A People’s History of the United States (2003 ebook)

Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is a monumental work that pays tribute to the spirit of the ordinary person, celebrating our successes and exposing the brutal excesses of the powerful minority that plays everyone else against each other. Using the two pillars of history, evidence and interpretation, Zinn boldly presents a narrative that skewers the idea of “the people.” Zinn shows a United States that began and expanded because of a group of elites that monopolized private property and profit and crushed all opposition. The result is a global superpower supported by a system of staggering inequality where concessions to common folk are given only grudgingly, when enough furious spasms by the vast majority threaten to overturn the status quo. The events described in this book are frequently infuriating, especially since it’s so easy to draw direct connections between past exploitation and present conflicts. A People’s History of the United States is a must-read for every student of US history, nay, for all citizens!

A Bloody Beginning 
The book is a chronological retelling of the roots of the modern United States. It begins with the genocide of the Arawaks by Christopher Columbus, who needed his to trip to the Americas to be wildly profitable for his royal patrons. Then comes the expulsion of the Native Americans, a truly dispiriting series of broken promises, outright lies, and massacres. The territories of Mexico are taken in similarly sordid ways.

Afterwards comes an examination of the American Revolution, presented as the efforts of a select few—50-plus white men—to gain freedom for themselves. Later chapters make it clear that the Constitution was always intended for the men at the very top of the socioeconomic hierarchy. For instance, Zinn points out that the Civil War could be seen as the result of northern industrial ambitions at odds with the southern agrarian system. Freeing slaves was a bonus, rather than the overriding moral concern about keeping the promise of the Constitution. After reunification, black people continued to be oppressed, as did the white working class. And of course, women were marginalized both in the private and public sphere.

This paragraph, from the chapter “Robber Barons and Rebels,” sums it up well: "After 1877...the industrial and political elites of the North and South would take hold of the country and organize the greatest march of economic growth in human history. They would do it with the aid of, and at the expense of, black labor, white labor, Chinese labor, European immigrant labor, female labor, rewarding them differently by race, sex, national origin, and social class, in such a way as to create separate levels of oppression--a skillful terracing to stabilize the pyramid of wealth."

The Battle Continues
It gets a little better. While in the earlier chapters I was an outrage emoji (╬ Ò ‸ Ó), appalled at the sheer scale of the abuse and deception of those in power—politicians, businessmen, the media, and the military—in later sections I was cheered by the numerous examples of people fighting back, of actual incremental successes being won through literal bloodshed and unwavering persistence. The people were just not taking it anymore, especially when their children and other loved ones kept dying from starvation, sickness, or official action. After the Civil War, major movements rose: for labor unions, for women’s equality, for civil rights. These collective actions are the pride of America, the causes just and the spirit true to the words contained in the Constitution.

Much of American progress in the early twentieth century was made on the backs of millions of people living and working in crowded, unsanitary conditions. During the tumult of the labor years, the people marching, protesting, and striking sought reasonable changes: livable wages, safe and improved workplaces, a shorter workday (10 hours instead of 18), school instead of jobs for children, and so on. But these accommodations threatened profits, and so the response was often brutal: strikebreakers, gun battles, massacres of women and children. But the unions survived, and OSHA was created. In the same way, the feminist revolution of the sixties achieved Roe v. Wade. The civil rights movement eventually forced desegregation.

But the establishment, still entrenched, pushed back. Time and again, the Supreme Court showed itself a tool of the ruling class, applying the law in a way that favored its peers. The rich and powerful escaped the consequences of their actions—see Nixon—but the poor and/or the dissidents were beaten, harassed, jailed, and sometimes killed. The prison system receives special attention from Zinn because it highlights the callousness of the mighty: when policies and ideology create the conditions for poverty and therefore crime, the solution is to imprison the poor who acted out of desperation or anger.

The two World Wars gave other countries a taste of US hegemony and hypocrisy. In the Philippines, our history books tell us that the US took us by force from Spain, eliminated our aspiring leaders, and denied us self-rule. What I didn’t know was that the US soldiers then were segregated along color lines, with black soldiers treated so poorly that many deserted. Zinn also provides details of the CIA’s support for oppressive regimes in Latin America and the Middle East, pointing out that murderous autocrats were fine as long as they’re friendly to US corporate interests. For example, in 1980, the murder of four American women in El Salvador basically got a ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ from the (then-Carter/incoming Reagan) government because the junta in power was supported by the US as a buffer against communism. More details are in this article, among many others. 

In summary: those perplexed by anti-US sentiment abroad need only read the chapter entitled, “Carter-Reagan-Bush: the Bipartisan Consensus” to understand. US foreign policy is shown to be a mix of bullying, entitlement, and disproportionate responses to perceived threats, under the rallying cry of “Freedom and democracy!” with, of course, a healthy dash of racism.

The Few vs. the Many 
In the chapter, “The Seventies: Under Control?” after all the illegal activities by Nixon and his cronies, an adviser to President Kennedy said, “All the rotten apples should be thrown out. But save the barrel.” In other words, the system was fine, it was just a few bad actors. But given everything that Zinn has revealed in previous chapters, that’s a hugely imperfect analogy. Most of us aren't even in the barrel—we're in the dirt. A major theme in Zinn’s history of the US is the stratification of society, an unbridgeable gap that has existed since the very beginning. Myths are encouraged by the ruling class to maintain the illusion of democracy, such as the “self-made man,” and “personal responsibility.” According to (some, #notallmen) people born to wealth and/or power, poor people don’t have the discipline to work hard and save. But Zinn shows that US capitalism tends to be unkind to those who start life with massive disadvantages such as darker skin and lack of capital. The rich also cultivate the middle class as a loyal buffer against the poor. So basically there are millions of Americans born with the deck stacked against them, thus ensuring the continuation of the generational cycle of poverty.

Which is not to say that the people at the top are uniformly evil. Many are philanthropic and interested in redistributing wealth to minimize inequalities. Others dedicate their careers and lives to making things better. But the system—the government, the courts, the police, even the supposedly free press—are all geared towards the interests of the powerful few. According to Zinn, even the ballot is complicit: it channels energy away from organized demonstrations (peaceful or not) that may have immediate positive effects. It’s rigged!, he might say, and certainly for much different reasons than those shrieking those words today.

This Book and Elections
Speaking of the ballot, among the most revealing chapters was about the Clinton presidency, which drove home the essential sameness of the two major political parties, the same willingness to sacrifice lives for corporate profit and military posturing. The author also notes that with less than half the eligible population voting during most elections, “the people’s mandate” is not really a thing, and it’s less important anyway than alliances among the key players at the top.

Reading this chapter and the ones that came before it makes it easy to see why the current Republican nominee appeals to so many, and why so many are howling about the biased media. These supporters want a savior and are blind to the irony that they're putting their faith in someone who was born into the elite class and has absolutely no incentive to change the system in their favor. And so his opponent, while certainly part of the establishment and much favored by many elites, differentiates herself in that she is a woman—a member of the largest minority, still held back from many of the highest positions in the country. If nothing else, Hillary’s victory would be symbolic of how far the United States has come from its bloody, racist, and sexist beginnings.

But also, this.

In any case, A People’s History of the United States is fantastic reading material every time the vote’s on. If you like being depressed about your own powerlessness, I mean.

Nerd Note
The bibliography list was overwhelmingly composed of secondary sources. When I first saw the list I was like, “What? Where are the primary sources???” But the book is a yuuuuge undertaking spanning centuries and hundreds of instances of individual and group resistance, so Zinn mostly aggregated other works that were themselves collections of "people's histories." Plus, there was widespread illiteracy back in the day, especially among the people Zinn focuses on.

In Conclusion 
The Afterword reveals that Zinn is well aware of the inherent bias of historians despite claims to objectivity. He is humble about his goals and the enormity of the task he chose to undertake. But in his long toil we have a gripping history book that prompts readers to examine our past critically, with an eye toward how to finally create the haven of democracy that the US is supposed to be: a place with equal rights and equal opportunities for everyone.

TL;DR: The United States was and continues to be an oligarchy, but things are better now?


This post brought to you by soy sauce! The one that spilled inside my backpack because I forgot to put my lunch in a plastic bag. ☹