Truth-telling is rare.
Most Americans swallow the myth of exceptionalism. They speak of the nation’s “proud heritage.” They believe it was born perfect, is perfect today and will be perfect tomorrow. They believe the country is not just great but the greatest nation in history.
The truth is otherwise. Zinn told that otherwise.
In fact, Zinn told so much truth that fellow historians said he wasn’t really a historian.
Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. sneered: “I know he regards me as a dangerous reactionary. But I don’t take him seriously. He’s a polemicist, not a historian.”
Schlesinger, a Cold Warrior, was perhaps a tad jealous. Did any other American historian have as much impact as Zinn?
In any case, the country could use more polemical historians. As Zinn said: “All history is subjective, all history represents a point of view.”
His point of view was that of outliers, “people who have struggled, fought, organized and defied authority.”
People like Debs, Goldman, Tubman. People who opposed the imperialistic and senseless American wars: Thoreau (Mexican), Twain (Spanish-American), Dos Passos (World War I), I.F. Stone (Korea) and Martin Luther King (Vietnam).
Other members of Zinn’s Hall of Fame are Douglass, Garrison, Malcolm X, Marion Edelman, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Zora Hurston, Helen Keller and Langston Hughes.
Zinn’s bias was toward blacks, labor, women and gays in their long battles for equality. His bias favored “the equal rights of all human beings whatever their race, nationality, sex and religion.”
Zinn’s magnum opus, “A People’s History of the United States,” told the truth often avoided by mainstream historians.
For example: the Ludlow massacre during a Colorado coal mine strike in 1914. Zinn told that story. The biased historians did not. Not surprising, then, that Zinn would note “a conservative bias to history.”
He told such truths as: President Jackson, war hero, was a slaveholder and Indian killer; President Teddy Roosevelt, war hero, was a war-loving imperialist; President Kennedy, so-called liberal, suffered “the slows” on civil rights for blacks and invaded Cuba; and President Carter, a “born again Christian,” refused to aid the reconstruction of Vietnam even though its land lay in ruins from U.S. saturation bombing.
Also: The CIA ousted the government of Iran in 1953 because it nationalized the oil industry and it engineered the overthrow of Guatemala’s government in 1954 because it appropriated 234,000 acres owned by United Fruit.
No academic ivory tower for Zinn, no scholarly detachment for him. He was an activist on the front lines of history. He had his students at Spelman, black women’s college in Atlanta, request books from whites-only libraries. He directed Spelman student sit-ins.
He spent the last day teaching at Boston University on the picket line with his students to support striking campus nurses. He was arrested nine times for taking part in protests and demonstrations. He was fired from Spelman after criticizing its failure to participate in the civil rights movement. He was the target of firing at BU.
Zinn was right about so many things. Such as:
• “We must face our long, grim history of slavery, racism, imperial conquests and acts of unwarranted intervention and aggression around the world.”
• “Let us cease being a military superpower and start becoming a humanitarian power. Instead of being feared for our military prowess, we should want to be respected for our dedication to human rights.”
• “The history of bombing — and no one has bombed more than America — is a history of endless atrocities all calmly explained by deceptive language like collateral damage.”
Zinn had one serious fault: excessive optimism. He told his admirers not to despair even when situations were desperate, that America would overcome its backwardness.
But even that judgment may be wrong. Jim Crow, Southern apartheid, was not easily overcome. Hell, they are still fighting the Civil War in South Carolina 145 years after it ended.
Moreover, Zinn’s progressive ideas found little support in the corporate media. A reviewer for the New York Times called him simplistic and one-sided. In effect, the critic urged him to say “something good about America.”
But the status quo is never good enough. Congress is dysfunctional and Zinn knew it. U.S. domestic and foreign policies are terrible. Zinn knew it.
He was an angry historian who had a great deal to be angry about. Zinn fought against injustice in America, a battle that will never end. But his fight was magnificent.
Jake Highton teaches journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.