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.