Howard Zinn, Paul Buhle and Mike Konopacki, 'A People's History of American Empire'

IssueMarch 2009
Review by Ian Sinclair

Combining American historian Howard Zinn’s bestselling A People’s History of the United States and his autobiography You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train, A People’s History of American Empire is an inspirational “history from below” in comic form.

Starting with 9/11, the book takes the form of an extended lecture from Zinn, focusing on lesser-known episodes from American history, including the invasion of the Philippines in 1898 (where an early form of waterboarding was used during interrogations), the 1913 Ludlow massacre of striking workers and the overthrowing of Iranian democracy in 1953.

This long-term view of American intervention aims to increase our understanding of the recent invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, which Zinn argues “are not unique events” but “part of a continuing pattern of American behaviour.”

As befitting someone who believes the objective study of history is impossible, several chapters follow Zinn’s own extraordinary life story, from growing up in the depression, to fighting as a bombardier in the Second World War and his activism in support of black civil rights in the 1950s and against the Vietnam war in the 1960s.

With accessible and fun illustrations from Mike Konopacki and an excellent bibliography for those who wish to explore individual topics in more detail, A People’s History of American Empire is a great introduction to both radical history and the hidden history of the United States.

The comic book format will be especially enticing to younger people first beginning to show an interest in world affairs. Zinn’s passion for social justice and respect for working-people shines through, the pages littered with the deeds of heroes forgotten by mainstream history such as socialist leader Eugene Debs, anti-war activist Dan Berrigan and anarchist Emma Goldman.

Although the book’s focus on the systematic atrocities the US government has visited upon anyone endangering their economic interests could be construed as a description of an all-powerful entity, the book’s final message in a positive one.

Highlighting how persistent activism and protest have often been successful in constraining established power and producing progressive change, Zinn concludes: “We forget how often we have been astonished by the sudden crumbling of institutions…. by extraordinary changes in people’s thoughts, by unexpected eruptions of rebellion against tyrannies… by the quick collapse of systems of power that seemed invincible.”

Topics: History
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