U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Counterforce to Our Granfalloons: Lacy on Zinn, Part 3 of 3

Wherein a Professionally-Trained Historian Reads a Popular Classic That Was Neither Assigned Nor Methodically Discussed During Any Stage of His Formal Education

This is my third and final entry on Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. The prior entries are here (#1) and here (#2).

Praise and Observations

Although I argued in my last entry that I believed my praise, observations, and criticisms through chapter 20 would stand, even while I had 5 chapters to go, I’m happy to have finished the book. Chapter 23 and the afterword were particularly interesting. More on those in a moment.

– Toward the end of my last entry, when I discussed chapter 20, I noted a conspiratorial tone. That carried a bit into the next chapter in Zinn’s discussion of Carter, but then Zinn drops references to the Trilateral Commission and returns to the nuts of bolts of themes and topics of the period at hand.

– For the first time in his text, Zinn refers to his students at Boston University in chapter 22 (“The Unreported Resistance”—on protest and dissent during the 1980s). His insertion of himself and his students is completely appropriate, if somewhat anecdotal, as Zinn is analyzing press reports about “the political cautiousness of a new generation of college students concerned mostly with their own careers” (p. 607). Zinn used a journal entry from a student to argue that he wasn’t seeing “pervasive selfishness and unconcern for others” in his classes.

– At two points in the final chapters Zinn gets explicit again about his overall motives, thesis, and themes—but in a post-Great Society context. In chapter 22 he explicitly notes a subject “almost never talked about: the United States was [and is] a class society, in which 1 percent of the population owned 33 percent of the wealth…The social programs of the sixties…did not do much more than maintain the historic American maldistribution of resources” (p. 612). He added: “While the Democrats would give more help to the poor than the Republicans, they were not capable (indeed not very desirous) of serioulsy tampering with an economic system in which corporate profit comes before human need.”

While this language is not unexpected from Zinn, it’s a reassertion, in relation to the text, after the conspiratorial chapter on the Seventies and the long complaints about Carter, Reagan, and Bush in chapter 21. The book felt back on message.

– Because a discussion of debates and protests about Columbus Day end the chapter (pp. 625-629), it perhaps would’ve been best to end the book here. And Zinn did once, because chapter 23 feels like an Afterword doesn’t arrive for another 52 pages (after two more chapters). So this is less a criticism and more of an observation about how this book has seen several editions, and the subsequent changes are not always smooth in relation to past material presented.

– Chapter 22 (again, covering dissent in relation to Reagan-Bush policies), is well done. Zinn does a fin job documenting a non-higher-education “permanent adversarial class”—a phrase used 2-3 times in the chapter. As most USIH readers know, that phrase is usually discussed in relation to elite liberals who occupy professorships, high positions in non-profits, and supposedly self-interested civil servants.

– In the comments to my second post, Ben Alpers noted Zinn’s text as a counter-narrative. At the start of chapter 23, titled “The Coming Revolt of the Guards,” Zinn unabashedly refers to his “bias” and the fact that his text is a “counterforce” (p. 631). So Zinn isn’t simply constructing a dispassionate counter-narrative, but rather a passionate counterforce that actively hopes will effect changes in “The System.” This isn’t a book that will review political “saviors.” Zinn hopes to move his readers away from the idea of political heroes. He wants us to “reject that idea and rebel” (p. 632).

– In relation to the title of my prior post, which was a bit of dialogue lifted from Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s hit film, Good Will Hunting, Zinn himself refers to Damon and Affleck at the end of his chapter on the Clinton presidency (p. 669). The context was that both actors campaigned on behalf of service workers and janitors at Harvard University—in relation to a student movement that sought higher wages for those workers. It turns out that Affleck’s father had worked a low-paying menial job at Harvard at some point.


– Zinn’s rhetoric in relation George H.W. Bush (Bush 41) gets over the top when the former accuses the latter for starting the Gulf War merely to boost the latter’s popularity (p. 594). Zinn engages in a little correlation-is-causation fallacy when he notes that Bush’s low approval ratings in the fall of 1990 should causally related to the ongoing dialogue about Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August of that year. Zinn asserts that Bush made a “secret decision…for war against Iraq” on October 30, with no source given. This is the kind of stuff that sends critics like Sam Wineburg into a tail-spin of despair about the book.

– I noted Zinn’s inconsistent portrayal of Catholicism in the public sphere in chapters 18-19. In chapter 22, Zinn again present evidence of what he believes are positive actions in the public sphere: the Catholic Bishops’ opposition to nuclear weapons. This position squares with Zinn’s anti-militarism, but it again stands in opposition to his earlier statement about the Catholic Church, only a decade earlier, being a “bulwark of conservatism, tied to racism, jingoism, war” (p. 538). Zinn makes no effort to reconcile his contradictory views.

– When it comes to his post-1980 chapters, the Index is only imperfectly updated. There are names, places, and events missing. But even for other chapters there are key citations missing, such as the fact that Karl Marx is in the text at least three more times than is listed in the Index. I suppose that in the age of Google Books, this is not a tragic problem (though sometimes Google Books provides inconsistent information).

– By the end of the book, the focus on presidents, their administrations, and their (in)activities leads one to wonder about a certain political myopia. Zinn rarely explores the activities of Congress, which skews his political narration and criticism. You never hear about congressional caucuses, individual senators and house members, nor much about the various executive branches and their secretaries. This leads to unexpected distortions, such as Zinn’s visceral disappointment with President Clinton. But what about the oppositional Congress, headed by Newt Gingrich and the “Contract with America”? Wouldn’t a great consideration of that factor lessened Zinn’s disappointment? Going to the prior decade, Zinn’s portrait of Reagan is, ironically, too nice. Little consideration was given, by Zinn, to what conservative initiatives might have been accomplished were it not for a predominantly Democratically controlled congress in the 1980s. It could have been much worse from Zinn’s social democratic perspective.

Reflections on the Wineburg Review

Having reread Sam Wineburg’s review in light of my own praise, observations, and criticisms, I can now offer a few informed and hopefully intelligent points about the review. First, Wineburg is deferential to the popularity of Zinn’s book in his introduction. Wineburg cites sales figures, copies in print, and the book’s place on Amazon’s bestseller list shortly after Zinn’s death. There’s no questioning that the book has sold—that it is attractive to some set of people.

But Wineburg’s introduction goes wrong soon after. On the first page—in the opening statement of his third paragraph—he wrote “Once considered radical, A People’s History has gone mainstream” (p. 27). Wineburg then cites the aforementioned movie reference, as well a mention from The Sopranos. That’s it. Wineburg’s argument that Zinn’s book is “mainstream” is based two popular culture anecdotes: two mentions total in both a hit movie and popular non-network, cable TV series. Weak.

As my sophomore English teacher often queried on my papers: HDYK? How do you know? For instance, I finished my PhD in history in 2006. I had never been assigned the book. It also was never assigned to my spouse, who has both undergraduate and master’s degrees in history. Several other colleagues have indicated to me, publicly and privately, that they’ve never read the book. So unless high school teachers are assigning the text on an unheard of scale, and recently, there is still a great many people who care about history who are not reading the book. Plus, as we all know, copies sold never equals copies read. But even if it *were* being read, *how* is it being read? And how taught? And, what of the book as a (mere) object of cultural literacy. What if a lot of people know about the book, and know about Zinn’s politics, but haven’t actually read it? Isn’t that possible?

Wineburg criticized Zinn’s sources. I’m partially with Wineburg here. I have already noted the fact that Zinn did not update chapters covering pre-1980s topics even as he added new chapters on post-1980s history. Indeed, my version of A People’s History was published in 2003 (the same version Wineburg used for his review). And Zinn’s inconsistent mentioning of secondary sources in the texts makes one feel, in the later chapters, that something important is missing in relation to his text’s topical authority. And I’m with Wineburg in wanting to see either footnotes or endnotes (very frustrating in spots).

But Wineburg also accuses of Zinn of relying “almost entirely on secondary sources, with no archival research to thicken the narrative” (Wineburg, p. 28). It is true that Zinn does not avail himself of archival resources in this text (surely his other works, his dissertation, used archival sources?). I can’t bring myself to believe that Zinn doesn’t understand the power of primary resources. This book, however, is meant as a textbook “counterforce.” We don’t expect other mainstream textbooks to include archival resources, or even foot/endnotes. And the accusation that Zinn relies “almost entirely on secondary sources” is just false. In his post-1945 chapters *(16-25)—based on materials with which Zinn was highly familiar based on his prior books—he uses published primary resources (e.g. The Pentagon Papers), some autobiographies, and some published first-hand accounts. And Zinn does the same in many chapters covering nineteenth-century topics. For example, what of the use of Bartolome de las Casas in the first chaper, front and center?

Wineburg also argues that when Zinn does use primary resources, they merely “prop up the main text, but never provide an alternative view or open up a new field of vision” (p. 28). But what of the fact that Zinn’s book was, in fact, the “alternative view” when it was written—that it was the “new field of vision”? Zinn’s book appeared at a historical moment—a long-lived, even unfinished, moment. Prior to its appearance the specialist, revisionist scholarship used in A People’s History was locked in university libraries. No text existed which integrated that material in a readable fashion for wide consumption. Otherwise, all I can say is that Zinn’s evidence does prop up his story—just like historians are taught to do. Zinn is not secretive about his bias and subjectivity. He’s not faking what Peter Novick called “that noble dream.”

Then Wineburg makes another assertion, a dubious one I think, about the reach of Zinn’s classic: “In the last 30 years, during which A People’s History has arguably had a greater influence on how Americans understand their past than any other single book, normally voluble scholars have gone silent” (p. 28).

But is this true? How does he know it? In fact, Wineburg makes the statement above after saying that neither of America’s “two premier historical journals”—American Historical Review and The Journal of American History—have hosted reviews of the book. I think that Wineburg’s citation of Michael Kazin’s 2003 review in Dissent provides a clue to the book’s audience: the book is praised, consulted, and read by those with left-of-center political views. But is otherwise just an object of cultural literacy in the profession. Again, many are informed of its existence and perspective, but few read the book.

There’s more to say about Wineburg’s review. He makes some legitimate points about Zinn’s lack of complexity, and factual errors, in relation to World War II. Indeed, Wineburg expends the bulk of his review (pp. 28-32) debunking several points of Zinn’s narrative in relation to African American war support and resistance, Zinn’s intense questioning the chapter, his narrative of WWII bombing—leading up to the use of the atomic bomb, and Zinn’s account of the Rosenburgs. In sum, Wineburg spends 80 percent of his review chipping away 11 pages of 35 total on World War II. How do Zinn’s errors on those pages undermine the utility of the 677 other pages (688 less 11) which cover American history from 1492 to 2002? Should we not take Zinn’s narrative as the gospel? Absolutely. Should we expect more complexity in relation to any one of the topics he addressed? Certainly.

Wineburg’s review, while it makes several good points, is based on unfounded assertions of readership, makes a false claim about Zinn’s use of primary sources, and closely critiques only about one-third of one chapter out of 25 total. Wineburg’s review is unnecessarily harsh. It confirmed a bias I held before reading the book, hence my recommendation of the review as a “take down.”

Final Recommendation

Warts and all, this book is worth one’s time as a teaching tool. It can be read quickly, or fruitfully studied in parts (particularly the pre-1970s chapters). Many topics are introduced, but many are also neglected. As such it should be paired with an up-to-date textbook that provides a middle-of-the-road, inclusive perspective. Even though many recent textbooks incorporate the post-1960s scholarship used by Zinn, his blatant but principled subjectivity demonstrates that “facts, facts, facts” do not produce a story worth reading. The book moves, and some students are going to appreciate Zinn’s sense of alienation from the dominant American “way of life.”

While I now have a great appreciation for Zinn’s text in relation to his own goals, I’ll never be a Zinn worshipper. His cultural politics are too far to the left for me. Plus, as a professional, I’m always looking for both more detail and the bigger picture, especially on twentieth-century topics. But I can recommend A People’s History of the United States without reservation in an age where people are trying to understand economic inequality in America. Zinn’s introduction to understanding the 99/1 percent phenomenon is as good as any. It’s a counterforce to many of our granfalloons about “the market.” So read Zinn’s book, and then check out five more works on the history of capitalism, socialism, and inequality.

Chapter Notes

Notes: Topics and themes are non-exhaustive. Each chapter presents multiple versions of its thesis, so I give multiple options on the entries below (with some mild preferences exhibited)

Chapter 1

Thesis – chapter: p.7, 22
Thesis – book: pp. 7-11 (philosophy behind book), 12 (“violent beginnings of an intricate system”)

Chrono: 1492-1650s (roughly)

Themes: idea of progress, arrogance, oppression, human cost of extraction, myth of virgin land/empty wilderness, primitive accumulation of capital

Topics: Columbus, Arawak Indians, Bartolome de las Casas, Cortes, John Smith, Powhatan, Pequot War, Indian diversity, Iroquois.

Chapter 2

Thesis: p. 23 (Du Bois and color line, origins of), p. 38 (elements of complex web to ensnare blacks were historical, not natural–p. 32 too). P. 35 also (“intricate and powerful system of control”)

Chrono: 1600-1770s

Themes: power, horror, fear, technology of West as divorced from ethics, justice, and virtue (p. 25-26)

Topics: color line, slavery and slave system, middle passage,

Chapter 3

Thesis: a bit fuzzy, near end of chapter, pp. 57-58 (upper class concessions to middle class bought loyalty

Chrono: 1650-1760s

Themes: control and manipulation by elites, Marxist tone, early concentrations of wealth, urban colonial class war via riots and rebellions (p. 47), indians as tool for white manipulation

Topics: Bacon’s Rebellion, indentured servitude, buying passage to America, servant treatment in America, servant escape, New England (particularly Boston and New York, King George’s War, Indian hostilities, Carolinas, slave issues

Chapter 4

Thesis: p. 59 (“most effective system of national control…”), p, 70 (myth of Revolution on behalf of people), p. 75 for title link

Chrono: 1760s-1770s

Themes: control, rivalry, ambition, class, upper-class mobilizes lower class for protest/political control (pp. 61-62, 74-75–book theme as well), lower-class out of control as mob (p. 65-66), colonial pro-US upper classs v. pro-British upper class

Topics: Ethan Allen, NC Regulators, Stamp Act, Paine’s Common Sense, Declaration, John Locke

Chapter 5

Thesis: pp. 79, 96-97, 101

Chrono: 1775-1780s

Themes: 1/5-1/3 of population treasonous/opposed to war, recruitment of respectable to less respectable, poor people fought the conflict, Revolution as intra-ruling class squable, exposure of economics behind Constitution, division of rich-poor the problem for democracy

Topics: recruitment, property qualifications, mutinies, Revolution’s effects on class relations, Role of Indians and Blacks, Constitution, middle-class buffers

Chapter 6

Thesis: vague, but maybe p. 103 (para #3–“..somthing akin to a house slave…”), p. 114 (“the new ideology worked…”)

Chrono: 1600-1840s

Themes: cult of domesticity (Cott), cult of true womanhood (Welter), ideology of oppression

Topics: varies singular stories of repression, Anne Hutchinson, separate spheres (114), class (115)

Chapter 7

Thesis: pp. 125-126 (“forced to migrate”/”‘force’ cannot convey,” “Indian removal was necessary for…”), p. 134 (Jackson’s removal promise linked to title)

Chrono: 1800-1840s

Themes: white paternalism, introducing capitalism to Indians, broken government treaty promises

Topics: Indian removal, Andrew Jackson, Lewis Cass, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Van Buren, War of 1812, Tucemshe, Black Hawk, William Henry Harrison, Sam Houston, Davey Crockett, Choctaws, Creeks, Seminoles, Cherokees, Sac and Fox, Winfield Scott,

Chapter 8

Thesis: pp. 154, 166 (“It was a war of the American elite against the Mexican elite…”), 168, 169

Chrono: 1845-1847 (shortest chapter chronologically in the book)

Themes: Manifest Destiny, U.S. aggression, vocal opposition

Topics: Mexican-American War, James Polk, Texas, Zachary Taylor, Winfield Scott, Ethan Allen Hitchcock, soldier harships, false enlistment promises, rebellion against American rule

Chapter 9

Thesis: pp. 171-172, 189 (clash of elites), 198

Chrono: 1860-1900

Themes: conditions v. existence of slavery, black-led abolition effort, Lincoln’s political astuteness, Southern white oligarchy, Northern repression

Topics: Denmark Vesey and slave revolts, John Brown, Supreme Court, Civil War, slave families, draft riots, poverty, Douglass, Fugitice Slave Act, Wendell Phillips, REconstruction, Plessy v. Ferguson, Presidents Lincoln, Johnson, Grant, Hayes

Chapter 10

Thesis: p. 217, 220, 226 (illusion of society lacking in class conflict, but really fierce in U.S.)

Chrono: 1830s-1870s

Themes: rich-poor structure left intact after more democratized voting in Jacksonian period, political expediency and professional politics, goal of preventing revolution, conflation of political-economic elites, money over ideals

Topics: Anti-Renter movement, Rennselaer family, New York, Rhode Island, Lowell, immigration, tr4ade unions, female-child labor, New Industrialism, 1877 Railroad strike, 1873 Panic

Chapter 11

Thesis: p. 254, 295

Chrono: 1870s-1900/1896

Themes: lack of objectivity in Supreme Court, supremacy/inviolability of private property, immigration fostered fractured class consciousness, rebellion in industry/agriculture, black codes create defact white codes, Zinn contra Turner (i.e. West no safety valve)

Topics: Robber barons, Supreme Court decisions (& institution of), immigration, Haymarket Affair, Henry George, Knights of Labor, strikes, Emma Goldman, 1893 panic, Eugene Debs, Edward Bellamy, Homestead Act, Pullman Strick, Socialism, Hamlin Garland, Grange, Farmer’s Alliance (TX and beyond)

Chapter 12

Thesis: pp. 297-298

Chrono: 1890s-1902

Themes: Expansion as generosity, national mood for intervention, protecting goverment interests abroad (power, profit), massacres/violence (esp. in Philippines), labor’s mixed reactions to war, subjects of empire at home (e.g. blacks)

Topics: Spanish-American War, Teddy Roosevelt, McKinley, A.T. Mahon, Twain, Cuba, profiteering, Cuban rebels, William James, Teller Amendment, Leonard Wood, Platt Amendment, Philippines, Albert Beveridge, Anti-Imperialist League

Chapter 13

Thesis: pp. 321-323 (sentence from all three pages together), 339, 353 (“progressive reform…intended to head off socialism”)

Chrono: 1900-1914

Themes: struggles outside the ballot box (p. 345), growing unionization, labor solidarity, unreliability of government for reform (i.e. controlled by business), Wobblies as antidote to AFL, Socialism v. IWW, anarcho-syndicalism, socialism and the woman question

Topics: Mother Jones, socialism, Helen Keller, Du Bois, Twain, Goldman, Sinclair, London, Taylor, AFL, Gompers, IWW, Big Bill Haywood, Elizabeth Gurley Brown, Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, Ludlow Massacre

Chapter 14

Thesis: p. 359, 363-364 (“American capitalism needed international rivalry…to create an artifical community of interest between rich and poor…”), 374

Chrono: 1914-1920

Themes: profiteering, needless death, political deception, economics, and political manipulation

Topics: World War I, Goldman, Wilson, George Creel, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Debs, Espionage Act, disloyalty, draft evasion/resistance, Jeannette Rankin, Kate Richards O’Hare, Sacco & Vanzetti

Chapter 15

Thesis: pp. 393-394 (rebellion)

Chrono: 1919-1941 (1/3 20s, 2/3 1930s)

Themes: prosperity of 20s concentrated at top even while *some* improvement at all levels (p. 382), facts re inequality not felt, capitalism unsound, New Deal as stabilization and revolution prevention, power of labor rested in disruption rather than unions

Topics: 1919 General Strike, Mellon tax plan, La Guardia, communism, Great Depression, Harlem, Langston Hughes, spontaneous rebillions, Unemployed councils, CIO, Flint sit-down strike, Wagner Act

Chapter 16

Thesis: p. 408, 413 (save capitalism), 417 (war waged for wealthy elite)

Chrono: 1941-1961

Themes: policy priority = power over rights (e.g. Pacific empire, U.S. markets), FDR debunked as hero, profits trumped humanitarianism in war aims, hypocrisy, U.N. dominated by Western imperialism, racial equality not a priority, Truman falsely made USSR an immediate threat to create hysteria/fear that helped his proposals (p. 425), oppose revolutionary governments around the world

Topics: World War II, Spanish Civil War, Cold War, Red Scare hysteria, FDR, Korean War, Cuba, Bay of Pigs, early mixed messages on Vietnam (1940s/50s), Atomic bomb, Holocaust, wage freezes, Wartime strikes,

Chapter 17

Thesis: p. 443 (Black revolt in North and South cames as surprise, memory and living presence of slavery), 448 (black militant mood), 450, 465

Chrono: 1920s-1960s

Themes: ballot boxes and petitions as cooling mechanisms, “deep memory of slavery,” federal and state and municipal inaction, commission reports as “standard device of the system,” racism in the mind of the country

Topics: Civil Rights Movement, riots, sitins, civil disobedience, Martin Luther King Jr., black capitalism, Malcolm X, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Harry Truman, Montgomery, Greensboro, SNCC, CORE, Freedom riders, Birmingham, Albany, Lyndon Johnson, Black Power, Black Panthers, Poor People’s Encampment, NAACP,

Chapter 18

Thesis: p. 469 (antiwar movement helped bring war to end—eventually), 501

Chrono: 1964-1972

Themes: America interested in South Asian economics not freedom, high morale of Viet Cong, legality of war always in question, Nixon did not intend war but minimized troop exposure, war dissent from middle and working classes

Topics: Vietnam War, Daniel Ellsberg (hero to Zinn), Eisenhower, Truman, JFK, Diem, Johnson, Minh, Lodge, My Lai, atrocities, bombing, Nixon, anti-war protests, draft resistance

Chapter 19

Thesis: This is a 3-part chapter—pp. 505-506 (for women), 514 (for prison war), and 524 (Native Americans). P. 536 offers a statement that can potentially cover all three (i.e. “general revolut against oppressive…”)

Chrono: 1963-mid-1970s

Themes: class and gender oppression. All prior chapters about power establishment and capitalism, but this chapter is about cultural radicalism and value changes, prison radicalized its population rather than reforming prisoners, “the system” and “the establishment” make regular appearances in chapter

Topics: Abortion, Friedan, Feminine Mystique, prison reform, Indian activism, sexual freedom, protest music

Chapter 20

Thesis: p. 541 (“In the early seventies, the system seemed out of control..”)

Chrono: 1970-1976

Themes: hostility toward and lack of trust in government, corporate influence on White House (p. 547), Nixon’s power-political structure left intact after his resignation, political corruption, Establishment’s promotion and protection of Ford, concern for democratic enthusiasm, Zinn’s rhetoric (congress as “flock of sheep,” purging of “rascals”), manipulation of the masses

Topics: End of Vietnam War, Watergate, support for foreign dictators, Nixon’s impeachment/resignation, campaign finance, Ford’s pardon, Mayaguez incident, CIA/FBI (bad behavior, investigations of), gov’t-corporate cooperation, Bicentennial, David Rockefeller, Brzezinski, Trilateral Commissin, Samuel Huntington, globalization, multinational corporations

Chapter 21

Thesis: p. 564 (“distance between politics and the people…narrow band of consensus, citizenry disillusioned…turned attention to entertainment” etc.)

Chrono: 1976-1991

Themes: political disillusionment, distractions, Democratic party betrayal, widening inequality, Reagan as liar, Establishment only lightly investigates political wrongdoing, government violating law, weak media doesn’t interrogate politics, Cold War end, no peace dividend, fear of independent nationalism abroad, overcoming the Vietnam Syndrome

Topics: Presidents Carter, Reagan, and Bush 41, political non-participation, 70s culture, regulation-deregulation, multinational corporations, tax code inequality, minorities hard hit, Iran-Contra Affair, defense buildup, financial industry, Gulf War

Chapter 22

Thesis: p. 601 (millions of American refusing to go along with 80s mainstream politics–against “consensus”), 612

Chrono: 1980-1992

Themes: Existence of a permanant adversarial culture, American foreign policy immune from democracy (p. 607), Response to poverty is to build more jails, voters’ desires ignored, two parties inadequate, courageous acts of individual protest to Gulf War,

Topics: Peace activism (i.e. anti-nuclear), voting percentages, taxes, ethnic/women’s activism, resistance to Reagan’s human services cuts, Stonewall (first mention of LGBT in book), Teamsters revamping, Vietnam legacy, Gulf War protests, Columbus Day protests, Culture Wars

Chapter 23

Thesis: p. 639 (perhaps)–this is a visionary/philosophical chapter political economy—somewhat meandering (probably yet another former conclusion to the book)

Chrono: n/a

Themes: no political saviors, 1970s/1980s – were an attempt at “restoration” of order after 1960s (p. 633), most histories understate revolt and discourage citizens, guards of the sytem (give small rewards to non-elites to keep system going), alienation and estrangement of middle classes in late 1990s, 99 percent v. 1 percent (pp. 632, 633, 640)

Topics: n/a

Chapter 24

Thesis: pp. 643-644 (“Clinton’s presidency ended with no chance that it would…make his mark in history”)

Chrono: 1992-2000

Themes: disappointment w/Clinton in relation to campaign of hope, Clinton’s total confidence in market system/free enterprise, Democrats only nod toward progressives, Clinton’s balance budget obsession, keeping agitated citizens focused on demonized others (e.g. criminals, immigrants, welfare recipients, rogue states), no job creation programs, Clinton’s military obsession, U.S. as major world arms supplier, human rights secondary to politics (stability over morality), choosing military solutions when diplomatic available, inequality exacerbated. Chapter heroes include Noam Chomsky, Barbara Ehrenreich.

Topics: Bill Clinton, Clinton administration, tone/direction of policy, Waco tragedy, Janet Reno, McVeigh, welfare reform, budgets, Somalia, Rwanda, Indonesia, NAFTA, Lewinsky, Bosnia, national living wage campaign, 1999 WTO meeting

Chapter 25

Thesis: p. 676 (maybe—“unity of both parties around class issues…barrier [to] third-party candidate,

Chrono: 2000-2002

Themes: Bush-Gore similarities (esp. unity on class issues), terrorism can’t be defeated by force (p. 678), Bush administration’s information control, dissent from war on terror, need to give up superpower behavior,

Topics: 2000 election, War on Terror, President Bush (43), Ralph Nader, 9/11, Afghan casualties, Robert Bowman (Vietnam vet, dissent on War on Terror)


Important messages: Reiterates themes of book (e.g. class, racial injustice, sex inequality, nationalist fervor, nation’s arrogance). Delves more into his philosophy of history (i.e. subjectivity, no absolute truths, but complexity can be relayed). Zinn gets somewhat autobiographical. He mentions specific authors not on his undergraduate or graduate reading lists in the 1950s (but who should’ve been).

21 Thoughts on this Post

    • Nils: I’ve read your post. I like most everything but the footnote (i.e. sentence #2 and after), which draws too bright of a line, philosophically at least, between questions about the present and explorations of the past. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, there is something about us, in our minds and in the context of present circumstances, that drives our interest in the past. Otherwise, I do agree that many professional historians do mitigate the influence of present-day political passions (as distinct from questions) on their interpretations of past documents/events. And professional historians’ standards of evidence, sense of complexity, and interpretive steps are always much more developed. – TL

  1. I don’t think vast numbers of high school teachers are teaching the book. They may use it as a supplement, but let’s be honest, the market for textbooks is set by the state boards of Texas, (remember their recent controversy), Florida, and California. None of these states’ politicians, and to borrow a concept from Professor Hartman’s first book, “educational vigilantes” have been ideologically friendly to Zinn’s brand of social democracy for the past two generations. Gary Nash and his committee were smeared in the 1990s for their work on the national history standards.

    As for the professional historians at the university level, they don’t teach it either. Jesse Lemisch in his essay, “Present Mindedness Revisited” charged the post World War II profession as having “anti-radicalism” as a goal which dovetails quite well with the thesis of Professor Hartman’s monograph.

    I can state that my graduate training at UVA in the mid 1980s didn’t include left historiography. We read Thomas Haskell’s pieces on capitalism and the origins of humanitarianism but not Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery. We read the historiography of the U.S. constitution from the 1950s consensus historians forward through Gordon Wood. The only New Left historian we read was Kolko, and that was for the purpose of debunking. I guess the point I am making concerns the reproduction of values that the department wanted to inculcate its graduate students.

    Since this blog often discusses American exceptionalism, I wonder just how much of the criticism of Zinn’s work and others of the same ilk, comes from the deviance of his story from what the late Nathan Huggins termed the “master narrative” of American History. I remember watching C-Span one Fourth of July, and my jaw dropped when Forrest McDonald, basically stated that Left historians “hate America.” I know McDonald’s politics and his penchant for bomb throwing but it was still surprising to hear it voiced.

    • Brian: Thanks for the reflections. I’m not surprised to hear that you didn’t encounter much self-consciously left historiography in grad school (that said, does applied postmodernist theory count?).

      On your other point, I confess to some of the anti-radicalism of which Lemisch spoke. In the classroom, I try to avoid the extremes of interpretation even while I’m happy to talk about radical historical “outliers” (i.e. dissenters), for our outliers help explain real and perceived norms, right? But, more practically, it was a matter of time in my survey and low-level undergrad courses. I also am not as familiar with left historiography (courtesy of the point you made above), so I didn’t feel qualified to select certain texts (at least on purpose). – TL

      • I’ll play Devil’s advocate. How do you determine what is and what is not an “extreme interpretation?”

        How do you teach late nineteenth early twentieth century imperialism? That is by far the toughest topic for me to teach in the post civil war survey. I was exposed to all that New Left stuff from Williams, LaFeber as an undergrad not as a graduate student.

        I am sympathetic to the time constraints in the survey which is why I try to expose my student s to as many approaches as possible. I want them knowledgeable about New Left, progressive, counter-progressive, environmental, the organization synthesis, feminist, Native American, and African-American approaches to history so that when they leave they have the tools to find the soft underbelly and debunk the junk political discourse they’ll encounter or my BS.

  2. Tim – Great review that makes me want to read Zinn again.

    I checked out Nils’ “Rightwing Productions of History” – an interesting discussion and comments that might get bloggers talking — once again — about history and politics, academic and public history, etc.

    Serendipitously, in my local, Bedford, PA, newspaper recently, an article noted that a county schoolboard was about to review books for high school classes, and two of Bill O’Reilly’s were candidates – but not Howard Zinn’s. [Aside – the county went 75% for Romney.] On amazon, I found that “Killing Lincoln” had received 4871 customer reviews, and “Killing Kennedy” had gotten 3257.

    Can anyone out there help me – what does this mean, and what’s to be done, if anything?

    • Bill: Thanks. I don’t know how to answer your last questions. But, what was your take on Zinn the first time around? Do your memories of the book correspond with my comments? – TL

      • Tim – First time was quite a while ago, when I identified with and accepted much of Zinn’s perspective. Less so now. Beyond that, my memory isn’t good enough to give a full answer to your question. I may read it again, but couldn’t be that first-time reader, huh?

    • They want to reproduce their local values and are using the state to set the boundaries of what passes for academic freedom. That is how we end up with the Texas social studies standards, states which have mandated the teaching of creationism, etc. I harken back to concept I used in an earlier comment, the idea of “educational vigilantism” than Professor Hartman used in his first book. This goes back to the Scopes trial, the purging of leftist teachers during the Mcarthyism, Anita Bryant’s crusade against homosexual teachers in the 1970s, to Lynne Chenney’s protests of the National History Standards in the 1990s.

      We accept Professor Hartman as a competent historian and instructor. As a thought experiment, what would happen to a younger, fresh out of college Andrew Hartman wearing his Rage Against the Machine tee shirt spouting his “socialism” to a high school class in Bedford, Pennsylvania? Would he last three years to get tenure?

      As for solutions, the only one I can think is to push back — hard.

      • Around here, Rage Against the Machine tee shirts are worn by right wingers… just a different machine I guess. Beyond that, it’s hard to speculate on what his fate as a raging socialist might be in Bedford. He doesn’t much spout it as a blogger, so maybe he could keep it subtle in high school too. But he might have to use O’Reilly’s books.

  3. “So read Zinn’s book, and then check out five more works on the history of capitalism, socialism, and inequality.”

    Which 5 books would you recommend?

    • Good question. It depends on readability (i.e. academic v. popular), and whether we’re talking capitalism, socialism, or inequality. But here are some thoughts in the form of an imperfect/average list of five:

      1. Appleby’s *Relenless Revolution: A History of Capitalism*
      2. Michael Kazin’s *American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation*
      3. Corey Robin’s *The Reactionary Mind*
      4. The best biography of Eugene Debs you can get your hands on.
      5. Michael Denning’s * The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century*
      …I’m sure our readership can come up with better suggestions than these. – TL

  4. Hard to see what Will Hunting was so excited about, then. Nothing too radical, nobody reads it.

    But the question of influence should not be ignored. Hendrix isn’t that shocking to the virgin 21st century ear, but only because virtually everyone who came after him copped his canon. To hear any modern electric guitar is to hear Hendrix as well.

    Whether it’s Howard Zinn or somebody else who’s the Hendrix of the modern academy, it’s questionable whether the Gordon Wood [here used pejoratively] view prevails. outside explicitly traditionalist colleges.

    I’ll bet a dollar more college stoonts know of “white privilege” than of “Gordon Woodism.”

    • Tom: There are plenty of controversial points in Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Which is why Wineburg thought enough of the book to write a faulty take down. But the book doesn’t seem to be read nearly as much as its detractors think. At the very least there is no hard proof that it’s being read (either by professors or students) as much as some think, or in the places (e.g. academy) where some think it’s being read. We need some survey data, not anecdotes and fears, to determine the book’s true readership and fans. – TL

      • Thx, Tim. And Happy Washington’s Birthday.

        “George Washington. Well, that brings up the Revolutionary War, and I think the Revolutionary War needs to be re-examined. I don’t want to take down George Washington, but I think people ought to have a more realistic picture of the distinction between the elite – the Washingtons and the Adams and the Madisons and the Jeffersons – that greater distinction between them and the rest of the population.

        00:56:03 I mean, George Washington, yes, he was a very good general, he was a very good military strategist, and so on and so forth. He was also a slave holder and he also was, reluctant to use black people in the revolutionary army, while the British, who were not reluctant, and they gave freedom to slaves who fought in revolutionary army. And you know, I would recognize Washington for his military savvy, and so on, and courage and so on.

        00:56:36 I’d also recognize the soldiers in his army, the rank and file, the people who mutinied against him. The thousands of soldiers who mutinied against the officers, against Washington, and why? Because the officers were being treated like nobility and the ordinary soldiers were really being treated like dirt, and they were not getting food and not getting their pay, and not getting clothes and so on.”—Prof. Zinn, addressing 800 social studies teachers 10/16/08



        1) 800 teachers is a lot and I doubt this was an isolated incident.

        2) If there’s one man who gives the lie to attacks on the Great Man Thesis, it’s GWash. Not that that stopped Prof. Zinn.

        3) The book on Howard Zinn is not closed. Rust never sleeps.



  5. I always look forward to your reviews Tim and again you didn’t disappoint.
    Just a quick anecdotal story signifying nothing. I was on a jury here in Napa, Ca. north of San Francisco this week and as everyone knows when you’re on a jury there’s a lot of time spent waiting, so I brought the book I’m currently reading, That Noble Dream, to pass the time. One juror asked me about the book and during our conversation he mentioned that he has been reading A People’s History of the US. The next day another juror asked me about the book I was reading and during the conversation she brought up Zinn and A Peoples History. Neither person is a student or an academic, one’s a nurse and the other a horticulturalist. At that point I probably should have polled the remainder of the jury just to know if anyone else had read it. Ironically, I’ve never read it but you’ve spurred my interest as usual.

    • Paul: Thanks for the kind words. But isn’t your anecdote most interesting. So maybe Zinn is being read primarily in non-academic situations—without opportunity for guided critical discussion? Does this change our (or just my) view of Wineburg’s review? Hmm… – Tl

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