In A People’s History of the United States, Zinn aims to write an account of American history from the perspective of persecuted, powerless, marginalized people, rather than the usual pantheon of heroes and elites. He begins by studying Christopher Columbus’s conquest of the New World in 1492; over the following century, European explorers wiped out entire Native American tribes and brought tremendous wealth back to their own countries. English settlers came to North America in the early 1600s, and soon afterwards, they were involved in a series of wars with the Native American tribes, during which they used terrorist tactics to assert their domination.
Another important feature of early colonial life in North America was slavery. English settlers used slaves kidnapped from their homes in Africa for free labor, and they also hired indentured servants—poor white people who were forced to spend years paying off their debts. Slaves frequently staged revolts and uprisings against their white masters; indeed, many elites in early colonial America were frightened that black slaves would unite with poor whites and take control over the colonies. Elites instituted policies designed to drive poor whites, Native Americans, and black slaves apart, and use them as “a check upon one another.”
In the late 18th century, the Founding Fathers were responsible for organizing a revolution against the British. However, these figures weren’t particularly radical in their vision of the future—rather, they were wealthy, powerful people who saw an opportunity to become even more powerful by manipulating the working classes against an external enemy, Britain. It was during the Revolutionary War that American leaders developed the rhetoric of freedom and equality, which is, to this day, one of the most important tools that leaders use to control their people. In the 1780s, the Founding Fathers drew up the Constitution, which provided for a strong federal government, largely so that they would have a way of protecting their own property and interests.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, American women of all classes and backgrounds asserted their radicalism again and again, in spite of the pervasive sexism of their society. After it became more common for women to attend college in the early 19th century, educated women became more active in feminist causes.
In the early 19th century, America became a major imperialist power, first by expelling Native Americans from their ancestral lands (violating treaties that the American government had signed), and then by annexing Mexican territory in the Southwest. The Mexican-American War of the 1840s set a paradigm for American militarism: again and again, the American government would find a flimsy pretext for starting a war, and then use this pretext to acquire new territory and resources.
The Civil War is often remembered as the event that prompted the federal government to intervene and end slavery forever. But in fact, the federal government only did so because it had been pressured by generations of radical Americans who staged uprisings, slave revolts, and exercised their right to petition the government. When the government finally did free the slaves, it did so in a way that gave African-Americans minimal support. Indeed, in the years following the Civil War (the period known as Reconstruction) the federal government provided some financial and military support for African-Americans in the South. However, following 1876, the federal government backed away from supporting African-Americans and instead aligned itself with the interests of Southern business elites. In the second half of the 19th century, the federal government became bolder about cooperating with business; indeed, it supported military interventions, especially in Latin America, that were designed to strengthen American business. Nevertheless, there was widespread resistance to America’s aggressive, imperialist foreign policy.
The 19th century was also a time of widespread labor and union activity. Faced with the fact that the law and the government didn’t even pretend to protect the common American worker, laborers went on strike, protested in the streets, and demanded better wages and shorter hours. In response, the federal government again and again showed its support for the business establishment by deploying troops to break up strikes and enforcing business as usual. When the government did help the common worker, it was careful to provide modest, superficial reforms to the system, which were designed to satisfy the American people without helping them in any profound way. In the face of the government’s dismissive attitude, laborers embraced Anarchism, Socialism, and Communism—ideologies that questioned the capitalist premise that private business should own production and manufacturing.
During World War One, the American government sent its poorest citizens to die in a conflict that had nothing to do with them. It also passed a series of laws preventing citizens from speaking out against the war in any way. Indeed, many Socialist activists of the era were imprisoned for daring to state the obvious—World War One was a corrupt, imperialist conflict. During the Great Depression, the federal government continued its policies of moderation and pacification: it passed some policies that benefitted workers, but did nothing to fundamentally challenge capitalism or the American business elite.
During World War Two, the U.S. claimed to be fighting for purely moral reasons: to end Fascism in Europe. In fact, Zinn argues, the government fought in World War Two because it saw the chance to make America the world’s leading power. By the time the war was over, America had made inroads with leaders around the world, ensuring that its own businesses would be granted free trade rights abroad. The war ended when the American government detonated two atomic bombs in Japan that killed massive numbers of civilians, a decision made largely to assert America’s new status as the world’s leading superpower.
During the Cold War—the standoff between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., the world’s other leading superpower—the U.S. government tried to frighten the American people by warning of a global Communist takeover. The government funded coups and right-wing dictatorships around the world, often deposing democratically-elected Socialist leaders in the process, always with the claim of protecting democracy and fighting Communism. In reality, the Establishment was trying to protect its own business interests, ensuring that the world’s leaders would continue to cooperate with American corporations.
During the 1960s, America experienced an outpouring of pent-up radical frustration. The people fought for civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, environmental protection, Native American reparations, and hundreds of other radical populist causes. In many cases, the government’s response to its people’s actions was to institute tepid, superficial reforms that didn’t address the root causes of the problem. For example, the government reformed the voting process to protect African-Americans’ voting rights, but did nothing about the systematic poverty and racism that many black people faced every day.
In the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, radicalism seemed to die down in America. But in large part, this was because the media stopped reporting on popular protests. Meanwhile, the American government, despite shifting back and forth between Republican and Democratic leaders, enforced a virtually consistent political agenda, in which welfare was cut back and the military budget increased. Even after the end of the Cold War, America’s military budget continued to grow. Americans joined together in record numbers to protest the meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999, a sign that radicalism wasn’t dead in America.
In the final chapter of the book, Zinn discusses the “war on terror,” during which the government deployed troops to the Middle East, supposedly to fight Muslim terrorists. Zinn concludes that, while it’s too soon to see what the American reaction to the war on terror will be, the American people need to decide if they stand on the side of morality and decency, or if they support imperialism and military aggression.