According to Mary Grabar’s Debunking Howard Zinn, to call Howard Zinn a historian is a misnomer if not a travesty. Yet this is how Zinn, the late author of the best-selling A People’s History of the United States is publicly identified. For over a quarter of a century, his book has been highly influential in shaping Americans’ understanding of the past and made him somewhat of a celebrity. By recent counts, it sold over two million copies and is used in high schools and survey American history courses in colleges throughout the country. Undoubtedly, any historian—no matter how excellent and popular his or her work is—would be jealous of that record. However, as Mary Grabar points out, Zinn had a different project in mind than most historians. As he once wrote, history is “not about understanding the past,” but about “changing the future.” Not one serious historian I know would make such a claim. Given the prominence and influence of Zinn’s book, Mary Grabar’s thoughtful and well-researched critique is most necessary and timely.
After it was published in 1980, Zinn’s book slowly gained popularity among young New Left history professors. By that time, the field of social history with its focus on “history from below” was in ascendance. Unlike traditional political history with its concentration on political and business elites, this approach studied the lives of the hitherto neglected common people including slaves, farmers, industrial workers, immigrants, and women, chronicling their individual and collective struggles to achieve a better life.
Many heralded Zinn as an innovator of “history from below,” but that was not quite true. Zinn had a different take on American history. Grabar traces it back to his Old Left background, which informed his beliefs after he transitioned to the New Left. Although he always denied it, after serving in World War II he became a member of the Communist Party (CPUSA) and was active in its various front groups. But like many CPUSA members and fellow travelers, he had become disillusioned after the revelation of Stalin’s crimes and had left its ranks by the time the New Left and the civil rights movement came on the scene. He also felt the party had become too moderate and insufficiently militant for his own taste.
Zinn, still on the far Left but now politically homeless, saw hope in the 1960s college radicals whom, he wrote, “had no illusion about Reds.” They “have seen Stalinism unmasked…They have watched aggression, subversion and double-dealing engaged in by all sides, West as well as East, ‘free world’ as well as ‘Communist world.’” His position was that of moral equivalence, allowing him to be slightly critical of the Eastern bloc while saving most of his fire for the “imperialist” policies of the United States. In effect, his new interpretation of history amounted to an assault on the United States as the major enemy of the civilized world.
By Zinn’s account, from the very beginning of America’s creation, “the people” never had a chance against its ruling elites and the capitalist system. The only way they could achieve justice would be by carrying out a revolution. It is in that light that we can understand why Zinn’s true heroes are people like the radical and violent abolitionist John Brown and H. Rap Brown, the fifth chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who helped orchestrate a short alliance with The Black Panther Party, of which he became Minister of Justice.
Over the years, there have been substantive critiques of Zinn’s work—the best coming from leftist and liberal historians who have been outraged at how Zinn has turned history into propaganda. These include articles written by such prominent scholars as Michael Kazin, Sam Wineburg, Rick Shenkman, and David Greenberg. Their articles, despite their excellence, never got the wide distribution they deserve and worse, never resonated with their intended audience.
It turns out that a fellow leftist historian, anticipating Zinn’s kind of history, warned against its pitfalls decades before he wrote. Aileen S. Kraditor was then, like Zinn himself, a noted left-wing historian. In 1972, she addressed the faulty methods of many leftist historians, writing in the British Marxist journal Past and Present that a historian ought first and foremost to respect “the pastness of the past.”
She warned New Left historians that they ignore that admonition at their peril. They did not listen to her. Instead, she wrote, they “endeavored to find in American history justifications for and forerunners of their own party or movement” and in fact seem “interested in little else.” To them, history becomes a “cheering section as they root for the same victims or reformers struggling against the same oppressors or interests.” The people always are fighting the elites, and they ignore completely the “consensus about all the values and beliefs that really matter to the maintenance of the established order.” So they focus instead on “our side’s heroism, dedication [and] love for the People—non-historical qualities that they of course see in themselves.” Not even Kraditor, I think, would have predicted that a decade later, a fellow leftist historian would do precisely what she warned about and then some.
America: Founded in Original Zinn?
Grabar first lets the reader know what Zinn argued about various seminal periods in America’s past, and she then proceeds to critique. According to Zinn, America was founded in sin: Christopher Columbus was guilty of genocide against the native population already living in America. Zinn’s charges, she writes, are “a shocking tale of severed hands, raped women, and gentle, enslaved people worked to death to slake the white Europeans’ lust for gold.”
Zinn, she notes, claimed to have been startled himself about his discoveries of the real Columbus, so far removed from the heroic, romantic story beloved for decades by Americans. Today, in part thanks to Zinn, every Columbus Day features scores of attacks on the great explorer and demands to call the holiday “Indigenous Peoples’ Day.” Grabar claims that Zinn most likely never read Columbus’ actual journals, which showed him to be far more complicated and nuanced than Zinn portrays him to be. Moreover, without informing his readers, Zinn lifted directly from a previous book attacking Columbus written by the late writer and filmmaker, Hans Koning. As Grabar notes, Koning was not a historian of any kind, but an activist, fiction writer, and non-fiction polemicist who wrote one of the first books on the Cultural Revolution in China, and the founder, with Noam Chomsky, of RESIST, the anti-war and anti-draft group in the Vietnam War era.
Another example is Zinn’s treatment of the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln was no hero, according to Zinn. He sought only to save the Union, not to put an end to slavery. Lincoln, according to Zinn, was actually responsible for the Civil War, an assessment which ignores the fact that the Southern states fired the first shots at Fort Sumter. Instead, Zinn’s hero was the radical white abolitionist John Brown, who in 1859 led an attack on the Federal armory at Harper’s Ferry. Brown thought this would lead to a slave uprising, but it turned out to be a spectacular failure.
America in the 20th Century: Liberator or Imperial Oppressor?
Turning to the 20th century, Zinn is at his worst. Almost all Americans regard World War II as a necessary war to defeat Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and Fascist Italy, all ruled by either totalitarian leaders or brutal monarchies. However, Zinn does not see the war as a fight for freedom but as an attempt by the world’s imperialist powers, led by the United States, to maintain their world hegemony. His argument, Grabar writes, was to depict the United States as itself no better than the nations Americans were fighting. She quotes Zinn as writing that America’s “main interest was not in stopping fascism but advancing the imperial interests of the United States.”
An interesting irony is that, several decades later, a similar argument would be made by paleoconservative Pat Buchanan in his book Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War. Zinn, undoubtedly, would scorn any linkage with Buchanan, an enemy of all that Zinn believed. Yet, Buchanan’s interpretation of WW II—a war caused, he argued, by America’s imperial goals—is essentially Zinn’s interpretation as well.
Zinn tries to blame organized labor strikes right before and during WW II on labor militancy that could not be contained. Grabar first shows these strikes were limited and of brief duration. She discusses the June 1941 strike of workers at the North American Aviation plant in Inglewood, California and notes that the CPUSA-led union kept other non-strikers from going to work, using threats and actual beatings by union thugs to maintain the strike. President Roosevelt’s decision to send in 2,500 soldiers to restore order and open the factory was greeted with cheers by most of the workers, who wanted the strike ended so that they could return to work. Grabar does not mention that the strike was ordered by the Central Committee of the American Communist Party on Moscow’s orders. Because it took place during the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Stalin wanted to harm war production in the United States. It was not militancy by locals that caused this famous strike, but an order from the Kremlin.
For years, pro-Communist writers and historians have blamed the Cold War on America’s desire to dominate Europe and avoid détente with a peaceful Soviet Union. Zinn, Grabar shows, ignored the very real threat the Soviet Union posed to Western Europe, rooted in Stalin’s desire to dominate it as he did the Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe. Zinn was, Grabar aptly puts it, “a propagandist for the Soviet Union’s ‘peaceful intentions.’”
Similarly, the defeat of the communists in the Greek Civil War, according to Zinn, merely made the country “safe for the flow of ‘investment capital from Esso, Dow Chemical, Chrysler and other U.S. corporations’” and secured “access to oil in the Middle East.” Zinn attributed everything to American business seeking to control the entire world for the sake of profit, ignoring the actual threat to Greece coming from the Soviet Union. Had the communists won, the people of Greece would have suffered the same fate as those of Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and the other so-called “People’s Democracies.”
Finally, in Grabar’s last chapter on Zinn and Vietnam, she writes that his “distorted and anti-American version of the Vietnam War,” (Zinn celebrated Ho Chi Minh’s victory), has become an accepted “truth” to many Americans. Today, the Showtime television documentary by Oliver Stone and historian Peter Kuznick carries on the same interpretation, influencing even more Americans with Zinn’s false revision of our recent past.
Exposing Zinn’s “History” as Polemic
Grabar concludes by asking her readers whether they would allow the text of the British Holocaust denier David Irving to be used in American classrooms. The answer, of course, is a resounding “no” by almost every teacher. Yet today, many willingly use a book that defends the Stalin-era Soviet Union, claims that the American Communist Party was perhaps the leading institution in the fight for African Americans’ civil rights, and portrays Ho Chi Minh and his army as representatives of Vietnamese patriots committed to land reform and democracy.
Mary Grabar has succeeded in writing a fundamental critique of the work of Howard Zinn. Through many examples and by the mechanism of real historical research, she easily proves her case that Howard Zinn is not a truth-teller, but an ideologue posing as a scholar of history. Many of the titles and headings in the book, if approved by Grabar, unfortunately take away from the book’s strength by offering turgid and themselves ideological asides, such as “Black Mascots for a Red Revolution,” and “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh! Howard Zinn and the Commies Win!” Perhaps those on the Right might find these humorous, but if she is seeking to get readers to see her actual arguments, such titles and asides will immediately turn off any serious liberals or leftists willing to give her a chance.
Grabar has done a great service in writing the first serious book exposing Zinn’s scholarship and offering a corrective to his fables. It is unfortunate, however, that her book is not likely to receive the broad audience it deserves. It will likely be read by those who already know Zinn was an ideological partisan who used history to enforce his own political agenda. How better would it have been had a mainstream press undertaken this effort, one willing to buck convention and the publishing industry’s liberal clientele and give the book the chance it needs to effectively confront all those committed to what I call “the Zinning of America.”