An American history book written from the perspective of people’s movements rather than great leaders and politicians. A People’s History of the United States is an EXCELLENT book, taking us from Columbus (a massive twat btw, really didn’t know enough about him before) all the way to 9/11.
And considering the time span of the book, it’s not too bad at around 700 pages. It’s dense text though, as you’d expect, and it took me around 6 weeks to read. I’m normally a book a week kind of reader. So it’s messed up my reading stats, but it’s been well worth it.
Why did I want to read a book on American history? Two main reasons. Firstly, the lovely politics department at college allowed me to accompany them on a politics trip to New York and Washington. I said I’d better learn something about US history and politics before going, and they recommended this book. Secondly, I am part of an online quiz league and American history is one of my weakest areas. And I want to be better at that.
Zinn’s book is apologetically told from the perspective of the people. It is biased toward a certain world view and he says this is fine, because 99% of other history books are biased the other way to great leaders, usually men, dictating the course of history. Zinn also wanted to make this book accessible to most readers (and it is), by not having footnotes scattered through the text. It is very easy to read.
I felt a bit shocked by the first chapter on Columbus. Shocked and embarrassed that I didn’t already know just how horrific the actions of early European settlers were. I’ve studied history before, but it was modern European history mostly. I’m so ignorant about a lot of what has happened in the rest of the world, and I am trying to change that. In the Columbus chapter, Zinn explains some of his choices with regard to what he decided to include in his book. Sorry this is a bit of epic quoting, from across 4 pages in the book, but I think it really sets out the tone of this book:
To emphasis the heroism of Columbus and his successors as navigators and discoverers, and to deemphasize their genocide, is not a technical necessity but an ideological choice. It serves – unwittingly – to justify what was done.
… the easy acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress (Horoshima and Vietnam, to save Western civilisation; Kronstadt and Hungary, to save socialism; nuclear proliferation, to save us all) – that is still with us.
The treatment of heroes (Columbus) and their victims (the Arawaks) – the quiet acceptance of conquest and murder in the name of progress – is only one aspect of a certain approach to history, in which the past is told from the point of view of governments, conquerors, diplomats, leaders.
..in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.
…I prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the viewpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish, of the Mexican war as seen by the deserting soldiers of Scott’s army, of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile mills, of the Spanish-American war as seen by the Cubans,the conquest of the Philippines as seen by black soldiers on Luzon, the Gilded Age as seen by southern farmers, the First World War as seen by socialists, the Second World War as seen by pacifists, the New Deal as seen by blacks in Harlem, the postwar American empire as seen by peons in Latin America. And so on, to the limited extent that any one person, however he or she strains, can “see” history from the standpoint of others.
… this book will be skeptical of governments and their attempts, through politics and culture, to ensnare ordinary people in a giant web of nationhood pretending to common interest.
Other things I found particularly eye opening: the Clinton years, US foreign policy for the last 100 years, just how little difference it makes whatever party is in charge – they are all basically following the same pattern of keeping the few percent up at the top.
I imagine there are people reading this review who are rolling their eyes at me not knowing all this already. But, there you go, I’m a physicist, so know a lot about that, and I do try to continuously educate myself about new things, and I think that’s a good thing 🙂
Special shout out to the Iroquois society, where land was owned and worked in common, women were important and respected, and the family line went down through the female members. Zinn quotes from Gary B, Nash:
This power was shared between the sexes and the European idea of male dominancy and female subordination in all things was conspicuously absent in Iroquois society
Ahhh, just imagine.
Overall, I am really glad I have read A People’s History of the United States. I feel like it was well worth the effort and time. I should probably read something similar for the UK. What should I read??