A People's History of the United States is a major work of socialist historical revisionism which was written and is presented under the auspices of "scholarly research." It was written by Howard Zinn and printed in 1980. Since its publication, it has received a significant amount of criticism, even from members of academia.
A People's History of the United States does not incorporate the newer theories of history, but provides an energetic heavy-handed attack on conservatives, business, and white men. His book is stuck in previous decades including the 1950's, methodologically, and does not appreciate the scholarship of the last 4 decades in the "new" intellectual, political, economic, diplomatic, military, cultural or social history. His "newest" ideas are that the white male "working class"—as well as blacks, Indians, and women—are victims of capitalism, a stock notion of 1930s socialist philosophy regarding workers. Zinn built on the work of Charles A. Beard, who's work like Zinn was controversial in his day.
Standford professor Sam Wineburg is critical of Zinn's research, citing many examples in Zinn's "A People's History..." that (as reviewer David Plotnikoff states) show he "perpetrates the same errors of historical practice as the tomes it aimed to correct," that "Zinn's desire to cast a light on what he saw as historic injustice was a crusade built on secondary sources of questionable provenance, omission of exculpatory evidence, leading questions and shaky connections between evidence and conclusions."
Daniel J. Flynn is likewise critical of the work of Zinn, charging him with biased history, citing, among other things, that,
Through Zinn’s looking-glass, Maoist China, site of history’s bloodiest state-sponsored killings, becomes “the closest thing, in the long history of that ancient country, to a people’s government, independent of outside control.” The authoritarian Nicaraguan Sandinistas were “welcomed” by their own people, while the opposition Contras, who backed the candidate that triumphed when free elections were finally held, were a “terrorist group” that “seemed to have no popular support inside Nicaragua.” Castro’s Cuba, readers learn, “had no bloody record of suppression.”
Meanwhile, Zinn portrays the American Revolution as creating "the most effective system of national control devised in modern times, and showed future generations of leaders the advantages of combining paternalism with command.”
Historian and author John Fea of Messiah College states that,
|“||Zinn writes well and is quite inspiring, but his book is bad history. In fact, I would not even call it history. A People's History of the United States is a political tract that uses the past to promote a presentist agenda...Zinn's book violates virtually every rule of good historical thinking.||”|
Though Zinn's defenders have attempted to dismiss these criticisms as angry outbursts from right-wingers, many well-known liberal academics have also been highly negative about the quality of his book. Michael Kazin, Professor in the Department of History at Georgetown University and an established progressive scholar, states that
A People's History is bad history, albeit gilded with virtuous intentions. Zinn reduces the past to "a Manichean fable", whose failure to adequately explain why most Americans accepted the legitimacy of the capitalist republic "is grounded in a premise better suited to a conspiracy-monger's Web site than to a work of scholarship."
Similarly, history professor Eric Foner, though he praised A People's History for its "enthusiasm" and its "vivid descriptions of events that are usually ignored," also complained about Zinn's "deeply pessimistic vision of the American experience" and his tendency to reduce certain groups of people to mere victims.
Janie B. Cheaney of World magazine notes,
From the beginning, critics have pointed out the lack of context, sourcing and footnoting, and objectivity in Zinn's work. The author countered that his aim was not objective history, but prescriptive history—not studying the past as a means of understanding the past, but of changing the future.
When changing the future, one can't start too young. The Zinn Education Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to "Teaching A People's History" maintains a website of educational resources for getting Zinn's ideas into elementary and even preschool classrooms. A Young People's History of the United States is already available; next up is the comic-book version. The story always begins with friendly Indians paddling blithely into the clutches of European imperialists.
According to Zinn,
Objectivity is impossible and it is also undesirable. That is, if it were possible it would be undesirable, because if you have any kind of a social aim, if you think history should serve society in some way; should serve the progress of the human race; should serve justice in some way, then it requires that you make your selection on the basis of what you think will advance causes of humanity.”
However, consistent with the decontextualized analysis Zinn often uses to indict America to be a villainous murderer of women and children, he himself could be considered such as he served in the United States Air Corps during World War II on a bomber crew.
Michael Kazin, professor at Georgetown University and co-editor of the (mainly liberal) magazine Dissent, is also critical of Zinn, stating (among other things) that "A People's History is bad history, albeit gilded with virtuous intentions. Zinn reduces the past to a Manichean fable.."
Zinn is included in David Horowitz's book, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics In America. Horowitz calls Zinn's textbook “the Mein Kampf of the Hate America Left.”
Zinn's motivation for his radical point-of-view presentation of history appears to have formally begun with an event at an early age. When he the age of 17 he attended a Times Square political rally where was knocked senseless by police. As a result, Zinn stated that, "I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of democracy. I was a radical, believing something was fundamentally wrong with this country."
- Samuel Wineburg, "Undue Certainty"
- Zinn's influential history textbook has problems, says Stanford education expert
- Howard Zinn's Biased History
- Howard Zinn vs. David Barton
- Michael Kazin, "Howard Zinn's disappointing History of the United States", History News Network, 3-30-04
- Eric Foner, "Majority Report," The New York Times, March 2, 1980, BR3.
- "The wilderness of Zinn" World magazine, February 27, 2010
- Zinn, A People's History of the United States, p. 646
- Howard Zinn's Disappointing History of the United States
- Zinn, Howard. "The Zinn Reader: Writings on Disobedience and Democracy", p. 158