Editor’s Note: This article is based on a section of part one of a four-part article originally published in volume 2 of the Dissident Review.
There is perhaps no individual who has done as much damage to modern historical thought as the communist Howard Zinn.
Zinn’s 1980 work A People’s History of the United States crystallized decades of Marxist historical revision into one book – a polemical diatribe against America, the West, Christianity, and more. Written in a tone of haughty revelation, it gained instant popularity among leftist students, who felt that they were reading “the history that their teachers were hiding from them,” that they had been shown what’s behind a centuries-old curtain of academic conspiracy. Zinn boldly claims to tell the real history of America – America from the bottom up, from the oppressed and subjugated masses. A People’s History quickly became a sort of Bible for communist historical thought, and elements of it filtered into the public discourse. His view, subversive at the time, is instantly recognizable today as the debased foundation of all post-Zinn historical discussion:
My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different: that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.
Thus, in that inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history, I prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish, of the Mexican war as seen by the deserting soldiers of Scott’s army, of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile mills, of the Spanish-American war as seen by the Cubans, the conquest of the Philippines as seen by black soldiers on Luzon, the Gilded Age as seen by southern farmers, the First World War as seen by socialists, the Second World War as seen by pacifists, the New Deal as seen by blacks in Harlem, the postwar American empire as seen by peons in Latin America.
History as told by the losers; by the weak… by the dysgenic and uncivilized, who are held up as bastions of morality in contrast to the supposed evil of the well-turned out, beautiful, and civilized. Nietzsche called this slave morality. Today, it is an easily recognizable, pedestrian expression of leftist resentment.
It is in Zinn’s work that we see the first popular portrayal of Christopher Columbus as a genocidal, greedy maniac. All debate on the conquest of the New World since 1980 draws entirely from Zinn’s take on the subject, comprising the first chapter of his work. In it he roundly condemns Columbus as a murderer, torturer, slaver, rapist… and an idiot. An incompetent navigator who ended up searching for nonexistent gold to appease investors, using violence where words failed. Zinn sensationalizes the brutality of Spanish rule, how they “hunted natives with dogs,” raped and pillaged indiscriminately, and “hanged or burned alive all those who fought back” against their apparent fool’s errand for gold. He then extrapolates this view to Hernán Cortés, Francisco Pizarro, John Smith, and other settlers of the New World, all of whom apparently had no higher aims than complete genocide.
In Zinn’s perverted version of the Age of Exploration, Europeans sailed blindly into the distance with swords in hand and guns loaded, their bloodshot eyes searching the horizon for the first sight of land which they could pillage and debase. The discovery of America, the founding mythos of the New World, became not a tale of pioneering spirit but rather a sort of original sin, relegating all American civilization to tainted byproducts of genocide. He explicitly frames it as such: “Thus began the history, five hundred years ago, of the European invasion of the Indian settlements in the Americas. That beginning… is conquest, slavery, death.” He ascribes this uniquely European evil to greed, and not just simple greed but “frenzy”:
…the frenzy in the early capitalist states of Europe for gold, for slaves, for products of the soil, to pay the bondholders and stockholders of the expeditions, to finance the monarchical bureaucracies rising in Western Europe, to spur the growth of the new money economy rising out of feudalism, to participate in what Karl Marx would later call “the primitive accumulation of capital.”
In recent decades, this Marxist drivel has become the foundation for all public education on the Age of Exploration, and the unquestionable basis of all public debate on the matter. Despite the pleas of scholars – both Left and Right – who recognize the academic dishonesty of Zinn’s work, it remains at the forefront.
And dishonest it is. Nearly every quote is manipulated, every fact slanted, every sweeping generalization made in bad faith.
But as we begin our examination of Zinn’s dishonest scholarship, it would be bad form to lift points and phrases from another author and avoid giving them credit. So, I would like to acknowledge here that some of the following criticisms – namely the elements about Zinn’s primary-source quote manipulation – are not originally mine. They have been drawn from the excellent scholar Mary Grabar, in her paradigm-breaking work Debunking Howard Zinn.
I have chosen to mention this reference in the text rather than the bibliography simply because it is a courtesy that Zinn did not extend to his colleagues, whose ideas he “very liberally paraphrased” without credit. In fact, his criticism of Columbus was lifted almost in its entirety from Hans Koning’s 1976 work Columbus: His Enterprise – Exploding the Myth. So, not only are his points weak and outright propagandistic – they were also stolen. Grabar exposed the plagiarism in her book, beginning with this damning passage:
The text on pages 1-3 of A People’s History—Zinn’s opening narrative about how Columbus cruelly exploited the generosity of the Arawaks—is paraphrased mostly from Columbus pages 51-58. From the middle of Zinn’s page three to the middle of page four, he follows Koning’s pages 59-70; then on the bottom half of page four and the top half of page five, he uses Koning’s pages 82-84. Zinn lifts wholesale from Koning the very same quotations of Columbus. He also includes an attack on the historian Samuel Eliot Morison, just like Koning—complete with references to the Vietnam War.
In later chapters, Zinn would go on to lift ideas from Yale professor Edward Countryman, whose work was not even listed in the bibliography of A People’s History.
It is for this reason that engaging with Zinn “in good faith” is impossible. His work was dishonest, his motives were purely political, and his methods were condemnable. This is incredibly common among so-called subversives; if you’re going to write leftist agitprop, at least be original.
But originality aside, the points themselves fall apart under scrutiny. This begins with the very first quote Zinn uses, allegedly a damning description of Columbus’ sordid motives, written by his own hand in his log:
They… brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned… They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features… They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane… They would make fine servants… With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.
When compiled like this, it’s quite the condemnation. However, Zinn’s ellipses are doing some heavy lifting, to say the least. Whereas ellipses are traditionally used to exclude few words irrelevant to the point, Zinn uses them to exclude entire paragraphs, even drawing from diary entries days apart. Like most of Zinn’s quotes, this is a cobbled-together mess of out-of-context sentences. The initial description (“well-built, with good bodies and handsome features”) is entire paragraphs apart from “they would make fine servants.” In fact, the latter quote is only an elaboration on a completely separate observation. From Columbus’ log:
I saw some who bore marks of wounds on their bodies, and I made signs to them to ask how this came about, and they indicated to me that people came from other islands, which are near, and wished to capture them, and they defended themselves. And I believed and still believe that they come here from the mainland to take them for slaves.
Thus, the quote “they would make fine servants” is a deceptive use of translation, further alienated by being taken out of context; in the original, it was only speculation about why these natives in particular must have been valued by neighboring tribes as slaves. And then, the sentence which follows the next ellipsis is taken from an entry two days later! With these words, instead of writing some evil plan, Columbus was remarking on the Arawak’s communitarian lifestyle, something he found alien and savage – and of course, something that Zinn elevates as a moral good.
This is another powerful myth that began with Zinn. The idea of the peaceful native; the progressive and nonviolent Indian, who lived a life of perfect tranquility and had no notion of European brutality. This was an incredibly new viewpoint in American thinking. Within Zinn’s lifetime, the Indian Wars had existed in living memory – brutal guerilla conflicts characterized by civilian raids, torture, and scalping. But Zinn disregards this, and instead elevates the Amerindian natives to some sort of proto-communist feminists, who were corrupted by the intrusion of European backwardness and barbarity, most particularly by the detested introduction of Christianity. In his slander of Columbus, Zinn makes sure to paint the natives as contemporary progressives: they had “no churches, or at least no temples”; they practiced free love; their women had abortions at will; they lived in harmony with the earth; they never went to war “on the orders of chiefs or captains.” These points are made via selective quoting from Bartolomé de las Casas, himself a hyperbolic and untrustworthy chronicler, and are meant to elicit a very particular conclusion – one that Zinn never outright states, but throughout his book leads readers to again and again.
This conclusion is that “natural life” is inherently progressive, inherently socialist. That Western civilization was uniquely evil for having developed the sins of prejudice, and class, and capital. Zinn holds a deep hatred for European and American civilization, and while he refuses to outright say it, this is the conclusion that he wants his readers (impressionable young students) to draw. The entire goal of A People’s History is to instill in the youth the belief that all of human history has been the struggle between “the people”, who just want peaceful communitarian living, and evil Western aristocrats, who plunge the world into suffering and injustice for material gain. It’s communist propaganda, clear as day, which is unsurprising coming from Zinn – an open communist himself.
In order to push this propaganda, Zinn deduced that he would need to make readers hate their ancestry and draw no pride from any element of Western civilization. To Zinn and his sycophants, Western civilization is a blight on the world, a destructive force that needs to be eliminated. So, heroes like Columbus or Cortés need to be defamed and destroyed in the public eye. One must assume that this is how he justified to himself the brazen lies he wrote about Columbus and his contemporaries: “the ends justify the means.” Columbus stood as a symbol of Western greatness, an embodiment of the frontier spirit – and for that reason he had to be destroyed.
However, this entire ideology falls flat in the face of historical truth.
The natives were distinctly not peaceful and communitarian. In fact, they were brutally savage toward each other, long before “the white man pushed them to violence,” which is Zinn’s explicit framing. Wars and slave raids between tribes were common, often including ritual cannibalism – a barbaric and shocking practice to Columbus and his men. Zinn, of course, excuses these by saying “casualties seemed small,” and later pointing to them as “violence between groups of the oppressed.” In his view, violence is always justified when “oppressed groups” do it, but always detestable when Europeans do it.
Another omission comes in his glowing prose about the natives’ peaceful progressivism, which excludes details about Arawak sexual morality, or rather the lack thereof. It wasn’t quite the feminist paradise he portrays; girls as young as eight were offered to Columbus as gifts, with assurances that they were virgins. Horrified at the proposition, Columbus had them fed and clothed, and returned them immediately. Immoralities like these among the natives were suppressed by the explorers, which Zinn ignores and other historians depict as some kind of travesty. Generally, when leftists lament the “destruction of traditional cultural practices,” this is the sort of thing they’re referring to – disgusting, violent, or immoral native practices banned by European Christians.
This is one of the many cases in which Columbus and his men acted completely morally, which of course are absent from Zinn’s diatribe against him. In fact, Columbus’ first priority, above any notion of repaying his investors or securing resources, was to ensure the conversion, salvation, and safety of the natives. Columbus took slaves as a matter of course – as was practice among even the primitive tribal peoples he encountered – but he was primarily concerned with their well-being and conversion to Christianity… far different than Zinn’s image of working them to death for hallucinated gold. Additionally, he on many occasions ordered his crew to treat them kindly; Zinn omits this, and includes instances of poor treatment in direct defiance of Columbus’ orders as an indictment of the man himself, implying that Columbus sanctioned meaningless abuses against the natives. He even places Columbus at the center of fantastical orgies of violence, with mass beheadings and slicing of limbs. This is factually untrue, and unsupported by Columbus’ log or even the histrionic account of Las Casas.
I could continue breaking down Zinn’s narrative for many more pages, but it would be trite. The important point to realize is that Zinn’s “takedown” of Columbus – the basis of all modern debate on the Age of Exploration – was an outright lie, a plagiarized work of incredibly dishonest scholarship. More importantly, it was propaganda, rhetoric entirely aimed at destroying all positive connotations of the American founding, Western civilization, and Christianity. This extends to his coverage of other conquistadors and settlers, who he doesn’t even bother to cover in depth. He recognized the cultural significance of Christopher Columbus, and knew that if he skewered that symbol, the rest would fall in turn. This lie became a perverted version of Genesis for the new Left; a story in which White Europeans committed the true original sin, polluting the Edenic New World with their evil ideas of capital and conquest and Christianity.
It is a blatant lie, from people whose only goal is to make you to hate yourself and give up on everything you stand for. That alone should be good reason to discard it in its entirety.
Even with all of this said, modern propaganda works like a fungus, not a plant. One cannot merely “kill it at its roots” and watch as the rest withers away. In the forty-three years since Zinn’s deceptive attack on Columbus, a distaste for the Age of Exploration and its heroes permeates throughout American culture, taking many subtle and differentiated forms.
In particular, Zinn’s anti-Columbus stance is expanded along different axes, usually ahistorically and as a mere rhetorical convenience. As in Zinn’s original work, the cause takes precedence over the truth, and facts are manipulated to make sure that no one, under any circumstances, has a positive view of the Age of Exploration.
One example of an expansion made out of rhetorical convenience is the notion that Columbus was a poor navigator; that the conquistadors were poor fighters and tacticians; that the Age of Exploration was undertaken by men of no particular strength, intelligence, or will.
This argument is appended to the typical moralizing in order to prevent what I call the “Viking effect” from taking hold – that is, the modern idolization of a group despite its brutality. This refers to the limited cases in which leftists will permit the valorization of conquest, where the aesthetic virtue of the warrior is allowed to overtake concerns about morality and progressivism. This positive perception of “anti-progressive” cultures is allowed to an extent which directly correlates with the culture’s distance from modern Western civilization; thus, the Spartans and the Romans and the Vikings can be seen as “cool” warrior cultures, but perceiving the conquistadors in the same way is not permitted. A similar standard is applied to medieval knights, for similar reasons – but it seems that the conquistadors get a particularly bad reputation as bumbling idiots.
Of course, this was not the case. Columbus’ name was once a symbol of naval adventurism and the pioneer spirit for a reason. His voyage was an act of navigational genius and vital risk-taking. He was a frontiersman in the truest sense, venturing into the unknown for glory and the thrill of discovery. The most comprehensive biography of Columbus, Admiral of the Ocean Sea by Samuel Eliot Morison, captures the spirit of his discovery well:
Other discoveries there have been more spectacular than that of this small, flat sandy island that rides out ahead of the American continent, breasting the trade winds. But it was there that the Ocean for the first time “loosed the chains of things” as Seneca had prophesied, gave up the secret that had baffled Europeans since they began to inquire what lay beyond the western horizon’s rim. Stranger people than the gentle Tainos, more exotic plants than the green verdure of Guanahani have been discovered, even by the Portuguese before Columbus; but the discovery of Africa was but an unfolding of a continent already glimpsed, whilst San Salvador, rising from the sea at the end of a thirty-three-day westward sail, was a clean break with past experience. Every tree, every plant that the Spaniards saw was strange to them, and the natives were not only strange but completely unexpected, speaking an unknown tongue and resembling no race of which even the most educated of the explorers had read in the tales of travelers from Herodotus to Marco Polo. Never again may mortal men hope to recapture the amazement, the wonder, the delight of those October days in 1492 when the New World gracefully yielded her virginity to the conquering Castilians.
In A People’s History, Zinn takes special care to slander Morison, because Zinn is incapable of understanding the free and wild spirit described in passages like this. In fact, he despises it. The call of the untamed distance, of the open steppe, of the tumultuous sea – these register only contempt in Zinn’s perverted mind. The call of the frontier is decidedly un-leftist, unequal, anti-progressive, and thus in communist thought it is despised. Besides, Zinn hates this view because Morison was an actual historian, who in his research on Columbus did groundbreaking work by reenacting the explorer’s voyage across the Atlantic. Ideologically, Zinn found it reprehensible, and personally he resented that he was unable to produce such scholarship. But Zinn aside, it is worth discussing Morison’s more balanced perspective on Columbus.
In his voyage across the Atlantic, Columbus entered the unknown, a trip with no clear path and absolutely no precedent; and yet, he succeeded. His goals were myriad and difficult to understand in a purely modern frame. Yes, he wanted to secure a sea route to Asia for trade, but that is not all. Columbus also aimed to secure allies against the Islamic tide, which Spain had only in living memory managed to push out of Iberia. Columbus wanted to reach the unknown lands that Marco Polo had once walked; to proselytize to the Great Khan and convert him to Christianity, securing Eastern allies with which European Christendom could halt Islamic expansion. This goal undermines modern understandings of the Age of Exploration, as well as fifteenth-century Europe as a whole; in order to understand Columbus’ motivation for reaching the East via the West, one must accept the medieval era as having been characterized by a civilizational clash between Christianity and Islam, a concept I expounded on in The Myth of the Dark Ages (DR Vol. I). While Columbus was raising funds and support for his expedition, the Reconquista appeared to be merely on hold – a bloody conflict which would inevitably rise again. Thus, securing allies against Islamic conquest was a life-or-death proposition, an insurance policy against future Muslim incursions into Spanish territory. Perhaps, Columbus speculated, with enough funding and enough allies, he could launch a new Crusade to finally retake the Holy Land. This was aspirational, but it is telling that religious motives were Columbus’ highest ambition; he could have dreamed of conquering all that lie across the Atlantic, but even when it became clear that he had reached something other than Asia, his “moonshot” goal remained one of religious fervor.
Besides requiring a more nuanced view of contemporary history, accepting this motive requires recognizing Columbus as a pious and “real” Christian – a concept which is seen as laughable by Zinn et al. The voyage to the New World, contrary to what sneering atheists insist in the public square, was in every sense a Christian mission. Even when it became clear that Columbus had not reached outlying islands of India, that mission remained Christian, changing only in methodology.
Columbus’ log supports this on multiple occasions. For example: “I want the natives to develop a friendly attitude toward us because I know that they are a people who can be made free and converted to our Holy Faith more by love than by force.” This piety is echoed even by the most uncharitable historians. Koning (whom Zinn plagiarized much of his Columbus “scholarship” from) even had to admit Columbus’ deep faith: “…in that religious and bigoted age, Columbus stood out as a very fierce Catholic. When he discussed his westward voyage, he always dwelt on its religious aspects…”
Even Las Casas, whose chronicle of Spanish rule in the New World was extensively weaponized by Zinn, admired Columbus’ Christian goals and piety. Instead of scorning Columbus, Las Casas lionized the explorer, seeing him as the larger-than-life figure which Zinn would later call a “fiction”:
Many is the time I have wished that God would again inspire me and that I had Cicero’s gift of eloquence to extol the indescribable service to God and to the whole world which Christopher Columbus rendered at the cost of such pain and dangers, such skill and expertise, when he so courageously discovered the New World…
Among his natural attributes… [he] was a tall, imposing, good-natured, kind, daring, courageous, and pious man.
The point here is that Columbus was a larger-than-life figure; that he deserved his mythologization as the pioneer discoverer of America in the name of Christianity. This is the one fact that Zinn does his best to subvert, the one truth that is most heavily suppressed today.
While Zinn does his absolute best to drag Columbus, Cortés, Pizarro, and similar through the mud, he cannot escape the simple fact that they were great, in the ancient sense of the word. By their very nature, these men were “larger-than-life.” Their contemporaries described them as awe-inspiring, and the natives they encountered often saw them as gods. They were men of force and vitality, who did great things: they sailed off into unknown lands, conquered every place they touched, and spread their religion and language so strongly that there are millions more speakers of Spanish and Portuguese in the New World than the Old. Their motives ranged from starting a new Crusade to finding a city of gold, but all were herculean projects – aspirational goals with charismatic figureheads, each inspiring dozens or hundreds to risk their lives for a slim chance at success. Then, upon landing in the New World with few men and limited supplies, they tamed the untouched wilderness and often-hostile peoples of the Americas. They built forts, towns, and missions; later, these became sprawling cities, beacons of civilization some four thousand miles away from the nearest European harbor.
All modern slander cannot stand up to the fact that the explorers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries are some of the most impressive people in history. Their lives would stand as great if told to an ancient Greek, Roman, Assyrian, or Mongol. There is in the Age of Exploration a Classical sense of vitality, of excellence and triumph.
This brings us back to the “Viking effect.” Because of this innate sense of Classical greatness present in the explorers and conquerors of these centuries, much effort is dedicated to making them seem banal or incompetent, unworthy of special interest beyond scorn. Besides slander of their motives – most often a reduction to the simple drive for pillage – and their religion – by calling their Christianity skin-deep, a mask under which they concealed raw greed – historians and culture warriors have a particular tendency to dismiss the Age of Exploration as being dominated by men who were boring… which in historical education is perhaps the greatest sin of all.
But Columbus and the explorers that followed him to the New World were anything but boring. Their lives and adventures are worthy of dozens of blockbuster movies, and it is merely politics that prevents their lives from being well-known today. These explorers demonstrated the same drive and talent as Alcibiades or Themistocles, yet have been unjustly filed into the dustbin of history in a blatant propaganda effort.