Howard Zinn or Paul Johnson:
Which Author´s Story Makes Better Sense of the History of the United States?
Dear Board of Trustees,
As you know, during the last couple of years, the United States has been dealing with a serious problem: the steep decline in historical knowledge and analytical skills among young Americans. As this development poses several threats to the well-being of our society, the National Council on History Education (NCHE) has been charged with finding a solution to this problem. After a few meetings, NCHE staffers came up with the promising approach to establish local history book readings led by unemployed English majors. The only problem with this approach is that the NCHE was in disagreement about which history book should be read and discussed at these local meetings, as there is no single history of the United States but several different stories of it. After numerous additional meetings, staffers were able to narrow down the choice to two alternatives: Howard Zinn´s A People´s History of the United States and Paul Johnson´s A History of the American People. Yesterday, at their final meeting, NCHE members in charge of this project agreed on recommending Paul Johnson´s A History of the American People to the Board of Trustees. But before I tell you which reasons led to this decision, let me use the following lines to give you some general information about Howard Zinn and Paul Johnson as well as their respective works.
Howard Zinn, an American historian, author, left-wing activist, playwright, and intellectual, was born August 24, 1922, in New York City as a son of Jewish immigrants. Greatly influenced by the writings of Karl Marx, he later became a supporter (and in some cases even an active member) of many socialist/communist organizations, labor unions, and social movements like the civil rights movement or the anti-war movement (Powell). Recently released FBI files on Howard Zinn suggest that he also was an active member of the Communist Party of the United States. Zinn himself described his political stance as “something of an anarchist, something of a socialist. Maybe a democratic socialist” (Galvin, and Morse). When Zinn died January 27, 2010, he bequeathed numerous writings on historical and political issues, which are all strongly influenced by his leftist/neo-Marxist ideology. One of Zinn´s most famous works, A People´s History of the United States, has gone into more than 25 printings and has been sold more than one million times by now (Galvin, and Morse). As the title of the book suggests, it seeks to present American history through the eyes of the common people rather than political and economic elites. Zinn´s intention in A People´s History of the United States is to re-shape the perception of the history of the United States by pointing to the flaws in the traditional heroes (Columbus, Lincoln, Roosevelt, etc.) and therefore uniting the American people in a movement for fundamental change. Zinn himself summarizes the main point of his book in the following way:
“It [ A People´s History of the United States ] is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people´s movements of resistance. That makes it a biased account, one that leans in a certain direction. I am not troubled by that, because the mountain of history books under which we all stand leans so heavily in the other direction […] that
we need some counterforce to avoid being crushed into submission” (631).
Hence, Zinn´s story of the United States´ history fits the pattern which historians call “the people vs. the elites” (some might argue that it is close to a “gory story”), which describes the American history as a permanent struggle of the common people to fight their oppressive political and economic leaders. I will explain later why this approach did not seem convincing to most of the NHCE members. At this point, let me first provide you with some general information about Paul Johnson as well as his interpretation of the United States´ history, which he presents in his book A History of the American People.
Paul Johnson (born November 2, 1928, in Manchester) is an English historian, journalist, speechwriter, and author. Born and raised in England, he became a member of the Labor Party in 1953. Johnson was a prominent member of the British political left for almost 25 years, as he, for example, served on the New Statesman, Britain´s leading left-wing political journal. But over the years, he alienated more and more from the political left. This finally led to Johnson´s public resignation from the Labor Party in 1977, which he compared to Mussolini´s Fascist Party at that time. In the aftermath of those events, Johnson embraced more conservative ideas and finally became a staunch supporter of Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative Party (“A Leading Journalist Quits British Labor”). Since then, Johnson wrote numerous articles for right-wing magazines like The Spectator and Standpoint, and he made his voice heard on various political issues. Thus, many of Johnson´s later books are strongly influenced by his conservative ideology. One example is his classical work A History of the American People, which quickly became a bestseller. In this book, Johnson intends to answer three questions:
“First, can a nation rise above the injustices of its origins and, by its moral purpose and performance, atone for them? [… Second,] in the process of nation-building, can ideals and altruism […] be mixed successfully with acquisitiveness and ambition, without which no dynamic society can be built at all? […] Thirdly, the Americans originally aimed […] to be a role model for the entire planet. Have they made good
their audacious claims?” (3).
After looking at 400 years of American history, Johnson answers all three questions with “yes”. On the last page of his A History of the American People, it says:
“It is appropriate to end this story of the American people on a note of success […]. America today […] is a human achievement without parallel. […] As we have seen, many unresolved problems, some of daunting size, remain. But the Americans are, above all, a problem-solving people. […] The great American republican experiment is still the […] best hope for the human race. Looking back on its past, and forward to
its future, the auguries are that it will not disappoint an expectant humanity” (976).
Thus, Johnson´s story of the United States´ history fits the pattern historians call “high ideals, mixed results” (some might argue it is close to a “glory story”), which describes the American history as one of good intentions which have not always led to good outcomes. For various reasons, this pattern seemed more convincing to the NHCE than the “the people vs. the elites”-approach embraced by Zinn. Let me use the following lines to explain these reasons to you.
First, Zinn fails at living up to the title of his book, as he is not able to present a real “people´s history”. His book is not describing the history of the American people, not even of the majority of the people, but of the minority of the people. Zinn´s book reads like a sequence of rebellions of different social groups/minorities, what makes A People´s History of the United States not only very incomplete but also irksome to read. One might argue in defense of Zinn that it is not his intention to cover the history of the whole American people, as he states in his book: “As for the subtitle of this book, it is not quite accurate; a ‘people´s history’ promises more than any one person can fulfill, and it is the most difficult kind of history to recapture. I call it that anyway because, with all its limitations, it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people´s movements of resistance” (631). However, are the men and women who are part of the government not also part of the American people? And does the opinion and fate of the masses not also deserve to be covered by a history of the United States? By only portraying the history of resistant/rebellious minorities, Zinn sometimes makes it look like these minority groups were actually the majority, and they were only unable to achieve change because of the oppressive elites. But this is certainly not the case, as, for example, most Americans were in favor of the Vietnam War most of the time (Lunch, and Sperlich). Michael Kammen, a history professor at Cornell University and reviewer for the Washington Post Book World, puts this critique of A People´s History of the United States in a nutshell:
“Not only does the book read like a scissors and paste-pot job, but even less attractive, so much attention to historians, historiography and historical polemic leaves precious little space for the substance of history. […] We do deserve a people's history; but not a simpleminded history, too often of fools, knaves and Robin Hoods. We need a judicious people's history because the people are entitled to have their history whole; not
just those parts that will anger or embarrass them” (Kammen).
On the other side, Johnson does a way better job at covering the history of the whole American people. He might also miss out on some important parts (for example his abridged description of the civil rights movement), but to a far lesser extent than Zinn does. That makes Johnson´s book not only more complete but also more enjoyable to read, as it appears more fluent and all of a piece than Zinn´s one, which reads like a sequence of different social movements and quotations related to them.
Second, the evidence Zinn uses to support his claims is often not convincing. That makes some of his arguments seem unreasonable. How are we at the NHCE supposed to take Zinn´s claims seriously, if he cannot back them up with credible sources? What´s even worse is that, in some cases, his sources are just bogus. For example, in one chapter of A People´s History of the United States, Zinn is trying to talk down the achievements of President Reagan: “In the dozen years from 1977 to 1789, the before-tax income of the richest 1 percent rose 77 percent; meanwhile, for the poorest two-fifths of the population, there was no gain at all, indeed a small decline” (581). What Zinn overlooks (or deliberately ignores) here is the fact that Reagan came to office in 1981, which means that his policies had their first effects by 1983. In the aftermath of Reagan´s presidency, the before-tax income of the poorest two-fifths had in fact increased. This is no solitary case, but there is a general problem with the evidence provided in Zinn´s work, as Oscar Handlin, a Harvard University historian, writes in his review of A People´s History of the United States:
"Hence the deranged quality of this fairy tale, in which the incidents are made to fit the legend, no matter how intractable the evidence of American history. It may be unfair to expose to critical scrutiny a work patched together from secondary sources, many used uncritically (Jennings, Williams), others ravaged for material torn out of context (Young, Pike). Any careful reader will perceive that Zinn is a stranger to evidence bearing upon the people about whom he purports to write. But only critics who know the sources will recognize the complex array of devices that pervert his pages. […] On the other hand, the book conveniently omits whatever does not fit its overriding thesis”
In contrast, the great majority of the evidence provided by Johnson seems highly convincing and is very suitable for backing up his arguments. There are some cases where the credibility of his sources is doubtful as well (Maier), but there is no general problem with the evidence in A History of the American People like there is in Zinn´s book. Thus, Johnson´s arguments seem more feasible and convincing than Zinn´s.