Lessons learned from A People's History of the United States

Principal author:
John L. Clark


I recently finished reading A People's History of the United States. In this article, I comment on the impact of this book, including its strong impact on me as well as some of the lessons that I learned about how resistance against oppression can fail.

Towards the end of June (last week, as of this writing), I learned that Howard Zinn died this year, on January 27. Nearly four months after his death, seeking a rich presentation of history, I would start reading A People's History of the United States. Two days after learning of Zinn's death, I finished this book for the first time, and as I then closed it, I nearly wept. Both Zinn's book, and the fact that he is no longer fighting with us, are deeply moving.

As one might expect, when I learned that Zinn had died, I sought out the history of the man behind the history. He learned the horrors of violent warfare directly during World War II. It would appear that he then spent the rest of his life fighting in a war against oppression perpetrated by the United States, using as weapons the following: direct action, personal testimony, and the development of books such as A People's History. If you do not understand the urgent need for waging this war; or if you want to better understand the devastating scope of this oppression; or if you could benefit from the lessons learned, at great cost, about how to fight this war; then you need to read this history book.

The title alone is more provocative than I had expected it to be when I first started reading the book. I was glad for every opportunity that appeared whenever a friend or potential friend would ask me what I was reading. Some would ask what the phrase "A People's History" meant, and there is a very useful and concise (and, of course, biased) answer to that question on the back cover of my edition:

Known for its lively, clear prose as well as its scholarly research, A People's History of the United States is the only volume to tell America's story from the point of view of—and in the words of—America's women, factory workers, African Americans, Native Americans, working poor, and immigrant laborers.

Not having been indoctrinated with a heavy amount of anti-Communist propaganda, I didn't react strongly to the Communist association with the template "people's anything", but it seems like others did. My Dad was clearly taken aback when I showed him the title of the book, and after expressing curiosity and then reading just the first page, my Mom commented grimly, "this doesn't say very good things about us". My response to her then serves well as my response now: neither does the rest of the book. It is, however, a truth that we ought to know, and it is an empowering truth. I am grateful that this book has stimulated many lively and truthful discussions thus far, and I hope that it will contribute to many more in the future.

The war against United States oppression clearly continues. The foundation of the war effort is information, and so the war not only targets ongoing oppression, but it must also address past injustice. In reality, shaping the understanding of history is critical to all war efforts, so it should come as no surprise that this war, too, must account for both past and current conflicts. History itself teaches many lessons about what is necessary for successful resistance, although sadly those lessons are mainly demonstrated by a litany of tragic defeats. We must construct a victory using what we have learned from these defeats, and in this book Zinn provides us with a critical historical framework for doing so.

Some of the lessons that it contains include the following. The enemy is very powerful and broad; in fact, the enemy is rooted in an unjust culture, so to the degree that we contribute to that culture, the enemy is us, and so we must first build a new internal culture. Oppression draws its power from the economic activity of the oppressed, which actually implies that the oppressed can wield that power themselves, although doing so requires working together. Resistance requires general unity; many acts of resistance were defeated due to energy (and lives) wasted on discord (generally because of some form of unjust discrimination). Any resistance must be sustainable, which means it needs to provide its own basic resources, including food and shelter. It is clear that all of these are extremely difficult challenges. We need to contribute work at a variety of levels for the resistance to succeed, and we need to work together. We don't know exactly what measures are sufficient—because injustice still rages throughout the world—although history presents us with some very powerful theories. While Zinn has died, as will we all, his contribution lives on, and it is up to us to choose whether we embrace and build upon that contribution.

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