In his new book, Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone), Stanford University educator and historian Sam Wineburg has an entire chapter on Howard Zinn’s popular textbook, A People’s History of the United States, which has been in print through multiple editions since 1980 and has sold more than 2.6 million copies. Wineburg says that is “has arguably had a greater influence on how Americans understand their past than any other single book.”

Wineburg’s chapter, entitled “Committing Zinns,” looks at the book’s moves and strategies—what Wineburg calls its “interpretive circuitry.”

When it comes to the atomic bomb, Zinn wants to destroy the narrative that the United States dropped the bomb on Japan with profound regret and as a last resort. For Zinn, the real reason had to do with American flexing its muscles.

“The linchpin of Zinn’s argument,” Wineburg writes, “is an intercepted cable sent by Japanese foreign minister Shigenori Tōgō to his ambassador in Moscow on July 12, 1945.”

Zinn writes:

It was known that Japanese had instructed their ambassador in Moscow to work on a peace negotiations with the Allies. . . .

Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo wired his ambassador in Moscow:

‘Unconditional surrender is the only obstacle to peace.'”

“There’s only one problem with this account,” Wineburg writes. “No such cable exists.”

When historians put words in quotations, they make a covenant with their readers: the words that fall between quotes can be found in exactly the same order, with the exact same phrasing, somewhere in the body of sources known as the documentary record. Quotation marks and their accompanying footnote say to the skeptic: “Don’t believe me? Go look it up for yourself.”

Zinn did not consult the documentary record to find the original cable.

Instead, he relied on a secondary source, Martin Sherwin’s A World Destroyed.

Nor did Sherwin review the original. While Sherwin quotes the words of the cable, his footnote references another secondary source, Robert J. C. Butow’s Japan’s Decision to Surrender.

Butow published his book in 1954, before the full cable was declassified.

Butow also drew on a diary entry by Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal that conveyed the secretary’s impressions of a Japanese intercept that he may or may not have read in its entirety.

To muddy the waters further, Butow edited the cable using multiple ellipses, rather than quoting it word for word.

To take stock: the intercepted Japanese “cable” turns out to be Howard Zinn’s interpretation of Martin Sherwin’s interpretation of Robert Butow’s interpretation of James Forrestal’s interpretation of a War Department briefing, which, through this game of broken telephone, has become the words of a cable that exists nowhere (except in scores of citations on the Internet.

This is not only unfortunate; it’s preventable. The actual cable has been declassified for over fifty years, readily accessible on the website of the University of Wisconsin library.

Of course, historians are fallible. They make mistakes. But this citation hasn’t been correctly despite the book being in print, through multiple editions, for 40 years.

There’s a lesson here for all of us:

  • We all pick the historians we will read and rely upon. Go to the historians who go ad fontes—to the original sources.
  • We should raise questions when historians primarily cite secondary sources.
  • We should be especially bothered when the linchpin of an argument rests on such sources.
  • Finally, when a historian doesn’t issue exact quotes, you know you have a major problem.

(You can read an earlier version of Wineburg’s chapter online.)