Friday, November 2, 2018

A People's History of the United States


The late Howard Zinn’s unique take on American history grew out of the importance of social movements, with President Lyndon Johnson, for instance, not advancing civil rights alone, and Zinn notes that mainstream history tends to be told from the perspective of government leaders. Some see his chronicle as either optimistic or pessimistic (with this reviewer more believing the latter), the author definitely not hesitant to express his antiwar beliefs. There are some things that he omits or overlooks, such as the arrival of Vikings in the Americas centuries before Columbus, and the eugenics movement in the U.S., but his book definitely has wide appeal.

Zinn opens his history by mentioning that the Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were akin to the indigenous tribes on the American mainland, remarkable for their hospitality, their belief in sharing. When he arrived in the New World, Christopher Columbus was desperate to seek gold, taking some of the natives by force and wanting to get to the Far East. Spain had recently become unified, Turks controlled land routes to Asia, and a sea route was consequentially necessary. While some suggest that Columbus and his successors brought civilization to the New World, great civilizations comparable to those in Europe and Asia had arisen in the Americas, and Columbus’s landing sparked a heavy death toll among the indigenous populations.

The author soon moves on the issue of black slavery in the Americas, which explains perpetual racism within the United States. By the year 1619, a million negroes had already been transported from Africa to South America and the Caribbean, to the Portuguese and Spanish colonies, to work as slaves, with Zinn noting the origins of slavery and their conditions. Planters feared slave revolts, and that whites would join them, thus teaching slaves submission, and the writer indicates many conditions that brought about the enslavement of the black man such as starvation of white settlers and black helplessness.

A century before the American Revolution began and when Virginia witnessed its establishment, the colony faced an insurrection of white frontiersmen joined by slaves and servants so serious that the governor fled burning Jamestown, and England sent a thousand soldiers across the Atlantic to keep order among the forty thousand colonists. This was Bacon’s Rebellion, which, from the governor’s testimony, had the overwhelming support of Virginia’s population, indentured servitude being a sort of form of white slavery. Aristocracy arose in the Americas prior to the Revolution, with other skirmishes such as a bread riot in Boston on May 19, 1713.

Around 1776, several luminaries within the English colonies discovered something that would prove useful, that by birthing the United States, they could seize land, profits, and political power from the favorites of the British Empire. After 1763, England proved victorious over France in the Seven Years’ War, known in the Americas as the French and Indian War, expelling the French from North America, thus rendering them no longer a threat to ambitious colonial leaders, who had only the English and the Indians, the latter termed “merciless savages” by the U.S. Declaration of Independence, and largely ignored the great inequality of wealth at the time.

The colonists’ victory over the British proved possible due to the former already being heavily-armed, and during the conflict, slavery got in the way in the South, with the poor being reluctant participants in the insurrection. Factors such as economics and Shays’ Rebellion led to the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, although the rich and poor division proved a perpetual problem in democratic society, and classes in America remained largely intact. Furthermore, Zinn indicates that despite the Bill of Rights forbidding Congress from infringing on freedoms such as speech, the Sedition Act of 1798 passed by the legislature did just that.

Zinn further indicates that history tends to forget females, with most history told from a male perspective, despite the presence of matriarchal civilizations in the past and the rare female rebels such as Anne Hutchinson. Feminism arose in the early nineteenth century, with women working in places such as textile factories and largely monopolizing the teaching profession, striking a few times, and even joining the abolitionist movement whilst advocating their own rights. Another chapter he dedicates towards Indian Removal and the Trail of Tears to clear the way for the expansion of slavery in the South and railroads throughout the country.

The expansionist President James Polk yearned for more American territory, ultimately inciting the Mexican-American War, with abolitionists and some Whigs opposing the conflict, among them being future President Abraham Lincoln, Zinn indicating a long line of U.S. atrocities during the clash. The United States won the war and more slave states, with the country as a whole becoming addicted to slavery, occasional rebellions and laws against whites fraternizing with blacks arising. Radical abolitionist John Brown knew that bloodshed would resolve the slavery issue, with Lincoln being a crafty politician given his equivocation on the slavery issue and black equality, and conditions for the freedmen not improving much after the Civil War.

Zinn writes of another civil war within America, with the anti-Renter movement in the Hudson Valley spawning in 1839, serving as a protest against the patroonship system back in the 1600s when the Dutch ruled New York. On the eve of the Civil War itself, he further writes, it was money and profit, not the abolitionist movement, that was well within the minds of those who ran the country, with unions striking repeatedly throughout the nineteenth century, even during the divisive conflict, the rich able to avoid military service thanks to the Conscription Act of 1863.

After the Civil War, industrial and political elites in the North and South would organize great economic growth, amidst socialist influence and the occasional terrorism of anarchists, the Populist movement arising and gaining ground in politics. Zinn goes on to write unfavorably about America’s perpetual involvement in foreign affairs, with around 103 such incidents between 1798 and 1895, many politicians like Theodore Roosevelt wanting American to expand its influence, leading to the Spanish-American War and a separate conflict to acquire The Philippines, with labor unions polarized and blacks largely opposing due to their continued lack of freedom following slavery’s abolition.

Socialists would spread influence across American in the early twentieth century, writers such as Upton Sinclair and other “muckrakers,” the whistleblowers of the time, indicating high mortality in various occupations, Sinclair himself writing about the meatpacking industry. Zinn indicates that the eventual Great War, retroactively named World War I, would not show any general gains for humanity other than the redrawing of boundaries. Labor union strikes continued during the conflict, and communist theology would permeate the thought of many within the United States, given the recent rise of the Soviet Union.

Zinn eventually gets to the Second World War, which he indicates was one of the most popular and widely-supported conflicts in the world’s history, given its supposed lack of imperialistic intent, although he notes that economics was the chief concern of the conflict. Although America allied with the Soviet Union during World War II, they would quickly become adversaries, with the former supporting dictatorships across the world in the name of anti-communism, the military-industrial conflict largely taking hold, and Presidents such as JFK not changing this much. Furthermore, the author notes that even if nuclear war were to erupt, it wouldn’t be world-shattering, according to some researchers.

Howard Zinn dedicates a chapter towards the black revolts of the 1950s and 1960s and their passionate contributions to the arts, with the American government reluctant to help those who fought for freedom. He is especially critical of the Vietnam War, indicating the eventual backlash against the conflict and the unpopularity of the U.S.-supported South Vietnam government. In the meantime, women would continue to gain ground in the work force, and prison rebellions would sometimes arise, heralding the need for reform. He highlights an occupation by Native Americans of Alcatraz Island on November 9, 1969, and the minority indigenous population’s contribution to the arts as well.

Trust in the federal government would lesson due to the Watergate scandal, with fewer Americans participating in elections, and Richard Nixon’s successors Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter not changing much. Zinn suggests that most Presidents of the latter half of the twentieth century were apathetic towards grounds such as the poor, and highlights minor resistance to popular military engagements such as the Persian Gulf War and advocation of nuclear disarmament. Furthermore, he indicates that the collapse of the Soviet Union was not due to America’s military might, but gradual over decades.

Zinn is equally critical of the presidency of Bill Clinton, which he indicates made many concessions to the Republican Congress, and the current “War on Terrorism,” indicating past examples where meeting terrorists with military force had just bred more bloodshed. He concludes with an afterward that states his wife was one reason why he wrote the book, further indicating the lack of mention of the massacres of nonwhites by mainstream history books. He ends with a humorous anecdote that Canadians wanted to do an animated series based on his chronicle, and credits generations of scholars with the production of his history book.

Overall, this was definitely an eye-opening narrative of many untold stories in America’s history that effectively transcends political boundaries and tells of the country’s chronicles from the perspective of the most underprivileged groups in American society such as the poor and nonwhites. It’s certainly by no means a perfect chronicle, given the author’s lack of mention of things such as the Vikings’ pre-Colombian adventure into the Americas and the eugenics movement that would find foreign influence in places such as Nazi Germany, but those skeptical of the U.S. as a whole, foreign and domestic, will likely find something to celebrate in this book.

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