A history book is rarely a bestseller. Chock full of maps, timelines, chronologies and a cause-and-effect narrative – dry rote "facts" laid out in succession – it's often anything but a page-turner. Sure, biographies sometimes fly off the shelves. Stylised Hollywood biopics fill cinemas. But most would agree with Rudge, one of the schoolboys from Alan Bennett's The History Boys: "How do I define history? It's just one fucking thing after another."
Academic histories almost never sell in the millions. Unless, of course, they're part of a national curriculum, foisted upon unsuspecting children – like religion, meant to instill above all a respect for authority, past and present. Such textbooks buttress nationalism, featuring flag-waving founding fathers, hero-worship for captains of industry, and especially war glories, the victories proving again and again that god is on our side.
Radical histories, critiquing these orthodoxies, reach the smallest of audiences, with rare exception. One such exception is Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. If the sanctioned stories of the valiant dead have put generations of schoolkids to sleep, this magnificent history of ordinary folks doing extraordinary things has genuinely inspired and emboldened. University lecturers assign it; high school history teachers applaud it. From Good Will Hunting to The Sopranos, film and television now praise this crucial corrective to the old ways of writing history.
Among the inspired is queer radical Chelsea Manning, the court-martialed US Army whistleblower who cites Zinn as an influence. Manning is currently serving a 35-year sentence at Fort Leavenworth for telling the world what American authorities don't want us to know: that governments lie, whether "civilised" or "rogue", that elected officials, beating the war drum, distort and deceive, as with Bush/Blair's mythical Iraqi WMD. With the boldest leak in human history, Manning and WikiLeaks exposed to public scrutiny the Iraq War Logs, the Afghan War Diary, US diplomatic cables, Gitmo detainees' basic bios and the "Collateral Murder" video, which forcefully reminded us: War always involves the indiscriminate killing of civilians. And as Zinn insisted, this inevitably makes war immoral.
Likewise a veteran – a WWII US Air Force bombardier forced to napalm Royan, France, just three weeks before V-E Day – Howard Zinn became a beloved professor, a passionate anti-Vietnam war protester, and a scholar who penned brilliant works of politics and history, including Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal. Also a committed civil rights campaigner, Zinn wrote about the very African-American student group he supported, in SNCC: The New Abolitionists.
For these reasons, Zinn's work is sometimes maligned as "biased". Bias is an unhelpful category of historical analysis. All histories are positioned, reflecting the historian's race and class locations (among others) and the discipline's imperfect methodologies (which tend to privilege literate elites). Zinn's A People's History of the United States was among the first surveys to explicitly acknowledge all this – and powerfully redress it.
If history textbooks buttress nationalism, they also bolster imperialism, as demonstrated by Emile Durkheim in France, then Raymond Williams in Britain. Empires need tall tales of derring-do to warrant the vast expense, to justify the mass slaughters, to cover over the avarice and exploitation. Zinn wanted to take that knowledge far beyond the ivory tower, writing an accessible counter-history that would speak to everyday people, making them better-informed citizens and organisers, highly cognisant not only of their responsibilities but also of their rights.
Whereas successor James Loewen would expose Lies My Teacher Told Me (with US high school history textbooks) and Lies Across America (at historic sites and monuments), Zinn most detested lies of omission: "If a lie is told, you can check up on it. If something is omitted, you have no way of knowing it has been omitted." Zinn's People's History debunked the merciless political-military triumphalism and warped capitalist heroics of American mythologies masquerading as history, highlighting instead the untold struggles and courageous achievements of workers and people of colour (while largely ignoring, his foremost interpreter Martin Duberman points out, feminist and queer movements).
Note that Zinn believed wholeheartedly in truth – or at least veracity, accuracy and precision. Neutrality? Impartiality? Mere chimera. (Another Zinn classic: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train.) Zinn understood that processes of selection and emphasis, informed by contemporary concerns and historians' own preoccupations, would always constitute fundamental acts of interpretation. "Which facts to give the floor," as E. H. Carr put it, proved crucial.
A People's History foregrounds the hard facts of murderous greed fuelling industrial "development", as with the Rockefellers' 1914 Ludlow Massacre of striking coalminers, women and children. It uncovers the holy hypocrisies of ferocious nineteenth-century "civilising" missions, notably President McKinley's delusion of god instructing him to invade the Philippines (foreshadowing Bush's infamous hotline to heaven). And it rejects the genocidal violence inherent to imperial "progress", from the United States' very beginnings in the attempted annihilation of Native Americans.
Best of all, in the face of these insidious American traditions, A People's History evidences and champions principled resistance. Could anything be more threatening to the wanton warmongering lawlessness at Guantánamo? What if tortured detainees took to heart the so-called "lessons of history"?
In that light, a single Zinn chapter might read as a how-to manual of dissent. It's all in there: Pacifists trespassing, showering nukes with blood and symbolically hammering them into ploughshares. Women locking arms, encircling the Pentagon, obstructing the entrance. Human chains around federal buildings. Refuseniks burning draft notices; conscientious objectors sitting down on air force runways; disabled Vietnam vets proclaiming: "Enough." Activists Amy Carter and Abbie Hoffman blocking CIA-recruitment. From New Mexico to Massachusetts, thousands blocking major highways. Disgusted officials resigning in protest and going on to author exposés. Plays, songs and marches advocating justice. Radical lawyers defending whistleblowers; leftist historians constructing alternative memorials; ethnic minorities building bilingual radio. Mothers denouncing the folded-flag of military funerals; sportsmen denouncing jingo-jerseys stitched with Old Glory. Students standing, turning their backs on generals at the rostrum; legislators walking out on war resolutions. Fasting and hunger strikes (already adopted at Gitmo). From Amherst to LA, the ultimate rebuttal: self-immolation.
These are the lessons A People's History teaches. Little wonder it's banned at Guantánamo.
John Howard is Professor of American Studies at King's College London. He is the author of Men Like That and Concentration Camps on the Home Front, both from University of Chicago Press. Header image by Marta Parszeniew.