Rachel's Reviews > A People's History of the United States

A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn
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's review
Sep 26, 2007

it was amazing
bookshelves: history

This book taught me more about U.S. history than any class I ever took. I was never interested in history in school. Maybe I was just a budding socialist predisposed to reject the presidents-and-wars perspective. Maybe it was just boring.

Zinn's history is more accurate to what was actually going on than the textbooks are, and much more interesting. Viewing U.S. history as a struggle to gain and keep power on the part of the very rich, I began to see parallels with our own time, time-tested tricks of manipulation. It is in the best interest of those in power for the people to have a hazy, patriotic view of American history, or they might start recognizing BS when they hear it:

"...up to this time, as we knew, we had heard of no open act of aggression by the Mexican army, but that the danger was imminent that such acts would be committed. I said that in my opinion we had ample cause of war..."
-President Polk in 1845, justifying the invasion of Mexico

"The determination of our slaveholding President to prosecute the war, and the probability of his success in wringing from the people men and money to carry it on, is made evident, rather than doubtful, by the puny opposition arrayed against him. No politician of any considerable distinction or eminence seems willing to hazard his popularity with his party...by an open and unqualified disapprobation of the war. None seem willing to take their stand for peace at all risks; and all seem willing that the war should be carried on, in some form or other."
-Frederick Douglass, in 1848, on the war with Mexico

"If there is a war, you will furnish the corpses and the taxes, and others will get the glory. Speculators will make money out of it--that is, out of you. Men will get high prices for inferior supplies, leaky boats, for shoddy clothes and pasteboard shoes, and you will have to play the bill, and the only satisfaction you will get is the privelege of hating your Spanish fellow-workmen, who are really your brothers and who have had as little to do with the wrongs of Cuba as you have."
-Bolton Hall, treasurer of the American Longshoremen's Union, writing in 1898 about the Spanish-American war

"I intend to be most conservative, but in the interests of the corporations themselves and above all in the interests of the country."
-Theodore Roosevelt

"...a review of the diplomatic history of the past 35 years will show that petroleum has historically played a larger part in the external relations of the United States than any other commodity."
-a State Department officer, in 1945

"Victory is in sight."
-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara on Vietnam, 1963

"I have never been more encouraged in my four years in Vietnam."
-General William Westmoreland, 1967

"Hanoi has accepted near-total defeat."
-Columnist Joseph Alsop, 1972

"I am absolutely convinced if Congress made available $722 million in military assistance by the time I asked... the South Vietnamese could stabilize the military situation in Vietnam today."
-President Gerald Ford, April 1975

"By virtue of its military victory the United States is likely to have more influence in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries than any industrial nation has ever exercised."
-NY Times business correspondent, after the Persian Gulf War

"One percent of the nation owns a third of the wealth. The rest of the wealth is distributed in such a way as to turn those in the 99 percent against one another: small property owners against the propertyless, black against white, native-born against foreigh-born, intellectuals and professionals against the uneducated and unskilled. These groups have resented one another and warred against one another with such vehemence and violence as to obscure their common position as sharers of leftovers in a very wealthy country."
-Howard Zinn
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Reading Progress

September 26, 2007 – Shelved
Started Reading
October 1, 2007 – Finished Reading
October 28, 2007 – Shelved as: history

Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

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message 1: by Carlton (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:50PM) (new) - added it

Carlton I an sorry to tell you this, Rachel, but this man Howard Zinn hates America. Is someone who hates his own country really the person to teach you about its history? Do a search for Dennis Prager interviewing Howard Zinn. There is a podcast available so you can hear it for yourself.


Happy hunting.

message 2: by Rachel (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:52PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Rachel Yeah sure Leon, thanks for your condolences but you don't have to hate America to look at its history critically. I read your review and I'll comment over there.

message 3: by Mike (the Paladin) (last edited Nov 11, 2009 05:38PM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Mike (the Paladin) I won't take that line, what I'm sorry about is that this book is not more accurate than other history books. It is simply another in the recent movement to re-write history from a more PC point of view. If the writings from the time in question don't fit with what you want to say, dismiss them, the idea that "we today" know more about what went on than the people who lived it is at the heart of this book and all it's cousins.

Rachel On the contrary, I would argue that most history textbooks are the result of re-writing history from an extremely restricted, ultra-PC point of view. James Loewen's "Lies My Teacher Told Me" sheds a lot of light on the whole textbook process, and how in the political minefield of a history book, each special-interest group lobbies for certain elements of history to be put in or taken out. In the process of attempting not to offend anyone (after all, these books are purchased with our tax dollars), the most interesting and enlightening aspects of history - conflicts between groups of people with differing ideas - are dumbed down or glossed over in favor of presenting a vague and patriotic history of our presidents and forefathers and their achievements. This is why I learned more from this book than in my highschool textbooks, because history was finally "real" to me as I began to understand the political currents, ideas, and cultures that were behind the conflicts.

As for "the writings of the time," this book includes a TON of primary sources, many of which I quoted from in my review above. Howard Zinn doesn't hesitate to draw his own conclusions from these sources, but the option is there for the reader to draw his or her own conclusions as well.

Mike (the Paladin) Lies my teacher told me is simply another illustration of the school of writing I mentioned. While history books the gloss over the more negative parts of western history are certainly one sided (though I think most of the older books were probably more appropriate for children in the early grades) this book and those it tends to draw from (and now be a source for) largely have an agenda. That agenda isn't setting the record straight but slanting it in a more "anti-American" direction.

History can't be painted as America is always good, but on the other hand there has (actually always though it has only "resurfaced" in recent history largely since the '70s) an extreme school of American hate that has tried to blame America for all the modern ills of the world. The reasoning here seems to be that Americans live so much better than the largest part of the world that we must be doing something to "rob" everyone else. Certain "groups" with politically "progressive" or "liberal" (imprecise use of those words but accepted political usage) find "personal liberty" and "individual rights" as negatives (note the Presidents mention of the US constitution as a list of "negative rights" listing what the government "couldn't do to the citizens" he wants it to list all the government can do).

My reference to source material had to do largely with Columbus's writings where he never mentions intent to enslave for example, yet it's constantly mentioned as part of his plans. Of course it's possible to find ambivalent passages in the writings of America's founders and builders. It is possible to find "vaguely raciest" statements from Lincoln, mostly due to the time in which he lived and the way he was taught. This would not be accurate overall. I don't pretend I'll actually change your mind as I'm sure there's more to what you think and the way you think than this one book (as there is also for me). I'm simply expressing my deep "belief" (not feeling) that this book is far more agenda driven than history driven.

Rachel Okay. But I'm sure you agree that understanding history, from ALL points of view, is crucial in order to learn from it, and understand our current state today.

I have benefited from being born in America and there aren't many places I would rather live. But it's an undeniable truth that much of the prosperity in America since the days of Columbus has been built on the backs of slaves and the working poor. Even today, companies who make billions in profits each year fight legislation that would require them to pay a living wage to their workers. There are still a lot of things wrong with America, and as a progressive I feel that to point these things out is how I show my patriotism, not by blindly saluting a flag. I believe in "personal liberty" and "individual rights," which is why I am for gay marriage and health care for all Americans (which I see as an individual right). To call any criticism of America or its historically rich, white, and male oligarchy "hating America" is unhelpful and downright insulting. Zinn's book is thorough, well-researched, and thoughtful - if nothing else, it demands an equally thoughtful response.

message 7: by Mike (the Paladin) (last edited Nov 23, 2009 08:09PM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Mike (the Paladin) I think that as far as this book is concerned we may have to "agree to disagree". I grew up in Eastern Tennessee and as an adult lived most of my life in the Appalachian area. I know what it's like to work for a less than living wage. The problem is that there as well as in most other areas it's not so simple. Wage payers do not have bottomless pockets (thus simply passing a law saying "you have to pay more doesn't make the wage provider able to pay without cutting somewhere else). To live in the US a wage needs to be high enough to provide a level of living we are comfortable with. Companies more and more are taking jobs elsewhere and paying wages so low as to be impossible for American wage payers (or earners) to compete. Yet...instead of cutting taxes and making it more likely that American companies can compete we are raising taxes and turning into a socialist nation. More and more our population is being "taught" to depend on the government for cradle to grave care.

As I said we will probably have to agree to disagree, but as long as we can both express our opinions without fear all isn't lost.

message 8: by Mike (the Paladin) (last edited Nov 23, 2009 08:09PM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Mike (the Paladin) By the way, and let me apologize for the double post, my dislike for this book stated simply is that (and I'll preface it by saying "I believe" because I know you will disagree with me)it is not a serious work of history but an agenda driven work of opinion. Maybe it's impossible not to have some of that in most works of history, but this is predominantly propaganda, in my oponion.

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