Why did Zinn choose to write A People's History of the United States and take the perspective that he did?
First, Zinn wrote in this way because he fervently believed in the ideological perspective he took in the book. Zinn was active in social justice issues throughout his long life and academic career, including civil rights protests, unionization efforts, and attempts to reform academic curricula to reflect what he viewed as a more critical perspective. Second, Zinn thought that academic history had, for many years, tended to overlook the experiences of ordinary people in favor of a narrative that was primarily intended to glorify nations. While this perspective was becoming obsolete among historians by the time A People's History was first published in 1980, he sought to use the book to expose a broader readership to a historical narrative that emphasized the struggles of ordinary people and the ways that most Americans had experienced oppression along race, class, and gender lines. In A People's History, Zinn argues that the history of the United States, like that of other nations, is characterized by
...fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex (9-10).
This view was typical of social historians of the late twentieth century who had gone beyond both the romantic, patriotic ideals of the state and the Marxian economic class analysis of previous historians. Throughout the book, Zinn presents a narrative in which oppressor and oppressed are locked in conflict, a struggle that begins in the book with Columbus's encounter with the Arawaks in 1492. Anticipating criticisms of impartiality, Zinn presents his book as a corrective to those histories that glorified the state and the (powerful, white) men who led it. He deliberately interprets history from the point of view of those removed from power in an attempt to shape our responses to current events:
If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win (10-11).
In other words, by highlighting oppression, and the ways people resisted it in the past, Zinn hopes his readers might find inspiration to resist oppression in our own times.
Howard Zinn chose to write this book because he felt that it was important to put an alternative view of history before the American people. Zinn felt that American history books tell the story of American history from one viewpoint only: that of the elites of society. He felt that they tell a triumphal story of American history in which the US is always the “good guy” and our society is constantly progressing.
Zinn, by contrast, felt that Americans, and American elites in particular, have not really been the good guys in our history. He feels that the American system has been biased in favor of the elites. He takes a Marxist point of view and argues that American elites have systematically worked to oppress the lower classes in various ways. He sees that oppression permeating our history and continuing into the present.
Because he saw this, he wanted to write a book that would, he hoped, bring about a revolution in American thought. He wanted a revolution that would involve
people beginning to take power from within the institutions. In the workplace, the workers would take power to control the conditions of their lives. It would be a democratic socialism.
His purpose in writing the book from the point of view that he did was to promote this sort of a revolution.