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A People's History of the United States

by Howard Zinn

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What is Zinn's main argument in chapter 1 of A People's History of the United States?

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Zinn opens with an account of the devastating effect European diseases had on the Arawak Indians from the Caribbean. He then moves to a more general discussion of how history is written from the viewpoint of those in power, and how this view has led to revisionist histories such as his own.

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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.

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Zinn's main argument in the first chapter of his book is that the way in which historians have told the story of Columbus's expedition to the New World omits vital parts of the record. While Columbus and his crew instigated a policy of enslaving and slaughtering the Arawaks they encountered, most historians have omitted this part of Columbus's journey.

Cartographers distort reality for technical reasons, Zinn says, but "The historian's distortion is more than technical, it is ideological." In other words, when historians omit parts of the historical record, including the accounts of the victims, their decisions have an ideological effect. Zinn writes that such distortions amount to "easy acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress." In other words, historians gloss over atrocities such as Columbus's decision to enslave the Arawaks in his pursuit of riches, but the decision to omit that part of the historical record seems to justify Columbus's cruelties as part of the rightful progression of western society towards "advancement." Zinn questions whether this type of genocide is truly advancement and says that historians are making an ideological decision by omitting Columbus's role in the genocide of Native Americans. 


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In Chapter 1, Zinn details the savagery and brutality that Columbus demonstrated to the indigenous people.  It is from this point where Zinn's main argument emerges.  Zinn wants to liberate the telling of history as the narrative of "states" and transform it to the narrative of "the people."  In Zinn's mind, traditional modes of narrating history have lost this emphasis.  Zinn's primary argument that if historical scholarship focuses on the historical consciousness of those who are normally excluded from the traditional narratives, a wider and more inclusive understanding of history emerges.  

Zinn's argument in chapter 1 is that there must be a more inclusive understanding of history in the hopes of gaining more accuracy and a greater sense of democracy.  For Zinn, this process of questioning and reevaluation is essential to what the historical dialectic should be:

Even allowing for the imperfection of myths, it is enough to make us question, for that time and ours, the excuse of progress in the annihilation of races, and the telling of history from the standpoint of the conquerors and leaders of Western civilization.

This becomes one of the most important parts of Zinn's argument in chapter 1, as it seeks to "question" and better value what defines "progress."

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