Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present has always been a controversial book. We are taught as young students that history is made by monarchs, emperors, presidents, generals and industrialists who created the modern world, the only world that can be. The overwhelming majority of humanity is putty shaped by these great men, and we should all be grateful for what they have bestowed upon us.
Professor Zinn’s work is a direct challenge to such narratives, illuminating the struggles of ordinary people against the dominant classes through long periods of history and the violence that accompanies the creation and maintenance of institutional inequality. The potent challenge that People’s History represents more than 30 years after its first printing is demonstrated by a vitriolic attack on it published in the magazine of the American Federation of Teachers, American Educator.
The article, “Undue Certainty,” was brought to my attention by a dedicated New York City high school teacher who is not confident that the AFT will publish a response. The author of the article, Sam Wineburg, could not long maintain his mask of neutrality despite his attempts to root his challenge in a supposed concern for “balance.” A perusal of Professor Wineburg’s curriculum vitae shows no obvious ideological slant, and I shall not attempt to assign him one. Moreover, he took pains to write from a centrist position. Nonetheless, his false equivalences between Right and Left ultimately ring hollow, and his assertions that he is standing up to the “dominant narrative” of People’s History badly at odds with reality.
After acknowledging that traditional school textbooks “too often” hide the history of ordinary soldiers and everyday people, Professor Wineburg’s first critique is that People’s History “is naked of footnotes,” similar to traditional textbooks. It is true that direct footnotes aren’t used, but People’s History contains 18 pages of references, grouped by chapter, and often provides sources in the text, so it is not difficult to find relevant sources.
Questioning the questioning of World War II
The core of Professor Wineburg’s argument centers on a critique of “A People’s War?,” People’s History’s chapter on World War II and the beginnings of the Cold War. (Professor Wineburg uses the 2003 HarperCollins edition while my copy is the 1995 edition, so the page numbers I will cite will vary a bit from those cited in the American Educator article.) The professor begins his critique of the chapter by pouring cold water on the questions raised by Professor Zinn concerning African-American attitudes toward the war, although he does acknowledge that the Black press wrote about the “Double V” — victory over fascism in Europe and over racism in the United States.
Professor Wineburg asserts that Professor Zinn “hangs his claim on [only] three pieces of evidence” — a quote from a Black journalist, a quote from a student and a poem published in the Black press [page 28]. It is strongly implied that these were lone unrepresentative voices. But Professor Wineburg leaves out that the student quote was was read to a crowd of “several thousand people in the Midwest,” according to People’s History, and was met with loud and sustained applause, to the “surprise and dismay” of the NAACP leader who is directly quoted. [page 410]
Moreover, Professor Zinn immediately follows those examples with these two sentences: “But there was no organized Negro opposition to the war. In fact, there was little organized opposition from any source,” save for a handful of very small socialist, anarchist and pacifist groups [page 411]. A page later, the book states, “Public opinion polls show[ed] large majorities of soldiers favoring the draft for the postwar period.” These passages are hardly consistent with Professor Wineburg’s contention that Professor Zinn one-sidedly declares that the U.S. seethed with hostility toward the war.
Professor Wineburg then complains that the number of conscientious objectors was not only low, but that Black C.O.s were proportionally fewer than White C.O.s. He simply uses the raw numbers in these categories without making any attempt to analyze them, an irony when a primary accusation against People’s History is that it is too simplistic. I am not an expert on World War II and am in no position to issue judgments, but a reasonable analysis would take into account the fact that Blacks consistently faced much harsher punishments than Whites, perhaps dampening the willingness to act on ambivalences toward the war. We might also consider the racism that would have made it more difficult for a Black objector to be granted C.O. status by White decision-makers.
Any analysis would surely have to contend with the fact that, as People’s History does but Professor Wineburg does not, the World War I-era espionage act criminalizing dissent was still on the books and the Smith Act passed in 1940 made criticism of the war effort illegal. These acts, while applied ruthlessly against Left critics of the wars, likely would have come down especially hard on African-Americans who publicly objected and wielded as racist object lessons. Would this not have an effect?
War aims and the decision to drop the atomic bomb
Professor Wineburg continues his critique of the World War II chapter by complaining that Professor Zinn asks “yes-no” and “either-or” questions [pages 29-30]. People’s History does ask big questions, but that is rather the point. The book openly asks if an Allied victory would deliver a blow to imperialism and if U.S. post-war policies would match the country’s stated ideals and values. Considering post-war McCarthyism, continued Jim Crow laws and the forcing of women back into the home, these hardly seem irrelevant questions.
Despite ample evidence of hostility to change by the country’s rulers, it is difficult not to conclude that Professor Wineburg is offended by the mere asking of these questions. People’s History presents a long series of evidence of the true U.S. goals of economic dominance covering five pages, backed by quotations directly from U.S. government archives [pages 401-405]. Some of the documents reveal that officials explicitly told Allied governments they would be allowed to keep their colonies.
The U.S. has a long history of interventions in other countries, often to directly benefit U.S. corporations. The U.S. intervened militarily almost 100 times in Latin America alone before 1970 and has a long history of overthrowing governments not to its liking. Does this history truly have no relevance to an analysis of U.S. war aims in World War II? It should not be controversial that the first world war was fought for imperial gains and colonies, nor that a struggle between the U.S. and Germany to be the successor to Britain’s declining world dominance was a factor in early 20th century foreign affairs. World War II did in fact end with the Allies dividing the world among themselves, nor did the Allies exert themselves to stop the Holocaust.
Professor Wineburg is certainly entitled to draw different conclusions than Professor Zinn, but his accusation that People’s History asks one-sided questions to pre-determined answers itself appears to be pre-determined. Professor Wineburg’s subtle contention that Professor Zinn gives insufficient credit to the Allies’ supposed zeal to defend Jews is complemented with a more direct accusation that People’s History fails to acknowledge the suffering of Poles. As I am Slavic and a Marxist intellectual, I need no lectures on Nazi barbarism; I am painfully aware of what the Nazis did to people like me in the Mauthausen death camp. I doubt Professor Zinn needed such lectures, either. Nonetheless, Professor Wineburg writes:
“Zinn is silent about Poland. Instead, he approvingly cites Simone Weil, the French philosopher and social activist. At a time when the Einsatzgruppen were herding Polish Jews into the forest and mowing them down before open pits, Weil compared the difference between Nazi fascism and the democratic principals of England and the United States to a mask hiding the true character of both. … Zinn adds that the real struggle of World War II was not between nations, but rather that the ‘real war was inside each nation.’ Given his stance, it’s no wonder that Zinn chooses to begin the war not in 1939, but a full year later.” [page 30]
That is a heavy charge. Did Professor Weil really say that? When we examine the relevant passage, we find that what she wrote was rather more subtle; neither she nor Professor Zinn is quoted accurately. Here is the relevant passage in People’s History:
“A few voices continued to insist that the real war was inside each nation: Dwight Macdonald’s wartime magazine Politics presented, in early 1945, an article by the French worker-philosopher Simone Weil: ‘Whether the mask is labelled Fascism, Democracy, or Dictatorship of the Proletariat, our great adversary remains the Apparatus — the bureaucracy, the police, the military. … No matter what the circumstances, the worst betrayal will always be to subordinate ourselves to this Apparatus, and to trample underfoot, in its service, all human values in ourselves and in others.’ ” [page 412]
There are no direct comparisons of countries. Reasonable minds can disagree with Professor Weil’s anti-authoritarian stance or her imagery, but her writing unmistakably is a cri de coeur for democratic values to be honored, an end to oppression everywhere and for people to have control over their lives. That is not unreasonable. Jim Crow and racism was enforced with state-sponsored and -enabled terrorism across the U.S. South, women could hardly be said to have attained equality even if their labor was needed for the war effort and all sorts of national hatreds coursed through the populations of all belligerents.
That the evil of Nazi Germany was a unique menace that had to be eliminated is not an excuse for Allied countries not to take stock of themselves. No Allied country was anywhere near as cruel as the Nazi régime — but is that the bar we wish to set for ourselves?
Finally, Professor Wineburg addresses Professor Zinn’s contention that Japan was seeking to negotiate a surrender in the months before the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that it was not necessary to drop them as the dominant narrative has consistently maintained. The complaint here is that Professor Zinn relies on “the two defining texts of the revisionist school, Gar Alperovitz’s Atomic Diplomacy (1967) and Martin Sherwin’s A World Destroyed (1975).” But Professor Zinn also quotes from U.S. government documents that are based on interviews with “hundreds” of Japanese civilian and military leaders, and also notes that the U.S. had broken Japanese codes, revealing that Japanese leaders were talking of surrender.
Moreover, Atomic Diplomacy has a “selected bibliography” of 28 pages and A World Destroyed supports itself with more than 100 pages of notes, sources and documents. It is rather difficult to argue that these books are not well sourced. Nonetheless, Professor Wineburg rests his case on his disbelief that the Japanese had any intention to surrender. He writes:
“The Japanese had been courting the still-neutral [in the Pacific theater] Soviets for months, with airy proposals containing scant details about surrender terms. In fact, as late as June 1945, their backs to the wall and all hope seemingly lost, the Japanese were still trying to barter with the Soviets, going so far as to offer Manchuria and southern Karafuto in exchange for the oil needed to stave off an American invasion.” [page 31]
Is it really so remarkable that the Japanese were maneuvering to avoid a surrender they were becoming reconciled to, even if they had only the slimmest of hopes? This passage “proves” that Japan was willing to try anything to avoid a surrender, not that they were definitively determined to fight on no matter what. For a critic so quick to accuse Professor Zinn of “undue certainty” in the support of a preferred narrative, Professor Wineburg appears to be the one rather casual with documentation.
Is it really ‘neutrality’ that is the issue?
Having built up a head of steam, Professor Wineburg perhaps does not realize the extent to which he reveals an agenda, and not merely disapproval of conclusions supposedly too strong. In different passages, he issues these harsh judgments on People’s History:
“It is here that Zinn’s undeniable charisma becomes educationally dangerous, especially when we become attached to his passionate concern for the underdog. … Instead of encouraging us to think, such a history teaches us how to jeer. … A history of unalloyed certainties is dangerous because it invites a slide into intellectual fascism.” [pages 33-34]
Wow! “Intellectual fascism”? What purpose is the use of such invective by someone who has spent pages claiming to be above any partisan scholarship? The purpose is to dismiss out of hand any real critique of the modern capitalist state and its workings. Professor Wineburg’s lines of attack demonstrate that he identifies strongly with these dominant powers. It is not uncommon for a person with such an identification to react with fury when patterns of domination are challenged because such patterns are so deeply woven into the fabric of society. Here is how he dismisses People’s History:
“Zinn remains popular not because he is timely but precisely because he’s not. A People’s History speaks directly to our inner Holden Caulfield. Our heroes are shameless frauds, our parents and teachers conniving liars, our textbooks propagandistic slop. Long before we could Google accounts of a politician’s latest indiscretion, Zinn offered a national ‘gotcha.’ They’re all phonies is a message that never goes out of style.” [page 33]
So there we have it. How dare Howard Zinn question our great country and its great institutions! There is no reason for anyone to complain, so he writes only to indulge a childish desire to poke people in the eye and only the immature could possibly follow him. Sam Wineburg may have convinced himself that he has “exposed” Howard Zinn, but he has exposed only his own desire to guard the honor of the powerful and keep them safe from criticism.
People’s History is an attempt to write people into the history that they lived. Professor Wineburg’s illogical contention that the Right’s efforts to erase people from history — the ideological re-writing of history in school textbooks in Texas and the elimination of Mexican-American studies in Tucson, Arizona, are merely two of the most recent efforts — is equivalent to the pioneering work of Professor Zinn is unworthy of an educator. And far less removed from such ideologically inspired erasures of history than he would like to believe.