerns were (and what events were creating those concerns).

Surprisingly for this sort of serious history book, A People's History is also extremely readable and engrossing. I expected to have to push myself through it, and I found myself finding excuses to pick it up again and postponing other hobbies to read more of it. The text is dense and thoughtful, so this book will take some time to read thoroughly, but it is not boring. Even the quotes from source materials don't break the flow of the work. This is impressive and remarkably hard to pull off. Usually one either gets a light-weight but readable popular treatment or a deep but difficult scholarly treatment, and while Zinn's writing is more aimed at the average reader than not, it doesn't lose that sense of depth.

I don't think there was a bad chapter in this book, with the possible exception of the last two. It's hard to deal with the second half of the 1970s in any coherent fashion in a history written in 1980, and the last chapter is an essay about Zinn's hopes for the future which, while interesting reading, doesn't hold up to the standards of informative detail of the rest of the book. Of the meat of the book, though, I was particularly impressed by the chapters on the Civil War, Reconstruction, the socialist movements of the 1920s and 1930s, and the civil rights movements of the 1960s. I never grasped the place and appeal of Malcolm X in the history of the civil rights movement until I read this book, and I came away realizing just how pitifully uninformed I was about the history of labor movements.

This is a very controversial book. It is partly so for the bias, as Zinn stands rather far from the centrist-right position so in vogue in US politics, but I think more so for Zinn's refusal to give lip service to the shibboleths of US history. This is a book that reminds you that the Revolutionary War was not wildly popular; that the much-acclaimed Founding Fathers were almost all rich, white property holders and created a government of, for, and by rich white property holders; that Lincoln gave campaign speeches in favor of slavery and his public stance was far more ambiguous than one might wish to believe; that FDR was under intense pressure from the left and many of his actions can be seen as compromises to maintain some political status quo and head off even more sweeping reform; and that World War Two was wildly helpful for the profits of corporations and saw an abnormally high number of labor strikes. These are not the sides of those stories normally presented. You don't often hear about the pre-revolutionary and early US politicians playing off poor whites against blacks and Indians as a premeditated political maneuver, or about the reimposition of economic slavery on freed slaves immediately after the Civil War (complete with work contracts that differed from slavery only in the details). This is also why this book is important. One may not give that information the same weight as Zinn, but everyone studying US history should know it.

On the other hand, it must be said that Zinn does not always play fair. I never saw him do this with a central fact, but when it comes to ancillary details around the history he's telling, he occasionally picks and chooses details to support his thesis. Ones that I found particularly jarring included discussion of the flaws of the Nationalist Chinese government and a comment on the popular nature of the Chinese Communist revolution without any mention of the policies the Communists then imposed, and discussion of the popular appeal of the Vietcong in Vietnam and the problems with the US presence in Laos without any mention of Cambodia and the atrocities that happened there. The places where he gets into trouble tend to be ones like this, where he has wandered afield of the US history at the center of the book to follow some thread, but then gets a bit selective about how he follows it. Again, this is not a book to read uncritically; one should be mentally adjusting for Zinn's political position. I find this far easier to do, though, with a work like this where that position is obvious and open than with an account that claims pure objectivity.

Another arguable flaw is that A People's History is also depressing. Some of this is because the history of the poor and oppressed simply is depressing, but I think Zinn is more depressing than he needs to be. He's extremely reluctant to take much hope or pleasure from even the gains that were made and the popular movements that had some success. The chapter on the civil rights movement of the 1960s is one of the best in part because Zinn does let some enthusiasm and triumph show there. I think there were other parts of the book where he could have done the same. On the other hand, this too may be the shock of seeing history from a very different perspective. I don't like feeling that the success of the women's suffrage movement is something of a non-event and let-down, but that may well be the accurate picture.

I'm not a historian, and have an idiosyncratic and strangely biased education in US history (mostly from the opposite bias of my current politics), so I'm not the best person to judge the detailed accuracy of this work as a whole. I'm confident enough, though, to recommend it highly as a book that will make you think. These are bits of US history that I wish I'd been exposed to long ago; the significance and meaning are highly debatable, but one cannot even start the debate and evaluation without the information. The common presentation of US history as a whitewashed national mythology and glorification of cultural heroes does no one any favors.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2005-10-12

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