“I suppose the most revolutionary act one can engage in,” wrote Howard Zinn in Marx in Soho, “is to tell the truth.”
I don’t know whether Zinn believed that, but if he did, then he was no revolutionary. In fact, he managed to build a national reputation as a public intellectual on a foundation of distortions and deceptions, most famously in his work, A People’s History of the United States, generously categorized as “non-fiction”—and now a standard textbook for high schools and colleges nationwide.
Mitch Daniels, currently president of Purdue University, has come under fire recently for emails he wrote during his tenure as Indiana’s governor. Zinn’s book, he wrote, “is a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page.” “Can someone assure me that it is not in use anywhere in Indiana? If it is, how do we get rid of it before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?”
Nailed it. Academics across the spectrum have roundly criticized Zinn’s book as a polemic, a catechism of leftist pieties, an anti-American screed—anything but actual history.
Because it’s not. From perpetuating as fact the debunked 18th-century story of Polly Baker to portraying Fidel Castro’s regime as one of “revolutionary justice” (the book makes no mention of Castro’s own gulag archipelago), Zinn is dedicated to penning everything except what actually happened—such as the Gettysburg address, the Wright Brothers’ first flight, or the D-Day landing at Normandy, none of which merit a mention.
As Rich Lowry says in his National Review Online column on Daniels vs. Zinn (read it here), “A People’s History is a book for high-school students not yet through their Holden Caulfield phase.” Yes, that about sums it up.
For a look at Zinn’s legacy, I highly recommend Roger Kimball’s 2010 essay from National Review, available here.