Howard Zinn’s book, The People’s History of the United States, is one of the most famous American history textbooks ever written. His goal was to change the way Americans saw their own history by writing from the perspective of those he called “underdogs.” In doing so, he thoroughly distorts the true historical record and paints America as an inherently unjust nation.
Mary Grabar believes that at the root of his agenda is a desire to see America turned into a classless society, a case she makes in her book, Debunking Howard Zinn: Exposing the Fake History That Turned a Generation against America. Grabar, resident fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute, outlines the history and influence The People’s History of the United States since its publication in 1980, and in case the title isn’t obvious enough, Grabar’s book aims to discredit both Howard Zinn’s methods and content.
In light of the latest dubious attempts to rewrite American history, such as The New York Times’ 1619 Project, Grabar’s book is an important read. It is a blueprint for how to study history honestly and for how to spot those who are using history in the service of a political ideology.
In her opening chapters, Grabar explains that Zinn’s book has only continued to grow in popularity and influence, even transcending the field of history. “There is no historian like Howard Zinn. His cultish following continues to grow nearly forty years after the publication,” she writes. For example, it is the only history book to take the place of the Bible at a swearing-in ceremony.
“A People’s History is more than another left-wing interpretation of American history,” Grabar notes. Zinn’s book has affected the way an entire generation sees their country. Most of the debates in the public square today have been influenced one way or another by Zinn’s ideology hidden in the guise of history.
“Zinn’s propaganda has been spectacularly effective. His dishonest American history is not the only factor in Americans’ turn away from their heritage of freedom toward communist fantasies… but he has been instrumental in this destructive transformation,” Grabar writes. Further, the book has been translated into more than a dozen languages. Zinn was not content to turn Americans against their own nation; he had to try and turn the rest of the world against America as well.
For years, A People’s History has been taught in colleges, high schools, and even middle schools. It has also influenced other history book writers. In many cases, Zinn’s perspective on American history has become the dominant narrative, Grabar writes.
Zinn claims in his book that he wants to tell the stories of history through the eyes of the underdogs. He writes, “I prefer to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish…” To fit his narrative, Zinn justifies willfully misrepresenting historical facts.
Zinn claims there is no such thing as a pure fact, but all facts are open to interpretation. He states there were themes of profound meaning to him that he found missing in most history books. He wrote his book with these themes in mind, willing to bend facts or leave out key details to support his narrative. All that mattered to Zinn was his supposed higher purpose.
As Grabar points out, this goes against the American Historical Association’s standards of Professional Use Conduct, which state that Historians “should oppose false or erroneous use of evidence, along with any efforts to ignore or conceal such false or erroneous use.”
Grabar cites Stanford University professor Sam Wineburg, who observed that Zinn’s rhetoric is as radical as his politics. Zinn habitually made assertions through questions that are meant to make students look at history in a radically different way. Grabar notes how such deceptive rhetoric evades responsibility for lying about American history:
With dozens of… outlandish suggestions and grossly dishonest rhetorical tricks… Howard Zinn has succeeded in convincing a generation of Americans that the nation Abraham Lincoln truly called ‘the last best hope of Earth’ is essentially a racist criminal enterprise built on murdering Indians, exploiting slaves, and oppressing the working man.
Historian Eric Foner called Zinn’s view “a deeply pessimistic vision of the American experience.” Liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger called Zinn “a polemicist, not a historian” and the historian Eugene Genovese, though a Marxist himself, thought the book was so bad that he refused to review it. Although many on the left agree with Zinn’s mission, they still fault him for his execution.
Zinn on Columbus
Grabar follows Zinn meticulously as he goes through the eras of American history from European exploration to the Vietnam War. She points out his misuse of quotes, his misunderstanding of primary sources, and his willful use of rhetoric to mislead his readers. “It’s past time to take a closer look at Zinn’s outrageous claims and outright lies and set the historical record straight,” writes Grabar. Grabar goes back to original source material and consults contemporary scholarship to demonstrate what Zinn got wrong.
He goes back to the very beginning of America, starting with Christopher Columbus. In his book, Zinn paints Columbus and his fellow explorers as thieves, murderers, and rapists. Grabar argues that the historical record tells a different story. According to Grabar, Zinn is behind the campaign to get rid of Columbus Day. Nearly every history book since Zinn’s begins with the story of how Europeans destroyed the Indians. Zinn was proud of his legacy. He lived to see a divided America on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage, an America unsure whether it should celebrate or mourn the day, explains Grabar.
Zinn’s primary source for his chapter on Christopher Columbus was an anti-Columbus book that historians derided. Zinn claims he read Columbus’ diaries, but the passages he quotes are often mischievously redacted and taken out of context. It is likely that Zinn did not do as much original research for this chapter as he claims.
In his account of Columbus, Zinn argues that Columbus was primarily motivated by a hunger for gold. Grabar disagrees. She points to myriad evidence that suggests Columbus’ primary motivation was a religious one. She writes that though it is hard to imagine today, religious motivations permeated virtually every aspect of life in the 1400s.
Columbus sailed on behalf of the king and queen of Spain, whose quest was to take back the Holy Land from Muslims. The purpose of Columbus’s voyage was not just trade, but to seek an alliance with whoever ruled the East Indies in order to end the war that Islam had waged against Christians for hundreds of years.
None of this is mentioned in A People’s History. Instead, Zinn uses selective, out of context passages from Columbus’ journals to make it look like all Columbus wanted to do was to subjugate the Indian population. In reality, Columbus’s journals, according to Grabar, also express his concern that the natives be treated fairly and his hope that they would convert to Christianity for the sake of their souls.
Moreover, Zinn regularly conflates Columbus with later Spanish explorers, explorers who did indeed commit horrendous crimes against the natives. Simultaneously, Zinn whitewashes Indian culture, downplaying any evidence of brutal violence. Grabar writes, “The fact is… that relations between the Indians and the Europeans in the wake of Columbus’s discovery of America were fraught with ambiguities that complicate Zinn’s cartoon of Indian innocents enslaved and abused by European devils.”
“Zinn was instrumental in the sea change that has transformed Columbus from the discoverer of America into the genocidal villain whose murder and enslavement of the Indians is the original sin that makes America a crime,” Grabar writes.
Zinn on The Founding
In chapter four of his book, Zinn describes the American Founding this way:
Around 1776, certain important people in the English colonies made a discovery that would prove enormously useful for the next two hundred years. They found that by creating a nation, a symbol, a legal unity called the United States, they could take over land, profits, and political power from favorites for the British Empire. In the process, they could hold back a number of potential rebellions and create a consensus of popular support for the rule of a new, privileged leadership.
Zinn paints almost every event in American history in terms of class conflict. To him, because the Founders had power and wealth they could not also possess a higher purpose. Zinn criticized both the Declaration of Independence and John Locke’s Second Treatise because even though they talked about rights they didn’t acknowledge existing inequalities in property.
Zinn’s chapter about the American Revolution is titled “A Kind of Revolution” because a republic founded on the principle that “all men are created equal” is not revolutionary enough for Zinn, Grabar explains. Zinn’s utopian vision for America included toppling the budding capitalistic system and those men who ran it. Zinn believed the American Revolution helped the ruling class keep their power. Grabar writes that Zinn’s focus in this chapter was more on the conflict between the rich and poor than between the Americans and British.
However, Grabar points out that from the very beginning America offered opportunities for rich and poor alike. Grabar details how Zinn gives misinformation to his readers about how much land changed hands as a result of the Revolution and in whose hands that land ended up. Grabar points out that three-fourths of all colonists owned property and it was primarily the Loyalists, not the Patriots, who came from the upper-levels of society. Further, the Founders risked much by rebelling against the British. Victory was not an inevitability for the patriots, and if they lost they would have lost everything.
Like the 1619 Project, Zinn uses slavery to downplay any strides the Founders made towards greater equality. Zinn acknowledges that Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence contained a strong condemnation of slavery, but he argues that Jefferson only included it because he was afraid of a slave revolt. According to Grabar, “Zinn presents anything short of immediate utopian results as evidence of hypocrisy and greed.” Zinn gives no credit to abolitionist founders such as Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, or Philip Schuyler for their role in forming the New York Manumissions Society.
In promoting equality instead of egalitarianism, the American Revolution was not radical enough for Zinn. According to Grabar, Zinn contrasts the real American Revolution with an imaginary egalitarian paradise.
Zinn on The Civil War
According to Grabar, Zinn attempted to prove that capitalism was at the root of racism. Zinn argues that the Civil War was a missed opportunity. It would have been better for the North to overthrow the capitalistic system that breeds racism, he argued. Further, Zinn attempts to discolor every action Lincoln took to free slaves.
He paints the Emancipation Proclamation as nothing more than an act of military expediency and claims that Lincoln only advocated abolition as a war measure. Grabar disagrees, arguing that Lincoln fought for the new territories to be free and argued for gradual emancipation prior to the war. Further, Lincoln was elected on an anti-slavery ticket, something Zinn ignores, she writes.
“For Zinn, the very real horrors of slavery are simply more fodder for his war against America and Western civilization,” Grabar writes. “The fact is, Zinn will do anything to make America look bad; he simply cannot allow his reader to give the first Republican elected president credit for freeing the slaves – and for going about it in a principled and prudent manner. That would mean giving the American people credit for abolishing slavery, and it would undermine Zinn’s picture of America as a uniquely racist country,” argues Grabar.
Zinn refuses to admit that anyone who fought for the North in the Civil War was motivated by conscience instead of self-interest. He gives no credit to the progress made against slavery, from the abolition of the slave trade to the debates over slavery in the Founding. Grabar argues that the idea that slavery was morally wrong was uniquely Western.
In his fervor to paint America as evil, Zinn leaves out both the historical and global context of slavery in America. Those in the east had always had slaves and had not yet encountered the Enlightenment ideas that would eventually lead to slavery’s downfall.
Zinn on World War II
“Howard Zinn has made dishonest use of the discovery of America, slavery, and the Civil War to indict America and promote communist revolution. But in the treatment of World War II, he hits a new low,” writes Grabar. According to Grabar, Zinn’s chapter on World War II insinuates that Adolf Hitler’s Germany was no worse than the United States and her allies and that Japan was a victim of American aggression. He argues that America’s goal wasn’t fighting against totalitarianism, but to maintain its capitalist system.
Zinn argues that not only was America’s cause in World War II tainted by racism at home, but the war effort was actually fueled by racism: Only racial hatred of the Japanese can explain why the majority of Americans mobilized for war.
While Zinn’s book argues that the Japanese were near surrender when the Americans dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Grabar points out that the Japanese version of surrender was anything but peaceful. The military refused to put down their arms, committed to “glorious deaths.” Civilians and soldiers alike planned to resist and continue kamikaze-style attacks. Grabar argues that sacrifices on both sides of the war may have been higher without the use of the bombs.
Zinn on the Cold War
Zinn paints a rosy picture of the USSR’s comeback after World War II, claiming that they successfully rebuilt industry and regained military strength. Grabar points out that other historians disagree, claiming that the nationalization of the Soviet economy prolonged shortages while central planning and price controls distorted markets.
Zinn accuses Americans and American institutions of paranoia during the Cold War. He completely ignores the havoc communism wreaked on nations around the world and the real threat of Soviet spies within the United States. Grabar points out that after World War II spying on behalf of the USSR was not infrequent.
For example, the second most powerful official in the U.S. Treasury Department advised the KGB on how to frustrate American diplomacy, another official in charge of America’s chief intelligence gave the Soviets hundreds of pages of secret American diplomatic cables, a government aeronautical scientist passed on American jet engine designs, and a physicist gave the Russians the formula that helped them make their own atomic bomb.
Grabar writes, “No amount of proven treason, agitation for violent revolution, or for that matter, mass murder and the immiseration of millions by socialist governments across the globe would ever persuade Zinn to dial down his indignation at what he characterized as ‘hysteria’ about Communism.”
Zinn on the Civil Rights Movement
According to Grabar, while Zinn lauds many black members of the Communist Party as heroes, even those that were killed or persecuted by the party they served, he does not give credit to important black civil rights leaders like A. Philip Randolph, who, along with the NAACP, successfully lobbied President Franklin Roosevelt to open more opportunities for black federal workers and soldiers.
Grabar further notes Zinn was not a fan of the NAACP. In the 1960s he was instrumental in organizing the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a radical group that rejected NAACP’s methods and liberal underpinnings. Instead SNCC embraced communism and more militant action.
He also leaves out mention of influential civil rights leader E.D. Nixon, who organized the Bus Boycott, in the first two editions of his book. Grabar points out that Zinn had no interest in highlighting moderate, non-communist black civil rights leaders. “In A People’s History, Zinn did everything he could to foment bitterness and anger about that historical injustice- not for the sake of civil rights for blacks, but to further his socialist cause,” writes Grabar.
Zinn on Vietnam
In a chapter titled, “Ho ho ho… Howard Zinn and the Commies Win,” Grabar dismantles Zinn’s portrayal of the Vietnam War. Zinn likened the communist revolution in Vietnam with that of the American and French Revolution, and their leader Ho Chi Minh with Thomas Jefferson.
Grabar explains that while Zinn praises the Vietnamese communists as reformers for redistributing land to peasants, he leaves out that they also murdered tens of thousands of landlords and that the land was later taken back and turned into collective farms. This was just one discrepancy of many in Zinn’s chapter on Vietnam. Of Zinn’s praise for communism, Grabar writes:
Those who know history know what this Marxist siren song leads to. The only way to disguise it is to ignore the more than one hundred million corpses that it produced in the twentieth century and to present the United States, the freest nation in world history, as a tyrannical, murderous, and imperialistic regime – which is exactly what Zinn has done in his History. He has done this by lying, distorting, and misusing evidence, hijacking other historians’ work, and falsifying the facts…
Grabar on Zinn
Most of Zinn’s bad history comes from the fact that he was willing to falsify American history to promote communism, writes Grabar. “Zinn wanted to abandon ‘disinterested scholarship’ to effect ‘a revolution in the academy,’ and ultimately in the larger world,” writes Grabar. Zinn constantly chose ideology and propaganda over a true telling of history.
Zinn continuously broke the standards of the American Historical Association, misrepresenting sources, omitting critical information, falsifying evidence, and even plagiarizing. Grabar asks a good question at the end of her book: Would Zinn’s defenders support distorted history for another purpose? Although most would answer no, there are still many who aren’t willing to decry Zinn’s book.
Grabar sums up Zinn’s book like this: “The stories he put into A People’s History of the United States weren’t balanced factual history, but crude morality tales designed to destroy Americans’ patriotism and turn them into radical leftists.”