Truth Has a Power of Its Own: Conversations About A People’s History is a collection of never-before-published conversations with Howard Zinn, conducted by the distinguished broadcast journalist Ray Suarez in 2007, that covers the course of American history from Columbus to the War on Terror from the perspective of ordinary people—including formerly enslaved, workers, immigrants, women, and Native Americans.
Viewed through the lens of Zinn’s own life as a soldier, historian, and activist and using his paradigm-shifting People’s History of the United States as a point of departure, these conversations explore the American Revolution, the Civil War, the labor battles of the 19th and 20th centuries, U.S. imperialism from the Indian Wars to the War on Terrorism, World Wars I and II, the Cold War, and the fight for equality and immigrant rights, all from an unapologetically radical standpoint. Longtime admirers and a new generation of readers alike will be fascinated to learn about Zinn’s thought processes, rationale, motivations, and approach to his now-iconic historical work.
Suarez’s probing questions and Zinn’s humane (and often humorous) voice—along with his keen moral vision—shine through every one of these lively and thought-provoking conversations, showing that Zinn’s work is as relevant as ever. [Publisher’s description.]
In the nearly forty years since the first edition of A People’s History appeared, Zinn’s critics have tried to sandbag him. Some complain that his iconoclasm, his tearing down of long-revered heroes, and his corrections to the record leave only a dreary slog through centuries of oppression, struggle, and suffering. Well, a historian’s job is to find out what actually happened. The horrors are there all right, and Zinn is clear-eyed and persistent in forcing us to look at them.
Economic exploitation is never far from Zinn’s mind as he recounts the history of the robber barons of the nineteenth century, the poor and working-class men of the South who took up arms for the Confederacy, the “girls” of the mill towns in Massachusetts who walked away from their machines to fight for better pay, the farmers driven to revolt by ruinous taxes on land. They all are characters in Zinn’s American drama. Moving economics closer to the center of American history is more common today. In 1980, the lives and struggles of ordinary people had to muscle their way into the story to take up a place alongside generals on horseback, stirring words of historical documents, and Manifest Destiny.
However, in A People’s History and later in A Young People’s History of the United States, as well as throughout the book you hold in your hands, right there along with the struggle and suffering is Zinn’s idealism, embodied in a tableau vivant of new heroes along with the new perspectives. The historian wants to shatter your old notions about U.S. history. In the very same moment, he wants to remind you of the power of common people to challenge authority, improve their own circumstances, and change their country for the better.
Bacon’s Rebellion, in 1676, exactly one hundred years before the Declaration of Independence, is an interesting example in which, momentarily, white servants and black slaves came together against the government of Virginia. Of course, part of their coming together was against Indians. One of their grievances was that they had not been protected enough against the Indians by the government of Virginia. So it was a very complicated and odd situation, but it is one where black people and white people got together in a common struggle against authority.
Suarez: In the context, though, of what you call a chain of oppression.
That’s right. Here are white colonists oppressed by England, and here are the black people oppressed by the whites. This is how oppression works, in a kind of chain of people who oppress one another, making it difficult to break that chain and disturb the situation. But every once in a while that disturbance does take place. Bacon’s Rebellion was one of those.
One of the important things about Bacon’s Rebellion is that it showed something about the class struggle that has always existed in this country, the struggle between the rich and the poor. Because what we are told in our history, very often, is that we are all united against some common enemy. All whites are united against Indians in the Indian wars. All colonists in the American Revolution are united against England.
But that is a falsification of a much more complex story in which, for instance, in the Revolutionary War, the white people of the colonies are not united against England. They are divided. There are people who are eager to declare independence from England, and there are other people who are not enthusiastic about it at all. Washington has a very hard time putting together an army. He finds that people down South have no particular interest in this revolution. He sends Nathanael Greene, one of his generals, down South to round up people and get them into the army, and he had to punish people who would not enlist.
Before the Revolution there is continual class conflict in the colonies between poor whites and rich whites. Between tenants and landlords. Between people who have nothing, who are continually struggling to make a living, and the rich. There is a concentration of wealth in the colonies before the Revolution.
It’s important to know that before the Revolutionary War there is such a long history of class conﬂict among the colonists. You have a bread riot in Boston, where people who are hungry break into warehouses for bread. You have poor farmers in North Carolina just before the Revolution rebelling against the government. You have tenants being put in jail for nonpayment of rent and then mobs surrounding the jail and releasing the tenants.
So in Bacon’s Rebellion you have this uprising of the have-nots, and once faced with this situation the Virginia governor, the Virginia legislature—they do what? Well, one thing they do is, they recognize that Bacon’s Rebel-lion is a popular rebellion. They cannot put down the rebellion; it is too popular. They have to call on England for help. England sends a thousand troops over to quell this rebellion. That says something about the popularity and extent of it. And of course the rebellion is crushed.
And governments learn something from rebellions. They learn that they must make some concessions, but not too many concessions. They learn they must prepare for harsher measures. They must try harder to keep people apart. So in the South, for instance, they use whites as slave patrols to go after fugitive black people, and they give whites certain little advantages, even though those whites are servants. Bacon’s Rebellion is a lesson for people on all sides, but it’s only one part of this long conﬂict between rich and poor in American history— before the Revolution, during the Revolution, after the Revolution.
This anger that existed between the rich and the poor before the Revolution shows itself in the midst of the Revolution. Because there is class division among soldiers, between officers and enlisted men. This is an old story in the military: there are the officers and there are the enlist-ed men, and it is very crass, because the officers in the Revolutionary Army are treated very well. They get good pay. They get resplendent uniforms. They eat well. The privates get very little pay to begin with, but their pay stops coming after the ﬁrst year of the war. And when their enlistments are supposed to be up, they are not allowed to go home. And they’re in rags, so they rebel.
Suarez: During this same period that we’ve been talking about, the United States embarked on military actions overseas. It began with the war against Spain in 1898 and continued with the suppression of the Philippine rebellion and their war for independence. It then continued in Haiti, Nicaragua, throughout the Caribbean. What was going on there?
What is called the Age of Imperialism is seen as starting in 1898 with the Spanish-American War, that is, a war in Cuba against Spain.
But I think it’s fair to say that American imperialism started long before that. It started with the march across the continent, with the seizing of Indian lands. It started with one of the major ethnic cleansings, to use a current expression, of modern history—the taking away from the Indians of this enormous expanse of territory and turning that land over to white Americans who were moving west-ward from the Atlantic Ocean. The war with Mexico was part of that expansion. Manifest Destiny, the idea that it was the work of Providence, of God ordaining the United States government to become a mighty continental power from the Atlantic to the Paciﬁc and down to the Gulf of Mexico—all that predated the Spanish-American War.
With the country now so large, and with industries turning out goods for which the domestic market was insufficient, and where there was a greater demand for the raw materials possessed by other countries, U.S. political and military leaders began to look overseas.
Cuba was a natural ﬁrst target. It was so close, and there was a good excuse—that Spain was occupying Cuba. This has been a constant in American expansion-ism, ﬁnding a kind of humanitarian excuse. Of course, there is a half truth to it in that the Spanish were cruel occupiers of Cuba. And the United States did in fact, in a short war—what Secretary of State John Hay called a “splendid little war”—drive Spain out of Cuba.
Spain was gone. The United States and American corporations were in. United Fruit was in. American banks were in. American railroads were in. And the United States wrote parts of the Cuban constitution, giving it the right to intervene militarily in Cuba anytime.
This was the beginning of overseas expansion by the United States. At the very end of the war in Cuba, the United States turned its attention to the Philippines. While the 1898 war in Cuba is given a lot of attention in American history books, with a kind of romantic attention to Theodore Roosevelt marching up San Juan Hill and the Rough Riders and all that, the Philippine War is barely mentioned. Yet the Spanish- American War lasted three months, and the Philippine War lasted for years and years. And it was a bloody war in which at least half a million Filipinos died.
The war in the Philippines was in many ways a preview of the Vietnam War. Here was the United States sending an army and navy halfway around the world to subdue a local population. President McKinley explained his decision to take over the Philippines by saying that he got down on his knees and prayed to God to tell him what to do about the Philippines and God told him that it was his duty to civilize and Christianize the Filipinos. The Filipinos, of course, got a different message from God. They rebelled, holding out for years until they were ﬁnally subdued. There followed ﬁfty years of American military occupation, and dictatorship after dictatorship in the Philippines.
This was only the start.
The conventional tellings of American history often portray the Great Depression as an aberration, a sudden descent into economic calamity from the relatively prosperous efflorescence of the Jazz Age. But in A People’s History, you tell a very different story about the roots of the Great Depression being very much in the 1920s.
The idea that the Great Depression of the 1930s was an aberration in an otherwise prolonged march of prosperity in the United States is itself simply false. There had been depressions, and severe ones, all through American history from the early nineteenth century on. The Depression of 1873 was one of the causes of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. There was a Great Depression in 1893; I mentioned the fact that Emma Goldman was imprisoned for addressing people in New York who were in desperate trouble because of the economic crisis of 1893.
I became aware of this myself after studying history—and you would think that somebody who studies history on the graduate level is now really a master and knows everything. Of course, what you discover is that there are things you don’t know, things that even your most advanced courses in history would not tell you. I did not learn a certain important truth about the pre- Depression years, about the 1920s, until I began doing research on the life and career of Fiorello La Guardia. I was doing my doctoral dissertation and I came across the papers of Fiorello La Guardia, which had just been deposited in the Municipal Archives of New York City by his widow.
La Guardia was a congressman in the 1920s, representing a district in East Harlem. I was reading all of the letters that had been sent to La Guardia in the 1920s, in the age of prosperity, the Jazz Age, this period that still is remembered that way. There were people writing letters saying, “My husband is out of work. They have turned off the electricity, ’cause we can’t pay the bill. My kids are going hungry.” And when I looked into other parts of the country, I realized that although it wasn’t a depression in the strictest sense, the 1920s was a period of great wealth on one side and poverty on another side.
What that did for me—and I think this is what history very often does—was make me wonder if what I had learned about that period was true also of other periods.
I was writing about this in the 1950s, and I realized that the 1950s are not considered a period of tough economic deprivation for most Americans. But I wondered, is there an underside to the 1950s? I read Michael Harrington’s book The Other America, and that is exactly what he was talking about. Here in the so-called prosperous 1950s there were people suffering all over the country. So yes, the Great Depression was indeed a low point, but it doesn’t mean that the other periods preceding it and after it were high points.
Copyright © 2019 by The Howard Zinn Revocable Trust and The Independent Production Fund. This excerpt originally appeared in Truth Has a Power of Its Own: Conversations about A People’s History, published by The New Press and reprinted here with permission.