Howard Zinn

A People’s History of the United States

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A People’s History of the United States Summary

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Howard Zinn is known most as a civil rights leader, an anti-war activist, and an award-winning playwright. However, today Zinn is mostly notably recognized for writing the bestselling nonfiction book, A People’s History of the United States. Considered a very controversial tome, because of its portrayal of the historical events of the United States, countless scholars and critics have praised it for its revelations and criticized it for its radicalism. In this book, Zinn reveals the stories from America’s history that are seldom told because of the sinister light they shine on the United States. These stories about America’s involvement in racism, colonization, war, politics and greed, aim to make us to think of the United States in a drastically different way.

Zinn himself writes that his book describes the struggles and toils “of those who have fought slavery and racism, of the labor organizers who have led strikes for the rights of working people, [and] of the socialists and others who have protested war and militarism. So naturally it would be expected that the stories within A People’s History of the United States are not those of typical American triumphs that are told in most history books.

In the first few chapters Howard Zinn focuses on the discovery of America, its independence, and the American revolution. He starts off strong, and relatively early, by ironically titling his first chapter “Columbus, the Indians, and Human Progress,” in where he details the capture and enslavement of Native Americans committed by the crew of Christopher Columbus. The following chapter is all about America’s Independence from the British, as well as the African slave trade which ran rampant in America’s early years. He does however mention that slavery isn’t, and never was a “natural” thing, as many white servants cooperated on multiple occasions to help the black slaves escape and find freedom. The next couple of chapters follow the concept of tyranny, classism, and the American revolution, which was set about by the Founding Fathers, who used war to immobilize movements and distract the American public of the failing economy.

A People’s History of the United States is also famously a rolodex of eminent names of activists, civil rights leaders and resisters who changed the American way. For instance, starting with chapter six, Zinn illustrates the women who fought against inequality, listing names such as Anne Hutchinson, Margaret Fuller and Sojourner Truth. Chapter seven writes of Andrew Jackson and the conflicts with Native Americans. Chapter eight describes how unpopular the American public found President Polk’s decision for the Mexican-American war, despite how it was represented in published media.

The next chapters delve further into American history by talking about slave rebellions and abolitionist movements as well as the violence incited by opposing views, leading of course to the Civil War. Chapter 11, the last chapter in that era, focused on corruption in the government, and the groups and individuals who fought hard to expose it, like the Knights of Labor, Emma Goldman, the American Railway Union and the Populist Party.

This non-fiction piece is written in chronological order, so with the following chapters comes a larger section about America’s nearer past – specifically the twentieth century. Immediately Zinn jumps in with talks about American Imperialism in lands like Guam and Puerto Rico, as well as during major American wars like the Philippine-American and Spanish-American wars. This of course sparks the next chapter about anarchism, leading to the rise of socialism, and then covering World War I and of course all the movements that opposed it. He also mentions how those oppositions to the war were themselves opposed by the Espionage Act of 1917 and argues that the only reason America was in the war to begin with was to increase their economic impact across the world.

Zinn then covers the Communist party, the Great Depression, World War II, the bombing of Dresden, and of course, the highly criticized topic in his book: his views on the Vietnam War. He talks about the morale of the soldiers who were forced to take part in numerous slaughters and massacres, and how the highly publicized “anti-war protests,” were not only oppositions taken up by Americans back home. He says they were mostly by soldiers who were fighting a war they didn’t want to fight, and dying in a war they knew they wouldn’t win, as evidenced by the number of deserters.

Zinn continues with each decade by describing the political upheavals and failures of the American government to put its people first, and describes the problems that each president faced, and the truth behind it, which often included greed and tyranny. He concludes the book with a chapter called “The 2000 Election and the War on Terror,” in which he cites Bush’s failure to identify the real motivation of the 9/11 tragedy. Zinn blames U.S. foreign policies – stationing troops and killing countless people in Arab countries, as well as the strong support against Palestinian’s land as well as the War in Afghanistan.

There are two recurrent themes in the book: There is the aspect that Americans often oppose the wars that they are forced to endure, and that the government is covering up the overwhelming unpopularity of these wars. Part of the reason is because they know that these wars are all about money, which brings us to the second theme: Zinn talks a lot about “following the money.” He describes how he was able to trace the mayhems, failures and miscalculations of the United States by tracing its economy back hundreds of years, which if anything, is a fascinating way to do research. So despite the fact that some people consider this book a masterpiece, and other criticize every single thing about it, one thing is certain – Howard Zinn is a remarkable writer who can throw together the history of an entire nation into a couple of hundred pages.