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Customer Review

1,223 of 1,354 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A teacher of American History's POV, February 1, 2000
This review is from: A People's History of the United States: 1492 to the Present (Hardcover)
For several years of the last decade, I taught Advanced Placement U.S. History at a high school in northern Virginia. When I began the course, Zinn had already been assigned by my predecessor, and I needed a counterpoint to the main text (Bailey and Kennedy's bombastic, traditionalist, and short-on-social history "Pageant of the American Nation"). Zinn's deftly written book provided a fortunate antithesis to the "march of presidents and industrial titans" approach to American history. I found many chapters of this book to be such excellent stimulants to class discussions that I extended their use into my non-AP U.S. history classes, where students, many of whom could not otherwise have cared less about history, found themselves reading an interesting and provocative historian for the first time in their lives. Many of the best discussions I ever had with my classes (both AP and "regular") began with assigned chapters from Zinn. From there, it was an easy step to move on to the idea of historiography (the history of how history has been interpreted) and to decoupling my students from thinking of the textbook as revealed wisdom.
Yes, this book has its faults, as many of the previous reviews point out. It is very left-leaning. It does sometimes omit factual points that do not support its line of argument. It does sometimes verge on equating the misdeeds of American leaders with the horrific malevolence of the leaders of totalitarian states. It does romanticize its heroes.
For all that, though, this book is an excellent introduction to U.S. history if read as a contrasting voice to more traditional narratives. It is a fine and vigorous antidote to the excessively reverent tone of many high school textbooks. It conveys a sense of moral passion that is often lacking in these texts, which are typically take great pains to offend no one, particularly regarding events within living memory. Not all contemporary texts are this bloodlessly terrible, but many are. One of the best things about Zinn's histories is that he leaves in the drama that the standard texts insist on draining out.
"A People's History" begins with a bold thesis, and keeps it at center stage--namely, that those with power and wealth consistently extend it to others only when the situation has reached the level of deep crisis, and only with the minimum and uppermost fraction of the discontended needed to co-opt them and defeat the dissent of the remainder, often also turning otherwise natural allies into antagonistic contenders for "table scraps" from the banquet in the process. And as Zinn argues repeatedly, this grudging and incomplete inclusion, made reality by the courage and convictions of average men and women, has been the engine that has driven most if not all extentions of both liberty and equality in U.S. history, and that this is a continuing and unfinished process, awaiting future generations of idealists possessing the courage of their own convictions. I admire this book (and this author) for inculcating this idea among young readers.
For young adults who have an interest in U.S. history, or for parents who wish to engage their teen's interest in history, this book is a great place to start. It also might be the start of a few conversations at home about justice, fairness, equality, morality, the probity of leaders, etc. Since it argues more from a passion for justice and equality, a sense of burning indignation, and a highly debatable point of view, those desiring balance should pair it with something less withering in its assessment toward the history of the American state. This is an excellent history for the newly interested, or for those readers looking for an alternative perspective.
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Showing 1-10 of 87 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Aug 26, 2009 9:21:22 AM PDT
Teyss says:
An excellent review, thank you very much. I have many fond memories of my APUSH class and it's teacher, particularly the texts he had us read, and this was one of the main ones. Just as you said, Zinn raises a lot of discussion that otherwise would be left alone, and ignorance is inexcusable. Thank you for being one of the (few, in my experience) history teachers that strives to tell history as a reality, with all of the passions and trials left out in most texts. In my opinion, historians dishonor the lives lost throughout history when they remove the emotions and very humanity of the people who make history.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 25, 2010 8:52:39 AM PDT
C. K. Jaguar says:
Zinn was a sad and confused man but a man with a message. Here, in brief, is that message: There is nothing wrong in the world that the demise of America will not cure. There is nothing wrong in the world that the rise of communism will not correct. America and its principles are founded entirely on lies, greed and corruption. Communism is the hope of the world. America has done nothing praiseworthy or laudable in its entire history. Communists are to be praised and supported for their goals, and never criticized for their methods. I will use no footnotes nor substantiate any facts in my writings, because context would confuse the issues. Any historical resentment, hostility or jealousy I can resurrect and incite will hasten the end of Democracy and that is my only goal and motivation. High school, college and University teachers can be easily led and they will be used to spread my propaganda. They are teaching this propaganda every day, at public expense.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 7, 2010 11:06:06 AM PDT
David Goodis says:
This reply adds ad hominem frosting to a straw man pie.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 16, 2010 8:26:56 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 16, 2010 8:28:12 AM PDT
R. Bartlett says:
David Goodis,
If you take the time to make a comment, why don't you say something intelligent that may be of use to us?

Posted on Jun 22, 2010 6:06:23 AM PDT
Macguyver says:
I was assigned this book back in college, and i enjoyed it, even though i am much more conservative than the general audience that probably praises this book. There is nothing wrong with discussion and alternate points of view, and thats what this book did for me. I think it is a unique view on US history that brings up events otherwise ignored in schools theses days.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 22, 2010 9:32:56 AM PDT
[Deleted by the author on Jun 22, 2010 9:33:17 AM PDT]

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 22, 2010 9:33:40 AM PDT
[Deleted by the author on Aug 16, 2010 7:33:10 PM PDT]

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 22, 2010 9:38:27 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 22, 2010 9:39:15 AM PDT
R. Bartlett says:
Teyss,
In my opinion, the early history of the new world might be better off in a world history book. Zinn spends a lot of time excoriating the early explorers, starting with Columbus. Yes, we celebrate Columbus day, for some weird reason, but he had nothing to do with AMERICAN history, nor did Cortez, etc. Zinn writes as if they were Americans and part of our history. I think he's just finding a way to paint a bad picture of a country he seems to hate.

Posted on Jul 31, 2010 11:46:11 PM PDT
Jon says:
I would hope that you provided context for the viewpoint of the book. Consider the background of the author.

"On July 30, 2010, the FBI released one file with three sections totaling 423 pages on Howard Zinn, a best selling radical historian, teacher, playwright, and political activist." The file was released in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

The Bureau noted Zinn's activities in what were called Communist Front Groups and received informant reports that Zinn was an active member of the CPUSA (Communist Party of the United States); Zinn denied ever being a member when he was questioned by agents in the 1950s. "In the 1960s, the Bureau took another look at Zinn on account of his criticism of the FBI's civil rights investigations. Further investigation was made when Zinn traveled to North Vietnam with Daniel Berrigan as an anti-war activist."

The evidence that Zinn lied about his Communist ties can be summarized from the released FBI files:

(1.) reliable FBI informants who had infiltrated the CPUSA (the Communist Party of the United States) identified Zinn as a member who attended party meetings as many as five times a week;

(2.) a reliable informant provided a photograph of Zinn teaching a class on "Basic Marxism" at CPUSA headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, in 1951. A participant in the class said that Zinn taught that "the basic teaching of Marx and Lenin were sound and should be adhered to by those present;"

(3.) Zinn was an active participant of almost every "front group" of the CPUSA including ACPJSUN, Steering Committee of the Veterans Committee against the Mundt-Nixon Bill, Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, the International Workers Order;

(4.) his name appeared on a list of addressograph stencils at CPUSA party headquarters in New York City;

(5.) Zinn admitted involvement in several CPUSA front organizations according to FBI documents;

(6.) as late as 1961, Zinn attempted to recruit students to attend the 8th World Youth Festival (a communist-front gathering).

In 1964, a FBI memorandum described Zinn as "a professor and writer who has a background of known membership in the Communist Party (CP) and has continued to demonstrate procommunist and anti-United States sympathies." Furthermore, although Zinn denied membership in the CPUSA, the FBI concluded that his denial "was not supported by facts." The facts included the substantial evidence and eyewitness testimony provided by informants in the CPUSA.

So, it is fair to say that Howard Zinn was a member of the Communist Party of the U.S. (CPUSA) and that he had not been truthful all these years in order to hide his real background.

He mislead his readers and the public about his background and life's activities. This provides additional context to his writings and viewpoint.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 1, 2010 4:01:48 PM PDT
R. Bartlett says:
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