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A People's History of the United States

by Howard Zinn

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What was Zinn's argument about World War I in A People's History of the United States?

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In Chapter Fourteen, Zinn argues that the official justification for American involvement in the war—that it was undertaken to protect free trade and other rights of nations—is nonsense. He quotes historian Richard Hofstadter, hardly a radical, who dismissed this as "rationalization of the flimsiest sort." Zinn finds the real motives for entering the war in what Wilson called the "righteous conquest of foreign markets" and a desire to achieve profits for industrialists and financiers while promoting unity with the working classes. American involvement in the war would open up tremendous opportunities for war profiteers, and victory would ensure expanded American access to global markets. Zinn notes that J.P. Morgan and Company issued massive loans to Great Britain, which obviously gave them a motive for seeing Allied victory, even (or more accurately, especially) if that meant American intervention. Zinn spends most of this chapter writing about how the American state sought to maintain a consensus for fighting the war through propaganda, suppression of dissent, and especially crushing working-class unrest. Socialist opposition was especially strong, as evidenced by Eugene V. Debs and Charles Schenck, both imprisoned for voicing their distaste for the war, and the actions of the International Workers of the World. In short, to enforce consensus on a war that many Americans did not want, the "establishment" in the United States resorted to decidedly undemocratic measures:

The patriotic fervor of war had been invoked. The courts and jails had been used to reinforce the idea that certain ideas, certain kinds of resistance, could not be tolerated.

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Zinn's basic argument about World War I is that it was a war that the United States participated in because of the demands of the capitalist classes. 

Zinn points out that the official rationales for war were empty.  He says it was not a war about democracy but was, rather, a war about preserving foreign markets for the economic elite of the country.  He argues that the war also came about (for the US) because of how closely we came to be tied to the Allies as they bought huge amounts of war materiel from us early in the war.  In addition, the propaganda put out in support of the war was, in Zinn's mind, a good way for the government to "create an artificial community of interest between rich and poor."  In other words, Zinn is saying the government used pro-war patriotism to shore up support for capitalism by making it seem as if the poor and the elites had common interests.

Therefore, Zinn argues that WWI was a war that was fought for the benefit of the elites in the US.


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