Zinn opens with an account, from the Arawak Indian point of view, of the horrific slaughter and suffering that came to them and Indians on other nearby islands when Columbus and his followers arrived. Zinn states that the genocide inflicted on the Indians is not ignored, but quickly brushed over by traditional historians such as Samuel Eliot Morison, encouraging us as readers to slide over it as well. What is traditionally emphasized in histories, at least up until 1980, when Zinn published this book, is the Western achievement in gaining the New World. Atrocity is brushed aside and justified as the price of progress. This, Zinn says, is simply one version of history, one that chooses to side with the ruling classes in society. As Zinn puts it,
The historian's distortion is more than technical, it is ideological; it is released into a world of contending interests, where any chosen emphasis supports (whether the historian means to or not) some kind of interest, whether economic or political or racial or national or sexual.
Rather than tell the story of US history from the point of view of the victors or dominant classes, Zinn wants to emphasize the story of the underdogs in society, what is often called the view from below. He is very clear that he does not want to romanticize the lower classes, fully recognizing that they can be cruel and victimize each other, nor does he want to paint the upper classes as all bad, saying they are also victims of the cruelties of the systems they perpetuate. But he does want to nuance and enhance our conventional historical narrative and focus on moments when common people managed to make a positive difference.
Much of chapter one focuses on contrasting the societies of Indians and Europeans, emphasizing the equality and relative (not absolute) peacefulness of the Indians versus the hierarchy and violence of the colonizers.