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Littler Books cover of A People's History of the United States Summary

A People's History of the United States Book Summary, Notes, and Quotes

Howard Zinn

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What it's about in a one sentence summary:

A powerful account of the less told American history that reshapes our understanding of the United States.

Bullet Point Summary, Notes, and Quotes

  1. "There is an underside to every age about which history does not often speak, because history is written from records left by the privileged."
  2. The United States is a country founded on exploitation, with the powerful few enriching themselves at the expense of others while shaping the history to their benefit. This land was built upon racism, slavery, and class conflict, a legacy that remains in today's rampant inequality.
  3. Americans have been taught the heroic tale of Christopher Columbus, an Italian explorer working for Spain, discovering America, but the darker side of the story is often untold.
    1. Columbus saw the native Arawak people as subjects to be subjugated.
    2. The Europeans abused the natives -- forcing them to find and mine resources, killing children, raping women, sending the abled back to Spain into lifelong slavery.
    3. Columbus landed in North America on October 12, 1492. By 1515, over 83% (250,000) of Arawaks died. By 1650, the Arawak population was completely eliminated.
  4. "Since the Indians were better woodsmen than the English and virtually impossible to track down, the method was to feign peaceful intentions, let them settle down and plant their corn wherever they chose, and then, just before harvest, fall upon them, killing as many as possible and burning the corn."
  5. Similar to Columbus's expedition, the English settlers also eradicated the Powhatan and Pequot tribes after landing in America.
  6. The Iroquois lived communally with women holding power, unlike European colonists who expected female submission.
  7. Europeans resented the Iroquois' resistance and resourcefulness, as the colonists struggled to survive while the natives thrived.
  8. The Europeans committed genocide by distributing smallpox infected blankets, reducing native populations drastically (from 3,000 to 313 between 1642 and 1764).
  9. In 1676. Nathaniel Bacon led a group of disenfranchised settlers to rebel against Colonial Governor William Berkeley, demanding the expulsion of Native Americans and more political representation. They engaged in violent clashes with both the government and Indigenous peoples.
    1. This was the first rebellion of disgruntled frontiersmen in North American colonies.
    2. The rebellion ultimately led to the burning of Jamestown. However, it was eventually quelled, and resulted in colonies with more entrenched slavery and hardened class divisions as planters sought to suppress future uprisings.
  10. To obtain more slaves, the Dutch and the English established the African slave trade, in which 10-15 million people were captured and transported in abhorrent conditions to America by 1800, with a third dying en route. This led to a booming plantation economy in Jamestown, Virginia where by 1763, half the population were slaves.
  11. African slaves staged uprisings from the start, defying the false assumptions of their innate submissive nature.
    1. In 1712, 21 were executed in New York for planning a revolt killing nine whites.
    2. Many early uprisings united white servants and black slaves, challenging racist ideas.
  12. To eliminate collaboration between black and lower-class white people, laws were passed to forbid interaction between black people and white people.
  13. The Founding Fathers were wealthy landowners. They created a government protecting property owners, not slaves, women or the poor.
    1. For example, there were laws requiring at least 5,000 pounds of property to be eligible to run for governor.
    2. By 1770, the top 1% controlled 44% of the nation's wealth -- an inequality that persists to this day.
    3. "The country therefore was not ‘born free' but born slave and free, servant and master, tenant and landlord, poor and rich."
  14. "The Constitution … illustrates the complexity of the American system: that it serves the interests of a wealthy elite, but also does enough for small property owners, for middle-income mechanics and farmers, to build a broad base of support. The slightly prosperous people who make up this base of support are buffers against the blacks, the Indians, the very poor whites. They enable the elite to keep control with a minimum of coercion, a maximum of law -- all made palatable by the fanfare of patriotism and unity."
  15. "Charles Beard warned us that governments -- including the government of the United States -- are not neutral … they represent the dominant economic interests, and ... their constitutions are intended to serve these interests."
  16. The Founding Fathers incited war to divert attention from economic issues and suppress popular movements, a tactic future leaders would continue to use.
  17. The women first arrived in America were isolated and expected to be servile to men. They lived in poor conditions and were mistreated, often whipped and slept on floors.
  18. "They were not mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, they were absent in the Constitution and they were invisible in the new political democracy. They were the women of early America."
  19. Women fought for improvement after the American revolution.
    1. Female textile workers went on strike for better conditions.
    2. Literacy for women doubled to 80% from 1760 to 1840.
  20. Many influential anti-slavery advocates were women, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, whose 1848 Seneca Falls Convention marked the first woman's rights convention and launched a sustaining movement.
  21. Despite treaties, tribes were repeatedly pushed further west in the Trail of Tears.
    1. The original meaning of "Alabama" could be "here we may rest", named by the Cherokee hoping to finally settle there after two prior forced relocations. In 1831 they were expelled again.
    2. About one in four Cherokees lost their lives marching west in the harsh winter.
  22. In 1845 President James Knox Polk initiated a campaign to extend US borders to the west coast.
    1. In 1846 Polk provoked Mexico to fire the first shot in order to frame the incoming war to acquire more land as national defense.
    2. Poorly equipped immigrants were sent to fight and thousands died of illness.
    3. Perpetually drunk American soldiers terrorized Mexican villages. Mexican guerrillas responded with attacks.
    4. After a brutal war, Polk succeeded in 1848 -- the Rio Grande became the Texas border, and the US gained California and New Mexico for $15 million.
  23. The Civil War was not fought just to end slavery but arose due to conflicting policy preferences between Northern industrialists and Southern plantation owners.
  24. President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, which ended slavery, was more of a strategic war measure to get slaves to flee and force Southern surrender, and not pure humanitarianism.
  25. The 13th Amendment outlawed slavery, but conditions for blacks barely improved. The government assisted former slave owners, who could vote, not the powerless ex-slaves.
    1. Union General William Tecumseh Sherman tried reserving the Georgian coastline (forty acres and a mule) for freed families, but President Andrew Johnson, Lincoln's successor after his assassination in 1865, rescinded this. Eventually almost all granted land during the war was restored to its pre-war white owners.
  26. In the 1800s, workers across the US realized that striking together gave them power to improve their working conditions. The working class even successfully elected legislators, challenging establishment politicians.
  27. Strikes sometimes ended tragically. In 1877, 100 died in a railroad workers strike after the National Guard was summoned. Media coverage of the strike highlighted the necessity for increased collective strength in averting massacres.
  28. Many socialist unions formed, alarming the capitalist establishment. The radical and inclusive Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union was the most powerful, organizing over 150 strikes nationwide. Its co-founder Eugene Victor Debs became the Socialist Party of America's frequent presidential candidate.
  29. The Spanish-American War in 1898, and the Philippine-American War (1899-1902) were examples of American imperialism. They were driven by racist ideals and were opposed by most of the American people.
    1. The Spanish-American War ended Spanish colonial rule in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, and granted the US control over several territories.
    2. The Philippine-American War followed the Spanish-American War. The conflict resulted in a brutal, multi-year insurgency. American forces used controversial tactics, including scorched-earth campaigns. The war resulted in the Philippines becoming an American colony.
  30. President Woodrow Wilson entered World War I after Germany sank the Lusitania with Americans aboard. It was omitted that the ocean liner also contained a large amount of military assets.
  31. WWI was an opportunity for the United States to establish economic footholds in foreign countries. Large American monopolies like Andrew Carnegie's US Steel, Rockerfeller family's Standard Oil, and J.P. Morgan's railroads and bank benefited immensely from the resulting war policies.
  32. Wilson passed the Espionage Act, banning anti-war speech with twenty year prison terms, and the Selective Service Act, which allowed the government to draft people into the army.
  33. The US entered World War II not purely because of the Pearl Harbor attack and Nazi Germany's systematic racism (the US also had this -- e.g., Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation), but because of economical benefits, not unlike WWI.
    1. The US used WWII to access foreign oil and markets.
    2. Japan had policies that hurt US imports and resources.
    3. The US was already discussing justifications for a war with Japan before the Pearl Harbor attack.
  34. The profits of American corporations that had military contracts rose astronomically, creating the military–industrial complex.
    1. Charles Wilson, the president of General Motors, advocated for a "permanent war economy" for the country.
  35. Military spending soared and remained sky-high after WWII on persistent dubious threats from communists and other countries like Russia, Korea and Vietnam.
  36. The civil rights movement in the US from 1954 to 1968 aimed to end racial segregation and discrimination through nonviolent means.
    1. Rosa Parks' refusal to sit at the back of the bus led to a 381 day long protest and progress in deeming segregation as unconstitutional in US laws.
    2. March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was a historic civil rights event held on August 28, 1963, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech to 250,000 attendees, advocating for civil rights and economic opportunities for African Americans. However, before the protest, its leaders agreed to censor more militant activists like John Lewis following conversations with the Kennedy administration.
  37. Six years of government inaction followed the March on Washington, with many black deaths by police and lynchings. By 1967, disillusioned black individuals abandoned nonviolence, leading to major urban riots and the 1968 Civil Rights Act, which aimed to improve anti-discrimination laws.
    1. The imperfect act still denied rights to minorities when the government deployed law enforcement to suppress civil disturbances, and defined a riot as merely three or more people threatening violence.
  38. The US government justified the Vietnam war by setting the narrative that the US is helping Vietnam achieve independence from a communist regime. However, the government was privately interested in Vietnam's rich resources.
    1. To gain support for war, president Lyndon Johnson lied about a Vietnamese attack on US boats when in reality the US attacked Vietnam.
    2. The US gained substantial media attention for the atrocities and unprecedented destruction it committed, especially the shocking My Lai massacre, in which up to 500 people, many being women and children, were ruthlessly executed.
    3. The war was opposed by most Americans and sparked massive anti-war protests. The Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam demonstration in 1969 had two million protesters participate nationwide, with 100,000 of them in Boston Common to attend an anti-war speech by Senator George McGovern.
  39. Many significant movements happened during the 1960s, including second-wave feminism, the prison abolition movement, the Native American rights movement, and counterculture.
    1. First-wave feminism focused on issues like suffrage and property rights. Second-wave feminism focused on issues like sexuality, family, the workplace, reproductive rights, and other ingrained inequalities.
    2. The prison abolition movement sought to replace prisons that emphasized punishment with facilities that focused on rehabilitation.
    3. The Native American rights movement, or the Red Power movement, demanded self-determination for Native Americans.
    4. Counterculture refers to a cultural movement that challenges prevailing societal norms. Counterculture figures from this era include Bob Dylan (American singer-songwriter), Ivan Illich (Austrian priest and theologian), and Jonathan Kozol (American writer).
  40. By the 1970s, the American sentiment turned against the government, with most believing the government is more concerned with their own interests.
  41. The government expanded its military actions without congressional approval, and supported oppressive regimes like the Philippines, Iran, Indonesia, and Nicaragua that used violence to eliminate dissidents.
  42. In 1990, President Geroge H. W. Bush initiated the Gulf War against Iraq to secure Middle East oil resources and bolster approval ratings. Publicly, it was framed as liberating Kuwait from Iraqi invaders.
  43. Bill Clinton's administration promised change, but most has remained the same.
  44. There will likely be a radical movement against inequality in America in the future, consisting of diverse groups and the middle-class dissatisfied with the nation's status quo.
    1. "The memory of oppressed people is one thing that cannot be taken away, and for such people, with such memories, revolt is always an inch below the surface."
    2. "The cry of the poor is not always just, but if you don't listen to it, you will never know what justice is."
  45. The military budget continued to skyrocket after the 9/11 attacks, redirecting vast amounts of tax money to government contractors.
  46. US government actions, not its people's beliefs or practices, fuel the hatred abroad by oppressing others for economic gains.
  47. "What struck me as I began to study history was how nationalist fervor -- inculcated from childhood on by pledges of allegiance, national anthems, flags waving and rhetoric blowing -- permeated the educational systems of all countries, including our own. I wonder now how the foreign policies of the United States would look if we wiped out the national boundaries of the world, at least in our minds, and thought of all children everywhere as our own. Then we could never drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, or napalm on Vietnam, or wage war anywhere, because wars, especially in our time, are always wars against children, indeed our children."

A People's History of the United States: Resources