I'm about halfway through Zinn's "A People's History," so here are a few more thoughts:
1. What's most striking about the book is how little the little things can change. Yeah, the overarching theme of the book is that the rich use any means necessary to keep social hegemony over the poor and always will. But small things, like bits of rhetoric, show up and you'd swear they came from 2007. Zinn quotes from Henry Adams commenting on the 1892 presidential election:
"We are here plunged in politics funnier than words can express. Very great issues are involved...But the amusing thing is that no one talks about real interests. By common consent they agree to let these alone. We are afraid to discuss them. Instead of this the press is engaged in a most amusing dispute whether Mr. Cleveland had an illegitimate child and did or did not live with more than one mistress."
The first time through I read that as "Mr. Clinton," and then had a good giggle about it.
In the 1840s, the many Whigs opposed President Polk's insistence on war against Mexico, but were too afraid that if they tried to pull funding they'd look like they were hanging the army out to dry and called traitors by they other party.
2. President Bush has said that one of his favorite books is "Theodore Rex," the biography of Teddy Roosevelt. Zinn quotes TR as telling the Naval War College, "All the great masterful races have been fighting races...No triumph of peace is quite so great as the supreme triumph of war." And some people wonder why Bush calls himself a "war president." If you take the military out of his record, you get seven years of, well, not much. Without war, the president has no identity except as a bumbling public speaker. With it, he gets to wear a flightsuit for speeches, and even if he's resented around the world, he's somebody. So don't ever let yourself believe, even for a second, that armed conflict was a "last resort." The thing you want to define your life is never a last resort.
3. Supposing a person asked the president himself to point to a non-lethal accomplishment of his time in office, he'd probably point to No Child Left Behind.
From Zinn: "It was in the middle and late nineteenth century that high schools developed as aids to the industrial system, that history was widely required in the curriculum to foster patriotism. Loyalty oaths, teacher certification, and the requirement of citizenship were introduced to control both the education and the political quality of teachers. Also, in the latter part of the century, school officials -- not teachers -- were given control over textbooks."
Teach what we want you to teach, or go under. And when you do well, we'll reward you with more money, and post it all over the bulletin board as a quantitative proof that American kids are getting smarter.