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A People's History of the United States

by Howard Zinn
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What is Howard Zinn's main statement or argument in chapter one of A People's History of the United States?

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The first chapter presents a challenge to the traditional viewpoint of the progress of the United States. While there has been a great deal of demographic and economic expansion throughout its history, Zinn argues that there is another side to the story that is often overlooked—namely the aspect of conquest...

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The first chapter presents a challenge to the traditional viewpoint of the progress of the United States. While there has been a great deal of demographic and economic expansion throughout its history, Zinn argues that there is another side to the story that is often overlooked—namely the aspect of conquest and oppression.

Zinn's argument is that America is a nation that has a history of oppression, violence, and victimization which has systematically silenced minority groups or those less economically privileged. This paints a much darker and pessimistic view of the nation's history but also illuminates the areas that are often overlooked in cursory studies of American history. In the end, Zinn simply wants to question the mainstream perception of the advancement and progress in America and make sure that all sides of the story are examined and/or challenged.

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Howard Zinn opens the chapter, and the book, with an analysis of Columbus’s early encounters with Native peoples in the Caribbean, especially the Arawaks. He questions traditional interpretations which emphasize the early explorers' skills as navigators, for example, but downplay the violence of their attacks against the people they renamed Indians.

Zinn urges readers to weigh carefully the kinds of evidence that historians present and the reasons they choose such information. He quotes Henry Kissinger: “History is the memory of states.” When the past is told from the point of view of governors, conquerors, and leaders, promoting the idea that they “deserve universal acceptance,” the perspectives of all others are lost. Dissent and the often violent and even genocidal repression of it are thus underplayed.

For the US, Zinn claims, such perspectives suggest that the leaders, such as presidents and Congress, represent the whole nation and suggest there is one unified “national interest.” Zinn regards this as a myth. “Nations are not communities and never have been.” Instead, fierce conflicts of interests render every country

a world of victims and executioners...[in which] it is the job of thinking people...not to be on the side of the executioners.

At the end of chapter 1, Zinn suggests that we should question the emphasis on “progress” in telling history, which has emphasized “the standpoint of the conquerors and leaders of Western civilization.” The role of such positions in constructing US history, in particular, is the subject of his critical stance.

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In Chapter One, Howard Zinn challenges the reader to view the history of the United States through a different lens. Zinn argues that most histories are told through the perspective of the elite. The elite can be defined as those that are in power or those that benefit from the actions of those in power. Zinn explains that this does not paint a complete picture of the how events unfold. In fact, this way of narrating history can be considered flawed at best, and dishonest at worst.

To illuminate his message, his narrative examines the exploration of the New World. Traditionally, the story of Christopher Columbus is delivered in a way that glorifies is expeditions. Christopher Columbus is presented as a seminal figure in the progress of mankind. Chapter One dispels this notion in a provocative way. Zinn skillfully tells the story from the perspective of the Arawak Indians that Columbus interacted with. From this lens, the reader realizes that the colonization of the New World came at a great cost to the natives that inhabited these lands.

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