On June 19, 1953, two Americans – a husband and wife – were put to death for turning their backs on their country. The couple were sent to the electric chair after being convicted of espionage against the United States. Throughout the 1940s, Julius Rosenberg – with the complicity and aide of his wife Ethel – sat at the center of a vast spy network responsible for the theft of numerous American military secrets. The Rosenbergs’ espionage activities ultimately aided the Soviet Union in the development of their nuclear weapons program.
Yet, in his book A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn works for six-and-a-half pages to convince readers that the Rosenbergs were actually victims of an anti-Communist witch hunt. In Zinn’s view, the Rosenbergs were brought up on flimsy charges after being unjustly targeted for their political beliefs amid the supposed anti-Communist “hysteria” of the early Cold War. Zinn’s attempt to cast doubt on the guilt of the Rosenberg’s fits into a wider effort in his book to white-wash the history of the Communist Party in the U.S. and the Communist movement worldwide, for which he was a lifelong fellow traveler.
One of the themes woven through out the opening chapters of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is that of the noble savage. The Native Americans lived, in Zinn’s view, free of the corrupting influences of civilization. They were pacifists, egalitarians, even progressives. This portrait fits into Zinn’s broader historical narrative of white Westerners as uniquely anti-progressive in the history of mankind.
As part of this narrative, Zinn draws a picture of the tribes of North America as gender egalitarians. He writes that “women were important and respected in Iroquois society,” which, he claims, “was in sharp contrast to European values as brought over by the first colonists.”
In a 700 page book, Zinn spends about a half dozen pages on Columbus’ four voyages, but he manages to pack a lot of nonsense into those few pages.
Here we will look at Zinn’s treatment of the native populations of the new world with whom Columbus first made contact. While Zinn is careful to use many of Columbus’ own words, the slicing and dicing and re-contextualizing paints a misleadingly black and white portrait – that of naiveté, sincerity, and generosity on the part of the natives, and greed and thuggishness on the part of Columbus and his men.
With all the attention around CNN for finally admitting publicly what has been plainly obvious for years, it’s worth taking some time to reflect on the roots of the intelligentsia’s preference for narrative over facts.