“And many false prophets shall rise, and shall seduce many.” Matt. 24:11
A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn is one of the most popular history books of all time. Over two million copies of its various editions have been sold since it was first published in 1980. Amazon’s page for the book contains over 800 customer reviews, and 78% of them give it five stars.
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Howard Zinn – The History Teachers’ Teacher
Anyone who reads a few pages of Dr. Zinn’s book can figure out why it is so popular. It combines readability, simplistic analysis and a sort of “let me tell you the REAL story” quality that appeals to those inclined to see the United States as racist, sexist, and so on.
Someone well versed in U.S. history could sift through its many errors and innuendoes. Unfortunately, far too many of its readers do not have that background.
The Zinn Education Project website assists teachers by distributing free materials for using the book as a text. It contains dozens of glowing teacher comments. Examples include:
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“The Zinn Education Project is my compass in a sea of corporate textbooks, packaged common core curriculum, and standardized testing. My entire curriculum is based on lessons that can be found on the Zinn Education Project.”
“Because of this book, I understood early in my college career the importance of the true, unfiltered words of the actual actors in a historical event.”
“The way in which Howard Zinn makes history compelling for students is undeniable and a resource that I have decided I — and my students — cannot be without.”
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Notice that these teachers express no doubt that Howard Zinn is telling the truth. However, many high school history teachers know little history themselves. For instance, the State of Florida – where this reviewer began his teaching career – only requires six university-level credit hours of United States history to become a certified social studies teacher. Zinn materials appeal most to the young and often overworked, teachers.
On the surface, Zinn’s work is a history teacher’s dream – students enjoy reading it. If the original book proves too difficult, there is even a simplified (and equally biased) version called A Young People’s History of the United States.
In the unlikely event that administrators question the book’s use, the teachers can refer them to Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. There they will find endorsements such as that of the book’s treatment of Columbus. “Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States includes horrific, detailed eyewitness accounts of how the Spanish explorers treated the Native Americans. The Zinn Education Project also includes a bunch of primary sources related to Columbus, such as writings by Bartolomé de La Casas.”
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A Dissenting Voice
Mary Grabar sees the book differently. Her book, Debunking Howard Zinn, reveals its many flaws. She finds some information is provably false, other parts are plagiarized, and much pertinent information is missing. Her most critical contention is that the history book is slanted toward a Marxist and anti-American point of view.
Dr. Grabar is currently a resident fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization. Her work has been published in The Federalist, Townhall, and Academic Questions. She is also one of the founders of the Dissident Prof Education Project.
A Marxist Bias
A reoccurring theme in the Marxist view of history is oppression, which Dr. Zinn constantly exploits. Consider his description of the status of female English settlers. “Societies based on private property and competition … found it especially useful to establish this special status of intimacy and oppression.”1
On the other hand, the Indians – a term he uses with reservations – appear to have been both socialist and feminist. “Earlier societies, in America and elsewhere – in which property was held in common … seemed to treat women more as equals than did the white societies that later overran them, bringing “civilization” and private property.”2
Dr. Grabar also points out errors in The People’s History. Dr. Zinn’s chapter on the Civil War, for example, states that “Lincoln initiated hostilities…” Dr. Grabar replies, “Oh, really? In fact, Confederate forces fired the first shot of the war.”3 Regardless of which side an individual reader may hold responsible for the commencement of hostilities, Dr. Zinn’s implication that Lincoln began the actual shooting is false. However, as Dr. Grabar points out, “Zinn will do anything to make America look bad… giving the American people credit for abolishing slavery… would undermine Zinn’s picture of America as a uniquely racist country.”4
Indeed, Dr. Zinn implies that the United States is not only racist but invented racism. His account of the introduction of African slavery into Virginia in 1619 includes, “In any case, slavery developed into a regular institution…. With it developed that special racist feeling – whether hatred, or contempt, or pity, or patronization – that accompanied the inferior position of blacks in America for the next 350 years – that combination of inferior status and derogatory thought we call racism.”5
Of course, Dr. Grabar proves that neither racism nor African slavery was invented in America. She spelled out the fact that Africans had routinely made slaves of other Africans, a trade that became international because of the efforts of Muslim traders.
One problem with her otherwise laudatory work is that Dr. Grabar uses too many pages to prove facts that most readers will already know. She spends too much space, for example, telling readers about the McCarthy hearings and the background of Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh.
This is an understandable flaw. By focusing on weak areas of Dr. Zinn’s text, Dr. Grabar wants to categorically prove him wrong with a cascade of facts. However, this could have been done more efficiently with shorter treatment and references to other books that focus on these matters.
In justice, however, Dr. Grabar has taken on a difficult task. The text of the Zinn book is nearly seven hundred pages. Debunking Howard Zinn’s text is 259 pages. Given the quality of her research and scholarship, Dr. Grabar could have written a far longer book. A complete refutation of the errors, slanders, and leftist innuendos in A People’s History of the United States would require Dr. Grabar to write her own, more traditional, history of the United States.
Dr. Mary Grabar deserves praise for taking on this noble and necessary work. Her book is profitable for anyone who wonders why socialism is attractive to many people of the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez generation. It is especially recommended for parents who notice Howard Zinn’s primer of Marxism in their children’s backpacks. Fighting the tide of socialism begins in the schools. This book is badly needed ammunition.
1. A Peoples History of the United States (New York: Harper Collins Perennial Classics 2005 edition), 103. Quoted in Mary Grabar, Debunking Howard Zinn (Washington, D.C.: Regnery History 2019), 85
2. Zinn, op. cit., 104.
3. Ibid, 189. Quoted in Grabar, op. cit., 107
5. Zinn, op. cit., 24. Quoted in Grabar, op. cit., 93.