While I disagree with him on a host of political issues, I follow Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog at The Atlantic closely because of his consistently well written and fascinating posts on history and literature. Many of these are on the Civil War, which has in recent years become a topic of great interest to him.
There was a particularly interesting pair of these a couple weeks ago in which Coates and his commenters discussed (in the context of Ron Paul’s repeated statements that the Civil War was unnecessary) the fact that left wing icon Howard Zinn actually peddles the several of the neo-confederate tropes: that the Civil War was fought for Northern economic domination and had little to do with slavery, and that a the Civil War clearly wasn’t necessary in order to end slavery anyway. [First post on Ron Paul, Howard Zinn and the Civil War. Second, followup post.] The specific Howard Zinn text that they go after (because it’s conveniently online) is a lecture he gave called Three Holy Wars, in which he tries to make a case for why people should not see the Revolutionary War, American Civil War or American involvement in World War II as moral or just — something he argues is important because seeing any past wars as just allows people to justify other wars on analogy.
Zinn proceeds to run through most of the standard complaints against the “War of Northern Aggression”:
It was really, really bad:
Slavery. Slavery, nothing worse. Slavery. And at the end of the Civil War, there’s no slavery. You can’t deny that. So, yeah, you have to put that on one side of the ledger, the end of slavery. On the other side, you have to put the human cost of the Civil War in lives: 600,000. I don’t know how many people know or learn or remember how many lives were lost in the Civil War, which was the bloodiest, most brutal, ugliest war in our history, from the point of view of dead and wounded and mutilated and blinded and crippled. Six hundred thousand dead in a country of 830 million. Think about that in relation today’s population; it’s as if we fought a civil war today, and five or six million people died in this civil war. Well, you might say, well, maybe that’s worth it, to end slavery. Maybe. Well, OK, I won’t argue that. Maybe. But at least you know what the cost is.
The Civil War didn’t meaningfully free them anyway:
But you also have to think, the slaves were freed, and what happened after that? Were they really freed? Well, they were, actually — there was no more slavery — but the slaves, who had been given promises — you know, forty acres and a mule — they were promised, you know, a little land and some wherewithal so they could be independent, so they needn’t be slaves anymore. Well, they weren’t given anything. They were left without resources. And the result was they were still in the thrall, still under the control of the plantation owner. They were free, but they were not free. There have been a number of studies made of that, you know, in the last decade. Free, but not free. They were not slaves now. They were serfs. They were like serfs on a feudal estate.
And it wasn’t about slavery anyway:
After all, when the war started, it wasn’t Lincoln’s intention to free the slaves. You know that. That was not his purpose in fighting the war. His purpose in fighting the war was to keep Southern territory within the grasp of the central government. You could almost say it was an imperial aim. It was a terrible thing to say, I know. But yeah, I mean, that’s what the war was fought for. Oh, it’s put in a nice way. We say we fought for the Union. You know, we don’t want anybody to secede. Yeah. Why no? What if they want to secede? We’re not going to let them secede. No, we want all that territory.
No, Lincoln’s objective was not to free the slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation came. And by the way, it didn’t free slaves where they were enslaved.
And if we’d just waited, the problem probably would have gone away:
So, the Civil War and its aftermath, you know, have to be looked at in a longer perspective. And yes, the question needs to be asked also: yeah, is it possible if slavery could have been ended without 600,000 dead? We don’t know for sure. And when I mention these possibilities, you know, it’s very hard to imagine how it might have ended, except that we do know that slavery was ended in every other country in the western hemisphere. Slavery was ended in all these others places in the western hemisphere without a bloody civil war.
Zinn is trying to build the case against war in general, and so the arguments he finds most readily to hand are the arguments of defenders of secession. Ironically, this means that he uses exactly the same neo-confederate arguments which Coates and his readers (mostly progressive and strongly influenced by the school of historians such of James M. McPherson who did the research to show that the Civil War was the ultimate civil rights issue) have spent so much time and research rebutting.
There was a certain wistfulness I sensed in Coates and some of his commenters at finding someone some of them had seen as an icon, someone who in many cases was the first one to present a version of history which complicated the simple narrative they’d heard in school, at finding that Zinn had swallowed such a clearly problematic set of justifications in order to drive his overall pacifist historical agenda. I think this underlines one of the huge, huge dangers in ideologically driven history, whether that ideology is left or right, religious or secular. Often such writers do dig up “inconvenient facts” which serve to counter the prevailing narrative. (I remember having similar “aha!” moments reading Paul Johnson’s Modern Times, a book which ultimately I found frustrating because of a similar, though less extreme, willingness to settle for simplistic answers that fit with ideological preferences.) But when writers come to history already knowing what happened and just needing to find the facts to support it — which I think is quite clearly what Zinn was doing in this case — they end up doing their readers a huge disservice even if they do achieve some consciousness raising in the near term, because at some point, if they really do create a fascination with the past in their readers, those readers will hit the realization of betrayal.