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A People's History of the United States

by Howard Zinn

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Discuss why Zinn disputes Kissinger's idea that "History is the memory of states."

Zinn disagrees with Kissinger because he feels that states are not communities. Zinn believes that viewing history from the perspective of states or nations silences the voices of ordinary people. Review: In this response, we get a sense of why Zinn disagrees with Kissinger's idea about history. If we view history from the point of view of the nation or state, it becomes easier for us to justify national exercises of power and our support for them. Kissinger's vision is dangerous because it tends to silence political struggles. In contrast, Zinn believes that "History is conflict."

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In A People's History of the United States, Zinn disagrees with Kissinger's vision of history because he feels that it silences the voices of people's experience.

Zinn feels that Kissinger's version of history is a form of mythology. Zinn believes that when history is told from the nation's point of view, it removes the struggles that different groups experienced.  Highlighting this struggle is Zinn's primary motivation:

My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different: that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been, The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. 

Zinn believes that Kissinger's view of history emphasizes national progress over individual struggle.  Telling history from the point of view of nations eliminates the fight people waged against the Status Quo.  Kissinger's view of history also removes the possibility of the nation being wrong.  For example, Zinn emphasizes how important it is to tell the story of the United States Constitution from the perspective of African-Americans, people that the original document silenced.

Zinn views Kissinger's understanding of history as dangerous.  When we embrace the historical narrative of states or governments over individual people, Zinn feels we are more prone to justify national exercises of power.   For example, if we look at industrialization as simply a time where America advanced, we tend to forget the struggles that took place between workers and management.  As Zinn demonstrates in his chapter "Robber Barons and Rebels," we would forget how American government and industry colluded with one another to deny the interests of the poor.  Zinn believes struggles like this one define the essence of historical scholarship. The historian must be committed to retelling this story of conflict because it encompasses the "people's" stories.

This paradigm is established in chapter 1 of A People's History of the United States.  This is the chapter where Zinn analyzed Columbus's subjugation of the Native Americans.  Kissinger's vision of history would view Columbus as a hero, the man who discovered America. Zinn's embrace of history as the story of the people, the narrative of "conflict," compels him "to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks." Zinn does not believe that the nation should be more important than "a people's history."  As a result, he disagrees with Kissinger's perspective on history.

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