by Richard Kirk
A People's History of the United States is a one-sided work written from the perspective of a Communist activist that contains a plethora of distortions and outright lies.
If anyone wonders why youngsters today are less patriotic and more inclined toward socialism, they need look no further than the most popular “history” textbook in the United States, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States -- a one-sided work written from the perspective of a Communist activist that contains a plethora of distortions and outright lies. In 2012, the director of the American Textbook Council noted that Zinn’s text had sold two million copies and was the “best-selling survey of American history.” By 2018, it was estimated that the book had sold more than 2.6 million copies.
Mary Grabar’s new book, Debunking Howard Zinn: Exposing the Fake History That Turned a Generation against America (Regnery History) does us the service of exposing the mendacious, non-scholarly character of this work that was praised to the hilt by Zinn’s former Cambridge neighbor, Matt Damon. In Good Will Hunting the film’s protagonist exclaims, “It will knock your socks off!” making an even greater rock star of Zinn and solidifying for impressionable teens the bona fides of a propaganda tome composed in a scant year. Even a sympathetic leftist historian, Michael Kammen, called the book “simpleminded” and a “scissors-and-paste-pot job.” The well-known liberal scholar Arthur Schlesinger was even more critical, labeling Zinn “a polemicist, not a historian.” Grabar herself notes that after his graduate school book on Fiorello La Guardia, Zinn produced not a single piece of historical scholarship until decades later he slapped together his People’s History -- a work that relies overwhelmingly on secondary sources and for which “there is no evidence that Zinn ever actually made extensive notes,” as he claimed, in preparation for its writing.
Grabar provides scores of examples of Zinn’s modus operandi -- one that ignores, distorts, or simply lies about evidence to construct a Manichean portrait of good versus evil as those categories are conceived by a Marxist activist. Zinn’s caricature of Columbus sets the stage for his presentation of American history as a series of holocausts. In one case Zinn quotes Columbus’ diary entries out of context to portray the explorer as a rapacious gold-seeker who wouldn’t be averse to enslaving the island’s primitive inhabitants. To accomplish this goal, Zinn ignores Columbus’ positive comments about “freedom” for the “Arawak” tribe and splices together separate entries that make the explorer appear a nascent slave trader on first viewing the island’s inhabitants. In fact, the damning comments about the natives being “good servants” were made days later and concerned the perspective of a warring tribe intent on subjugating their more docile neighbors. The other side of Zinn’s narrative involves the beatification and Marxification of the Americas’ native population -- a portrait at odds with any objective history of the New World which was filled with wars at least as ubiquitous and violent (including the cannibalism that Zinn omits) as those in “capitalist” Europe!
To top off the lies about Columbus, Grabar shows that a good deal of Zinn’s “scholarship” is plagiarized from a 1976 work by fellow anti-Vietnam War activist Hans Koning, Columbus: His Enterprise: Exploding the Myth. Grabar shows how page after page in Zinn’s history was lifted almost verbatim from Koning’s book. Indeed, “The first five-and-a-half pages of A People’s History of the United States are little more than slightly altered passages from Columbus: His Enterprise.” The secondary kicker is that Koning wasn’t even an historian, much less a Columbus scholar. In fact, Koning’s “slim volume does not cite any sources.” Grabar also reveals additional instances of Zinn’s plagiarism -- one of which was discovered by a leftist professor who didn’t publicize the truth lest it harm their common ideological objectives. So much for professional standards that were applied even to a well-known historian like PBS’s favorite scholar, Doris Kearns Goodwin, who “resigned from her post on the Pulitzer Prize review board and took a ‘leave’ from PBS NewsHour” when parts of her work were found to be plagiarized.
Chapter two of Grabar’s book reviews the life of Zinn as a dedicated Communist activist whose Marxist beliefs and activities spoke louder than any card he may or may not have carried. Chapter three shows how Native Americans are used as props for Zinn’s ongoing Marxist cartoon, with Europeans and Americans forming the necessary oppressive class. As for his account of the Iroquois Indians, it was again largely plagiarized from another patently biased historian, Gary Nash. One critic said the descriptions of this well-known American tribe resembled “California countercultural rebels, defenders of women’s rights, and communist egalitarians...” In Zinn’s telling, any butchery and slavery on the side of oppressed groups (even the Aztecs) is ignored, distorted, or excused. Thus, Zinn’s “history” conforms perfectly to Professor Fred Siegel’s observation about the “New Historians” for whom “American history became a tragedy in three acts: what we did to the Indians, what we did to the African-Americans, and what we did to everyone else.”
Concerning the second act of that tragedy, Zinn somehow manages to blame capitalism for American slavery, though the institution has been around for all of recorded history and still exists in some very noncapitalist African states. He also ignores the fact that only in America, where slavery was said to be the cruelest, were slaves, despite the evils of the institution, able to grow their population through natural increase, something not possible in regions where slaves died or were killed so frequently that only a constant influx of new victims maintained their numbers.
Grabar clearly demonstrates that Zinn takes the orthodox Communist line when discussing any topic: The Founders were more interested in their investments than the welfare of oppressed groups. Lincoln was more a capitalist tool than a president committed to ending slavery -- or a friend to his adviser and later Republican political official, Frederick Douglass. Even World War II was fought to maintain the capitalist system, as was, of course, the Vietnam War, where, according to Zinn, the My Lai massacre was “typical.” Also in the 60s, radical and violent groups like the Black Panthers are given greater attention and more credit for (always inadequate) civil rights progress than traditional groups like the NAACP -- even though the latter organization clearly accomplished more than the former and was supported by blacks (despite Zinn’s insinuations) far more than their violent counterparts.
Earlier in the book -- and also in closing -- Grabar makes a telling point about the duplicity of modern historians by comparing their vigorous denunciation of David Irving’s Holocaust-minimizing work with the plenary indulgences given to Zinn’s unbalanced, unreliable, often-plagiarized volume. Why, she asks, should Zinn’s false American holocaust history not be judged by the same standards that make Irving’s account of Hitler’s crimes totally unacceptable? The obvious answer is that most historians, even those who think Zinn’s book is more propaganda than history, are still sympathetic to the ideology that permeates Zinn’s distorted view of the U.S. -- a sympathy illustrated by their spirited defense of the book whenever official attempts arise to remove it from state-related classrooms. Grabar provides sufficient evidence to make the case that Zinn’s history is every bit as contemptible as Irving’s and should be viewed with equal revulsion. That Zinn in 2004 signed a statement supporting an investigation into a possible 9/11 Bush Administration conspiracy says all one really needs to know about Zinn’s animus toward America. That professional historians, clueless high school teachers, and even Google searches (no surprise) present Zinn’s history as reliable is a big reason many young Americans no longer feel pride in a nation that’s been presented to them through the jaundiced eyes of a Communist who cares not a whit for professional historical standards -- or the truth.
Richard Kirk is a freelance writer living in Southern California whose book Moral Illiteracy: "Who's to Say?" is also available on Kindle
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