A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

7 February 2011
Categories: From the armchair

Howard Zinn, Professor of history and political science, passed away a year ago at the age of 87. At the time, I’d never heard of Zinn or this, his perhaps most famous and popular work. But a mention of his passing by an artist I respect led me into reading it.

It took me a while to read this entire book, partly because I found it becoming repetitive and redundant. About midway through it reaches the point where the same things keep happening over and over again. And perhaps that is part of Zinn’s point: the history of the United States is one of ignoring the past, for American history continually repeats itself.

A People’s History of the United States could be summed up in two statements:

  1. Revolutions are appeased, co-opted, and absorbed by those in power, so that despite any surface appearances to the contrary, the power structure remains with the status quo.
  2. Wars are not fought for freedom or ideology. Wars are fought only for resources.

Zinn is awfully heavy-handed and single-minded in his thesis, but he provides convincing support for this shocking assertion: the United States of America, the land of freedom, has never fought a war for freedom. Never. Take some examples.

  • The American Revolution. The general public, the working classes, the poor, wanted revolution to throw off the chains of their oppressors, the wealthy landowners. Those same landowners co-opted that revolutionary spirit, promising freedom by equating it with kicking the British out of the colonies. (See point #1 above.) At the end of the war, the landowners kept their land—and no longer needed to pay taxes to the King—while the poor remained poor, lacking property and voting rights, and indentured to the same powers as before. Meanwhile, the wealthiest landowner in the States was elected our first President.
  • World War II. It’s easy to argue that this was really a war for freedom, a war against Nazism, Fascism and oppression; certainly that was a necessary and positive result. But if that were really the primary reason for U.S. involvement after years of isolationism, we would have entered the war upon Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939, or its invasion of France et al in 1940, or its ruthless bombing of our closest ally, Great Britain, that same year. No, instead the U.S. entered the war when Japan attacked an important link in the American Pacific empire—the last straw in Japan’s ongoing threats to U.S. market potential in China; access to the tin, rubber, and oil of Southeast Asia; and the long-standing American occupation of the Philippines.
  • Vietnam. Promulgated as a fight to keep the people of Vietnam free from the “threat” of Communism, this war was really about access to Southeast Asian resources once again: tin, rubber, oil, and even rice.
  • Today’s wars. Gulf Wars I and II have been about oil, no more, no less; and Afghanistan is not about fighting the Taliban and al Qaeda ideologues—it’s about petroleum, natural gas, and at least $1 trillion in untapped mineral resources, including the potential to make Afghanistan “the Saudi Arabia of lithium.”

The list goes on; it’s all-inclusive of every war ever fought by the United States. We’re not unique—the “resources, not ideology” principle could more than likely be applied to every war throughout the history of the world.

Taking Zinn’s pacifist and populist stance with a grain of salt, this book is a surprising pin-prick to the pompous balloon of the standard, ultra-patriotic line of American history taught in schools. It should be a must-read for American college students.

  1. Susan
    February 8th, 2011 at 07:58 | #1

    Lies My Teacher Told Me” is a good companion piece to read. Much more bite-sized than the Zinn book, it’s a take down of some “truths” commonly preached in standard history text books.

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