A People’s History of the United States
Part I (1900-1920): Bread and Roses
History books tell the Great Man version of history.
American history starts with great man Cristopher Columbus, continues with great men George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and moves forward quickly to great man Abraham Lincoln.
When the history of our time is written, future generations will read about Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos.
“But what about us?” you may ask. “Aren’t we as important as the great men of our time?” No, we are not. The best we can hope for is that one historian will buck the trend and tells our side of the story.
Howard Zinn (1920 – 2010) is one of the most well-known and respected 20th Century historians. He was able to toss the Great Man blueprint in the trash and create a completely new narrative.
In Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” the story of America is a perpetual battle between we the workers vs. the powerful people who exploit us.
According to Zinn, the battle began at the very founding of our nation. He argues that the Revolutionary War was not a popular conflict. He points out that men had to be drafted to fight and that they were promised free land in exchange for their blood. But after the war, many of those men were evicted from their homes because they couldn’t afford the taxes that their new State governments were levying.
Fast forward a century to the Chicago Haymarket Riot of 1886. Organized labor demanded an 8-hour work week and the demonstration turned violent. The business leaders and authorities got together and arrested the Union bosses on bogus charges. The Union leaders were hanged. Management won this round, but the fight definitely wasn’t over.
Workers were better prepared during the 1912 Textile Strike in Lawrence, Mass. With organizational and monetary help from the IWW (International Workers of the World), the workers outlasted management. After grinding the cotton industry to a halt for more than two months, the workers earned a 20% raise.
According to Howard Zinn, the US Establishment learned a valuable lesson from Lawrence: never give an inch to organized labor.
When the silver miners in Ludlow, Colorado went on strike in 1914, negotiation was not an option. When the National Guard couldn’t crush the miners, President Wilson sent in the army. Hundreds of strikers were wounded and 75 were killed in The Ludlow Massacre.
Faced with the imminent threat of reduced power and profit, the titans of industry colluded with Washington to crush Organized Labor.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…” No, Zinn says; that’s a lie. The reason the Establishment opened our borders was to import a fresh supply of cheap labor and to weaken the bargaining power of American Unions.
“The world must be made safe for democracy…” No, Zinn says; that’s a lie. The reason that the Establishment chose to join World War I was because Britain and France owed billions of dollars to American businesses and an allied victory was the only way they’d get paid back. And under the cover of war, the government was able to pass the Sedition and Espionage Act, which had the intended effect of silencing, imprisoning, or deporting Labor agitators.
“A People’s History of the United States Part 1” is a first-rate documentary for history lovers. It entertained me the whole time and I learned a lot.
I don’t agree with everything that Howard Zinn had to say. I love the non-Partisanship and the pacifism, but not so much the obsession with Marxist theory. By ambitiously tossing aside the Great Man version of history, though, Zinn was – in the end – a great man.