Howard Zinn’s Chauvinism Versus Real People’s History

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Another article by comrade Nick Brown on the supposedly radical historical work of the late Howard Zinn. As with the previous article of his posted on The Speed of Dreams, it was first publsished on the website anti-imperialism.com. 

In giving suggestions for real radical history to read rather than Zinn’s left-wing White patriotism I would suggest the following titles: J. Sakai’s Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat (linked to in the article) and Ward Churchill’s A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas 1492 to the Present

A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, is acclaimed within and without Amerikan academia and ‘left-wing’ circles as a hallmark of narrative history. It is required reading in many university History Departments and widely recommended by ‘progressives’ and ‘radicals’ of various shades and stripes. Beyond these accolades however, lies a narrative “of the American people,” not one of those perennially trampled beneath their weight. A “People’s History,” far from being subversive, is a hallmark of typical Amerikan, First World and White chauvinism in ‘leftist’ dressing. Zinn’s work serves much of the First World fake ‘left’ well precisely by obscuring the role of conquest, national oppression and imperialism in the development of the US.

One preeminent example is Zinn’s mountainous four paragraphs of “A People’s History of the United States” dedicated to the internment of Japan-descended people living on the western coast of the US during World War II:

In one of its policies, the United States came close to direct duplication of Fascism. This was in its treatment of the Japan-Americans living on the West Coast. After the Pearl Harbor attacks, anti-Japanese hysteria spread in the government. One congressman said: ‘I’m for catching every Japanese in America, Alaska and Hawaii now and putting them in concentration camps…Damn them! Let’s get rid of them!’

Franklin D. Roosevelt did not share this frenzy, but he calmly signed Executive Order 9066, in February 1942, giving the army the power, without warrants or indictments or hearings, to arrest every Japanese-American on the West Coast- 110,000 men, women, and children- to take them to camps far in the interior, and keep them there under prison conditions. Three-fourths of them were Nisei- children born in the United States to Japanese parents and therefore America citizens. The other fourth- the Issei, born in Japan- were barred by law from becoming citizens. In 1944 the Supreme Court upheld the forced evacuation on the grounds of military necessity. The Japanese remained in those camps for over three years.

Michi Weglyn was a young girl when her family experienced evacuation and detention. She tells of bungling in the evacuation, of misery, confusion, anger, but also of Japanese-American dignity and fighting back. There were strikes, petitions, mass meetings, refusal to sign loyalty oaths, riots against camp authorities. The Japanese resisted to the end.

Not until after the end of the war did the story of the Japanese-Americans begin to be known by the general public. The month the war ended in Asia, September 1945, an article appeared in Harper’s Magazine by Yale Law Professor Eugene V. Rostow, calling the Japanese evacuation “our greatest wartime mistake.” Was it a “mistake”- or was it an action to be expected from a nation with a long history of racism and which was fighting a war, not to end racism, but to retain the fundamental elements of the American system” (Zinn 416)

Zinn’s recounting of Japanese internment is peppered with enough facts and anecdotes to make it credible in the realm of bourgeois academics. Yet, any junior high school student who has taken a Civics class should be able to spot the contradictory statements regarding ‘anti-Japanese hysteria spreading in the government’ and the creation of a policy ‘upheld by the Supreme Court’ but not known of ‘by the general public.’ In fact, the internment of the Japanese was widespread knowledge, and as Zinn implies, was precluded by a nationwide debate. Along the West Coast Japanese internment was both hysterically supported and profited from by many.

Zinn’s glaring negligence of Japanese internment and contradictory summary is not incidental. Rather, Zinn’s disregard for Japanese interment conceals and provides life to Zinn’s larger ideology: that Amerikans generally are victims, not victimizers. When Zinn does address the oppression of communities of color by Whites, he is careful not to oppose this larger point. Zinn’s lack of a serious analysis from the perspective of those actually oppressed and exploited by Amerika is one consistent theme of “A People’s History.”

A more accurate telling of Japanese internment comes from J. Sakai’s Settlers, the Mythology of the White Proletariat. Though Sakai doesn’t spend much longer dealing with the issue, more attention is explicitly paid to the meaning:

On the West Coast the settler petit-bourgeoisie, primarily farming interests and small merchants, used settler chauvinism and the identification of the Japanese as members of a rival imperialist power to plunder and completely remove the Japanese population. Just as the Chinese had been robbed and driven out of mining, agriculture and industry in the 19thcentury West, so now Japanese would be driven out. As everyone knows, some 110,000 of us were forcibly ‘relocated’ into concentration camps by the US government in 1942.

Settler rule had restricted and hemmed in Japanese labor into the national minority economy of specialized agriculture, wholesale and retail food distribution, and domestic labor (in 1940 these three categories accounted for 84% of all Japanese employment). But even this was too much for the settler petit-bourgeoisie on the West Coast.

The Euro-Amerikans not only wanted the Japanese removed as competetors, but they wanted to take over and ‘annex’ the agricultural business so painstakingly built up by the Japanese farmers. The typical Japanese farm of the period was very small, averaging only 42 acres each (less than one-fifth the average size of Euro-Amerikan farms in California). But these intensively developed lands, in which comprised only 3.9% of California’s farmland, produced fully 42% of the State’s fresh fruits and vegetables. The settler farm lobby wanted our business, which was too valuable to be left to ‘Japs.’

Austin E. Anson, representative of the Shipper-Grower Association of Salinas, told the public: ‘We’re charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs of selfish reason. We might as well be honest. We do.” Through their political influence, these interests got US Sen. Hiram Johnson to pull together the West Coast congressional delegation as a bloc and push through the concentration camp program.

By military order, enforced by the US Army, the whole Japanese population was forced to leave or sell at give-away prices all we had- houses, land, businesses, cars, refrigerators, tools, furniture, etc. The Federal Reserve Bank loosely estimated the direct property loss alone at $400 million 1942 dollars. The real cost was in the many billions- and in lives. But it was no loss to settlers, who ended up with much of it. West Coast settlers had a festive time, celebrating the start of their war by greedily dividing up that 400 million in ‘Jap’ property. It was a gigantic garage sale held at gunpoint. This was just an early installment in settler prosperity from world war.

For Hawaii, a US colony right in the middle of Asia, no such simple solution was possible. Early government discussions on removing and incarcerating the Japanese population quickly floundered. Over one-third of the working population there was Japanese, and without their labor the Islands’ economy might break down. The US Army said that: ‘…the labor shortage make it a matter of military necessity to keep the people of Japanese blood on the islands.’ Army and Navy officers proposed that the Japanese be kept at work there for the US Empire, but treated ‘as citizen of an occupied foreign country.’

The patriotic Amerikan war spirit congealed itself into the usual racist forms. Chinese were encouraged to wear self-protective placards or buttons reading ‘I’m No Jap’ to avoid being lynched. The Koumintang-dominated Chinese communities were lauded by the settlers as now ‘good’ Asians. Life [Magazine] ran an article on ‘How To Tell Your Friends From The Japs’:…’the Chinese expression is likely to be more placid, kindly, open; the Japanese more positive, dogmatic, arrogant… Japanese walk stiffly erect…Chinese more relaxed, sometimes shuffle…’

Of course, these imaginary difference only expressed the settler code wherein hostile or just victimized Asians were ‘bad,’ where as those they thought more submissive (who ‘shuffle’) were temporarily ‘good.” Every effort was made to whip up settler chauvinism and hatred (an easy task). The famous war indoctrination film ‘My Japan,’ produced by the Defense Department, opens to an actor portraying a Japanese soldier bayoneting a baby- with the commentary that all Japanese ‘like’ to kill babies. German fascist propaganda about the ‘racial crimes’ of the Jews was no more bizarre than Amerikan propaganda for its own war effort. (Sakai 96)

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Sakai goes on to talk about other instances of Amerikan national oppression in the period: coast-to-coast “hate strikes” put on by White workers against Blacks; the Zoot Suit Riots; and incidents in the US South where fascist German POWs received preferential treatment over Black GIs, the latter being subject to Jim Crow laws.

The difference in the two accounts is not just in content, but meaning. Like Zinn’s A People’s History, Sakai’s Settlers: the Mythology of the White Proletariat is absent any pretensions of being objective. Unlike A People’s History, Settlers instead bases its analysis and narrative on a revolutionary internationalist impulse amongst captive, oppressed nations. US history is, according to Sakai, a history of struggle between Amerikans and the peoples they have oppressed and exploited. Hence, Sakai in Settlers comes out in support of revolutionary struggle by subject people against US-maintained oppression and is harshly critical of reform struggles which merely serve to ‘make the US better’ at oppressing. Zinn, by contrast, white-washes history in a way that downplays the crimes of both its bourgeoisie proper and bourgeoisified masses.

A closer look at the aforementioned Zinn quotes reveals this to be the case. Zinn’s first sentence in the above quote, in which he claims “the United States came close to direct duplication of Fascism,” is perhaps the clearest example of this. A more honest statement would read, ‘European fascism was partially an attempt to duplicate and refine an earlier United States policy and practice of genocide against Native Americans.’

This point hasn’t been lost on other academics, such as Ward Churchill, who are less concerned about appealing to a broad Amerikan public. In the book Since Predator Came, Churchill, who is also a Native American Liberation activist, draws out the similarities between US policy towards Natives and Fascist German policy towards Jews and other persecuted Europeans:

“Hitler’s conception of lebensraumpolitik- the idea that Germans were innately entitled by virtue of their racial and cultural superiority to land belonging to others, and that they were thus morally free to take it by aggressive military action- obviously had much in common with the nineteenth-century American sense of ‘Manifest Destiny.’ Further, his notion of how to attain this ‘living room’- the ‘clearing of inferior racial stock’ from its land base in order that vacated areas might be ‘settled by ethnic Germans’- followed closely from such US precedents as the 1830 Indian Removal Act and subsequent military campaigns against the indigenous nations of the Great Plains, Great Basin, and Senora Desert Regions. Even the nazi tactic of concentrating ‘undesirables’ prior to their forced ‘relocation or reduction’ was drawn from actual US examples, including the internment of the Cherokees and other ‘Civilized Tribes’ during the 1830s, before the devastatingly lethal Trail of Tears was forced upon them, and the comparable experience of the Navajo people at the Bosque Redondo from 1864 to 1868.”(Churchill 115)

It is not hard to claim that Nazi Germany’s eastern expansion was based on the US earlier Western expansion. As Hitler himself made clear, he was simply trying to lead Germany to catch up with the imperialism of the US, England and France. This is mildly implied in A People’s History but never stated frankly by Zinn, who insists throughout that the US came close to replicating domestic policy of fascism and not the other way around. Rather, Zinn postulates that the US only surpassed Germany in its ability to level cities with bombs: true of course, but hardly explanatory.

Zinn, a heavyweight within the First World so-called left, typifies its confusion. In sticking with the psuedo-left meme that the Amerikan people are the subject of constant mistreatment, he glosses over an obvious and fundamental understanding: that Amerikan and First World prosperity and wealth is and always has been based on the dispossession, expropriation and exploitation of those considered outside Amerikan tutelage. What would the United States be today without its history of genocide, slavery, and land theft or without the continued exploitation at gunpoint of Third World nations?

Rather than expose and subvert the fault lines of power in Amerikan history, Zinn, much more than authors such as J. Sakai and Ward Churchill, plays directly into them. A People’s History of the United States is a poorly-titled narrative in which everyday Amerikans are victims, not settlers, slave-profiteers or net-exploiters aligned against Third World masses. Rather than approaching history from the perspective of the masses of people, i.e. the global proletariat, Zinn does so from the narrow, self-extolling position rooted firmly in ‘progressive’ Amerikan identity. Such a narrative is convenient for the fake ‘left,’ but is hardly suitable in truly understanding the development of the United States and its people through today. Zinn’s eclecticism regarding national oppression and imperialism is not incidental but part of a theme of obscuring its fundamental role in the world. Zinn’s work, in short, is not a “people’s history.” It does not provide an adequate history of the US from the perspective of those oppressed by it. Hence, neither does it offer any semblance of a way forward, towards ending US oppression and capitalist-imperialism.

-Nick Brown

Works Cited:

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. New York, NY: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005. Print.

Sakai, J. Settlers: the Mythology of the White Proletariat. Chicago: Morningstar, 1989. Print.

Churchill, Ward. Since Predator Came: Notes from the Struggle for American Indian Liberation. Littleton, CO: Aigis Publications, 1995. Print.

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Posted on May 5, 2012, in Radical History, White Leftism & Neocolonialism, White Power and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Howard Zinn’s Chauvinism Versus Real People’s History.

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