A People's History of the United States Quotes


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.


Here the author is laying down the framework for what constitutes a “people’s history” of the United States. An overview of what history actually means is revealed by Zinn as sometimes—more often than not, if not necessarily usually—the creation of an agenda that serves not the purpose of education and information, but disseminating propaganda supporting the ruling elite. The history of the “discovery’ of the “New World” serves the purpose of propagating the idea of European superiority rather than European genocide.

It is possible, reading standard histories, to forget half the population of the coun- try. The explorers were men, the landholders and merchants men, the political leaders men, the military figures men. The very invisibility of women, the overlooking of women, is a sign of their submerged status.


Another example of history being incomplete because its purpose is not enlightenment, but propaganda is the extremely noticeable—when one starts to take notice—absence of women in history books. Not that women aren’t to be found there—Cleopatra, Queen Elizabeth I, Joan of Arc—but their mention is conspicuous precisely because of the absence of official accounting and recording of the contributions made by half the population.

There were writers of the early twentieth century who spoke for socialism, who criticized the capitalist system harshly. These were not obscure pamphleteers, but among the most famous of American literary figures, whose books were read by millions: Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris.


Another example of history being written to advance a prevailing ideology is the account of the socialist movement in America. The bulk of the American population for more than half a century been dominated by the Baby Boomers, a generation raised on a steady textbook diet of Cold War propaganda which succeeded in pushing the embrace of socialism and communism in America to the fringes of society. The truth, Zinn points out, is substantially different; embrace of socialist ideas was far more expansive and closer to the mainstream than the textbooks of the latter half of the 20th century ever suggested.

From 1964 to 1972, the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the history of the world made a maximum military effort, with everything short of atomic bombs, to defeat a nationalist revolutionary movement in a tiny, peasant country—and failed.


In just one sentence, the author boils down to its essential framework the entire history of the Vietnam War. It is not a state of historical fact that is to be found in school textbooks and in the books in which it or variations may be found, it is a historical summation that will be attacked—as Zinn’s book has been, for instance—for any number of reasons except its irrefutable basis in fact. Admittedly, no single sentence can convey the complexities of a historical event like the Vietnam War—a conflict which at the time divided the country to a degree it had not experienced since the Civil War a century earlier. The statement is analogous, for instance, to describing The Wizard of Oz as a "story about a little girl who goes to strange land and then returns home again." Such a summation is not wrong, but it is hardly the whole story, either. Zinn’s point is that tall too often history books are not wrong, but what is left out can change the perspective and understanding substantially.

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