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What You Should Know About America’s Most Popular Historian
I remember well my first encounter with the work of Howard Zinn.
It wasn’t his most famous and influential book, A People’s History of the United States, that I read first, but his Declarations of Independence. Yet most of the same themes were present in this lesser-known “cross-examination of American ideology,” in which Zinn indicted the United States for its hypocrisy, militarism, exploitative capitalism, and racial injustices, among many other sins.
As a high school graduate preparing for my first year at the University of Virginia, where I planned to study history, Zinn’s writing (I went on to read his People’s History that same summer) was unsettling, revolutionary, and inspiring.
What eighteen-year-old doesn’t like considering the possibility that most everything his parents and teachers had told him was wrong?
Like most intellectual renegades, there was in Zinn more bluster than substance, more polemics than principles. But it would take a few years for me to figure this out—thankfully before I began teaching history to impressionable Virginia high schoolers as I had once been!
The Man Who Shaped Americans’ View of Their History
It’s difficult to overstate the influence of the late Howard Zinn (d. 2010) in contemporary conceptions of American history.
A People’s History of the United States has sold more than 2.5 million copies and is assigned in high school and undergraduate classes across the nation—I read excerpts from it in both my history and education courses at the University of Virginia. A version of the text has been adapted for middle school audiences, while the College Board includes Zinn’s books in their AP teacher-training seminars. It is, in the words of Gilbert Sewall, director of the American Textbook Council, the nation’s “best-known work of American history.”
Politicians, celebrities, and academics commend Zinn to millions of Americans, with far-reaching effects. The central claims of the New York Times’s 1619 Project—that America’s true founding began when black African slaves were sold to white Virginia colonists in 1619, and that American history is best understood primarily through the lens of oppression—is pure Zinn.
Moreover, it’s not hard to believe that the late Boston University professor would have delighted in the destruction of public art honoring Christopher Columbus, Junípero Serra, and other emblems of the “oppressive white patriarchy”—Zinn was himself an unabashed critic of Columbus.
Given the pervasive influence of Zinn’s ideas on American public discourse and our national self-understanding, it is essential to understand the problems with both Zinn as a historian and his most important work.
Thankfully, former Emory adjunct professor Mary Grabar has offered an extensive, thoroughly researched critical treatment of Zinn in her 2019 book Debunking Howard Zinn: Exposing the Fake History That Turned a Generation Against America. For those assigned A People’s History, Grabar’s book—which deftly catalogues the severity of Zinn’s sins—will prove an invaluable resource.
One of the first things to know about Howard Zinn is that his credibility as a historian is greatly exaggerated. Zinn wrote only one true, original historical work, his PhD thesis on the congressional career of Fiorello LaGuardia, published in 1959. The remainder of his literary corpus—including A People’s History—is simply the repackaging of other historians or, more commonly, leftist polemicists.
Unlike actual historians, Zinn did not write articles for academic journals, though he did write many politically themed essays for various journals like Harper’s, The Progressive, New South Students, Liberation, Ramparts, and Z Magazine.
Zinn’s historical professionalism is also highly circumspect; his work is defined by the selective, misleading, and downright deceptive use of sources.
Take, for example, one of the most famous excerpts from A People’s History, found in the book’s first pages, the recounting of Christopher Columbus’s interactions with the indigenous inhabitants of the Caribbean. Zinn cites Columbus’s description of Taíno natives (also called Arawaks), and, with a heavy use of ellipses in the quotations taken from the Genoese explorer’s journal, argues that Columbus intended to subjugate the native peoples for financial gain.
Yet these ellipses separate entire days in Columbus’s journal and ignore passages that prove Columbus was respectful of the indigenous tribes. Indeed, in one such Zinn-ignored passage, Columbus tells his men to take nothing from the natives without offering something in exchange. In another, he sympathetically notes that the Taínos had wounds on their bodies from battles with other tribes who had sought to enslave them. In yet another—the very first comment Columbus makes about the Caribbean natives—he declares his desire to make friends with the Taíno and have them “be made free” and converted to Christianity.
Copy and Paste
A close examination of Zinn’s popular account of Columbus also exposes his inclination to plagiarize.
As Grabar notes, the first five and a half pages of the book “are little more than slightly altered passages” from the 1976 book Columbus: His Enterprise: Exploding the Myth, by Zinn’s friend and fellow liberal activist Hans Koning. Reviewers and historians widely criticized Koning’s book as “highly polemical” and “reductionist.” Indeed, Koning was neither a Columbus scholar nor a historian. Although Zinn appears exclusively dependent on Koning’s book for his description of Columbus, he does not include Columbus: His Enterprise in his bibliography and offers only one citation of Koning’s book in the entirety of A People’s History.
Moreover, while seeking to portray the indigenous Caribbean peoples’ society as akin to a communist, feminist utopia, Zinn completely ignores accounts in the same sources he selectively quotes (like the writings of Bartolomé de las Casas) that expose the brutality of Amerindian culture.
For example, Las Cases notes that the Indians he met were cannibals, eating very little meat “unless it be the flesh of their enemies.” Nor does Zinn mention that the Talamanca Indians sent two virgin girls, ages eight and fourteen, as sexual gifts to Columbus’s ships. Columbus, to his credit, had the girls fed, clothed, and sent back, much to the confusion of the natives, who were amazed at the sexual continence of the European sailors.
Zinn’s portrayal of Native American cultures is an extremely simplistic, romanticized caricature that demonstrates how willing he is to forgo any attempt at legitimate, objective history in order to perpetuate his “European white people bad, Native Americans good” narrative.
In a later chapter on the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs in modern-day Mexico, Zinn claims Cortés pitted “Aztec against Aztec” in order to eradicate an advanced, civilized society.
In reality, it wasn’t hard for the Spaniards to persuade other indigenous peoples to rally to their side, given that the Aztecs had brutally sacrificed hundreds of thousands of them to their gods. In 1487, only five years before Columbus arrived in the Caribbean, the Aztecs celebrated the inauguration of their Great Temple by sacrificing more than eighty thousand captured prisoners from subjugated tribes.
Such negligence also defines Zinn’s portrayal of early interactions between North American Indian tribes and English colonists. Certainly there are examples of brutality on the part of European settlers in the seventeenth century as they moved into what is now Virginia and New England. Yet Zinn excuses as self-defense the 1622 Powhatan massacre of 347 English men, women, and children in Virginia, amounting to almost a third of the population of the colony, all as retribution for the death of one Powhatan warrior. Nor does he discuss the frequency with which Native American peoples actually allied with English settlers in order to resist the murderous, imperialistic actions of bellicose tribes like the Iroquois (who, like many indigenous peoples, engaged in cannibalism).
Indeed, the historical record is filled with examples of native tribes oppressing and massacring one another (as well as European colonists) and engaging in slavery, cannibalism, and genocide. Little of this appears in Zinn’s “historical” account. Instead, writes Zinn, the New World was “more egalitarian than in Europe” and a place “where the relations among men, women, children, and nature were more beautifully worked out than perhaps any place in the world.”
In his attempt to paint indigenous peoples as uniformly innocent, communitarian pacifists, Zinn is actually condescendingly reductionist. He vitiates indigenous peoples’ individual agency and the remarkable diversity found in the manifold civilizations that spanned two continents, spoke thousands of mutually unintelligible languages, and exhibited cultural practices that differed as much as those of the Lapps from the Lombards.
Who, we might ask, is the real racist here?
Free From the “Illusions of Objectivity”
None of this should be particularly surprising when considering Zinn’s own account of what he believed it meant to do history. The Marxist historian, who was investigated by the FBI for his affiliation with the Communist Party of the United States, rejected the idea that a professional historian should aim for objectivity. He once wrote: “By the time I began teaching and writing, I had no illusions about ‘objectivity,’ if that meant avoiding a point of view.”
He elsewhere claimed: “There is no such thing as pure fact, innocent of interpretation.” Perhaps that is why, as Grabar observes, Zinn so nonchalantly claimed that one-third of black Africans transported to the New World died on the voyage, when scholars doing real history estimate the number to be closer to 12 to 13 percent. If history is just polemical, fudging the numbers is inconsequential.
Of course, for those assigned Zinn’s A People’s History, they will recognize that this cursory consideration covers only the first few chapters, leaving untouched later discussions of the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution, World War II, and the Vietnam War. Yet for those who understand Zinn’s modus operandi—selective and misleading historical anecdotes, plagiarism, simplistic and romanticized caricatures, and rhetorical polemics, all in the service of a Marxist reading of history—they will not be surprised by Zinn’s assertions or their inherent failures.
Lincoln, says Zinn, was no idealistic political savant but a bourgeois racist; World War II was no noble war against rapacious global totalitarianism but a con pushed by exploitative capitalists who were just as bad as the fascists.
Follow the footnotes, separate the polemics from the data, and you’ll easily decipher that Zinn’s purported history is the real ideological shell game.
About the Author
Casey Chalk is senior writer for Crisis magazine and a contributor at the American Conservative and New Oxford Review.
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