Howard Zinn’s death this week affords us the opportunity to evaluate his remarkable influence on the American public’s understanding of our nation’s past. His book A People’s History of the United States, published in 1980 with a first printing of 5,000 copies, went on to sell more than 2 million — to this day, some 128,000 new copies a year.
That alone made Zinn perhaps the nation’s single most influential historian. Zinn found that his book was regularly adopted as a text in high schools and, most surprisingly, in many colleges and universities.
One can easily summarize Zinn’s argument in that book (as well as on The People Speak, his recent History Channel special, soon to be released on DVD). America, he charges, was guilty of waging war on those who really made the American nation: Native Americans, African-Americans, the working class, the poor and women.
US history, in Zinn’s eyes, was a history of “genocide: brutally and purposefully waged by our rulers in the name of progress.” He claimed that these truths were buried “in a mass of other facts, as radioactive wastes are buried in containers in the earth.”
Zinn was aided in getting his book attention by two young neighbors, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. When both became movie stars, they used their celebrity to bring his work to a wide audience. As Damon told the press recently, Zinn’s message showed that what our ancestors rebelled “against oftentimes are exactly the same things we’re up against now.”
A few weeks ago, Zinn himself added that his hope was that his work would spread new rebellion, and “lead into a larger movement for economic justice.”
Zinn wrote his history from the perspective of those in America he claimed were the victims of the nation’s rulers — people who were overlooked in the textbooks. In fact, as any student well knows, “bottom up” social history focusing on gender, class and race has dominated the historical profession for the past few decades.
From Zinn’s perspective, history should not be told from the standpoints of generals or presidents, but through that of people who struggle for their rights, engaging in strikes, boycotts, slave rebellions and the like. Its purpose should be to encourage similar behavior today.
Indeed, Zinn candidly said history was not about “understanding the past” — but, rather, about “changing the future.” That statement alone should have disqualified anyone from referring to him as a historian.
He did not exempt President Obama, whom he called both “a mediocre” and “dangerous president,” from his criticism. The last article he wrote appeared in The Nation last week. In it, Zinn argued that Obama’s foreign policy was “no different from a Republican,” that it was “nationalist, expansionist, imperial and warlike.” He also found Obama’s domestic proposals “limited” and “cautious.” He also did not approve of the apparent decision to try those responsible for 9/11, whom he referred to as “suspected terrorists” who “have not been found guilty.”
Zinn was certainly entitled to his perspective, widely held by many in the academy; the danger lies in the favorable reception he often got from those who know little. As one of his protégés, Dave Zirin, writes on The Huffington Post: “With his death, we lose a man who did nothing less than rewrite the narrative of the United States.” That, precisely, is the problem.
One TV critic wrote in The Los Angeles Times that what she learned from Zinn was a “horrifying reminder of not just our indomitable ability to change but also this country’s collective history of oppression.” Zinn, she wrote, showed not only that patriotism was “the last refuge of scoundrels” but also that those who worried about our national security were “the whip and cattle prod used by the power elite.”
True to form, Zinn (like the right-wing isolationist Pat Buchanan) portrayed even World War II as a false model of American military domination over the world.
Even good leftist historians sometimes broke from the applause given Zinn. Georgetown historian Michael Kazin wrote that Zinn “reduces the past to a Manichaean fable and makes no serious attempt to address the biggest question a leftist can ask about US history: Why have most Americans accepted the legitimacy of the capitalist republic in which they live?”
As Kazin notes, Zinn always depicted the people as rather stupid, since they always lost as the majority accepted rule by “a new, privileged [and greedy] leadership.”
As Kazin put it: “Ordinary Americans seem to live [for Zinn] only to fight the right . . . and, inevitably, to be fooled by them.”
Zinn ransacked the past to find alternative models for future struggles. That, of course, is not the job of the historian but of the propagandist.
Zinn served his country during the Second World War as a bombardier, for which he should be commended. Possibly, he felt some guilt at the collateral deaths of civilians his wartime service may have caused; that is understandable. It does not, however, excuse his distortions of the past or his use of it to promulgate left-wing solutions in the present.