The Astonishing Career of A People's History of the United States

An editorial in The New Criterion examines Howard Zinn’s immensely profitable text book A People’s History of the United States, soon to be made into a television show:

The astonishing career of A People’s History is an object lesson in how little criticism matters, or perhaps we should say it is an object lesson in how certain sentimental narratives can utterly overwhelm criticism, be it ever so accurate and eloquent. Zinn’s story—noble savages oppressed by nasty capitalists—was calculated to appeal to the politically correct, anti-American spirit that has been regnant among the country’s elites since the late 1960s. But its flaws were early on pointed out with devastating precision by the Harvard historian Oscar Handlin. Handlin’s brief is—or should have been—fatal. Writing in The American Scholar in 1980, he noted:

“It simply is not true that “what Columbus did to the Arawaks of the Bahamas, Cortez did to the Aztecs of Mexico, Pizarro to the Incas of Peru, and the English settlers of Virginia and Massachusetts to the Powhatans and the Pequots.” It simply is not true that the farmers of the Chesapeake colonies in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries avidly desired the importation of black slaves, or that the gap between rich and poor widened in the eighteenth-century colonies. Zinn gulps down as literally true the proven hoax of Polly Baker and the improbable Plough Jogger, and he repeats uncritically the old charge that President Lincoln altered his views to suit his audience. The Geneva assembly of 1954 did not agree on elections in a unified Vietnam; that was simply the hope expressed by the British chairman when the parties concerned could not agree. The United States did not back Batista in 1959; it had ended aid to Cuba and washed its hands of him well before then. “Tet” was not evidence of the unpopularity of the Saigon government, but a resounding rejection of the northern invaders. ”

And on and on. Handlin leaves Zinn’s “deranged … fairy tale” in tatters. It is worth noting, too, that Zinn’s contempt, though focused on America, is fired by a more global hatred. As Handlin noted, “It would be a mistake … to regard Zinn as merely anti-American. Brendan Behan once observed that whoever hated America hated mankind, and hatred of humanity is the dominant tone of Zinn’s book. No other modern country receives a favorable mention. He speaks well of the Russian and Chinese revolutions, but not of the states they created. He lavishes indiscriminate condemnation upon all the works of man—that is, upon civilization, a word he usually encloses in quotation marks.” And yet this book is the source of choice for countless high schools seeking to teach American history. It is soon to provide the script for a television series that will reinforce and codify its anti-civilizational message. What does it mean that such a work, demonstrably a tissue of half-truths, inaccuracies, and self-hating tendentious misrepresentations, should succeed so lavishly? It is sobering to witness the corrosive progress of politically correct sentimentality, the effect of which is not so much to triumph over historical truth as to render it, while the spell lasts, irrelevant.

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