A People's History of the United States

Howard Zinn

Book cover

“Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg. Yes, no matter how right the wall may be and how wrong the egg, I will stand with the egg.” -Haruki Murakami

This is of course a very famous book, and as a pretty left-leaning person, I am surprised it took me as long as I did to read it. I am glad I did!

As a brief recap, it is an American history book written from the perspective of the common people, and in particular, any groups of people who were oppressed or who generally don’t get much attention in traditional history books: Native Americans, racial minorities, women, labor organizers, draft resisters, etc. I think it was originally published in the ‘80s, but the copy I read was a pretty recent edition that was updated all the way past 911 (Zinn died in 2010, so I think it is the most updated the book will ever get).

I talked with a friend about it who was somewhat critical or dismissive of it (said friend is more of a centrist than I am). The main criticism is one that Zinn takes on very directly in the book: that it presents an unbalanced, excessively negative picture of the events it describes. The tone is, indeed, relentlessly critical, even regarding events that are generally viewed in a very positive light (the American Revolution, World War II). Zinn acknowledges this, and basically says that there’s no point in providing a balanced perspective within the book when his views are externally balanced by the vast majority of history we get from other books and other cultural sources. I’m inclined to accept this argument. The book is over 600 pages long, and I don’t really need him to be making continual asides regarding how it really was good that the Civil War freed slaves, etc. I was intentionally reading Zinn for an alternative perspective and got plenty of it. I think it’s fair to expect readers to do some mental balancing of their own. The other main criticism I heard is that Zinn was not really an originator of radical history, and that this had already been done by a generation of academics before him. This might well be true but I don’t really care about it. Popularizing something, especially something like this, is a valuable and challenging contribution.

I even came away fairly impressed with Zinn on areas where I felt fairly critical while reading the book. For example, while I was reading, I mentally noted two areas of important people’s organizing in the 20th century that he gave very little attention to: the farm labor organizing movement of Cesar Chavez, and the gay rights movement. (For example, Harvey Milk is not even mentioned.) In the afterword, Zinn specifically acknowledges both of these shortcomings–he says he has benefited a lot from reader feedback, including from people who criticized him for his limited treatment of these subjects. Rather than expand the sections, he recommends works by some other writers who he says have already done it better than he has. I am not sure this is a completely satisfactory solution, but I do give him credit for acknowledging it.

The main thing that disappointed me about the book was the fact that he doesn’t have much to say about the dramatic weakening of people’s movements in the last quarter of the 20th century. His last couple of chapters spend a lot of time talking up small resistance movements that were almost completely ineffectual, such as protests against the first Iraq War. (The low point of the book for me was when he talks about “a little girl” who made some anti-war sign, where the little girl is in fact some relative of his.) I understand why he does this–he wants to give people hope and draw an image of an unbroken chain of resistance. But the truth is that left populist movements in America have been on the ropes for a long time now, and have had very little influence from about 1980 onward. For me, that weakness is an elephant in the room for Zinn. I wish that, as a very learned student of past efforts that were more successful (even if still mostly unsuccessful), he would have had something more to say about where this weakness came from, and how it could potentially be reversed.

Another disappointment for me was the lack of footnotes/endnotes in the book. Again, this is one that he talks about openly and that I basically understand. He does cite some specific works, and has a pretty comprehensive source list at the end, but doesn’t generally provide citations for specific assertions. In his commentary, he basically says this would have made the book twice as long as it is, and it is already almost 700 pages long. Still, there were a lot of cases where I felt interested to find a source and couldn’t. In some cases I suspect he was using sources with less than impeccable credibility; this may be unfounded, but I wish I could have checked it!

I won’t try to list out all of the most interesting parts here, because you should read it yourself! But I will mention a couple of things that I really appreciated. First, the extended attention to some events that I remember being passed over very quickly in history class that are not very flattering to America: Shays’ Rebellion, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War. Second, learning about the IWWs or Wobblies, the most radical labor organizers of the early 20th century, who I think win the prize for the most awesome people in the book. In one instance they are supporting a bunch of strikers in New York by providing food and supplies, but realize they don’t have enough to support the workers’ families indefinitely, so they arrange for all of the workers’ children to be temporarily taken in by other workers’ families in another state so that, with the reduced burden, the strike can be continued indefinitely. They also regularly used a strategy of sending huge numbers of demonstrators to small towns, so many that they could not all be arrested because there was not enough room in the jail.

Reading this book, finally, was a good antidote to Trump-hysteria. The perspective of this book shows that, while Trump is egregious in many ways, he doesn’t represent a sharp break with our past, and to some extent just says things out loud that others have the good sense to leave implicit. Which is not at all to say that he should be met with complacency, but rather that those who want to resist have a long tradition to draw upon and learn from.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars