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A People's History of the United States

by Howard Zinn

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A People's History of the United States Summary

A People's History of the United States is a book by Howard Zinn that retells American history with a focus on the stories that don't typically make it into mainstream historical accounts.

  • Zinn explores the class struggles, racist agendas, and political movements that are underrepresented in mainstream historical discussions.

  • Zinn examines the economic underpinnings of the Revolutionary War, in which American elites wanted to overthrow the British in order to consolidate their own power.

  • Zinn also looks at the Civil War, the Vietnam War, and the anti-war movement in order to understand how the general public's opinion of war has changed over time.

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Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States has been highly influential since its initial publication in 1980. It spawned adaptations for young readers (a two-volume adaptation by Rebecca Stefoff: A Young People's History of the United States) and The People Speak, a History Channel documentary based on Zinn's work. Zinn himself remains a heroic figure to many, especially for this book and for his ongoing teaching and social activism, which were directly related.

A People's History of the United States was praised from the moment it appeared on shelves. A 1980 Library Journal review called it "brilliant and moving" and said it was well-designed to appeal to both historians and general readers. However, the volume was not without its criticisms. Some of these critiques align with party lines. Roger Kimball's review in the conservative National Review labeled Zinn a "Professor of contempt" and dismissed the work as the ultimate in "anti-American history," a patchwork of leftist clichés. Oscar Handlin's review for The American Scholar dismissed both Zinn's approach to history and the actual content of the work, citing a number of Zinn's claims as fallacious.

Some criticisms of the work carried more intellectual weight and addressed the quality of Zinn's reasoning directly. Bruce Kuklick's review of the book for The Nation suggested that A People's History of the United States was essentially a textbook for the left, and as such it shared many of the weaknesses of textbooks: overly simplified issues, lack of nuance, and a willingness on Zinn's part to repeat easy answers.

In the end, A People's History of the United States continues to be read and to influence thousands of readers because it was groundbreaking in many ways. It told stories left out of mainstream history books, and it spoke for the voiceless. It rejected the false objectivity that colors too many textbooks, and it openly declared its ethical and political allegiances. If it was clumsy at times, its sweeping energy cleared the ground for later generations of scholars to explore these issues in more detail.

Extended Summary

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Throughout A People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn blends critical approaches. The book's twenty-five chapters move from the European discovery of North America through the year 2000, evoking American history in a roughly chronological sequence. However, each chapter also has a topical focus, which allows Zinn to trace distinct but intersecting lines of historical influence. Zinn uses these intersections of time and topic as a combination of springboard and platform: he inserts extended meditations on key themes where they grow logically from the narrative of the people's history. For example, Zinn's first chapter discusses the general relationship between Europeans and Native Americans, but Zinn also analyzes larger-than-life historical figures—Christopher Columbus in this case—and their role in American history.

Almost every chapter performs a set of interwoven functions central to Zinn's project:

  • First, he revisits the major events of American history.
  • Second, he retells them, emphasizing the role of the people by including details often left out of or minimized in mainstream histories.
  • Third, he makes an interpretative claim about how the powerful elite worked to solidify or maintain their control.

Chapter 1:Columbus, the Indians, and Human Progress

Chapter 1 begins Zinn's process of shifting history's focus from that of the European conquerors and resulting power elites to that of the people. The chapter opens from the perspective of the Arawak Indians who met Columbus. He describes them and their similarities to other indigenous people of the continent, and he then puts Columbus's explorations into historical, political, and economic context. Zinn emphasizes the relative peacefulness of the natives...

(This entire section contains 4483 words.)

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(from Columbus's own account) and the cruelty Europeans exercise in their quest for gold. Next, he documents how the Indians' numbers dwindled away due to enslavement, violence, and disease.

This in turn leads to the introduction of Zinn's central premise, a meditation on the nature of history and what it means to leave key details (such as Columbus's character and the Indians' suffering) out of a historical narrative. If "history is the memory of states," as Zinn quotes Henry Kissinger, then Zinn's ultimate goal is to free that past by telling the people's story. As an essential part of this untold history, Zinn reviews how almost all European settlers in North America treated Native Americans in the same way, committing "genocide" to claim what they saw as their destiny. Past historians had excused slaughter as the necessary price for human progress. Zinn challenges that assumption and sees re-evaluating those events and who is sacrificed as essential for real progress.

Chapter 2Drawing the Color Line

Chapter 2 opens in 1619, with the arrival of a slave ship in North America. Zinn sketches the colonists' need for labor, which was the immediate engine driving their willingness to hold slaves, and the larger European cultural attitudes that made slavery tenable. He compares slavery in Europe and Africa, and he touches on the nature of African civilization. Zinn moves back and forth through time by documenting the massive importation of slaves ("10 to 15 million" imported by 1800) and analyzing what this enslavement meant. Zinn addresses the marked racial bias in the seventeenth century (evidenced by laws against black/white fraternization) and comments on the many ways blacks resisted slavery: everything from dodging work to outright rebellion. Finally, Zinn documents how period power elites assembled "an intricate and powerful system of control" that kept resistant slaves in their place and prevented poor white laborers from rebelling with them.

Chapter 3:Persons of Mean and Vile Condition

Chapter 3 opens with a summary of Bacon's Rebellion of 1676. Zinn sketches the complex economic and political forces driving this armed uprising by whites from the frontier. The frontiersmen were caught between the landed classes in the east of Virginia (who received substantial land grants) and the Indians to the west. A harsh summer in 1676 ruined crops, leaving the majority of the population hungry and angry. The rebel Nathaniel Bacon led forces who were not happy about their economic situation but who were not happy about open warfare either. Twenty-three rebels were eventually hanged, an act anchoring what Zinn calls "a complex chain of oppression in Virginia": England was at the top, then the Virginia elite, then the frontiersmen, and finally the Indians at the bottom. The result was that most people supported the rebellion and a "leveling" of the wealth in the colony.

The intense economic imbalance in Virginia was representative of a similar situation back in Europe. England and other countries displaced the poor from their land, then punished them for being idle, which eventually drove them to the colonies. Settlers came with hopes of better conditions in America, but most were disappointed: they came as servants, and they remained as working poor in colonies that quickly developed strict class divisions. As a result, the decades prior to the American Revolution saw a growing underclass in the colonies, as well as numerous strikes and protest by the poor. This unhappiness was intensified by the foreign wars England fought, which made merchants rich but further oppressed the poor. To prevent a unified uprising, the power elites thus created even more laws dividing blacks from whites.

Chapter 4:Tyranny Is Tyranny

Chapter 4 addresses the American Revolution. Casting light on the concentration of wealth in the decades prior to the revolution, Zinn focuses first on the power struggle between the colonial elites and England. Zinn discusses rebellions of colonial poor against the landowning rich, and he analyzes the Regulator movement against taxation. Once violence broke out in the 1770s, many of the revolutionary leaders actually struck a moderate tone, while others found ways to resolve colonial class conflicts by creating a united front against England.

Chapter 5:A Kind of Revolution

Chapter 5 continues to discuss the American Revolution, putting military actions in social and cultural context. On one hand, forming a militia quickly was possible because so many colonists were armed. On the other hand, the new nation soon started forcing sailors to join the war, which had been one of the complaints against the British. Period observers noted that military leaders such as George Washington reinforced strict class hierarchies, and the Continental Congress that came together to write the new nation's laws was overwhelming made up of the rich, leaving the same men in power as had been in charge in the colonies. Once the revolution was won, Americans assumed they could take Indian lands to the west. Many discharged soldiers were not paid, or were paid in devalued currency, and the result was riots.

Chapter 6:The Intimately Oppressed

Chapter 6 shifts focus to those left out of the major political maneuvering of the revolutionary period: women and blacks. Zinn contrasts the legal and social inequality of colonial and early American Caucasian women to the status women held in Indian tribes, arguing that such inequality is built into an economic system based on private property. Native American women may not have been full equals, but they were treated respectfully, while many European girls came over as servants and remained ill-treated and poor throughout their lives. Black women had it worse: they worked at hard labor and were often sexually abused. Women, such as Anne Hutchinson, who spoke out publicly were punished. During the revolutionary period, the rhetoric of equality sparked women's desire for the same, but the legal system defined them as inferior. During the early nineteenth century, the "cult of true womanhood" developed, which justified keeping women at home and in a domestic position. The same period saw the emergence of women public speakers, like the Grimke sisters, who spoke against slavery. Those activists and the issues they championed became the impetus for the first feminist movements.

Chapter 7:As Long As the Grass Grows or Water Runs

Chapter 7 opens with an analogy: women were the most "interior" group oppressed by the new nation, while Indians were the most "exterior" because they were aliens in their own lands. Zinn then describes the Euro-American treatment of Native Americans, including the many armed conflicts, the broken treaties, and the forced displacements, one of which became known as the Trail of Tears. Zinn describes the Native American response to government mistreatment, which he then contrasts with the white justification of that treatment.

Chapter 8:We Take Nothing by Conquest, Thank God

Chapter 8 focuses on the Mexican-American War. Zinn argues that while some histories have portrayed the war as a popular cause, the reality was quite different. President James Polk pushed an expansionist agenda to justify his conquest of Mexico, and the newspapers supported his actions, misrepresenting both the conflict and popular response to it. The true response of citizens, Zinn posits, can be seen in the demonstrations against the war, while the response of the military can be seen in the number of desertions.

Chapter 9:Slavery Without Submission, Emancipation Without Freedom

Chapter 9 examines the socio-economic structures supporting and justifying slavery. Zinn argues that the U.S. government supported slavery because it was practical (i.e., profitable), and when freedom came, it came via organized war rather than widespread rebellion for similar reasons of practicality. If slaves had been allowed to rebel, Zinn argues, the rebellion might have spread to a generalized class movement, thereby threatening the powerful elite. Chapter 9 also documents the uneven path America took toward emancipation, freedom, and partial racial equality: the failure to pay black soldiers equally, the exodus of freed blacks from southern states, the highly racist attitudes period whites held toward blacks, and more.

Chapter 10:The Other Civil War

Chapter 10 addresses a range of class and labor-related struggles. Zinn starts with the Anti-Renter movement in 1839, discussing its popular protests and outbreaks of violence. He then moves on to the Dorr Rebellion, which fought for voting rights and tax relief for the poor. Zinn documents an array of economic issues, such as depressions, and numerous populist responses to them, including the rise of labor unions. Zinn argues that Andrew Jackson's liberal rhetoric allowed "Jacksonian Democracy" to co-opt the lower classes in order to enlist their help, thereby heading off potential class struggles. Further, he argues that the national laws passed in the 1860s to enforce contracts were intrinsically class-biased because they favored the business owner.

Chapter 11:Robber Barons and Rebels

Chapter 11 begins in 1877, with the end of the railroad strikes. Zinn indicates that the elite proclaimed a national mission for this period: to industrialize and power an economy that was explosively growing. Zinn documents how the introduction of machinery into all areas of the economy made everything faster to produce, allowing much greater levels of production. Zinn describes how the many period innovations became the foundation of great fortunes—and how "blood, sweat, politics and thievery" were crucial to building the railroads. Zinn discusses the same major industrialists and businessmen from this period as most historians—Morgan, Rockefeller, Carnegie—but puts more of an emphasis on their ruthless and unethical actions. He also documents the unequal distribution of wealth and the various forms popular protest against this inequality took: strikes, sabotage, utopian literature (such as Bellamy's Looking Backward), and even songs.

Chapter 12:The Empire and the People

Chapter 12 focuses on American expansion overseas. Zinn links the American need for expansion to the closing of the internal frontier in 1890, marked by the massacre at Wounded Knee. Overseas expansionism also already had a long history at that point. It was anchored diplomatically in the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, which declared American intentions to dominate the Western hemisphere, and it was illustrated through the "103 interventions" in foreign affairs "between 1798 and 1895."

In the 1890s, the clash with Spain had many roots: a generalized push to open foreign markets to U.S. goods, a sense of destiny, a theory about how naval superiority led inevitably to political dominion, a sense of white and Christian superiority (which carried with it a right to rule), and a sympathy for Cuban rebels fighting for independence from European rule. That combination led to American troops being dispatched to support the Cuban and the Philippine independence movements. The result was openly imperial ambitions on the part of the American ruling elite, and a push back from the workers and soldiers, especially black military men, who saw themselves supporting the same system that oppressed them.

Chapter 13:The Socialist Challenge

Chapter 13 focuses on the various ways people fought back against the war, their working conditions, and their daily lives. The first decade of the twentieth century saw many writers—Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Mark Twain, and others—speak out against American agendas. Their exposure of daily life's injustices was linked to the rise of muckraking journalism and mass circulation magazines. It was fueled, though, by a rising awareness of working conditions. Industrial accidents killed tens of thousands, and industrialists saw no need to improve conditions or compensate those killed or injured. Trade unions fought for better conditions, but they were exclusive, focusing on skilled white workers. By contrast, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) attempted to unify and speak for all workers. Some period organizers and writers were explicitly socialist (the Socialist party got its official start in 1901), while others simply fought for better conditions. Socialists helped lead the feminist movement of the early twentieth century. The period also saw the creation of the NAACP. Workers went on strike across the nation, in some cases by the tens of thousands. Some reforms were passed, and politically, a national Progressive movement took hold. For the most part, though, basic conditions did not change, and many of the strikes were put down by violent government action.

Chapter 14:War Is the Health of the State

Chapter 14 discusses World War I. The chapter title is a quote from period radical Randolph Bourne, and it provides the guiding theme for much of the chapter. Zinn's discussion of the war focuses on four areas: the thin justification for America entering the war, the extremely limited public support for the war at the start, the governmental actions to support the war, and opposition to the war. When the call for voluntary enlistment produced less than a tenth of the soldiers needed, the government turned to a draft to assemble military forces directly; the government then had to turn to propaganda to build support. Anarchists, socialists, radicals, and the Industrial Workers of the World all spoke out against the war. The Espionage Act (1917) made it illegal to speak out against World War I, and hundreds of Americans were jailed for doing so. Vigilante groups were also formed to police American cities.

Chapter 15:Self-Help in Hard Times

Chapter 15 starts with the close of World War I and the beginning, in early 1919, of massive movements led by the IWW. Widespread strikes involved tens of thousands of workers in Washington state. The established powers responded by enlisting thousands of new deputies with the permission to use direct violence. Both the strikes and the violent responses on the part of the industrialists and the government then spread across the nation. After the war, Congress passed anti-immigration laws; these laws were in line with widespread racist backlash that led to the Ku Klux Klan growing to 4.5 million members by 1924. The 1920s were marked by huge disparities between rich and poor. Some writers spoke out against these conditions, but few politicians did.

Then, in 1929, the stock market crash led to the Great Depression. Thousands of banks closed, and millions of Americans were out of work (1/4 to 1/3 of the labor force). This revealed tremendous stresses in the system, as real goods (clothes, food, etc.) existed, but people did not have the money to buy them. Farmers as well as middle- and lower-class workers lost their homes to foreclosures. People became very angry, and over 20,000 members of the Bonus Army marched on Washington demanding help. They were met with violence and tear gas.

The many desperate poor began to take action for themselves. They formed Unemployed Councils (often led by communists), engaged in strikes, refused to pay rent or utilities, and so on. Shared conditions produced new connections between racial and ethnic groups. The Roosevelt administration passed numerous acts to address the situation; this New Deal legislation addressed many of the problem areas in American capitalism. However, in 1935 the Wagner Act was passed to stabilize the economy. The result was a Labor Relations Board that regulated labor activities, and more government involvement in the economy in general.

Chapter 16:A People's War?

Chapter 16 analyzes World War II. Zinn grants that the war was quite popular with the American public and that the enemy was "evil." However, he also debunks the American image of defender of the free and oppressed in the war, arguing that America entered the war because Japan's actions challenged the "American Pacific Empire." Regardless of any claims of fighting for freedom, Zinn argues that the American elite fought to make sure the war would leave America economically dominant throughout the world. Moreover, while fighting fascism in 1942, Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 into law: this allowed the army "to arrest every Japanese-American on the West Coast," which amounted to 110,000 people. In short, WWII was a war America fought against an "evil" power, but it was war led on both sides by a powerful racist elite for their own economic interests. Additionally, some of the German atrocities, such as the bombing of civilians in London, were more than matched by the Allied bombing raids on targets such as Dresden. The worst of these was America dropping atomic bombs on Japan, an act which Zinn feels was not justified by military necessity.

After victory, the United States was well-positioned to expand its power globally. It did so by intervening in Korea, where two million people were killed in the name of peace. This military expansion of capitalism became an explicit war against communism. America found its economic interests clashing with those of the Soviet Union and China. This led to a continual expansion of the military budget during the 1950s, one that continued through the 1970s. The external struggle against communism was paralleled by an internal push for ideological unity. Senator Joseph McCarthy was the public face of the anti-communist witch hunts; suspected communist spies lost their jobs and freedoms after dubious trials.

Chapter 17:Or Does It Explode?

Chapter 17 discusses the "black revolt of the 1950s and 1960s." The chapter starts by recounting various black writers' expression of their suffering and condition. Zinn describes the links between black liberation movements and communism (the Communist Party was alone in paying serious attention to racial issues); writers such as Richard Wright joined the Communist Party, and leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois sympathized with communist positions. President Truman created a Committee on Civil Rights to address racial issues, in part for ethical reasons, and in part because America's growing presence on the world stage meant every action was scrutinized. In 1954, the American Supreme Court "outlawed segregation." Despite these governmental actions, blacks mobilized throughout the nation in various ways: boycotts, marches, speeches, sit-ins, and voting rallies. The white ruling class responded with arrests and with violence both official (police brutality) and unofficial (bombed churches, lynchings, and  assassinations of key leaders). The result was a series of urban riots across the nation, especially after Dr. Martin Luther King was killed. Despite the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the courts failed to protect blacks who were injured in the riots or the backlash following them.

Chapter 18:The Impossible Victory: Vietnam

Chapter 18 covers the Vietnam War. Zinn's discussion of the war starts by tracing its roots from the end of World War II, when Japan had to surrender the former French colony of Indochina. From 1946 through 1954, the French fought the Vietminh movement for control of Vietnam. American involvement was publicly justified by a war against communism, but it was more properly considered a "military action" to expand U.S. power and secure regional economic dominance. In 1964, President Johnson's government falsified the Gulf of Tonkin episode to justify official intervention. The United Stated bombarded the countryside and sent hundreds of thousands of troops. These military excursions extended into nearby Laos and Cambodia, and countless civilians were slaughtered. The result was a massive popular movement against the war. In the end, the United States removed its troops, thus demonstrating that "the people" of a nation can end a war and lead national policy.

Chapter 19:Surprises

Chapter 19 is a catchall chapter in which Zinn covers the other social movements of the 1960s. Zinn starts with the feminist movement, touching on major authors (Betty Friedan Susan Brownmiller) and major activities or events (such as 1973's Roe v. Wade, which granted women the right to an abortion). Zinn then addresses prison riots and reform movements and the Native American movements.

Chapter 20:The Seventies: Under Control?

In Chapter 20, Zinn focuses first on how protests in the 1960s had communicated a sense that the system was no longer working and the power elite were no longer in complete control. That theme can be seen in the Republican break-in at the Watergate complex. Nixon staffers and Republican supporters (who included former CIA members) were caught breaking into and bugging the Democratic National Committee's offices. This led to public trials that exposed extensive government malfeasance, including evidence of the secret bombing of Cambodia. In August 1974, just before he would have been impeached, President Nixon resigned. Gerald Ford became president, and the power elite made a point of punishing those responsible, but only mildly and without engaging in any serious reform. Instead, Ford continued the same sort of policies he had inherited, including supporting U.S. involvement in Vietnam. This eventually proved futile, and American troops were withdrawn. The nation lost faith in its leaders and reflected on what the right path was for America. For the first time, the mood of the American people could be said to be anti-Establishment.

Chapter 21:Carter-Reagan-Bush: The Bipartisan Consensus

Chapter 21 covers the mid-1970s through the 1980s. Zinn treats those years as a unit, arguing that rather than Ronald Reagan representing a break with Jimmy Carter, the two men, followed by George Bush, represented a "bipartisan consensus" about the way the country should be run. Zinn argues that while Carter seemed to be an attempt to reach out to elements of the disenfranchised majority, he was really the choice of the Trilateral Commission, and charged with the job of minimizing popular dissatisfaction with the government. Carter made some advances in the support of human rights, but this was not universal: American support of tyrannical regimes continued, as did American military involvement around the globe. Carter's administration remained in the service of "oil and gas interests," and his policies did nothing to redress the country's unequal distribution of wealth.

The twelve years of Reagan and Bush administrations moved the government even further to the right. Carter had supported OSHA to a certain degree, but Reagan largely reversed Carter's limited successes. Reagan and Bush both supported unregulated corporate activity, including reducing or removing legal restraints on pollution at the very time when scientists were documenting concerns over global warming. The income tax code was revised to favor the wealthy even more. Poverty grew, and the poor were stigmatized under Reagan while the military budget was increased. Various military actions (in Nicaragua, Iran, Libya, and Iraq) occurred, each marked by governmental secrecy and frequent disregard for civilian deaths.

Chapter 22:The Unreported Resistance

Chapter 22 focuses on the culture clashes of the 1980s and 1990s. Zinn begins with the academic opposition to establishment positions, then moves to a discussion of the peace movements (including the antinuclear and antidraft movements). Americans protested U.S. actions in Nicaragua, workers' conditions, pollution, and official treatment of gays and lesbians.

Chapter 23:The Coming Revolt of the Guards

Chapter 23 is not, strictly speaking, a history. Instead, it is, as Zinn writes, "a hope" about what shape the future might take. He does work from a historical base, making disclaimers about how limited his ability is to speak for all people and pointing out how most historical studies accent the role of the powerful few and discount the power of the people. He argues that properly understood, history shows the ongoing class dissatisfaction over unequal distributions of wealth and unethical treatment. The power elites try to appease the people or to distract them by calls for patriotic unity, but the people are not fooled. At present, there are signs of change. The middle class, who have long been foundational to keeping the establishment standing through their support, are shifting their loyalties. (They are the "guards" in the prison who give the chapter its title; they are shifting their support from the warden to the prisoners: the people.) This will lead to the possibility of happy, ethical, egalitarian communities in which necessary work is done by everyone and material goods are distributed fairly. Mutual respect will rule the day, and the arts will flourish.

Chapter 24:The Clinton Presidency

Chapter 24 discusses the Clinton administration, which offered the hope of change but delivered little. Bill Clinton did appoint more people of color to the government, but he often attempted to promote liberal appointees only to abandon them when he encountered conservative resistance. He worked with Congress to reduce or eliminate welfare payments to many and to toughen punishment for illegal immigration. Clinton's administration continued international arms sales, trained advisors to support foreign wars, and actively intervened in situations such as Rwanda, where the conflict was "between warlords" and there was no real winning side. These produced active popular protests, as did the economic sufferings of the poor. The most important period protest was the 1999 protest in Seattle at the meeting of the World Trade Organization. "Tens of thousands" showed up to protest the economic regime being forced upon the world's poor. The Clinton administration was also marred by both governmental missteps (such as the Waco tragedy) and by personal scandals (such as President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky). These limited his ability to act.

Chapter 25:The 2000 Election and the "War on Terrorism"

Chapter 25 focuses on the Gore/Bush campaigns of 2000, Bush's contested victory, and the resultant Bush administration. Zinn argues that George Bush's brother Jeb's role as Florida governor allowed him to carry the state and thus the election. Once in office, Bush followed a clear policy: reduce social services, increase military spending, and favor the rich. On September 11, 2001, America and the Bush administration were rocked by terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Bush's response was to declare a "war on terrorism." This meant attacks on Afghanistan and a widespread hunt for terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. Internally, a wave of patriotism swept the nation, and the USA Patriot Act (2001) was instituted. This suspended constitutional rights and allowed heightened police powers to support the war on terrorism. Some people protested the Patriot Act as well as the subsequent bombings that killed civilians but did not capture or defeat terrorists.