We’ve been looking at Howard Zinn‘s 1980 masterpiece of misinformation, A People’s History of the United States – a book that Daniel J. Flynn has rightly described as a “cartoon anti-history.”
Not one American hero goes unsmeared by Zinn. Not one admirable American action escapes being interpreted by Zinn as having its genesis in the very lowest of motives. American achievements are either ignored or belittled. As Zinn tells it, to quote Rutgers history professor David Greenberg, “The Constitution, the Civil War, the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima—all were self-serving acts.” Even left-wing historian Martin Duberman, author of a biography of Zinn, has criticized him for treating U.S. history “as mainly the story of relentless exploitation and deceit.” For Zinn, even Pearl Harbor was America’s fault. (People of color can never be the bad guys.)
Nowhere in the People’s History, Flynn points out,
do we learn that Americans were first in flight, first to fly across the Atlantic, and first to walk on the moon. Alexander Graham Bell, Jonas Salk, and the Wright Brothers are entirely absent. Instead, the reader is treated to the exploits of Speckled Snake, Joan Baez, and the Berrigan brothers. While Zinn sees fit to mention that immigrants often went into professions like ditch-digging and prostitution, American success stories like those of Alexander Hamilton, John Jacob Astor, and Louis B. Mayer – to name but a few – are off the Zinn radar screen. Valley Forge rates a single fleeting reference, while D-Day’s Normandy invasion, Gettysburg, and other important military battles are skipped over. In their place, we get several pages on the My Lai massacre and colorful descriptions of U.S. bombs falling on hotels, air-raid shelters, and markets during the Gulf War of the early 1990s.
In updated editions of the People’s History, we also get a moral equation between the U.S. and the 9/11 terrorists.
In short, Zinn’s book is pretty much an example of wall-to-wall America-bashing. Throughout it, he deep-sixes positive stories, twists good stories into bad ones, and turns heroes into villains. And while doing all this, he does one more very important thing: he takes care not to provide any historical or international context – thereby making it possible for ill-educated readers to come away actually believing that America is a uniquely malevolent country, unparalleled by any other nation past or present.
To be sure, every so often Zinn does briefly touch on nations that live under other systems – namely, under Communism. When he turns to these countries, however, he puts on a pair of rose-colored glasses. While describing Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government in China as a “corrupt dictatorship” (which is not entirely incorrect), all he says about Mao Zedong’s rival Communist movement is that it had “enormous mass support” and that, after Mao won the civil war, “China was in the hands of a revolutionary movement, the closest thing, in the long history of that ancient country, to a people’s government, independent of outside control.” Mao’s subsequent murder of tens of millions of his own people goes unmentioned.
Fidel Castro is described in similar terms, as a wildly popular folk hero who “set up a nationwide system of education, of housing, of land distribution to landless peasants.” Zinn entirely omits the negative side of Cuban Communism – the systematic repression, the forced international isolation, the mounting poverty, and the mass executions of regime opponents, intellectuals, journalists, and homosexuals.
We’ll wind this up tomorrow.