327 Re-Writing American History

When we talk about “culture wars” we rarely think about historians as armed and significant partisans!  But they frequently are!  This is patently evident in the “1619 Project” recently launched by the New York Times, which promises to “reframe American history” and examine this nation’s history through the singular prism of slavery.  This, says Princeton historian Allen Guelzo, “is not history; it is conspiracy theory.  The 1619 Project is not history; it is ignorance.”  The Times editorial staff is, however, replicating the scenario portrayed in George Orwell’s 1984, wherein history was routinely rewritten and “every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered.”  It’s bad enough that Americans know little history—three fourths of the people in one study could not name the three branches of our constitutional system and one-fourth couldn’t name even one!  But, even worse, they’re being deliberately misinformed by schools and books and media committed to fundamentally transforming the nation by destroying its memory.    

For nearly 20 years I routinely taught survey courses in American History.  Then the university changed its core requirements, excluding these courses, so I rarely did so thereafter and rather lost track of texts being used in them.  But I did, now and then, hear of a textbook widely used in many high schools and universities—Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States:  1492 to the Present (New York:  HarperCollins, c. 1980).  I secured and read a copy, dismissing it as an egregious propaganda polemic disguised as history.  On the very first page I noted Zinn’s dishonest deletions from a Christopher Columbus quotation.  Equally evident was his undisguised Marxism.  Turning to his chapter on Indian Removal—a topic I know quite well—I was astounded by his repeated errors—placing the Chickasaws in North Carolina, the Creeks in Mississippi, calling eastern Oklahoma an “arid land, land too barren for white settlers,” and labeling Sequoyah a Cherokee chief!  My negative appraisal was widely shared by many distinguished historians, some of whom wrote scathing reviews of the book, denouncing it for its biased polemics, selective quotations, and pervasive misleading assertions.  He was denounced for selective quotations, factual errors, and overt bias.  Even a Marxist-oriented historian, Eugene Genovese, found it so flawed he refused to review it!  Another noted historian, Arthur Schlesinger, called Zinn “a polemicist, not a historian.”  Then Harvard’s Oscar Handlin reviewed the book in the American Scholar and called it a “fairy tale” with “biased selections” that “falsify events.”  He said the book “conveniently omits whatever does not fit its overriding thesis.”  

Nevertheless, ignoring the warnings of such eminent historians, many high school (especially) and college teachers have used the book as a basic text, and its theses rather quickly entered the minds of radicalized youngsters (some of whom—e.g. Bernie Sanders and  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes—now serve in Congress).   Rather revealingly, in 2006 Zinn praised the Vermont senator for giving us an “accurate picture” of the problems this nation faces, primarily the gap separating the rich and poor.  So it’s good to have a thorough analysis of  A People’s History of the United States—Mary Graber’s Debunking Howard Zinn: Exposing the Fake History That Turned a Generation against America (Washington:  Regency History, c. 2019; Kindle Edition).  She writes because she believes Zinn has deeply damaged this nation by “convincing a generation of Americans that the nation Abraham Lincoln rightly called ‘the last best hope of Earth’ is essentially a racist criminal enterprise built on murdering Indians, exploiting slaves, and oppressing the working man.  It obviously needs to be replaced by something better.  And of course, Zinn has the answer:  a classless, egalitarian society.  Yes, what Zinn is selling is the very same communist utopian fantasy that killed more than a hundred million human beings in the twentieth century” (#81).  

Zinn’s influence in popular culture was evident in a film staring Matt Damon titled “Good Will Hunting.”  In one conversation he says:  “If you want to read a real history book, read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.”  Interestingly enough, while in elementary school Matt Damon was a Zinn’s neighbor.  And Damon was reared by a single mother, an education professor deeply committed to “social justice.”  As a ten-year-old Damon “took the family copy of the newly published People’s History to school and read from it to his class for Columbus Day” (p. 122).  Damon’s endorsement has been duplicated by luminaries such as Alice Walker, Marian Wright Edelman, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Bill Moyers, and Jane Fonda; by mainstream newspapers (the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Nation, and the Washington Post); by TV outlets (The Daily Show, NPR); and even by the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians!  The book’s widely used a text in many schools, and if students don’t read Zinn’s book they frequently him quoted in other materials written for their age group.  Even the prestigious College Board, designing questions for the Advanced Placement U.S. History exam, now “promotes Zinn’s version of history by including his books in AP teacher-training seminars” (#140). 

One of the few public officials daring to oppose Zinn’s version is former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, now president of Purdue University, who “questioned the use of Howard Zinn’s book to teach children in Indiana public schools.”   The governor proposed denying credit for any course using Zinn’s text and wondered “‘how do we get rid of it before any more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?’  He called A People’s History ‘a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page.’”  In response:  “Ninety outraged Purdue professors signed onto an open letter” defending Zinn and claiming to use his text in their syllabi and scholarly writings (# 4800).  Though Daniels was supported by the National Association of Scholars’ President Peter Wood and some prominent journalists, both the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians sided with Zinn.  Ultimately, Daniels had to acknowledge he was out-gunned and backed away from his efforts. 

Zinn’s influence is dramatically evident in the nation’s celebration of Columbus Day.  He portrayed the “Admiral of the Ocean Sea” as a brutal, genocidal conquerer, unworthy of the respect he enjoyed for 500 years.  Consequently, the radical, violent group Antifa calls for a “Deface Columbus Day” and street gangs threw red paint on his statues.   “In New York City, the large bronze statue in Columbus Circle at the corner of Central Park has had ‘hate will not be tolerated’ scrawled on the base and Columbus’s hands painted red.  And the transformation in Americans’ attitudes toward the man who discovered America wasn’t limited to a few vandals.  Besides the physical attacks, there were continual demands for the government to take down the statue.  Zinn is the acknowledged inspiration behind the current campaign to abolish Columbus Day and replace it with ‘Indigenous Peoples’ Day.’  High school teachers cite his book in making the case for the renaming to their local communities” (#527).  Some sixty major cities (including Columbus, Ohio) and six states have obsequiously followed the leader and replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.  Graber demonstrates how maliciously and mendaciously Zinn depicts Columbus—especially emphasizing the ellipses in his Columbus quotations, deviously designed to delete sections disproving his assertions.  You need no Ph.D. to know how a person’s position can be utterly misrepresented by simply linking together phrases taken out of context.  Yet this is Zinn’s modus operandi!  There’s also little evidence that Zinn actually read primary, eyewitness sources, including Columbus’s journals or the works of Bartolome de Las Casas (the great defender of the Indians who condemned much the Spanish did in the New World but also said many positive things about Columbus).  Doing some careful sleuthing, Graber contends that Zinn simply lifted his account of Columbus from a book written for high school students by Hans Koning, one of his friends (and a fellow anti-Vietnam War activist).  

Koning was novelist who occasionally worked as a journalist, but he was not a historian.  He was, however, a doctrinaire socialist who had helped (along with Noam Chomsky and Zinn) found the War Resist organization to oppose the America’s presence  in Vietnam.  The book viciously smeared the explorer, and it “is the source for Zinn’s indictment of Columbus, which is the opening gambit of A People’s History.  The first five-and-a-half pages of A People’s History of the United States are little more than slightly altered passages from Columbus:  His Enterprise.  Graber points out the passages in Zinn that duplicate passages from Koning.  “Zinn lifts wholesale from Koning the very same quotations of Columbus.  He also includes an attack on the historian Samuel Eliot Morison, just like Koning—complete with references to the Vietnam War.  That’s a rather odd coincidence, given that both Zinn and Koning were purportedly recounting the fifteenth-century discovery of America” (#604).  Adding to his many sins, Zinn was clearly a plagiarist!

But his take on Columbus bore fruit.  Illuminating this, Graber describes how differently recent presidents have portrayed him.  In his final Columbus Day proclamation, George H.W. Bush praised the “‘one man who dared to defy the pessimists and naysayers of his day [and] made an epic journey that changed the course of history.’”  A year later  Bill Clinton praised not of Columbus but “‘the mutual discovery of Europeans and Native Americans and the transformations, through toil and pain, that gave birth to brave new hopes for a better future.’”  Then Barack Obama, in 2009, lamented the fact that “‘European immigrants joined the ‘thriving indigenous communities who suffered great hardships as a result of the changes to the land they inhabited’ ” (#1548).  Whether or not any of the presidents had read him, Zinn’s views percolated through the schools and popular media to significantly alter presidential pronouncements.  To understand Zinn and his biases, Graber gives us some biographical details, emphasizing his deep immersion in the Communist Party following WWII.  While studying at Columbia University, he taught part-time at several nearby colleges and also “taught a class in Marxism at the Communist Party headquarters in Brooklyn.   That’s according to his FBI file.  Zinn’s Communist activities came to the attention of the FBI beginning in 1948 when an informant reported that Zinn had told him that he was a member of the Communist Party and attended meetings five nights a week” (#1150).  The FBI also noted he worked for the Henry Wallace presidential campaign in 1948 and was “a member of the CPUSA (Communist Party USA) from at least 1949 to mid-1953” (#1157).  Though he subsequently denied being a Party member much evidence indicated he surely was.  

In 1956, still working on his PhD, Zinn landed his first full-time teaching position at Spelman College, a Christian school which served as a “finishing school” for black women in Atlanta.  But rather than work to advance the college’s mission, which was strongly Christian, Zinn determined to change it!  He scoffed at the school’s mandatory chapel requirement, labeling it a “pompous and empty ritual,” and  Marian Wright Edelman, a Spelman student at the time,  remembers her “shock” when Zinn declared he didn’t believe in Jesus Christ.  As the civil rights movement gained momentum he worked to involve his students in it.  Though fellow professors tended to see him as a “rabble rouser,” many of his students found him inspiring and energetically engaged in off-campus protests of various sorts.   Rather than giving tests in his courses he granted credit for off-campus protests, leading to brief jail stints for some of his students.  He easily found impressionable youngsters willing to follow someone who nurtured their adolescent rebelliousness and hostility to administrative authority.  Consequently, in 1963 he was fired.  

Moving north to Boston, he found a teaching position at Boston University (once a paragon of Methodist orthodoxy) and promptly promoted radical anti-war and civil rights protests.  Though he did virtually no seriously scholarly work he proved to be extremely popular with students.  One of his famous Spelman students, Alice Walker, recalled how her peers “swooned” over him, and at BU “his rhetoric inspired tears in draft resisters and in young women reading Black Boy for class.  Zinn’s classes routinely filled up and had students waiting on overflow,” and “one of his students was so inspired that he would go on to commit a portion of the fortune he earned later to establishing the Zinn Education Project” (#1413).  His students took no tests nor wrote research papers, nor did any of them fail.  Instead they were credited for working in community organizations and interviewing members of various oppressed minorities.   Whatever course he taught, he used the lectern as a pulpit to promote his vision of social justice and engage his students to pursue it.  He had little contact (personal or written) with his peers in the academic world, preferring to regale young people in classes, rallies, and teach-ins.  

He especially delighted in denouncing America as a “racist” nation.  This is quite evident whenever he treats American Indians—always portraying them as “noble savages” brutalized by invading Europeans or westward-moving American pioneers.  And, iff possible, the African slaves were even more mistreated—evidence that “‘there is not a country in world history in which racism has been more important, for so long a time, as the United States’” (#2002).  To dramatize his thesis Zinn dealt cavalierly with the facts, misrepresenting “the slaves’ truly horrific suffering for his own purposes.  For example, he claims that ‘perhaps one of every three blacks transported overseas died’” when, if fact, “according to the best quantitative evidence, 12 to 13 percent of slaves died in transit from Africa to the Americas during the history of the Middle Passage.  Sometimes a larger percentage of the slave ship’s crew died on the voyage.  In the Dutch slave trade, one in five crewmen died at sea.  But it suits Zinn’s purpose to exaggerate the true numbers and to ignore the historical context of a time and place when life was more perilous for all” (2018).  He grants the reality of African slavery, but just as he romanticized the “noble savage” Indians he also waxed nostalgic about the “communal,” “gentle” African tribal cultures.  He grants that Africans enslaved Africans in Africa, but he insisted it was “a kinder, gentler kind of slavery”—rather like feudal serfs in Medieval Europe!  It was in the New World, Zinn declares, with its capitalistic structures, that slavery became truly odious!  And the Civil War, he says, was fought “to perpetuate a racist capitalist state,” not to free the slaves!  The “great liberator,” Abraham Lincoln, was basically a “cowardly racist political beholden to powerful money interests,” and little he did merits commendation (#2263).  To Zinn, it was the radical abolitionists such as John Brown, not the statesmen such as Lincoln, who merit praise.    

Amazingly, neither the Yankees in the Civil War nor the GIs in World War II garner Zinn’s endorsement.  “Through a series of four long, leading questions about ‘imperialism, racism, totalitarianism, and militarism,’ Zinn insinuates that the ‘enemy of unspeakable evil,’ ‘Hitler’s Germany,’ was no worse than the United States and her allies.  Imperial Japan, too, was a victim of American aggression” (#2401).  Americans fought not to defeat the Axis powers but to escalate American imperialism,  As with Lincoln, Zinn disparages Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Interning Japanese-Americans during the war is equated with Hitler’s concentration camps.  Indeed, he portrays most all American presidents negatively.   They’re all “irredeemable, greedy, capitalist war-mongers.  Zinn’s project is to destroy the credibility of the American presidency—and of America, itself” (#2513). 

Zinn’s treatment of the Cold War was as misleading and biased as his treatment of other wars.  He consistently defended Soviet policies and disregarded any evidence of front groups or communist infiltration in America.  The House Committee on Un-American Activities was purely paranoid, guilty of “‘interrogating Americans about their Communist connections, holding them in contempt if they refused to answer, distributing millions of pamphlets’ that claimed that Communists could be found  ‘everywhere—in factories, offices, butcher shops, on street corners, in private business’” (#3145).  But in fact, Graber reminds us, “they were there.  And, we would add, in classrooms” (#3149).  We now know, thanks to the Venona Papers, that the Communist Party USA was “a fifth column” seeking to destroy this country and that all-too-many government officials, such as Alger Hiss, were secretly working to advance it.  It’s abundantly clear that the Ethel and Julian Rosenberg were guilty of espionage, eminently deserving their execution.  But Zinn stoutly defends them, insisting they were victims of a frame-up.  

His slant on the Vietnam War further reveals Zinn’s ideology, for he vehemently sided with the communists doing battle with an evil, capitalist, imperialistic America—repeating in print the speeches he made as an anti-war agitator in the midst of the war.  He portrays Ho Chi Minh as a “reformer” and touted his righteous role as the leader of North Vietnam, conveniently ignoring the fact that in “redistributing” the nation’s wealth he killed tens of thousands of landlords and funneled peasants into collective farms.  (It should be noted that Zinn was intimately involved in the leaking of the “Pentagon Papers” in 1971, personally hiding for a time the documents stolen by Daniel Ellsberg.  Doing so seriously harmed America’s war effort, for they persuaded the public {by obscuring the actual progress made between 1968 and 1971} that the war could not be won.  As usual, relying on clever ellipses, Zinn cited sources he misrepresented.  Thus the valuable work Douglas Pike, accusing the Viet Cong of “genocide,” is twisted to suggest they were in fact heroic social reformers.  Pike warned that a Communist victory would doom “‘thousands of Vietnamese, many of them of course my friends, to death, prison, or permanent exile,’” warning that if America ever abandoned the South Vietnamese people she would “betray her own heritage.”  Zinn, however, cited Pike’s “book to justify that betrayal, distorting Pike’s analysis to make it appear to support the opposite case” (#4233).  

In her final chapter, Graber says:  “No assessment of Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States would be complete without some consideration of his perverse take on the founding of our nation.”  To him the American Revolution was not really revolutionary!  It failed to achieve what the Bolsheviks did in Russia!  A real people’s revolution would have “smashed the capitalist system and toppled the ‘elite’ to whom he refers” (#4578).  Even worse, as Charles Beard had argued, the Constitutional Convention secured the elite’s control of the country.  Written by the likes of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, it subjected the people to the rule of the upper class.  Though Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution has been thoroughly discredited by historians interested in actuality rather than ideology, Zinn considers it authoritative.  In constructing his “people’s history,” he works “by lying, distorting and misusing evidence, hijacking other historians’ work, and falsifying the facts, as we have seen again and again.  The problem is not that, as Zinn liked to pretend in his own defense, he wrote a “people’s” history, telling the bottom-up story of neglected and forgotten men and women.  The problem is that he falsified American history to promote Communist revolution” (#4731).

Both Zinn’s  autobiography, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, and Original Zinn:  Conversations on History and Politics, co-written with David Barsamian, reveal his approach to writing history.  As a “radical,” he wanted to focus on the poor and oppressed.  So he sought to tell us the untold story, the story of the world’s poor, the world’s workers, the world’s homeless, the world’s oppressed, the people who don’t really qualify as real people in official histories.  In his mind, he shared the “radical vision” of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who in 1944 proposed an Economic Bill of Rights, including the right to a good job, a good income, a “decent” home, easy access to medical care, comfort in old age, and a good education.  So Zinn hungers for a world without national boundaries wherein everyone shares equally in the “riches of the planet” and works only a “few hours a day.”  In other words, Marx’s utopian vision can be secured by socialists such as Zinn, and to promote this agenda he wrote his one-sided “people’s history.” 

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