Both works open with a discussion of the earliest of time periods in American roots and foundations. Both works open with the formation of America as a central part of the thesis in each. From this initial point of agreement, there is divergence. Johnson spends the first part of his narrative extolling "A City on a Hill" that he sees as America. The opening sentence sets the tone for the rest of the part and the work, in general:
The creation of the United States of America is the greatest of all human adventures. No other national story holds such tremendous lessons, for the American people themselves and for the rest of mankind. It now spans four centuries and, as we enter the new millennium, we need to retell it, for if we can learn these lessons and build upon them, the whole of humanity will benefit in the new age which is now opening.
The "greatest" aspect along with the benefit of such "tremendous lessons" establishes the Exceptionalist nature of Johnson's work. It is a foray into the potential for greatness that nations hold if they model themselves off of American identity. Johnson is able to bring this out through the idea of America being uniquely situated in history to teach such lessons to others. Johnson briefly discusses Columbus as an "idealist" who wanted to "transform the world for the better." In this beginning, Johnson makes the claim that America was etched out of a desire to make the world better in its greatness.
Zinn does not agree. Zinn also opens with the founding of America. Yet, while Johnson is able to move past the Columbus landing and pivot into the Colonial time period, Zinn does not. Zinn opens his work with the basic analysis that will represent his thesis. In contrast to the idealism that Johnson posits, Zinn suggests that America was founded on the need to exploit others and construct relationships of power in which there were definite "winners" and "losers." Zinn's examination of Columbus imprisoning the Native Americans and facilitating an exchange in which he benefited and they did not becomes part of the oppressive hierarchy that Zinn sees as intrinsic to America. Highlighting a major difference between both is the larger implication of each perspective. Johnson sees the history of America as one that delves into the greatness of the nation. Zinn sees the history of America as one that has to be told from the point of view of the people, specifically the individuals that struggled to have their narratives authenticated in a power dynamic where definite winners and losers were present.