“A People’s History of the United States” (Book Review)

I recently read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. The textbook brought out a lot of information supporting ideas I have most always intuitively held. It first helped me piece together the American history I had learned in school, and then added context by adding other voices. It also strengthened my awareness that there have always been inequalities created by a minority in power, and there have always been radicals fighting against these inequalities. The message being: keep on working hard toward what you believe in. There are always others thinking like you. Reading the book all the way through was hugely affirming for me in realizing that there was a strong history of social justice in the U.S., even though there is also a strong history of oppression.

A People’s History of the United States covers the story of America from the arrival of the Europeans all the way to the recent early 2000s. The difference between this book and regular high school textbooks it that this story is told by Native Americans, women, African Americans, working people, pacificts, prisoners, immigrants, anarchists, communists, veterans, the foreign “enemy,” slaves, gay and disabled people. Of course, Zinn didn’t account for everyone’s forgotten experiences, and years after the initial publication Zinn apologies for leaving out Latina/o/x experiences, and recommends “De Colores Means All of Us,” by Elizabeth Martinez to complement his piece.

At the end of the book, Zinn talks about the naming of his classic work. “‘A People’s History’ promises more than any one person can fulfill…I call it that anyway because, with all its limitations,

it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people’s movements of resistance.”

He goes on to admit that this makes it a biased account of history. He is not troubled by that though, “because the mountain of history books under which we all stand leans so heavily in the other direction- so tremblingly respectful of states and statesmen and so disrespectful, by inattention, to people’s movements- that we need some counterforce to avoid being crushed into submission.”

Throughout the book, Zinn includes all the ways that the people of the United States are suppressed and discouraged and violated by the system. “There is no system of control with more openings, apertures, leeways, flexibilities, rewards for he chosen, winning tickets in lotteries. There is none that disperses its controls more complexly through the voting system, the work situation, the church, the family, the school, the mass media- none more successful in mollifying opposition with reforms, isolating people from one another, creating patriotic loyalty.”

Zinn continues by state that in the U.S. system of intimidation and ultimate control, “people do not show how much they know, how deeply they feel, until their practical sense informs them they can do so without being destroyed.”

In a sense, A People’s History of the United States is a way of connecting like minds, and showing people that they are not alone in the feelings or thoughts they might have. All struggles under oppression are connected, and when people are open and acting together, then real change has a possibility of happening. Merely voting is not enough, Zinn continues to prove with a quote from Samuel Huntington, consultant to White House about War in Vietnam.

“The U.S…. was governed by the President acting with support and cooperatiion of key individuals and groups in executive office, the federal bureaucracy, Congress, and

the more important businesses, banks, law firms, foundations, and media, which constitute the private sector’s “Establishment,”

Zinn’s book brought up a lot of realities about why I am apathetic about the voting system in America. “We vote? What does that mean?” said Helen Keller in 1911. “Our modern fetish is universal suffrage,” Emma Goldman, anarchist feminist stated at the same time.

“The law cannot do it for us. We must do it for ourselves.Women in this country must become revolutionaries.

We must refuse to accept the old, traditional roles and stereotypes… We must replace the old, negative thoughts about our femininity with positive thoughts and positive action…” Shirley Chisholm, a black congresswoman in the 1970s said.

In A People’s History of the United States, Zinn posits that welfare reform, and concern about tax money going to welfare programs was not based on public opinion, but still blamed cutting welfare and creating tax reforms on public opinion. Zinn questions what voters do in a two party system if both parties ignore public opinion? Is the Democratic party merely “history’s second most enthusiastic capitalistic party?” as Republican political analyst Kevin Phillips called it?

Huntington goes on to explain that “the day after [the president’s] election,

the size of his majority is almost- if not entirely- irrelevant to his ability to govern the county.

What counts then is his ability to mobilize support from leaders of key institutions in a society and government… This coalition must include key people in Congress, the executive branch, and the private-sector ‘Establishment.’”

Zinn deeply criticizes the bipartisan voting system in America.

“For those who blame Republicans for what has happened and believe that equitable taxation will be restored if only the Democrats can win back the White House, there is this disquieting fact: The turning point on tax policies, when the monied elite began to win big, occured in 1978 with the Democratic party full in power and well before Ronald Reagan came to Washington. Democratic majorities have supported this great shift in tax burden every step of the way,” William Greider, Who Will Tell the People? The Betrayal of American Democracy.

Probably the strongest writing that stuck out to me in the book was Zinn’s anti-war writing, which reminded me that it is possible to have a realistic world view as a pacifict, and that the bellicose, warlike view of the world is more costly and unrealistic than peace.

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in a final sense a theft from those who are hungry and not fed, those who are cold and not clothed,” Dwight D. Eisenhower said, though he was a conservative president and former army general.

Zinn continues by saying that “given the nature of modern warfare, the victims would be mostly civilians. To put it another way, war in our time is always a war against children. And if the children of other countries are to be granted an equal right to life with our own children,

then we must use our extraordinary human ingenuity to find nonmilitary solutions for world problems.“

“If democracy were to be given any meaning, if it were to go beyond the limits of capitalism and nationalism, this would not come- if history were any guide- from the top. It would come through citizens’ movements, educating, organizing, agitating, striking, boycotting, demonstrating, threatening those in power with disruption of the stability they needed.”

The book spells out the effort that it takes the leadership and the government to suppress the people power. It’s always easier to play into the leaders’ ideal than to pave your own way. And I am proud to pave my own way and shape myself, no matter how many ups and downs there may be. Exactly who I am and who I aspire to be.


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Originally published at everydayembellishments.wordpress.com on April 13, 2017.