Though he remains little known outside of Leftist and some social studies education circles, I first discovered Howard Zinn when I was an undergraduate in college nearly 30 years ago. Long before most Americans had heard of Bernie Sanders, and when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was still in diapers, I was a proudly self-proclaimed "democratic socialist." And Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States was quickly attaining scriptural status as a Marxist retelling of our nation's history, firing up our demands for a total revolution in America's political and economic system.
I went on to renounce my youthful dalliance with socialism, but Zinn's book continued to grow in popularity. A People's History has made an enormous impact on a generation of history and social studies teachers and has come to represent one of the most egregious examples of the Left's desire to paint America as a uniquely depraved and oppressive regime.
Two new books take aim at both Zinn's inaccurate, biased presentation of the American story and the larger "war on history" itself. Jarrett Stepman's book takes this phrase as its very title, The War on History: The Conspiracy to Rewrite America's Past. Stepman's book is paralleled in many ways by Mary Grabar's Debunking Howard Zinn: Exposing the Fake History that Turned a Generation against America, but her focus is more on Zinn himself, his Marxist agenda, and his unethical and factually incorrect and incomplete work as a historian.
Both books take on some familiar ground that Leftist revisionists have used to incorrectly claim that America is a uniquely racist and unjust society worthy of revolutionary political and social change.
Of course, Americans do have deeply troubling parts of our past too, from slavery and its legacy to the marginalization of women and indigenous people and the mistreatment of immigrants and various religious and ethnic groups. Stepman and Grabar never ignore of minimize these aspects of American history, but neither do they treat these as the sum total of our national story nor as elements that definitively condemn our ancestors and the political, economic, and social system they have left us, which is exactly what the Howard Zinnites in today's university cancel culture, the violent aspects of Black Lives Matter, the historically flawed 1619 Project, and other radical elements of the American Left explicitly try to do.
Some of the favorite targets of these warriors on history include Christopher Columbus, the early American colonists and the pioneers of Westward expansion, the Founding Fathers and their ideals, and even Abraham Lincoln, whom they insist was a racist himself. They paint anyone associated with the Confederacy as moral monsters, including the once highly-regarded Robert E. Lee, and condemn America's ascendency as a world superpower to raw imperialism and capitalist greed.
Between The War on History and Debunking Howard Zinn, Stepman and Grabar take on all of these mischaracterizations of America's history and heroes. Among the points extensively discussed by one or both books:
- While Christopher Columbus was not a successful administrator of Spanish settlements in the New World, he was a fantastic navigator who expressed deep concern for the native people he found in Hispaniola and admonished his subordinates to treat them with dignity and respect. His motivations were largely religious in nature, rather than monetary. He cannot be held accountable for atrocities committed by those who followed him, and the net effect of his work - the opening up of the Western hemisphere to the most dramatic expansion of economic flourishing and, in the United States, freedom, is vastly positive.
- Slavery was practiced in every culture throughout human history. There is nothing uniquely American about it. Many of the Founders were ardent abolitionists or people who were deeply torn morally and philosophically over the issue. The groundwork they laid in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution made it impossible for the country to continue slavery indefinitely and provided the ideals that motivated its end and the ongoing work of ensuring civil rights for all.
- Most of America's great leaders have been extraordinarily...human. Stepman devotes an entire chapter to Andrew Jackson, one of the most reviled American presidents by many on the political Left. Stepman does not sugar coat his presentation of "Old Hickory." He was, by Stepman's telling, arrogant, abrasive, sometimes dangerously impulsive, and the architect of some policies that led to great tragedy, most famously the "Trail of Tears" migration of Cherokees from the Southeast to Oklahoma. But Jackson was also an amazingly brave and effective war hero who, by leading American success at the Battle of New Orleans, definitively saved the republic from the ever-present shadow of foreign invasion and resubjugation. And Jackson's views on Native Americans was far from hateful. He believed relocation of the Cherokees would protect them from rapacious white settlers and even adopted a Native American child and raised as his own son.
- Robert E. Lee picked the wrong side in the Civil War, but Stepman shows how Lee's greatness is due more to his leadership after the war, when as the most popular figure of the Confederacy he championed reconciliation instead of on-going war and conflict.
Grabar's Debunking Howard Zinn covers similar material, but also includes chapters on the Marxist distortion of many of the events of the 20th century, including the so-called communist witch hunts and the Vietnam War. While Joseph McCarthy did falsely accuse some people, the truth is there was a massive infiltration of devoted communists in virtually every sector of society and at the highest levels of power deliberately trying to undermine the American regime and bring a Marxist revolution to the U.S. heartland.
Howard Zinn was himself, Grabar argues, one of those Marxists. She documents the considerable evidence that Zinn was an active member of the Communist Party (something he never renounced) and his efforts to influence young civil rights activists toward Marxist thinking and strategies.
But it wasn't just Zinn's radical beliefs that make his book A People's History so deeply flawed and problematic. Grabar shows the countless instances in which Zinn essentially plagiarized other scholars' work or engaged in gross editing of original sources to fake history according to his own radical narrative. Zinn's work isn't just wrong from a political and moral standpoint; it is also just bad historical scholarship.
Sadly, Zinn's influence is far greater than most Americans even know. Grabar also documents this pervasive influence, including the millions of copies of A People's History that have been sold, the vast educational "resources" based on his work that are being used in schools, and the failed attempts to challenge the use of the book in both higher education and K12.
I've been writing all summer about the need for parents, policy officials, and educators to take a deeper look at how history is being taught in our schools and to insist on a more comprehensive and truthful presentation of America's past (see related links bel0w). The War on History and Debunking Howard Zinn are powerful tools for supporting this effort.
- Our schools need patriotic American history now more than ever
- Reclaiming American history: standards and curriculum
- The principles and values of "patriotic" American history
- E pluribus unum: Another essential principles of patriotic American history
- Memory and hope: Restoring temporal continuity in our teaching of American history
- Fighting racism; rejecting critical theory
- Kentucky's social studies standards need more work
- Kentucky teachers are being trained to use "inequiry methods" to indoctrinate students in Leftist attitudes
- More misuses of inquiry learning to propagandize K-12 students
- See for yourself: biased teacher training materials for social studies