The Twentieth Century: A People’s History. By Howard Zinn. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.
No historian of the United States has been more provocative than Howard Zinn (1922–2010), whose leftist philosophy permeated his writings and never failed to challenge his readers. The Twentieth Century: A People’s History is every bit as ambitious as his other works; it is drawn from the latter part of his A People’s History of the United States with additional chapters to bring the chronicle to the end of the century. Like the majority of other works by Zinn, this one is a must read for anyone seeking to ensure the broadest possible perspective on the American past. What is presented here will be disturbing to many and perhaps angering to some, but as always he offershis analysis with a style and verve that is rigorous and often compelling.
If you are not up to being challenged read something else that presents a more consensus perspective on the past, such as Stephen Ambrose or David McCullough. But if you are willing to consider that there might be more to the story of the twentieth century than you learned in school and from consensus historians, then ponder the ideas in this book.
Zinn states throughout this work that the dominant narrative of American history focusing “on the Founding Fathers and the Presidents weigh oppressively on the capacity of the ordinary citizen to act. They suggest that in times of crisis we must look to someone to save us: in the Revolutionary crisis, the Founding Fathers; in the slavery crisis, Lincoln; in the Depression, Roosevelt; in the Vietnam-Watergate crisis, Carter. And that between occasional crises everything is all right…The idea of saviors has been built into the entire culture, beyond politics. We have learned to look to stars, leaders, experts in every field, thus surrendering our own strength, demeaning our own ability, obliterating our own selves” (pp. 413-14).
Zinn abhored this aspect of our culture, and told the story of those who bucked it throughout the twentieth century. He argued that the power elite in America have created a system of control in which most people do not even realize they are being controlled. “With a country so rich in natural resources, talent, and labor power the system can afford to distribute just enough wealth to just enough people to limit discontent to a troublesome minority” (p. 414), he wrote. Zinn emphasized that one percent of the nation owns one third of the wealth—those percentages are worse now—and that they elite dole out just enough to placate the rest, all the while pitting them against each other. He adds, “These groups have resented each other and warred against each other with such vehemence and violence as to obscure their common position as sharers of leftovers, in a very wealthy country” (p. 414). This book is really about those who battled that system, and he celebrated Eugene Debs, Daniel and Philip Berrigan, Angela Davis, Martin Luther King, Bill Haywood, and thousands of others who challenged the status quo.
No question, Zinn viewed throughout his career the history of the twentieth century—as well as earlier—in the U.S. as a struggle between the haves and the have nots. The haves, he commented, have been enormously successful in securing their hegemony against far greater numbers in no small part because of “all-embracing symbols, physical and verbal: the flag, patriotism, democracy, national interest, national defense, national security” (p. 415). Appeals to these themes, he argued, have been effectively used to blunt the criticism of the system that otherwise might bring it tumbling down. Thus, George W. Bush appealed to flag-waving patriotism to unite a divided country and maintain control rather than deal with the underlying reasons for terrorism, the “deep grievances against the United States” (p. 474).
The Twentieth Century: A People’s History is a powerful book with ideas revolutionary in character. If you don’t want to consider them then don’t read it. Zinn certainly made no apologies for his position. His was a distinctly minority voice in a discussion of the century just past, but an important and eloquent one. One from which we all might learn something.