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A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn

Or, the classic American tradition of wanting a bold program of social reconstruction but not being willing to cut the military budget or super tax the super rich to pay for it.

An open book, eyeglasses, and a cup of coffee.
Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash


Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2003. Introduction copyright 2015. Originally published in 1980.

This is a good book, and I’m glad I read it. It’s also a big long book, and I’m not sure how to sum up my thoughts on it. I think I’ll try to articulate what I perceived to be the book’s main ideas, and then I’ll review some of the recurrent themes.

Main Ideas

  1. Mainstream histories suck. They obscure our understanding of the past and serve to indoctrinate us and make us passive, often with and through patriotism. A corrective, a People’s History, is needed.
  2. So much of the history of the United States is a history of elites struggling against the majority, trying to keep the majority fighting among itself and identifying with the elites rather than with each other. When the elites to admit change, it is because it is the smallest possible change that still permits them to maintain control.
  3. The political systems and institutions of the US defend the interests of the elite.
  4. When change happens, it is because the people, working together, force it.
  5. In the post-WWII era, the US is tragically committed to funding its massive military and not taxing the super rich at super high rates, which undermines our ability to invest in peace and in people.

Featuring American Classics, such as

  1. “the easy acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress” (9)
  2. It’s a “defensive” war, we swear.
    • “Jackson began raids into Florida, arguing it was a sanctuary for escaped slaves and for marauding Indians. Florida, he said, was essential to the defense of the United States. It was that classic modern preface to a war of conquest. Thus began the Seminole War of 1818, leading to the American acquisition of Florida. It appears on classroom maps politely as “Florida Purchase, 1819”—but it came from Andrew Jackson’s military campaign across the Florida border, burning Seminole villages, seizing Spanish forts, until Span was “persuaded” to sell. He acted, he said, by the “immutable laws of self-defense.”” (129)
    • “Polk spoke of the dispatch of American troops to the Rio Grande as a necessary measure of defense. As John Schroeder says (Mr. Polk’s War): “Indeed, the reverse was true; President Polk had incited war by sending American soldiers into what was disputed territory, historically controlled and inhabited by Mexicans.”“(152)
    • “a White House conference two weeks before Pearl Harbor anticipated a war and discussed how it should be justified.” (411)
  3. Hey poor people, come fight and die for me, and I’ll make you rich and famous.
    • “Here was the traditional device by which those in charge of any social order mobilize and discipline a recalcitrant population—offering the adventure and rewards of military service to get poor people to fight for a cause they may not see clearly as their own.” (78)
    • “We know much more about the American army—volunteers, not conscripts, lured by money and opportunity for social advancement via promotion in the armed forces.” (160)
    • “There were extravagant promises and outright lies to build up the volunteer units.” (161)
    • The rich could avoid service, of course (235-237)
  4. War is actually good and safe, so long as you’re in the elite.
    • “Ruling elites seem to have learned through generations—consciously or not—that war makes them more secure against internal trouble.” (79)
    • “The psychology of patriotism, the lure of adventure, the aura of moral crusade created by political leaders, worked effectively to dim class resentments against the rich and powerful, and turn much of the anger against ‘the enemy.’” (237)
    • “And always, as a way of drowning class resentment in a flood of slogans for national unity, there was patriotism. […] The supreme act of patriotism was war.” (295)
    • “The mixed reactions of labor to the war—lured by economic advantage, yet repelled by capitalist expansion and violence—ensured that labor could not unite either to stop the war or to conduct class war against the system at home.” (317-318)
    • “American capitalism needed international rivalry—and periodic war—to create an artificial community of interest between the rich and poor, supplanting the genuine community of interest among the poor that showed itself in sporadic movements.” (363-364)
    • “The coming of World War II weakened the old labor militancy of the thirties because the war economy created millions of new jobs at higher wages. The New Deal had succeeded only in reducing unemployment from 13 million to 9 million. It was the war that put almost everyone to work, and the war did something else: patriotism, the push for unity of all classes against enemies overseas, made it harder to mobilize anger against the corporations. During the war, the CIO and AFL pleged to call no strikes.” (402)
  5. Bipartisanship for war.
    • “Congress now appropriated money for a war against the Seminoles. In the Senate, Henry Clay of Kentucky opposed the war; he was an enemy of Jackson, a critic of Indian removal. But his Whig colleague Daniel Webster displayed that unity across party lines which became standard in American wars” (145)
    • “Through the war, as Schroeder says, ‘the politically sensitive Whig minority could only harry the administration with a barrage of verbiage while voting for every appropriation which the military campaigns required.’” (153) (reminds me of Democrats in the 2000s)
    • “The liberals in the government were themselves acting to exclude, persecute, fire, and even imprison Communists. It was just that McCarthy had gone too far, attacking not only Communists but liberals, endangering that broad liberal-conservative coalition which was considered essential.” (431)
    • the Democratic Party during the Gulf War: “It went along with the Bush administration. It was pleased with the results. It had some misgivings about civilian casualties. But it did not constitute an opposition.” (600)
  6. Look! We’re bringing you democracy! Aren’t we great? Totally worth this war.
    • “Accompanying all this aggressiveness was the idea that the United States would be giving the blessings of liberty and democracy to more people. This was intermingled with ideas of racial superiority, longings for the beautiful lands of New Mexico and California, and thoughts of commercial enterprise across the Pacific.” (154)
  7. There was actually a lot of racism behind the war, go figure (157, 436)
  8. Selective enforcement and biased/elitist/racist interpretations of the laws.
    • “We see then, in the first years of the Constitution, that some of its provisions—even those paraded most flamboyantly (like the First Amendment)—might be treated lightly. Others (like the power to tax) would be powerfully enforced.” (101) See 100-101 for more.
    • “It was the national government which, while weakly enforcing the law ending the slave trade, sternly enforced the laws providing for the return of fugitives to slavery.” (186)
    • “In the thirty years leading up the the Civil War, the law was increasingly interpreted in the courts to suit the capitalist development of the country.” (239) Examples: contract law, health and safety laws.
    • “Meanwhile, the Supreme Court, despite its look of somber, black-robed fairness, was doing its bit for the ruling elite. […] Early in the nineteenth century the Court laid the legal basis for a nationally regulated economy by establishing federal control over interstate commerce, and the legal basis for corporate capitalism by making the contract sacred.” (260) See 260-261 for more on trusts and the 14th amendment being used to protect corporations (corporate personhood) instead of African Americans.
    • “Truman could have issued executive orders in other areas, but did not. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, plus the set of laws passed in the late 1860s and early 1870s, gave the President enough authority to wipe out racial discrimination.” (449)
    • “The first person prosecuted under the Civil Rights Act of 1968 was a young black leader of SNCC, H. Rap Brown, who had made a militant, angry speech in Maryland, just before a racial disturbance there.” (461)
    • “Evidence was piling up that even with all of the civil rights laws now on the books, the courts would not protect blacks against violence and injustice” (462)
    • “The events of those years underlined what prisoners already sensed—that whatever crimes they had committed, the greatest crimes were being committed by the authorities who maintained the prisons, by the government of the United States. The law was being broken daily by the President, sending bombers to kill, sending men to be killed, outside the Constitution, outside the ‘highest law of the land.’ State and local officials were violating the civil rights of black people, which was against the law, and were not being prosecuted for it.” (518)
  9. I’d love to do that, but I can’t.
    • “So Lincoln distinguished between his ‘personal wish’ and his ‘official duty.’” (191)
    • “Lincoln read the Constitution strictly, to mean that Congress, because of the Tenth Amendment (reserving to the states powers not specifically given to the national government), could not constitutionally bar slavery in the states.” (187)
  10. Using aid money to purchase influence rather than help those most in need.
    • “The United States in 1865 had spent $103,294,501 on public works, but the South received only $9,469,363.” (206)
    • “Meanwhile, the United States, giving economic aid to certain countries, was creating a network of American corporate control over the globe, and building its political influence over the countries it aided.” the Marshall Plan (438)
    • Foreign aid was mostly military aid (569)
    • Foreign aid in the Clinton administration being way too political (657-658)
  11. Reluctant “reform that would not yield too much” (218)
    • “The farmers had fought, been crushed by the law, their struggle diverted into voting, and the system stabilized by enlarging the class of small landowners, leaving the basic structure of rich and poor intact. It was a common sequence in American history.” (214) Related, the two party system as “an ingenious mode of control” (217)
    • Philanthropy and public schooling as ways to maintain order and power and foster patriotism (263)
    • “What was clear in this period to blacks, to feminists, to labor organizers and socialists, was that they could not count on the national government. True, this was the “Progressive Period,” the start of the Age of Reform; but it was a reluctant reform, aimed at quieting the popular risings, not making fundamental changes.” (349)
    • “The federal government was trying—without making fundamental changes—to control an explosive situation, to channel anger into the traditional cooling mechanism of the ballot box, the polite petition, the officially endorsed quiet gathering.” (456-457)
  12. Conducting half-assed investigations simply to cover your ass.
    • “The whole Iran-contra affair became a perfect example of the double line of defense of the American Establishment. The first defense is to deny the truth. If exposed, the second defense is to investigate, but not too much; the press will publicize, but they will not get to the heart of the matter.” (586)
  13. Violating our own laws for national security and foreign policy.
    • “The Iran-contra affair was only one of many instances in which the government of the United States violated its own laws in pursuit of some desired goal in foreign policy.” (588)
    • See 588+ for examples including the Mayaguez affair, Lebanon, and Grenada.
    • (And then ironically we didn’t intervene in El-Salvador because we backed that horrific regime.) (589)
  14. “As so often happens in cases where the government commits murder, the surviving victims were put on trial” post Waco (646)
  15. Choosing military solutions when diplomatic ones are possible.
    • “But it seems that the Clinton administration, like so many before it (Truman in Korea, Johnson in Vietnam, Bush in the Gulf War) chose military solutions when diplomatic ones were possible.” (661)
    • Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo (660-661)
  16. Wanting a “bold program of social reconstruction” but not being willing to cut the military budget or super tax the super rich to pay for it. (663-664)