As its title would suggest, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is, above all, a history of the country from the perspective of the American people. However, when he talks about the “American people,” Zinn means something very different from “every person who has ever lived in America.” Zinn is talking specifically about the American people who have the least power and political representation, and who are least likely to be treated with respect in their society. At times, Zinn offers a numerical estimate of what he means by “the American people”—the ninety-nine percent of Americans with the least income (rather than the richest one percent of Americans, from whose perspective, Zinn claims, most works of history are written). At other times, Zinn talks about different demographics that, put together, comprise the least powerful and most commonly ignored American people: African Americans, women, homosexuals, etc. Most frequently, however, Zinn, an admirer of Marxism, defines the American people not by their race or gender, but simply by virtue of the fact that they are exploited by the wealthy, powerful Establishment (see Establishment theme).
Zinn acknowledges that the American people aren’t all alike: they represent thousands of different religions, ideologies, and experiences. However, he argues that, by virtue of their common oppression at the hands of the powerful, the American people have in common a certain view of the world. Indeed, Zinn argues that the American people have almost always opposed unethical actions and causes that benefit the few at the expense of the many. Throughout American history, Zinn claims, the people have opposed many of the wars in which their country has been involved. Most dramatically, the vast majority of American people opposed America’s involvement in Vietnam during the 1960s and 70s, even before the federal government had reinstated the draft. This might suggest that the American people opposed intervention in Vietnam not simply because of self-interest, but because they recognized that the Vietnam War was morally wrong. Zinn documents many other points in American history when the vast majority of the American people have opposed government policies that threaten their livelihood and contradict the principals of equality and fairness.
At times, Zinn admits, the American people have also thrown their support to causes that, in retrospect, seem bigoted or ill-advised. For instance, during the 19th century, Populist farmers’ opposition to the greed of the East-Coast Establishment was laced with anti-black rhetoric and violence. Zinn also admits that, during the Mexican-American War, the majority of Americans supported America’s imperialist aggression in the Southwest, despite the fact that the war endangered their own lives and was premised on a series of calculated provocations by the federal government. However, in cases where the American people’s behavior seems to contradict the left-wing causes that Zinn himself supports, Zinn tends to mitigate these examples. For instance, in the case of the Mexican-American War, he argues that the jingoistic media manipulated the American people into voicing their support for a corrupt war that they otherwise wouldn’t have supported. Zinn further shows that the American people have voiced their support for left-wing, populist causes that favor the many over the few through riots, demonstrations, peaceful protests, petitions, and politically-charged works of art. Throughout American history, he repeatedly argues, the people have consistently used such means to push for freedom, independence, and skepticism of authority.
Zinn’s vision of American history has not been without its critics, both on the left and the right. One of the most common criticisms of A People’s History of the United States, voiced by many prominent historians, is that it paints an overly simplistic, even monolithic view of the American people. The Pulitzer Prize-winning radical historian Eric Foner, for example, has argued that Zinn doesn’t pay enough attention to the divisions and changes within the enormous category of the American people. Zinn spends relatively little time discussing the rise of the middle-class in the 20th century, nor does he address the strong correlation between poverty and conservative voting patterns in the past twenty-five years. Similarly, critics have suggested that Zinn deliberately plays down racial and ethnic conflicts between different working-class groups, attributing such conflicts to the “manipulations” of the Establishment, rather than the “true” intentions of the American people. In short, critics suggest, Zinn lumps together many mutually antagonistic groups, calls them “the American people,” and attributes to them a degree of unity and solidarity that they never really felt.
Another closely-related criticism of A People’s History of the United States is that Zinn “intervenes” too much in his own evidence, writing off counterexamples to his arguments without any proof. He suggests that the American people didn’t truly support the Mexican-American War, but were only tricked, through propaganda, into supporting it; this claim that calls into question how Zinn could possibly know what people’s true motives were, and what it means to believe or support any government action. In spite of its critics, however, A People’s History of the United States remains an important history text. Even if one accepts that Zinn’s portrait of the American people is sometimes simplified and idealized, his book may be a necessary antidote to the vast majority of history textbooks that ignore the common American people and valorize elites.
The American People ThemeTracker
The American People Quotes in A People’s History of the United States
Only one fear was greater than the fear of black rebellion in the new American colonies. That was the fear that discontented whites would join black slaves to overthrow the existing order. In the early years of slavery, especially, before racism as a way of thinking was firmly ingrained, while white indentured servants were often treated as badly as black slaves, there was a possibility of cooperation.
There were only fitful, occasional connections between the farmer and labor movements. Neither spoke eloquently enough to the other's needs. And yet, there were signs of a common consciousness that might, under different circumstances, lead to a unified, ongoing movement.
What was clear in this period to blacks, to feminists, to labor organizers and socialists, was that they could not count on the national government. True, this was the "Progressive Period," the start of the Age of Reform; but it was a reluctant reform, aimed at quieting the popular risings, not making fundamental changes.
What to others seemed rapid progress to blacks was apparently not enough. In the early 1960s black people rose in rebellion all over the South. And in the late 1960s they were engaging in wild insurrection in a hundred northern cities. It was all a surprise to those without that deep memory of slavery that everyday presence of humiliation, registered in the poetry, the music, the occasional outbursts of anger, the more frequent sullen silences. Part of that memory was of words uttered, laws passed, decisions made, which turned out to be meaningless.
Back on September 26, 1969, President Richard Nixon, noting the growing antiwar activity all over the country, announced that "under no circumstance will I be affected whatever by it." But nine years later, in his Memoirs, he admitted that the antiwar movement caused him to drop plans for an intensification of the war: "Although publicly I continued to ignore the raging antiwar controversy. . . I knew, however, that after all the protests and the Moratorium, American public opinion would be seriously divided by any military escalation of the war." It was a rare presidential admission of the power of public protest.
For the first time, the sheer biological uniqueness of women was openly discussed. Some theorists … thought this was more fundamental to their oppression than any particular economic system. It was liberating to talk frankly about what had for so long been secret, hidden, cause for shame and embarrassment: menstruation, masturbation, menopause, abortion, lesbianism.
The televised Senate Committee hearings on Watergate stopped suddenly before the subject of corporate connections was reached. It was typical of the selective coverage of important events by the television industry: bizarre shenanigans like the Watergate burglary were given full treatment, while instances of ongoing practice—the My Lai massacre, the secret bombing of Cambodia, the work of the FBI and CIA—were given the most fleeting attention. Dirty tricks against the Socialist Workers party, the Black Panthers, other radical groups, had to be searched for in a few newspapers. The whole nation heard the details of the quick break-in at the Watergate apartment; there was never a similar television hearing on the long-term break-in in Vietnam.
The result of these higher payroll taxes was that three-fourths of all wage earners paid more each year through the Social Security tax than through the income tax. Embarrassingly for the Democratic party, which was supposed to be the party of the working class, those higher payroll taxes had been put in motion under the administration of Jimmy Carter.
After the bombing of Iraq began along with the bombardment of public opinion, the polls showed overwhelming support for Bush's action, and this continued through the six weeks of the war. But was it an accurate reflection of the citizenry's long-term feelings about war? The split vote in the polls just before the war reflected a public still thinking its opinion might have an effect. Once the war was on, and clearly irreversible, in an atmosphere charged with patriotic fervor … it was not surprising that a great majority of the country would declare its support.
The great problem would be to work out a way of accomplishing this without a centralized bureaucracy, using not the incentives of prison and punishment, but those incentives of cooperation which spring from natural human desires, which in the past have been used by the state in times of war, but also by social movements that gave hints of how people might behave in different conditions. Decisions would be made by small groups of people in their workplaces, their neighborhoods—a network of cooperatives, in communication with one another, a neighborly socialism avoiding the class hierarchies of capitalism and the harsh dictatorships that have taken the name "socialist."
Clinton claimed to be moderating his policies to match public opinion. But opinion surveys in the eighties and early nineties indicated that Americans favored bold policies that neither Democrats nor Republicans were willing to put forward: universal free health care, guaranteed employment, government help for the poor and homeless, with taxes on the rich and cuts in the military budget to pay for social programs.