Well, I did it. And two days early! One of the few goals I have accomplished recently: After 3 attempts, I have finally finished A People’s History of the United States. My responses may have become a little lack-lustre these past few weeks, but I finished it–all 688 pages. It was the perfect way to spend the last remaining days of 2012–curled up inside my parents’ house, protected from the cold Wisconsin winter, and reading about government corruption and the military industrial complex. I also gifted the book to my father, whom I hope will enjoy it as much as I have. While nothing about this book was an earth-shattering revelation for me (although it would be for a majority of American), Zinn does a nice job of creating links throughout history. He reveals the cycles that play out over and over again, as only the social backdrop changes: the wealthy minority oppressing and exploiting the masses for their own benefit–a cycle that’s perpetuated through divisive classism, racism, and overly-militaristic and imperialistic foreign policy. I happened to watch the movie Cloud Atlas this past weekend, which also presents this notion of repeated cycles in time that retrace the same pattern–those who can see this have have power to break this pattern and burn new paths. This seems to be Zinn’s conclusion as well–that change must happen from the ground up, through united, massive actions, or we are doomed to repeat the same cycles indefinitely. In an effort to break one of my own cycles, I will keep this final response short and share some of Zinn’s most thought-provoking quotes from that last 6 chapters.
Chapter 20: The Seventies: Under Control?
It’s interesting to think of how much the turbulence of the 60s sent waves and ripples into the following decade. Between the Civil Rights Movement, the assassination of MLK, the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation, the 70s were pretty fucked from the get-go. How ironic, then, is Gerald Ford’s comment upon taking office that “Our long national nightmare is over.” In reality, French newspaper editor Claude Julien was more accurate: ”The elimination of Mr. Richard Nixon leaves intact all the mechanisms and all the false values which permitted the Watergate scandal”(545). Nothing changed. Foreign policy remained the same, and one of Ford’s first acts was to pardon Nixon. As Zinn noted, “Nixon would go, but that the power of the President to do anything he wanted in the name of ‘national security’ would stay–this was underscored by a Supreme Court decision in July 1974″ which affirmed the “confidentiality of presidential communications”(547).
“Corporate influence on the White House is a permanent fact of the American system”(547)–unless we change the game.
After our crushing defeat in Vietnam, the U.S. government needed to save face. Henry Kissinger was quoted as saying, “The U.S. must carry out some act somewhere in the world which shows its determination to continue to be a world power”(551)–and military force is the only way to do this?? The next month came the Mayaguez affair. The Mayaguez was an American cargo ship which happened to be sailing past Cambodia (where a revolutionary regime had recently taken over) on its way to Thailand. The ship was stopped and the crew were brought to the mainland. President Ford sent a message demanding their release, but the message was never received. Instead, the 39 crew members, within 3 days, were released, unharmed, and put on a ship headed towards an American fleet. Knowing this, Ford still issued a marine attack of Tang Island, where the crew had been held, losing 41 American soldiers in the process. An unnecessary show of brute force to sooth a hurt ego. ”It was necessary to show the world that giant America, defeated by tiny Vietnam, was still powerful and resolute”(552).
“What seemed to be happening was that the Establishment–Republicans, Democrats, newspapers, television–was closing ranks behind Ford and Kissinger, and behind the idea that American authority must be asserted everywhere in the world”(553). It was one giant conspiracy, of sorts. The public began to see government efforts that aimed to improve America’s reputation, without actually making any substantial changes. ”It was a complex process of consolidation that the system undertook in 1975. It included old-type military actions, like the Mayaguez affair, to assert authority in the world and at home. There was also a need to satisfy a disillusioned public that the system was criticizing and correcting itself. The standard way was to conduct publicized investigations that found specific culprits but left the system intact”(554). And so the government began very public, albeit superficial, examinations of the FBI and CIA, throwing select people under the bus “to give the impression of an honest society correcting itself”(555), while actually leaving the entire corrupt system in working order. You can change the puppets, but the stage is where the real action takes place. With such concerted efforts to regain the confidence of the American public, it amazes me how ineffective they were. They needed only to look at the economy and employment rates to know why.
In a speech at a 1976 Business Council Meeting, Secretary of the Treasury, William Simon noted, “Vietnam, Watergate, student unrest, shifting moral codes, the worst recession in a generation, and a number of other jarring cultural shocks have all combined to create a new climate of questions and doubt…It adds up to a general malaise, a society-wide crisis of institutional confidence…”(558). Around the same time the Trilateral Commission (intellectuals from Japan, the U.S. and Western Europe) issued a report called “The Governability of Democracies.” One contributor–Samuel Huntington, a Harvard professor–identified what he called the “Democratic Distemper” which he explained with: “‘The 1960s witnessed a dramatic upsurge of democratic fervor in America.’ …there was a huge growth of citizen participation ‘in the forms of marches, demonstrations, protest movements, and “cause” organizations.’ There were also ‘markedly higher levels of self-consciousness on the part of blacks, Indians, Chicanos, white ethnic groups, students and women, all of whom became mobilized and organized in new ways…’ There was a ‘marked expansion of white-collar unionism,’ and all this added up to ‘a reassertion of equality as a goal in social, economic and political life’”(559). At the same time, there were signs of diminishing government authority under the pressures of all this organized action. Why is it that this momentum can never be sustained long enough to bring about more substantial change?
The final thought in this chapter turns to the globalizing nature of the economy and the growth of multinational corporations. It was clear that the U.S. was becoming to threatened and too dependent on foreign markets to sustain itself, so these international links allowed its imperialistic ways to span the globe–to just spread the corruption around a little. The wealthy 1% were still the richest mother fuckers, now they just had a whole globe of people to exploit.
Chapter 21: Carter-Reagan-Bush: The Bipartisan Consensus
I have to admit, I have little steam left for the entry on this chapter–it’s another delightfully long chapter, I have had a long day, and I just spent the past hour re-typing what I wrote last night, which apparently didn’t save, thank you WordPress. So, in an effort to get to bed at a decent time and bring a more timely end to this “project,” here are some of my favorite quotes from Chapter 21–
Zinn starts by speaking of our limited political vision, “bounded by the horizons of property and enterprise” (to quote Richard Hofstadter). Zinn notes that we’ve witnessed “a capitalistic encouragement of enormous fortunes alongside desperate poverty, a nationalistic acceptance of war and preparations for war”(563).
After Vietnam and Watergate, “there was a deepening economic insecurity for much of the population, along with environmental deterioration, and a growing culture of violence and family disarray. Clearly, such fundamental problems could not be solved without bold changes in the social and economic structure…In recognition of this, perhaps only vaguely conscious of this, voters stayed away from the polls in large numbers, or voted without enthusiasm. More and more they declared, if only by nonparticipation, their alienation from the political system”(563-4). This is a dilemma I still struggle with. I have always voted (well…in larger elections) and encouraged my friends and family to do the same. I used to hate the argument that well, I am only one vote, so it doesn’t really count. But it’s a lot different (and futile) when you start to realize that no one’s vote really counts in a system with such limited options. Instead we have “Washington politicians, none of whom [are] inspiring because it seem[s] that behind the bombast, the rhetoric, the promises, their major concern was their own political power”(564). Politicians are not concerned with satisfying their constituents, but merely furthering their own careers. The result? ”A citizenry disillusioned with politics and with what pretended to be intelligent discussions of politics turned its attention (or had its attention turned) to entertainment, to gossip, to ten thousand schemes for self-help”(564). We became hypnotized, complacent robots. Well, some of us. There were some who held onto the ideals of the sixties, but “this activism was unlike that of the sixties, when the surge of protest against race segregation and war became an overwhelming national force. It struggled uphill against callous political leaders, trying to reach fellow Americans most of whom saw little hope in either the politics of voting or the politics of protest”(565)–isn’t that a depressing place to be.
This depressed scene was stage upon which Jimmy Carter entered, the “populist” who appealed to the average American, because altough he was a millionaire peanut grower, he was also an “ordinary American farmer.” Yeahhhh…sure. Carter made his best effort to “rally the troops,” to reinvigorate the American population, but the government continued to support regimes worldwide that ruled with oppression, torture, and murder. Any positive progress that was made, such as peace settlements in South Africa, were motivated by “practicality, not humanity…a tendency towards token changes”(566). Furthermore, “the Carter administration clearly was trying to end the disillusionment of the American people after the Vietnam war by following foreign policies more palatable, less obviously aggressive. Hence, the emphasis on ‘human rights’”(567-8).
This era also witnessed a surge in multinational corporations, which, by 1977, constituted the third largest economy in the world (568). ”It was a classical imperial situation, where the places with natural wealth became victims of more powerful nations whose power came from that seized wealth”(569). Coupled with this trend was the export of weapons to corrupt regimes and the training of foreign military officers, namely in the army’s “School of the Americas.” ”By 1975, the United States exported $9.5 billion in arms”(569). Other times, we just welcomed political exiles, such as the Shah from Iran, fleeing a popular revolution in 1979. When the U.S. refused to extradite the Shah, the U.S. embassy in Teheran was taken over, holding 52 employees hostage. Carter did, however, order the deportation of Iranian students without valid visas. It’s no surprise that Carter was defeated by Reagan in 1980.
The Reagan–Bush era ushered in conservative Supreme Court judges and pull back of some of the more liberal policies, such as Roe v. Wade and OSHA. ”Under Reagan and Bush this concern for ‘the economy,’ which was a short-hand term for corporate profit, dominated any concern for workers or consumers”(575).
“George Bush presented himself as the ‘environmental president,’ and pointed with pride to his signing of the Clean Air Act of 1990″ right when the first reports of a phenomenon called “global warming” were coming out (576). Ironically, “armed forces of the world were responsible for two-thirds of the gases that depleted the ozone layer”(577). Spending on military soon began to offset social welfare spending, hurting the poor the most. In the early 80s, “a quarter of the nation’s children–12 million–were living in poverty…[and] black children were four times as likely as white children to grow up on welfare”(578). The government was able to spin it so that it looked like the nation was spending too much on welfare and needed to cut down; they launched an attack on welfare, claiming it was the cause of high taxes, when really, military spending was to blame. ”Both parties were trying to manufacture an anti-human-needs mood by constant derogatory use of the word ‘welfare,’ and then to claim they were acting in response to public opinion”(579).
“The 1980s were the triumph of upper America…the political ascendancy of the rich, and a glorification of capitalism, free markets, and finance”(580).
“At the end of the eighties, at least a third of African-American families fell below the official poverty level, and black unemployment seemed fixed at two and a half times that of whites”(582).
“Weapons had been sold by the United States to Iran (supposedly an enemy), that in return Iran had promised to release hostages being held by extremist Moslems in Lebanon, and that profits from the sale were being given to the contras [in Nicaragua] to buy arms…It became clear that President Reagan and Vice-President Bush were involved in what became known as the Iran-contra affair”(586-7).
Zinn identifies the critical questions: “What is U.S. foreign policy all about? How are the president and his staff permitted to support a terrorist group in Central America to overthrow a government that, whatever its faults, is welcomed by its own people as a great improvement over the terrible governments the U.S. has supported for years? What does the scandal tell us about democracy, about freedom of expression, about an open society?”(586).
Stephen Shalom noted, “If terrorism is defined as politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets, then one of the most serious incidents of international terrorism of the year  was precisely this U.S. raid on Libya”(591).
“It became clearer now [when the U.S. failed to reconstruct their foreign policy after the collapse of the Soviet Union], although it had been suspected, that United States foreign policy was not simply based on the existence of the Soviet Union, but was motivated by fear of revolution in various parts of the world…The fear of ‘independent nationalism’ was that this would jeopardize powerful American economic interests”(593).
In the case of Iraq, “Bush [Sr.] abandoned sanctions and chose war because this time frame was a political one set by the approaching 1992 presidential elections…But these motives were not presented to the American public. It was told that the United States wanted to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi control. The major media dwelled on this as a reason for war, without noting that other countries had been invaded without the United States showing such concern (East Timor by Indonesia, Iran by Iraq, Lebanon by Israel, Mozambique by South Africa; to say nothing of countries invaded by the United States itself–Grenada, Panama)…The Bush administration was trying hard to develop a paranoia in the nation about an Iraqi bomb which did not yet exist”(595). 1991 witnessed the invasion of Iraq by U.S. forces in “Desert Storm.”
“The human consequences of the war became shockingly clear after its end, when it was revealed that the bombings of Iraq had caused starvation, disease, and the deaths of tens of thousands of children”(598).
“the war ended…leaving Hussein in power. It seemed that the United States had wanted to weaken him, but not to eliminate him, in order to keep him as a balance against Iran. In the years Before the Gulf War, the United States had sold arms to both Iran and Iraq, at different times favoring one or the other part of the traditional ‘balance of power’ strategy”(599)
Chapter 22: The Unreported Resistance
Zinn starts this unique chapter by introducing a book review written about “the influence of dangerously unpatriotic elements among American intellectuals…’a permanent adversarial culture’ if you will”(601). Despite efforts from both major parties to limit reform while maintaining military strength and capitalism, “there were millions of Americans, probably tens of millions, who refused either actively or silently, to go along. Their activities were largely unreported by the media. They constituted this ‘permanently adversarial culture’”(601). It’s hard to image that this many active resisters could go unnoticed, but then again, the title of this chapter is unreported and not unnoticed. By this time, the government was so closely in cahoots with the major media that many things went unreported (or spun) if it benefitted government and big business. Still the case today. Interestingly, “the Democratic party was more responsive to these Americans, on whose votes it depended. But its responsiveness was limited by its own captivity to corporate interests, and its domestic reforms were severly limited by the system’s dependency on militarism and war”(601).
A large part of this resistance was, initially, an opposition to nuclear arms. The 1980 presidential election was accompanied by several local referenda in Massachusetts to stop the testing, production, and deployment of all nuclear weapons. Zinn notes that similar referenda appeared between 1978 and 1981 in San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, Madison, and Detroit–not so coincidentally, I have lived/worked in 4/5 of these cities. Many of these arguments stemmed from the emerging research about the negative health affects of nuclear weapons (most likely learned from the atrocities in Japan). On June 12, 1982 in Central Park, NYC, the largest political demonstration in history took place–nearly 1 million people gathered to bring an end to the arms race. Zinn also points to “a new generation of antiwar teachers.” In fact, Zinn quotes a right-wing columnist: ”The generation of Vietnam protestors is now in its early thirties, and the academicians among them are already ensconced in the faculties of the country’s high school and colleges…What a pity our jurisprudence doesn’t allow us to reach and penalize the real architects of this sort of destruction!”(606). Yeah, let’s punish the teachers.
Foreign policy continued to send American troops into places where they didn’t belong. For example, thousands of people (including four American nuns!) were being murdered each year by American-trained death squads in El Salvador. But, “as has been true generally in the making of U.S foreign policy, there was no pretense at democracy. Public opinion was simply ignored”(607).
“The unemployment rate among young African-Americans had risen above 50 percent, and the Reagan administration’s only response to poverty was to build more jails” (609-10). California currently spends more on prisons than we do on universities. And most of the crimes people are locked up for, are crimes of necessity–selling drugs, robbery, prostitution, because there is no other means of making money and putting food on the table. If we create jobs, we reduce crime. With such poor statistics, how did two Republicans candidates, Reagan and Bush, land in office in 1984 and 1988 with what seemed to be overwhelming popular support? Well, the press was “ignoring four facts: that roughly half the population, though eligible to vote, did not; that those who did vote were limited severely in their choices to the two parties that monopolized the money and the media; that as a result many of their votes were cast without enthusiasm; and that there was little relationship between voting for a candidate and voting for specific policies”(610). I cringe at the thought of so few people voting, but would things really have been all that different with a Democrat in office? ”For instance, both parties, through the eighties and early nineties, kept strict limits on social programs for the poor, on the grounds that this would require more taxes, and ‘the people’ did not want higher taxes”(611).
“Clearly, there was something amiss with a political system, supposed to be democratic, in which the desires of the voters were repeatedly ignored. They could be ignored with impunity so long as the political system was dominated by two parties, both tied to corporate wealth…the United States was a class society, in which 1 percent of the population owned 33 percent of the wealth, with an underclass of 30 to 40 million people living in poverty. The social programs of the sixties–Medicare and Medicaid, food stamps, etc.–did not do much more than maintain the historic American maldistribution of resources. While the Democrats would give more help to the poor than the Republicans, they were not capable (indeed, not really desirous) of seriously tampering with an economic system in which corporate profit comes before human need”(612). Well said.
The late seventies and eighties also witnessed events such as the nuclear disasters at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the rise of Cesar Chavez and the farm worker’s movement, an increasingly visible gay movement. Yet, when George Bush was elected in 1988, he ignored these waves and was determined to stomp out “Vietnam syndrome–the resistance of the American people to a war desired by the Establishment”(619).
When the Gulf War was happening, “there was no time, as their had been during the Vietnam conflict, for a large antiwar movement to develop in the military. But there were men and women who defied their commanders and refused to participate in the war”(623).
After the war, historian Marilyn Young wrote, “The U.S. can destroy Iraq’s highways, but not build its own; create the conditions for epidemic in Iraq, but not offer health care to millions of Americans. It can excoriate Iraqi treatment of the Kurdish minority, but not deal with domestic race relations; create homelessness abroad but not solve it here; keep a half million troops drug free as part of a war, but refuse to fund the treatment of millions of drug addicts at home…We shall lose the war after we have won it”(625). I think this is one of my favorite quotes in the entire book. It really sums up what’s so fucked up about our government, and puts it in terms that are more telling than just “unequal distribution of wealth and power.” It’s also eery to see all the parallels between then and now–father and son, at war with the same country, yet struggling with the same demons at home.
Zinn ends this chapter by circling back to Native American resistance, specifically the reclamation of October 12, 1992 as Indigenous People’s day, to promote solidarity among Indigenous people, instead of honoring the exploits of Christopher Columbus. Then, there are people like Allan Bloom who, in his book The Closing of the American Mind, expressed concern over the social movements of the sixties. ”To him, Western civilization was the high point of human progress, and the United States its best representative: ’America tells one story [that's for damn sure...to the detriment of the other, more accurate stories...]: the unbroken, ineluctable progress of freedom and equality. From its first settlers and its political foundings on, there had been no dispute that freedom and equality are the essence of justice for us”(629). Seriously?! While I agree with the last line, that freedom and equality are the essence of justice, in no way do I believe these have come to fruition for all Americans, nor should we be held as a model civilization–we are one of the most barbaric. Talk about closed minds.
“Yet, there was, unquestionably, though largely unreported, what a worried mainstream journalist has called ‘a permanent adversarial culture,’ which refused to surrender the possibility of a more equal, more humane society. If there was hope for the future of America, it lay in the promise of that refusal”(629). But is this all this group is destined to be–an opposition? When will this resistance overpower what we’re trying to resist? Zinn hints at this in his next chapter.
Chapter 23: The Coming Revolt of the Guards
This short chapter (which I am guessing used to be that last in one of the earlier versions) serves as Zinn’s look forward into the United States that could be, by learning from the past. It was filled with bits of wisdom and extremely quotable phrases. Speaking about his own book, he claims it is not truly a people’s history, but actually “a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people’s movements of resistance”(630). To often our textbook histories “suggest that in times of crisis we must look to someone to save us [an act of disempowerment]…They teach us that the supreme act of citizenship is to choose among saviors, by going into a voting booth every four years to choose between two white and well-off Anglo-Saxon males of inoffensive personality and orthodox opinions”(630).
“The American system is the most ingenious system of control in world history. With a country so rich in natural resources, talent, and labor power the system can afford to distribute just enough wealth to just enough people to limit discontent to a troublesome minority. It is a country so powerful, so big, so pleasing to so many of its citizens that it can afford to give freedom of dissent to the small number who are not pleased. There is no system of control with more openings, apertures, leeways, flexibilities, rewards for the chosen, winning tickets in lotteries. There is none that disperses its controls more complexly through the voting system, the work situation, the church, the family, the school, the mass media–none more successful in mollifying opposition with reforms, isolating people from one another, creating patriotic loyalty. One percent of the nation owns a third of the wealth. The rest of the wealth is distributed in such a way was to turn those in the 99 percent against one another”(632).
“How skillful to tax the middle class to pay for the relief of the poor, building resentment on top of humiliation! How adroit to bus poor black youngsters into poor white neighborhoods, in a violent exchange of impoverished schools, which the schools of the rich remain untouched and the wealth of the nation, doles out carefully where children need free milk, is drained for billion-dollar aircraft carriers. How ingenious to meet the demands of blacks and women for equality by giving them small special benefits, and setting them in competition with everyone else for jobs made scarce by an irrational, wasteful system. How wise to turn the fear and anger of the majority toward a class of criminals bred–by economic inequity–faster than they can be put away, deflecting attention from the huge thefts of national resources carried out within the law by men in executive offices. But with all the controls of power and punishment, enticements and concessions, diversions and decoys, operating throughout the history of the country, the Establishment has been unable to keep itself secure from revolt”(634).
“To uncover such history [as is found in Zinn's book] is to find powerful human impulse to assert one’s humanity”(634).
“The unexpected victories–even temporary ones–of insurgents show the vulnerability of the supposedly powerful”(635).
Zinn points to the unique position of the middle class, “They become the guards of the system, buffers between the upper and lower classes. If they stop obeying, the system falls. That will happen…only when all of us who are slightly privileged and slightly uneasy begin to see that we are like the guards in the prison uprising at Attica–expendable; that the Establishment, whatever rewards it gives us, will also, if necessary to maintain its control, kill us”(635). This quote resonates with me, probably because I am among this “slightly privileged” group who have become satisfied enough with our lot in life that we won’t stick our neck out (or don’t know how) for those who have been completed disempowered. We’re like teenagers wanting, needing to rebel against our parents, but deep down we depend on our parents to maintain our way of life. The hard realization is that we, too, are meaningless to the 1% and this is no real “way of life.” I am not free and happy if my brothers and sisters are not free and happy as well. It’s not just coincidental that, over the past two decades, alcoholism, divorce, drug abuse, and mental illness rates have substantially risen in the U.S. Zinn notes, “it is as if a whole nation were going through a critical point in its middle age, a life crisis of self-doubt, self-examination”(637). If this analogy is accurate, is this much oppression “normal” in development of nations? Merely growing pains? I find that hard to believe.
“Capitalism has always been a failure for the lower classes. It is now beginning to fail for the middle classes…A society so stratified by wealth and education lends itself naturally to envy and class anger”(637).
Zinn identifies what it would take for radical change in America: ”The society’s levers of powers would have have to be taken away from those whose drives have led to the present state…The great problem would be to work out a way of accomplishing this without a centralized bureaucracy, using not the incentives of prison and punishment, but those incentives of cooperation which spring from natural human desires, which in the past have been used by the state in times of war, but also by social movements that gave hints of how people might behave in different conditions. Decisions would be made by small groups of people in their workplaces, their neighborhoods–a network of cooperatives, in communication with one another, a neighborly socialism avoiding the class hierarchies of capitalism and the harsh dictatorships that have taken the name’socialist’”(639).
This movement Zinn envisions would be “impossible to suppress, because the very guards the system depends on to crush such a movement would be among the rebels”(640).
Chapter 24: The Clinton Presidency
This is one of the chapters tacked on to the newer versions of the book, so after Zinn’s sweeping visions of radical change, it was a bit anticlimactic. However, it is interesting to start reading about history that I actually remember, of course, it does make me feel old…
‘His last year in office was marked by sensational scandals surrounding his personal life. More important, he left no legacy of bold innovation in domestic policy or departure from traditional nationalist foreign policy. At home, he surrendered again and again to caution and conservatism…Clinton showed, in his eight years in office, that he, like other politicians, was more interested in electoral victory than in social change”(643-4).
“Clinton appointed more people of color to government posts than his Republican predecessors. But if any prospective or actual appointees became too bold, Clinton abandoned them quickly,” and appointed to very moderate judges–Bader Ginsburg and Breyer–to the Supreme Court (645).
One of Clinton’s biggest pushes was the 1996 “Crime Bill,” which attempted to reduce crime by emphasizing punishment instead of prevention. This “harsher sentencing had added 1 million people to the prison population, giving the United States the highest rate of incarceration in the world, and yet violent crime continued to increase”(647).
“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary” -H.L. Mencken (647).
Another one of Clinton’s efforts was “Welfare Reform.” ”The aim of ‘welfare reform was to force poor families receiving federal cash benefits (many of them single mothers with children) to go to work by cutting off their benefits after two years, limiting lifetime benefits to five years, and allowing people without children to get food stamps for only three months in any three-year period…There were not jobs available for all those who would lose their benefits”(649-50). We spend so much effort to eliminate benefits for this people, but never create drops to address the issue that created need in the first place: unemployment!
“Clinton and the Republicans, in joining against ‘big government,’ were aiming only at social services. The other manifestations of big government–huge contracts to military contractors and generous subsidies to corporations–continued at exorbitant levels”(650).
By 1994, the defense industry was exporting $32 billion worth of weapons overseas–we were producing more combat planes and weapons for foreign countries than for the Pentagon. And in some unnecessary show of strength, Clinton decided to drop bombs on Baghdad.
“The bombing of Baghdad was a sign that Clinton, facing several foreign policy crisis during his two terms in office, would react to them in traditional ways, usually involving military action, claiming humanitarian motives, and often with disastrous results for people abroad as well as for the United States”(654). But in countries like Somalia and Rwanda, where there was real humanitarian need, we failed to intervene, or did so too late. ”There was a UN force in Rwanda that might have saved tens of thousands of lives, but the United States insisted that it be cut back to a skeleton force. the result was genocide–at least a million Rwandans dies”(655).
Zinn quotes journalist Scott Peterson in highlighting “the illusion [America clings to] that more war could somehow bring peace”(655).
“The U.S. government did not seem to recognize that its punitive foreign policies, its military installations in countries all over the globe, might arise anger in foreign countries, and that anger might turn to violence” as it did in the case of the bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 (659).
Then came Monica Lewinsky. ”The House of Representatives would impeach the president on matters of sexual behavior, but it would not impeach him for endangering the lives of children by welfare reform, or for violating international law in bombing other countries…or for allowing hundreds of thousands of children to die as a result of economic sanctions [in Iraq]“(659-60).
The conflicts in Yugoslavia in the 90s made it clear that “the Clinton administration, like so many before it…chose military solutions when diplomatic ones were possible”(661).
“The United States was the richest country in the world, with 5 percent of the earth’s population yet consuming 30 percent of what was produced worldwide”(662). Despite this, the quality of life for most Americans was poor. ”For people of color, that statistics were especially troubling. Black infants dies at twice the rate of white children, and the life expectancy of a black man in Harlem, according to a United Nations report, was 46 years, less than that in Cambodia or the Sudan”(662).
Zinn also touches on an eye-opening study about education conducted by the Carnegie Endowment, which found strong correlation between future success and parents, despite the IQ of a child. ”The child of a lawyer, though rating no higher on mental tests than the child of a janitor, was four times as likely to go to college, 12 times as likely to finish college, and 27 times as likely to end up in the top 10% of American incomes”(663). As an educator, this fact is still obvious today. Students whose parents have jobs and incomes (as well as skill levels) that allow them to have a more present role in their child’s life, and even went to college themselves are much more equipped to support their child’s education than a parent who may be a single parent, working multiple jobs, or irregular hours, doesn’t know English and/or never attended college. This creates cycles of the “educated” and the “uneducated” which disproportionately tracks whites into the former, and people of color into the latter. “To change that situation, to bring about even a rough equality of opportunity, would require a drastic redistribution of wealth, a huge expenditure of money for job creation, health, education, and the environment”(663)–all the stuff we should be spending money on.
“A radical reduction of the military budget would require a renunciation of war, a withdrawal of military bases from around the world, an acceptance, finally, of the principle enunciated in the UN Charter that the world should renounce ‘the scourge of war.’ It would speak to the fundamental human desire (overwhelmed too often by barrages of superpatriotic slogans) to live at peace with others. The public appeal for such a dramatic policy change would be based on a simple but powerful moral argument: that given the nature of modern warfare, the victims would be mostly civilians. To put it another way, war in our times is always a war against children,” whether we are siphoning money from their education to make weapons, or actually dropping bombs on them indiscriminately (664).
“The response of the government to such signs of desperation, anger, and alienation has been, historically, quite predictable: Build more jails, lock up more people, execute more prisoners. And continue with the same policies that produced the desperation. And so, by the end of the Clinton administration, the United States had more of its population in prison per capita–a total of two million people–than any other country in the world, with the possible exception of China”(665).
The 90s also saw continued resistance–in 1998, 7,000 people protested the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, GA; Jesse Jackson’s “Rainbow Coalition” generated political excitement; in 1995 D.C. witnessed the “Million Man March;” student activities at universities launched a “living-wage campaign,” and in 1999 demonstrators gathered in Seattle to protest against the World Trade Organization. But these stories were the undercurrents. ”Their lives, their plight was not being reported in the major media, and so the myth of a prosperous America, proclaimed by powerful people in Washington and Wall Street, persisted”(671). One form of resistance was the rise of community-owned media–newspapers and public radio stations. The WTO protestors summed it up: ”the health and freedom of ordinary people allover the world should not be sacrificed on behalf of corporate profit”(672).
“If democracy were to be given any meaning, if it were to go beyond the limits of capitalism and nationalism, this would not come–if history were any guide–from the top. It would come through citizens’ movements, educating, organizing, agitating, striking, boycotting, demonstrating, threatening those in power with disruption of the stability they needed”(674).
Chapter 25: The 2000 Election and the “War on Terrorism”
After a notoriously controversial election, Bush’s program became immediately clear. He pushed tax cuts for the wealthy, opposed strict environmental regulations that would cost money for the business interests, and planned to ‘privatize’ Social Security by having the retirement funds of citizens depend on the stock market”(677).
The September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Towers “was an unprecedented assault against enormous symbols of American wealth and power, undertaken by 19 men from the Middle East, most of them from Saudi Arabia. They were wiling to die in order to deliver a deadly blow against what they clearly saw as their enemy, a superpower that had thought itself invulnerable”(678). Thus began the infamous “war on terrorism” and hunt for Osama Bin Laden which has been present most of my adult life. ”It should have been obvious to Bush and his advisers that terrorism could not be defeated by force”(678).
“But the full extent of the human catastrophe caused by the bombing of Afghanistan was not being conveyed to Americans by the mainstream press and the major television networks, which seemed determined to show their ‘patriotism’”(679)–well of course, favorable government policy kept them lucrative!
This same period witnessed the emergence of the “USA Patriot Act” and “in the atmosphere of wartime jingoism, it became difficult for citizens to criticize government policy”(680).
“Critics of the bombing campaign argued that terrorism was rooted in deep grievances against the United States, and that to stop terrorism, these must be addressed. The grievances were not hard to identify: the stationing of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, site of the most holy of Moslem shrines; the ten years of sanctions against Iraq which, according to the United Nations, had resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children; the continued U.S. support of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land, including billions in military aid. However, these issues could not be addressed without fundamental changes in American foreign policy. Such changes could not be accepted by the military-industrial complex that dominated both major parties, because they would require withdrawing military forces from around the world, giving up political and economic domination of other countries–in short, relinquishing the cherished role of the United States as a superpower”(681). Will we (or government and corporations) ever be willing to make this “sacrifice?”
“The United States, by such a drastic change in its policies, would no longer be a military superpower, but it could be a humanitarian superpower, using its wealth to help people in need”(682). Interestingly, I assumed this chapter would only fuel my rage against George W. Bush, but what I have realized, is that he wasn’t all that much more corrupt than previous presidents, he was just the first I was old enough to hate. They’ve all sacrificed the needs of people for the benefit of their careers and corporate wealth.
“Thus, the future of democracy depended on the people, and their growing consciousness of what was the decent way to relate to their fellow human beings all over the world”(682).
It would be hard to write an afterward that does this tome justice, but Zinn packs these 5 pages with reflections only an historian and political scientist could offer
“There is no such things as a pure fact, innocent of interpretation. Behind every fact presented to the world–by a teacher, a writer, anyone–is a judgement”(684)
“The consequence of those omissions [in orthodox histories] has been not simply to give a distorted view of the past, but more important, to mislead us all about the present”(684).
Zinn notes that we live in a time when “the state of the nation is described in universal terms,” when in reality, life is vastly different from one American to another “Class interest has always ben obscured behind an all-encompassing veil called ‘the national interest’”(684-5). Zinn questions whether there even is such a thing as “national interest.” ”Should citizens not ask in whose interest are we doing what we are doing? Then why not, [he] came to think, tell the story of wars not through the eyes of the generals and diplomats but from the viewpoints of the GIs, of the parents who received the black-boarded telegrams, even of ‘the enemy’”(685).
“Yes, we have in this country, dominated by corporate wealth and military power and two antiquated political parties, what a fearful conservative characterized as ‘a permanent adversarial culture’ challenging the present, demanding a new future. Zinn ends by challenging the reader to “choose to participate, or just to watch. But we should know what our choice will determine the outcome.”
Having finally passed the point(s) where I have always stopped reading in the past, the book is even more interesting. I’ve read 540/688 pages…78% done! However, it’s been a busy week and I am losing all motivation to do these responses. As a compromise–here are a few of my favorite quotes from these three chapters, with a few rambling thoughts–
Chapter 17: ”Or Does it Explode?”
Zinn begins this aptly-titled chapter about the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s with one of my favorite Langston Hughes poems, “A Dream Deferred.” Both Hughes and Zinn seem to be asking the question, what happens to a dream, a movement, when it lies dormant for awhile? As the chapter’s title suggests, there is a very real possibility that when left to simmer beneath the surface, anger and emotion (referring to that of African-Americans, here) can erupt in enormous ways. As Zinn says, “The memory of oppressed people is one thing that cannot be taken away, and for such people, with such memories, revolt is always an inch below the surface”(443). This is the revolt that would characterize the 60s and 70s, and with such massive numbers of oppressed populations, all harboring this spirit of revolt, the U.S. government must have been scared shitless. It was evident in their excessive and repressive policies and use of force. One had to be careful with revolt–give enough to shake the system, but not so much that the system crushed you. Zinn then tells us that “in a society of complex controls, both crude and refined, secret thoughts can often be found in the arts”(443). What follows is a delicious discussion of Black writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights era, such as Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, and Paul Laurence Dunbar. During this same time, the Communist party gained momentum and often showed a lot of sympathy and support to issues of racial equality. Zinn tells the story of a young Black teen named Angelo Herndon whose father had died of miner’s pneumonia in Georgia. Herndon became a Communist party organizer focusing on labor and unemployment issues. He helped to organize Unemployment Councils and demonstrations. After one large, successful demonstration, Herdon was arrested and charged with “insurrection.” He spent five years in prison before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the law that locked him up, unconstitutional. Zinn concludes, “it was men like him who represented to the Establishment a dangerous militancy among blacks, made more dangerous when linked with the Communist party”(448).
African-Americans were not the only population struggling with racial equality. ”When [WWII] ended, a new element entered the racial balance of the United States–the enormous, unprecedented upsurge of black and yellow people in Africa and Asia”(448). The battle for racial equality was made that much stronger because it was being fought across the globe. Thus, “action on the race question was needed, not just to calm a black population at home emboldened by war promises, frustrated by the basic sameness of their condition. It was needed to present to the world a United States that could counter the continuous Communist thrust at the most flagrant failure of American society–the race question”(448). Thus, the reforms in racial equality seen in the 50s and 60s were more an effort to appease a threatening Communist party while maintaining a strong image. It is with this attitude that President Truman desegregated the U.S. military…which took over a decade.
As an African-American Studies major, it seems strange to have the Civil Rights Movement crammed into one chapter, and groups like the Black Panthers glossed over in a small paragraph. Nonetheless, Zinn spends a mere four pages discussing the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case that declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional because it “generates a feeling of inferiority…that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone”(450). What’s often overlooked about this case is how little the law was actually enforced. After a year of little change, the courts issued another ruling calling not for immediate desegregation, but desegregation “with all deliberate speed”–what the hell does that mean? By 1965, ten years after this second ruling, “more than 75 percent of the school districts in the South remained segregated”(450). Furthermore, the number is probably even worse today. Even though there’s no legal sanction for segregation, poor, urban schools are disproportionately crowded with students of color. Even in schools that are racially diverse, there is often a noticeable pipelining of white students into advanced, college-prep courses, while student of color (especially African-American boys) are tracked into remedial courses and special ed.
I did like how Zinn introduced Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycotts: ”For such a people, with such a memory, and such daily recapitulation of history, revolt was always minutes away, in a timing mechanism which no one had set, but which might go off with some unpredictable set of events. These events came, at the end of 1955, in the capital city of Alabama–Montgomery”(450). This event, was the boycotting (by Blacks) of all city buses–a form of “passive resistance” that eventually forced the Supreme Court, in November 1956, to outlaw segregation on local buses. It really makes you think about the power we have as consumers–but one that is really being squandered today, which is unfortunate. One of the most direct routes to change in a capitalistic society is through consumer action–money talks, sadly, sometimes louder than people. This same period witnessed the rise of Martin Luther King who urged blacks to never “let anyone pull you so low as to hate them. We must use the weapon of love”(452). This attitude stands in contrast to those of the Black Panthers or local NAACP president, Robert Williams, who believed that “blacks should defend themselves against violence, with guns if necessary”(452). By 1960, the Civil Rights movement was bolstered by a surge in youth participation–youth who believed strongly in King’s nonviolent tactics. One famous event took place on February 1, 1960, when four black college students in Greensboro, North Carolina sat down at a lunch counter where only whites ate, and refused to move. This simple action ushered in not only the youth aspect of the movement, but the movement towards passive resistance tactics like sit-inns. In one year, “more than fifty thousand people, mostly black, some white, participated in demonstrations of one kind or another in a hundred cities, and over 3,600 people were put in jail. But by the end of 1960, lunch counters were open to blacks in Greensboro and many other places”(453). Zinn goes on to (briefly) outline the formation of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), the Freedom Rides, SNCC–Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Mississippi Summer of 1964. The 50s and 60s were a constant buzz of protest and action, and despite the massive violence and opposition, blacks gained some victories. Civil rights laws were passed in 1957, 1960, and 1964, but it goes without saying that, much like U.S. treaties with Native Americans, these laws for poorly enforced and often ignored.
In 1963, hundreds of thousands of blacks marched and gathered in Washington D.C. to hear King’s famous “I have a dream…” speech. Only two weeks later, a bomb exploded in a Birmingham church, killing four young girls at Sunday school. Zinn calls our attention to the fact that President Kennedy was praising the “quiet dignity” of the march to Washington, while the militant attitudes of blacks like Malcolm X were probably much more representative of black sentiment. With little to no enforcement of Civil Rights laws, violence continuing, the assassination of Dr. King, increasing concentration of blacks in urban centers, and rising unemployment, the nonviolent approach began to lose footing to a more militant and urgent movement for racial equality. August 1965 witnessed the Watts Riots of Los Angeles–one of the most violent incidents since WWII. Zinn notes, “It seemed clear by now that the nonviolence of the southern movement, perhaps tactically necessary in the southern atmosphere, and effective because it could be used to appeal to national opinion against the segregationist South, was not enough to deal with the entrenched problems of poverty in the black ghetto. And so it was in the cities (noteably Detroit in 1967), that there “came the greatest urban riots of American history”(460). Zinn highlights the shift from “nonviolence” and “we shall overcome” to “‘Black Power’…an expression of distrust of any ‘progress’ given or conceded by whites, a rejection of paternalism”(460). Martin Luther King, though widely respected, was being replaced by revolutionary radicals such as Malcolm X, and Huey P. Newton of the Black Panthers (Zinn’s only reference to this group…).
Despite the passage of four Civil Rights Laws by then, the late sixties and early seventies saw increasing violence against blacks. Zinn notes that the era saw “a planned pattern of violence against militant black organizers, carried on by the police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. On December 4, 1969, a little before five in the morning, a squad of Chicago police, armed with a submachine gun and shotguns, raided an apartment where Black Panther lived” killing Fred Hampton and Mark Clark (463). In fact, between 1956 and 1971, the FBI launched a Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) which took 295 actions against black groups. The FBI had essentially gone to war with its own citizens. Zinn suggests that this was because “the new emphasis [urban unrest] was more dangerous than civil rights, because it created the possibility of blacks and whites uniting on the issue of class exploitation”(464). That was a force the government would not be able to stop. So once again, there was an effort to “lure a small number [of blacks] into the system with economic enticements”(464)–the whole “divide and conquer” strategy. There was a sudden interest in “black capitalism,” and black colleges/universities. More blacks began to appear in politics and on TV–just enough so we were “creating an impression of change–and siphoning off into the mainstream a small but significant number of black leaders”(465)–like the Pied fucking Piper leading them out of town.
Zinn leaves us with the thought that “racism, always a national fact, not just a southern one, emerged in northern cities, as the federal government made concessions to poor blacks in a way that pitted them against poor whites for resources made scarce by the system”(466). Thus, on all fronts, the U.S. government could look like the savior, while effectively dividing the powerful masses for its own benefit. But, with the advent of the war in Vietnam, the whole context changed.
I would have liked to see Zinn go a lot deeper into the radical groups like the Black Panthers and the real impact of the youth organizers, but it was a decent chapter.
Chapter 18: The Impossible Victory” Vietnam
Given its history of protest and notorious defeat for the U.S., I have always been fascinated by the Vietnam War, but have never known more about it than what I saw in Forest Gump (OK, well maybe a little more). Zinn sums it up like this: ”When the United States fought in Vietnam, it was organized modern technology versus organized human beings, and the human beings won”(469). He does a nice job of setting the stage in outlining the political maneuvers that led to war, dating back to WWII. Under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, a Communist revolution against the Japanese had taken hold in, then, Indochina. They were only too happy to see Japan defeated in 1945–a million people flooded the streets of Hanoi and issued their own Declaration of Independence. For a short time after WWII, the Vietnamese were free and united under Ho Chi Minh’s leadership, but, as Zinn points out, “the Western powers were already at work to change this”(470).
England had occupied the Southern part of Indochina, but turned it over to the French, while Chiang Kai-shek’s China were persuaded (by the U.S.) to do the same with their northern holdings. In late 1946, the French bombarded Haiphong, a northern Vietnam port, “and there began the eight-year war between the Vietminh movement and the French over who would rule Vietnam”(471). It still boggles my mind why there would be any question about who should rule–the country belonged to the Vietnamese! They were happy! And peaceful! But there had been recent Communist victories in China and Korea, and that made the U.S. nervous. They began giving huge amounts of money and military support to the French–”altogether, the U.S. was financing 80 percent of the French war effort”(471). What fascinates me is how much the U.S. was willing to give to ensure a French victory, especially given that there wasn’t a huge cache of natural resources to plunder. It was all out of fear of Communism–”Communist control of all Southeast Asia would render the U.S. position in the Pacific offshore island chain precarious and would seriously jeopardize fundamental U.S. security interests in the Far East”(471). It really puts into perspective just how much of a threat Communism is to Capitalism. The one problem was that France was never able to win popular support (well, duh!) and Ho Chi Minh’s revolutionary movement continued, forcing France to withdraw. In the peace treaty, France agreed to withdraw into Southern Vietnam and leave the northern part to Ho Chi Minh. In two years an election would take place that united northern and southern Vietnam, allowing the Vietnamese to choose their own government. This would assuredly have meant a victory for the Vietminh, so “the United States moved quickly to prevent the unification and to establish South Vietnam as an American sphere”(472). It became our war–and let’s face it–it had been from the jump.
The U.S. helped establish Ngo Dinh Diem as head of the (southern) Vietnamese government. But the Diem regime quickly became unpopular–as one would expect of a ruler selected by the U.S., he was a Vietnamese Capitalist, favoring landlords and Catholicism over peasants and Buddhism. By 1960, the National Liberation Front had been formed in opposition to Diem’s regime, uniting peasants all over South Vietnam. ”The purpose of this vast organizational effort was…to restructure the social order of the village and train the villages to control themselves…organization in depth of the rural population through the instrument of self-control”(473). Diem, who spent his time attacking and burning Buddhist pagodas, was even an embarrassing obstacle for the U.S. In 1963, some Vietnamese generals began plotting to overthrow Diem, which was known by American Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge; yet when Diem phoned lodge in the middle of the night with suspicious, Lodge pretended to know nothing. We were paving the way to make our “grand entrance.”
“In early August 1964, President Johnson used a murky set of events in the Gulf of Tonkin, off the coast of North Vietnam, to launch full-scale war on Vietnam”(475). President Johnson and his Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara told the American public that North Vietnamese torpedo boats had attacked American destroyers. It later turned out that this entire event had been faked, which begs the question, what else has the U.S. government made up? 9/11? Hurricane Katrina? Nonetheless, the “Tonkin Resolution gave the President the power to initiate hostilities without the declaration of war by Congress that the Constitution required”(476). That’s a hell of a lot of power for one person to have. It didn’t take us long to move in–by 1968, we had 500,000 American troops in Vietnam and we were bombing the hell out of the country. One particularly disgusting practice was the declaration of “fire free zones” which were areas where any remaining people–civilians, elderly, children–were considered the enemy and bombs where dropped at will (477).
This indiscriminate destruction and reckless violence is what characterizes the Vietnam War. I was shocked to learn that the CIA, in an operation known as “Operation Phoenix,” executed at least 20,000 civilians who were suspected to be part of the underground Communist movement; 65,000-70,000 people were held in prison camps, often beaten and tortured. ”By the end of the Vietnam war, 7 million tons of bombs had been dropped on Vietnam, more than twice the total bombs dropped on Europe and Asia in World War II”(478). The U.S. destroyed that country. Perhaps the greatest atrocities happened on March 16, 1968 in the My Lai Massacre. American soldiers went into My Lai 4, rounded up inhabitants, forced them into a ditch and shot them to death. Zinn shares the testimony of James Dursi, who was ordered to the shoot the civilians, but refused and watched fellow soldiers, with tears streaming down their face, take these innocent lives. I can’t imagine dealing with this kind of internal conflict–someone you respect and look up to, asking you to commit unthinkable crimes, and then have to grapple with that guilt for the rest of your life. It’s no wonder that Vietnam veterans suffer some of the worst “shell shock”–what the U.S. did in Vietnam was sick. Our government knowingly and willingly set out to destroy people and property. We destroyed dams and locks knowing it would cause flooding of rice fields and eventual starvation; “the heavy bombings were intended to destroy the will of ordinary Vietnamese to resist”(481). What’s remarkable is that, despite all this, the U.S. still lost. As Zinn remarks, “Lyndon Johnson [stepping in after Kennedy's assassination] had escalated a brutal war and failed to win it”(483). Enter Richard Nixon who, in the fall of 1968, was elected President, and vowed to get U.S. out of Vietnam (hmmm…sounds eerily similar to Obama and Iraq…). Nixon did, indeed, withdraw troops, and by 1972, there were less than 150,000 remaining (483). But the violence continued, as U.S. aid was given to Vietnamese ground troops to continue the war. ”Nixon was not ending the war; he was ending the most unpopular aspect of it, the involvement of American soldiers on the soil of a faraway country”(484). Eh, semantics. What a shocker–another politician who lied.
After outlining the war itself, Zinn spends a large part of the chapter discussing the intense opposition for the war that is most often remembered about Vietnam. Because of the brutal nature of the war as the flimsy reasons for being involved, many young men who were drafted refused to report, chanting the famous slogan “We Won’t Go.” By the end of 1969, “there were 33,960 delinquents nationwide”(485). Protests for the war were almost as violent as the war itself; more than once people burned themselves alive to make a statement against the horrors of the Vietnam War. Many Civil Rights activists, such as SNCC organizer Bob Moses, organized protests and rallies. A 1970 Washington D.C. peace rally was attended by 20,000 people all willing to commit “civil disobedience” to take a stand. 14,000 of these attendees were arrested–one of the largest mass arrests in U.S. history. It’s clear that opposition was so strong to this war that protestors were willing to risk life, liberty, and property–but the Constitution didn’t really protect these anyways… Certainly the most famous instance of dissent involved economist and former marine Daniel Ellsberg. Ellsberg worked for the RAND Corporation and helped to write the Department of Defense history of the war in Vietnam. Then he decided to leak this 7,000 page top secret document to the public. Ellsberg gave copies to congressmen and NY Times reports and “in June 1971, the Times began printing selections from what came to be known as the Pentagon Papers. It created a national sensation”(488). Much of what we know about the war and the U.S. governments actions and motives, is because of these papers. ”Ellsberg, by his bold act, had broken with the usual tactic of dissidents inside the government who bided their time and kept their opinions to themselves, hoping for small changes in policy”(488). Although Ellsberg, and his partner Anthony Russo, were indicted on Espionage Act charges, the trial was dropped once the Watergate events began unfolding.
Protests continued, and began taking even more destructive forms. Anti0war groups would often raid and/or burn draft board offices. University students played a large role in the early protests. As Zinn notes, “In August of 1965, 61 percent of the population thought the American involvement in Vietnam was not wrong. By May 1971 it was exactly reversed; 61 percent thought our involvement was wrong”(492). It’s clear that protest, violence, and even the traumatic images seen on TV (a novelty not available in previous wars!) had changed public opinion drastically. However, “the climax of protest came in the spring of 1970 when President Nixon ordered the invasion of Cambodia”(490). Troops had waited long enough to be pulled out of Vietnam, and now Nixon had the audacity to attempt to start some shit in Cambodia and Laos. Even soldiers (those who bothered to show up for duty) developed strong opposition to the war. As Zinn notes, “Vietnam produced opposition by soldiers and veterans on a scale, and with a fervor, never seen before”(492). In addition to acts of desertion and mutiny while deployed, some veterans formed a group called Vietnam Veterans Against the War. In December 1970, hundreds of members gathered in Detroit to take part in the “Winter Soldier” investigations, where they testified publicly about the atrocities that took place in Vietnam. With such intense protest in Vietnam and at home, it was only a matter of time before the U.S. had to wave the white flag.
In the fall of 1972, with North Vietnamese strongholds in several areas of the south, the U.S. agreed to accept a settlement to withdraw American troops while leaving the revolutionary troops in place until a new government (elected by the people) could be set up. But the Saigon government would not agree. And so the U.S. made one final (though, pointless) effort to decimate the North Vietnamese by sending a wave of B-52s over Hanoi and Haiphong, destroying everything and killing unknown numbers of innocent people. But the attack was ineffective and the peace treaty was signed. ”The United States withdrew its forces, continuing to give aid to the Saigon government, but when the North Vietnamese launched attacks in early 1975 against the major cities in South Vietnam, the government collapsed. In late April 1975, North Vietnamese troops entered Saigon. The American embassy staff fled, along with many Vietnamese who feared Communist rule, and the long war in Vietnam was over. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, and both parts of Vietnam were unified as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam”(498). A true victory for democracy.
Zinn concludes the chapter by examining what really made Johnson and Nixon willing to “give up.” The infamous Pentagon Papers offer a huge clue. A report from Pentagon officials offering advice to Johnson cited growing disaffection and unrest in the cities as huge risks in proceeding with the war. ”The evidence from the Pentagon Papers is clear–that Johnson’s decision in the spring of 1968 to turn down Westmoreland’s request, to slow down for the first time the escalation of the war, to diminish the bombarding, to go to the conference table, was influenced to a great extent by the actions Americans had taken in demonstrating their opposition to the war”(500). Another victory for democracy. A 1973 NY Times article by C.L. Sulzberger summed up the war’s end: ”We lost the war in the Mississippi valley, not the Mekong valley”(501) and Zinn echoes these same sentiments: ”It was the first clear defeat to the global American empire formed after World War II. It was administered by revolutionary peasants abroad, and by an astonishing movement of protest at home”(501). The Vietnam War is certainly one of the bloodiest, most atrocious wars in history. But what should also be remembered is the diehard spirit of the Vietnamese revolutionaries and the American protestors–rarely have the actions of the poor masses had such an impact on government policy.
Chapter 19: Surprises
This patchwork chapter highlights the Women’s Liberation Movement, the Prisoner Rights Movement, and American Indian protests in the late 60s and early 70s. Because I am running out of steam (and time), I will just share a few of my favorite of Zinn’s quotes about these three movements.
In speaking about women entering the workforce: “Each time practicality pulled the woman out of her prison–in a kind of work-parole program–the attempt was made to push her back once the need was over, and this led to women’s struggle for change”
Zinn references “The Burial of Traditional Womanhood,” as well as the rise of women’s studies programs, and women’s magazines and newspapers, even popular jokes, all as evidence of the growing movement for Women’s Liberation. A HUGE part of this movement was around sexuality and the female body, particularly the right to abortion. The landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 gave women the right to abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy. Despite efforts to pass an Equal Rights Amendment, many women, including a black congresswoman names Shirley Chisholm, recognized that “what women had accomplished had come through organization, action, protest. Even where the law was helpful it was helpful only if backed by action”(511).
With the publishing of the famous book Our Bodies, Ourselves, women began to reclaim their bodies. ”The fight began, many women were saying, with the body, which seemed to be the beginning of the exploitation of women…A biological prison had been created by men and society…’women are controlled by lashing us to our bodies’”(512). I LOVED this concept that females have been imprisoned in our own bodies. We become so focused on the physical appearance because of all the products and messages we’re bombarded with that, much like the prisoner who sees only bars, we cannot see beyond our physical presence. I also see women who don’t have what society considers a “perfect body” obsessed with trying to change themselves. This discussion of the woman’s body as prison served nicely to transition into Zinn’s next section–
Prisoner Rights Movement
In this section, Zinn highlights the prison riots of the 60s and 70s. “The prison was intended, through isolation, to produce repentance and salvation, but prisoners went insane and died in that isolation”(514). After describing the the details of some early prison riots in New York and California, Zinn quotes Dostoevski: “The dgree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons”(515). The racism, the lack of resources, the use of prisoners against each other, the disproportionate sentencing of poor people and people of color–all are parallels to our larger society. “The poorer you were the more likely you were to end up in jail. This was not just because the poor committed more crimes. In fact, they did. The rich did not have to commit crimes to get what they wanted; the laws were on their side”(516). Zinn then cites the disproportionate sentencing of “white collar crimes” like tax fraud, where cases usually involve at least $190,000. Of those convicted, roughly 20% end up in jail for about 7 months. Compare that to your average burglary or auto theft, which Zinn refers to as “crimes of the poor” (averaging $321-992) for which 60% end up in prison for 33 months. It makes no sense!!
Prison riots continued into the late 60s and early 70s and the general attitude was “whatever crimes [the prisoners] had committed, the greatest crimes were being committed by the authorities who maintained the prisons, by the government of the United States…against a lawless system, defiance was the only answer“(518). Zinn turns the discussion to prisoners like George Jackson who “became awakened politically” while in prison. Jackson was in Soledad prison on an indefinite sentence for a $70 robbery and had already served 10 years. He began to speak out vehemently for prison reform and the conditions and mistreatment of prisoners. In August 1971, he was shot in the back of the head by a guard while allegedly trying to escape. Zinn then turns the conversation to“The rebellion at Attica prison in September 1971–a rebellion that came from long, deep grievances, but that raised to a boiling point by the news about George Jackson”(520). The 5-day prison riot started after a series of conflicts between guards and prisoners, that ended with prisoners breaking through a gate and occupying the yard. Despite the peaceful community prisoners established, National Guardsmen, prison guards and local police came in with automatic weapons and launched a full-scale assault on the prisoners, who had no firearms. 31 prisoners were killed. America has treats its prisoners like subhumans. How is there any chance of rehabilitation when prisoners are abused and disrespected? That system only breeds more violence, hatred, and disobedience. Similar riots were happening in prisons across the U.S. As Zinn notes, “What was happening was the organization of prisoners–the caring of prisoners for one another, the attempt to take the hatred and anger of individual rebellion and turn it into collective effort for change”(522). I think the greatest change will come when we stop putting people in prisons, and instead invest in their education and health.
One interesting point Zinn makes is that this prisoner rights movement was bolstered by the fact that because of the Civil Rights and anti-war movements, many more Americans had actually spent time in a prison; “they had learned about the prison system and could hardly forget their experiences”(523).
American Indian Protests
The final pages of this chapter highlight some of the Native American protests of the late sixties, early seventies, namely the occupation of Alcatraz Island. Zinn begins with a recap of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre and the formation of Indian reservations. ”Only 300 [American Indians] were left at the turn of the century, from the original million or more in the area of the United States”(524). However, Zinn notes that slowly, this number began to grow again and that “by 1960 there were 800,000 Indians”(524). With the growing population and desperate conditions on most reservations, Native Americans began asking the government about treaties. “The United States government had signed more than four hundred treaties with Indians and violated every single one”(526). In one unbelievable case, the Puyallup tribe, which had been granted fishing rights when their land was taken, began to be arrested when fishing on that land. A local judge ruled that the tribe did not exist and banned them from fishing on the river named after them!!! As Zinn notes, “Indians fought back not only with physical resistance, but also with the artifacts of white culture–books, words, newspapers”(527).
The most famous protest happened on November 9, 1969, when 78 Indians landed on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco and occupied the island. The group was led by a Mohawk named Richard Oakes, who directed Indian Studies at SF State College and a Sac and Fox Indian named Grace Thorpe. “By the end of November, nearly six hundred of them, representing more than fifty tribes, were living on Alcatraz. They called themselves ‘Indians of All Tribes’ and issued a proclamation, ‘We Hold the Rock’“(528). In the proclamation, they offered to buy Alcatraz for glass beads and red cloth (the price paid for Manhattan Island 300 years earlier). They recognized that Alcatraz was, “by the white man’s standards” the perfect Indian reservation because it was isolated, had no fresh water or sanitation facilities; there was no industry, employment, oil or mineral rights; no healthcare facilities; unproductive, rocky soil, no hunting game; no educational facilities; the population exceeded the land base and had always been held as prisoners. The list was a clear statement about the poor conditions on Indian Reservations–land that had been handed over begrudgingly when everything else was taken. The Indians of Alcatraz announced that they would make the island a center for Native American Studies for Ecology–to depollute the air and restore fish and wildlife. In response, the government gut off electricity, water, and phone lines to Alcatraz. ”Six months later, federal forces invaded the island and physically removed the Indians living there”(529).
Another interesting point was that many Native Americans fought in the Vietnam War and participated in the Winter Soldier Investigations. Those who did, drew startling connections between U.S. conduct in Vietnam, and the treatment of Native Americans by European settlers. Another incident that drew attention to the Native American cause took place in March of 1973–”On the site of the 1890 massacre, on Pine Ridge reservation, several hundred Oglala Sioux and friends returned to the village of Wounded Knee to occupy it as a symbol of he demand for Indian land, Indian rights”(533-4). Within hours, FBI agents and federal marshals had surrounded the town. Tribes and supporters from across the nation made an effort to air drop food and supplies to the occupiers, but in mid-April a government helicopter rained down gunfire. After a handful of deaths, a peace treaty was signed, with both sides agreeing to disarm. The occupation had lasted an astounding 71 days. The U.S. agreed to investigate Indian affairs, and reexamine the 1868 treaty (which they did, and found it still valid…).
“In the sixties and seventies, it was not just a women’s movement, a prisoner’s movement, an Indian movement. There was a general revolt against oppressive, artificial, previously unquestioned ways of living. It touched every aspect of personal life: childbirth, childhood, love, sex, marriage, dress, music, art, sports, language, food, housing, religion, literature, death, schools“(536). Zinn speaks briefly about the growing “generation gap” and the more liberal, radical youth who experienced sex more freely, lived together in communal arrangements, listened to Bob Dylan (whom Zinn devotes a page to) and Joan Baez. The times they WERE a’ changin. “With the loss of faith in big powers–business, government, religion–there arose a stronger belief in self, whether individual or collective…Never in American history had more movements for change been concentrated in so short a span of years”(538-9). Undoubtedly, this time was about reclamation–of our bodies, our land, our freedom–a battle that wages on.
With the holiday season in full swing and time at a premium, I am definitely feeling the burn; in fact, I feel like I’m back in college again taking semester finals. Only this time it’s free. BUT, I have finally gotten further in the book than I have ever gotten on previous attempts. 442/688 pages read…64% done! It’s all downhill from here, right?
Chapter 15: Self-Help in Hard Times
This chapter focuses on the aftermath of WWI leading up to the Great Depression. Zinn highlights the stories of workers and the continued labor struggle, starting with the IWW general strike that started in February 1919 in Seattle, WA. The walkout of nearly 100,000 workers brought the city to a grinding halt for five days. Zinn recounts how strikers organized milk stations, garbage removal, cheap meals, hospital laundry, even a guard to keep peace. What is remarkable is that “during the strike, crime in the city decreased. The commander of the U.S. army detachment sent into the area told the strikers’ committee that in forty years of military experience he hadn’t seen so quiet and orderly a city”(378). I was reminded of the first time I walked through the Occupy encampment in downtown Oakland in 2011. Not only had people set up housing, but there was a full kitchen that served three free meals a day, a library, a school, an art center, a first aid tent, a printing press, a place were people could get clothing–it was a fully-functioning city. With the exception of the one gun death (which was not conclusively linked to Occupy) it was a very peaceful place. This is such an incredible illustration of freedom–of people’s ability to do for themselves, but how long can it be sustained? Especially when the city brings in bulldozers to clear the area after 30 days. Still, there s no question in my mind that police force is not designed to protect people, but property, and in a truly democratic society, they do more harm than good.
Although it lasted only 5 days, the Seattle strike made a powerful statement. Seattle’s mayor said that “the general strike, as practiced in Seattle, is of itself the weapon of revolution, all the more dangerous because quiet. To succeed, it must suspend everything; stop the entire life stream of community…That is to say, it puts the government out of operation. And that is all there is to revolt”(380). The situation in Seattle only served to reinforce the idea that labor was moving away from isolated strikes to a more general attack on the capitalists system as a whole, and that is what really made the government take notice. In one snapshot, Zinn tells the story of Frank Everett, an IWW lumberjack who was at the Centralia, WA headquarters when American Legion members attacked. Everett fired shots at the mob, then ran into the woods as they chased after him. When he got to a river he couldn’t cross, he turned around and shot the lead man dead, then proceeded to fight the mob off with his fists. When they finally caught him, they dragged him back to town behind a car, suspended him from a telegraph pole, then locked him in jail. In the middle of the night he was pulled from his cell, his genitals were cut off, he was hung from a bridge and riddled with bullets. No one was every arrested for his murder, but 11 IWW members were tried for killing an American Legion member. It was clear that the government was trying to send a message–a response to the threat of general strike; it was also clear that justice was a one way street to them.
Zinn then turns his attention to the myth of the “Roaring Twenties.” With a firm government response to these “Socialist shenanigans,” by the beginning of the 1920s, “the IWW was destroyed, the Socialist party falling apart. The strikes were beaten down by force, and the economy was doing just well enough for just enough people to prevent mass rebellions”(382). In an effort to maintain this social and economic stability, the government implemented immigration quotas that (unsurprisingly) favored Anglo-Saxons, kept out blacks and Asians, and severely limited Latinos, Eastern Europeans and Jewish people. In such an unwelcoming society (to say the least) it makes sense why Marcus Garvey spearheaded the Black nationalist movement. ”He preached black pride, racial reparation, and a return to Africa, which to him held the only hope for black unity and survival”(382). Inspiring as it was, Garvey’s movement did not make many gains in the face of the “powerful white supremacy currents of the postwar decade”(382). While it was true that unemployment was down, the general level of wages rose for workers, and the population enjoyed some prosperity in the Jazz Age, the Roaring Twenties, “prosperity was concentrated [as always] at the top”(382). There was still a large percentage of the population struggling to make ends meet, toiling in unsafe conditions, but “there were enough well-off people to push the others in the background. And with the rich controlling the means of dispensing information, who would tell?”(383).
I have to admit, I was a little disappointed in Zinn’ glossing over of the Women’s Suffrage victory: ”Women had finally, after long agitation, won the right to vote in 1920 with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, but voting was still a middle-class and upper-class activity”(384). That’s it, Zinn?! I get that the ballot box has not really proven that effective in this story, but come on! Zinn quickly moves on to discuss the 1923 “Mellon Plan” which reduced income taxes. However, it’s important to note that the top income brackets had their taxes cut from 50 to 25% while the lowest income group had their cut from 4 to 3%– a 25% difference in tax cuts. Obviously the wealth of the 1920s postwar decade was not being shared equally. Furthermore, “buried in the general news of prosperity in the twenties were, from time to time, stories of bitter labor struggles”(385). And that’s all we hear of Women’s Suffrage and the Roaring Twenties. Zinn then goes on to tell the story of the Great Depression from the eyes of those hit the hardest.
“The stock market crash of 1929, which marked the beginning of the Great Depression of the United States, came directly from wild speculation which collapsed and brought the whole economy down with it”(386). For most economists, this was not a surprise–because of the unequal distribution of wealth, “the economy was fundamentally unsound”(386). In fact, “the capitalist system was by nature unsound: a system driven by the one overriding motive of corporate profit and therefore unstable, unpredictable, and blind to human needs”(387). it’s remarkable that a system built on capital, on money, would be so poor at managing it. Nonetheless, the crash was devastating–production fell by 50% and by 1933 nearly 15 million people were unemployed. Still, industrialists like Henry Ford (for whom my great-grandfather worked on the assembly line) had the balls to say shit like “there is plenty of work to do if people would do it” right before he laid off 75,000 workers (387).
Zinn continues to paint a picture of this period by quoting passages from Depression-era art and literature like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck speaks of this struggle and anger making people “dangerous.” As Zinn notes, “the spirit of rebellion was growing”(389). In his song Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? Yip Harburg writes about the famous bread lines and the anger of WWI veterans who, after risking their lives, were living in poverty: “I made an investment in this country. Where the hell are my dividends?“(391). In the spring and summer of 1932, this anger manifest itself in the march of the Bonus Army to Washington. Unemployed and hungry, war veterans were demanding that Congress pay off their government bond certificates early, when the money was needed. While the act was proved in Congress, it was defeated in the Senate and President Hoover ordered the army to evict the 20,000+ veterans from their encampment on the Potomac. In a case of extreme irony (and general fucked-up-ness) the U.S. army was fighting against it’s own veterans. Why isn’t a situation this this considered treasonous?
From here, Zinn walks us through the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 and his series of economic reforms which came to be known as The New Deal. As Zinn notes, “the Roosevelt reforms went far beyond previous legislation. They had to meet two pressing needs: to reorganize capitalism in such a way to overcome the crisis and stabilize the system; also, to head off the alarming growth of spontaneous rebellion in the early years of the Roosevelt administration”(392). As with most government economic plans, the main priority was stabilizing the economy for further development, not actually fixing it to redistribute wealth and pull the nation out of depression for good. For some reason this reminds me of how landlord continually “fixes” our leaking, moldy window by painting over the water stains. SMH. One of the first major reforms was the National Recovery Act (NRA)–”it was designed to take control of the economy through a series of codes agreed on by management, labor, and the government, fixing prices and wages, limiting competition. From the first, the NRA was dominated by big businesses and served their interests”(392). So basically, business-favoring policies were written into law, assuring their permanence. Writer Bernard Bellush summed it up by saying, “private administration became public administration, and private government became public government, insuring the marriage of capitalism with statism”(393). It comes as a surprise then, that the Supreme Court declared the NRA unconstitutional in 1935 because it gave too much power to the President. Wouldn’t it be more likely to have given too much power to the corporations?? FDR also pushed through the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) which was his attempt to organize agriculture, but it favored the larger farmers. His Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) consisted of a government-owned network of dams and hydroelectric plants to help produce power, prevent flooding lower electric rates and create jobs in the Tennessee Valley. While the latter seems to teeter on the verge of being actually “Socialistic,” Zinn argues that “the New Deals organization of the economy was aimed mainly at stabilizing the economy, and secondly at giving enough help to the lower classes to keep them from turning a rebellion into a real revolution”(393).
It is here when Zinn finally arrives at the title of his chapter (if it hadn’t been obvious already). With government policies that were doing little for the poorest citizens, “people organized to help themselves”(394). In one example, Zinn mentions unemployed miners in Pennsylvania who dug their own small mines on company property, trucked the coal into cities and sold it below the commercial rate. When attempts were made to prosecute them–after 5 million tons of coal had been sold!–no jury or judge would do it. As Zinn notes, “these were simple actions, taken out of practical need, but they had revolutionary possibilities”(395). Zinn seems to be touching on the Occam’s Razor theory that the simplest solution is often correct; we need to just redistribute wealth in a Robin-Hood style fashion–a solution that is both simple and revolutionary. Paul Mattick, a Marxist writer said it well: ”Breaking through the confines of private property in order to live up to their own necessities, the minders’ action is, at the same time a manifestation of the most important part of class consciousness–namely, that the problems of the workers can be solved only by themselves”(395). Zinn suggests that it is this class consciousness that led to the Wagner-Connery Bill in 1934, designed to regulate labor disputes. Ironically, in the fall of the same year was one of the largest strikes in that time–350,000 textile mill workers in the South. Organizing was just as active in the rural areas as well, where the Southern Tenant Farmers Union and others were responding to the inadequate measures of the AAA.
One of the most interesting effects of the 1930s was the exodus of workers out of the tightly controlled, exclusive unions like the AFL, to organizing in the new mass production industries. In response, the AFL set up the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) which eventually become the Congress of Industrial Organizations under the leadership of John Lewis. More notably, this decade saw the introduction of “rank-and-file” actions (organizing at the factory-level without union leadership) in the form of the sit-down strike. ”The workers stayed in the plant instead of walking out, and this had clear advantages: they were directly blocking the use of strikebreakers; they did not have to act through union officials but were in direct control of the situation themselves; they did not have to walk outside in the cold and rain, but had shelter; they were not isolated, as in their work, or on the picket line; they were thousands under one roof, free to talk to one another, to form a community of struggle”(399). What a brilliant idea, and one that seems to be a precursor to the nonviolent and sit-in tactics often associated with the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. The longest sit-down strike lasted 40 days at the Fisher Body Plant #1 in Flint, Michigan in 1936. That year there were 48 sit-down strikes. In 1937 there were 477 (400). Talk about an idea spreading like wildfire–and all without the internet!
What made these sit-down strikes particularly “dangerous” to the system was that they were not controlled by the regular union leadership and were organized without warning. Congress had passed the Wagner Act in 1935, which set up a National Labor Relations Board in an effort to stabilize the system in the face of unrest. Now that need was even more pressing. On Memorial Day 1937 in Chicago, police fired at a mass picket line of strikers and killed ten of them. The incident came to be known as the Memorial Day Massacre. The NLRB was an effort to compromise enough, without really giving in to worker demands fully. The result was a gradual split between workers and traditional trade unions. ”Unions were not wanted by employers, but they were more controllable–more stabilizing for the system than the wildcat strikes, the factory occupations of the rank and file”(401). This fact would function to drive a wedge between union leaders (who wanted to advance the cause for unions) and workers (who just wanted better working conditions and higher wages). Thus, “two sophisticated ways of controlling direct labor action developed in the mid-thirties. First, the National Labor Relations Board would give unions legal status, listen to them, settling certain of their grievances…And second, the workers’ organization itself, the union, even a militant and aggressive union like the CIO, would channel the workers’ insurrectionary energy into contracts, negotiations, union meetings, and try to minimize strikes, in order to build large, influential, even respectable organizations”(402). By working “with” unions more, the government was better able to control them and prevent strikes. So it seems logical that “labor won most during its spontaneous uprisings, before the unions were recognized or well organized”(402). Nonetheless, the state still felt threatened, so much so that the Supreme Court declared sit-down strikes illegal.
With the end of the 3os came the advent of WWII, which actually weakened labor militancy because war economies tend to create more jobs at higher wages. Thus, it was not really The New Deal that brought us out of the depression; “it was the war that put almost everyone to work, and the war did something else: patriotism, the push for unity of all classes against enemies overseas, made it harder to mobilize anger against the corporations. During the war, the CIO and AFL pledged to call no strikes”(402). Maybe it was the magnitude of the horrors in Nazi Germany, but this time war-era patriotism even spread to labor unions…but maybe not to workers. Interestingly enough, “there were more strikes in 1944 than in any previous year in American history”(403). This era witnessed the emergence of the Social Security Act, which provided retirement and unemployment insurance, but not if you were a farmer, domestic worker, or old. Thus, in a decade of great reforms, not much ground was gained. ”When the New Deal was over, capitalism remained intact. The rich still controlled the nation’s wealth, as well as its laws, courts, police, newspapers, churches, colleges…the system of waste, of inequality, of concern for profit over human need–remained”(404). This chapter really called into question for me the nature of progress. Is it more beneficial to wait longer and hold out for only exactly what we ask for–the complete fall of capitalism–knowing we may never see it in our lifetime, or do we settle for a gradual chipping away, a series of small victories, hoping we eventually arrive at a more just society?
Chapter 16: A People’s War?
In this chapter, Zinn questions our motives for entering WWII and the Korean War, as well as for intervening in the Cuban Revolution–were these truly “People’s Wars?” It was the Communist party that actually invoked this label when, after “repeatedly describ[ing] the war between the Axis Powers and the Allied Powers as an imperialist war, now called it a ‘people’s war’ against Fascism”(407). In many ways, this was one of the most popular wars the U.S. ever fought. In general, most people were rallied to fight against the horrific evil unfolding in Hitler’s Germany. But, as Zinn questions, “did the governments conducting the war–England, the United States, the Soviet Union–represent something significantly different, so that their victory would be a blow to imperialism, racism, totalitarianism, militarism, in the world?”(408). Absolutely not. Zinn outlines three paragraphs-worth of U.S. military interventions between 1900 and WWII, and then concludes, “if the entrance of the United States into World War II was (as so many Americans believed at the time, observing the Nazi invasions) to defend the principle of nonintervention in the affairs of other countries, the nation’s record cast doubt on its ability to uphold that principle”(409). Given the ebb and flow of U.S. alliances, it would seem U.S. intervention is governed not by humanitarianism, but imperialism and protecting economic interests. In fact, “Roosevelt was as much concerned to end the oppression of Jews as Lincoln was to end slavery during the Civil War; their priority…was not minority rights, but national power”(410). And so, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941, it was not Roosevelt’s humane concern for innocent victims that pushed us into War–Japan had attacked civilians in China in 1937 and Nanking, with no U.S. response–but it was the fact that the Japanese had attacked a link in the American Pacific Network–and a valuable one at that.
And so the battle was on–English, Russia and the U.S. as the Allied Powers, against the Axis Powers of Germany and Italy. In August 1941, Roosevelt and Churchill met to sign and present the Atlantic Charter, “declaring the right of nations to self-determination”(412). And it would be only a few years until the U.S. was bombing the hell out of Japan, and intervening in both Korea and Cuba. While WWII soldiers were on the ground (and in the air) fighting, seemingly for democracy and humanitarianism, American diplomats and businessmen were working hard to ensure that once the war was over, American economic power would be stronger than ever. Following the war, “The Open Door Policy [which characterized American foreign trade policy in the 20th century] of equal access would be extended from Asia to Europe, meaning that the United States intended to push England aside and move in. That is what happened to the Middle East and its oil”(413). It quickly became clear (and probably was from the start, to be honest) that this was a war to save capitalism and to expand U.S. markets. Poet and Assistant Secretary of State Archibald MacLeish wrote, “As things are now going, the peace we will make, the peace we seem to be making, will be a peace of oil, a peace of gold, a peace of shipping, a peace, in brief…without moral purpose or human interest”(414). How ironic for a war in which such unthinkable atrocities were occurring.
During this time, England the United States set up the International Monetary Fund to help regulate international exchange of currency; not like there was a war going on, or anything. As would be expected, voting was proportional to contributed capital, so the United States would always have the majority. The IMF would serve nicely to regulate business in the newly expanded American imperialist empire. The United Nations was also established, perhaps as the social complement to the IMF, but it too was dominated by Western imperial countries. Another really interesting point that Zinn brings up is that while we were fighting Hitler and his ideas of white Nordic supremacy over ‘inferior’ races, we were sending in troops that were segregated by race. Even on the boat ride over to Europe on the Queen Mary, black soldiers were forced into the crowded depths of the ship, near the engine room and away from fresh air–an eery reminder of slave ship voyages. Furthermore, Fascist nations were notorious for insisting that women belonged in the home, yet the American government was taking “no special steps to change the subordinate roles of women”(416). And the piece de resistance: FDR signed “Executive Order 9066, in February 1942, giving the army the power, without warrants or indictments or hearings, to arrest every Japanese-American on the West Coast–110,000 men, women, and children–to take them from their homes, transport them to camps far into the interior, and keep them there under prison conditions”(416). If WWII was truly a “people’s war” then why were American citizens suffering the same injustices as victims overseas?
Despite widespread patriotism, opposition was still palpable. In 1944, a million workers went on strike. ”Out of 10 million drafted for the armed forces during World War II, only 43,000 refused to fight,” but as Zinn notes, this was proportionally much larger than the same number for World War I. Many blacks saw the irony in enlisting. As one black student said to his teacher, “the Army jim-crows us. The Navy lets us serve only as messmen. The Red Cross refuses our blood. Employers and labor unions shut us out. Lynchings continue. We are disenfranchised, jim-crowed, spat-upon. What more could Hitler do than that?”(419).
Another noteworthy aspect of WWII was the heavy reliance on aerial bombing. As Zinn notes, “a mass base of support for what became the heaviest bombardment of civilians ever undertaken in any war: the aerial attacks on German and Japanese cities”(421). One of the worst was the 1945 bombing of Dresden, Germany, were more than 100,000 died. How could we argue that we were fighting a war for humanity when we were blindly bombing innocent civilians?! The worst of these attacks were undoubtedly the August 1945 atomic
bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where a combined 150,000 lost there lives, and tens of thousands more due to radiation poisoning. What’s heartbreaking to learn is that (according to United States Strategic Bombing Survey reports, the Japanese would have surrendered even without these bombs, without Russia entering the war, and without invasion at all (422). Zinn argues that American leaders clearly knew this fact before they dropped the bombs, but that this was a deliberate attempt on our part to “claim” Japan before the Russians: ”the Japanese would surrender to the United States, not the Russians, and the United States would be the occupier of postwar Japan”(423).
With the defeats of Italy, Germany, and Japan, “the fascist powers were destroyed. But what about fascism–as idea, as reality? Were its essential elements–militarism, racism, imperialism–now gone? Or were they absorbed in the already poisoned bones of the victors?”(424). Could we really say we had won, when the same injustices were parading around the world under the cover of “Socialism” in the Soviet Union or “Democracy” in the United States? And far from solving problems at home, the war had actually “rejuvenated American capitalism.” With such an economic boost, what capitalist leader would want to end the wartime economy? As Zinn notes, “when right after the war, the American public, war-weary, seemed to favor demobilization and disarmament, the Truman administration…worked to create an atmosphere of crisis and cold war”(425). If they could keep the nation in a permanent state of suspended war, then production and patriotism would remain steady, without having to actively engage in war. The results was an ideological attack on Communism. ”In a series of moves abroad and at home, [the U.S. government] established a climate of fear–a hysteria about Communism–which would steeply escalate the military budget and stimulate the economy with war-related orders”(425). Under the atmosphere of “Red Scare,” President Truman issued his Truman Doctrine, which gave $400 million in military and economic aid to prevent revolutions in Greece and Turkey. Truman claimed that the U.S. “must help free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” Truman went on to say that the world “must choose between alternative ways of life. One was based on ‘the will of the majority…distinguished by free institutions’; the other was based on ‘the will of a minority…terror and oppression…the suppression of personal freedoms”(426). Perhaps in response to our own fears at home, the Truman Doctrine justified the U.S. intervention to help stave off foreign revolutions. Maybe they were hoping other nations would do the same for them when the time came, or they just wanted even more assurance of overseas economic holdings.
After Greece and Turkey, once of the first places the Truman Doctrine played out was in a China fighting to overthrow the corrupt dictator Chiang Kai-shek. The U.S. had already given $2 billion in aid to Chiang Kai-shek’s forces, but in January 1949, Chinese Communist forces took over Peking, ending the civil war victorious. As Zinn notes, “The United States was trying, in the postwar decade, to create a national consensus–excluding the radicals, who could not support a foreign policy aimed at suppressing revolution–of conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, around the policies of cold war and anti-Communism”(427). It’s interesting to see how much conservatives and liberals moved closer together in the period, particularly in opposition to Communism. I don’t know that I would have drawn a line between liberalism and Communism, but as a product of the capitalist political system, I guess “liberalism” would have to be drastically removed from “communism” on the political spectrum. I guess it just hammered home for me the danger of the two-party system in America–the illusion of choice. In 1950, when Truman was leading an “undeclared war” on Korea, this liberal-conservative bloc really came together.
Korea had been occupied by Japan fro 35 years, but was liberated after WWII and divided into North Korea, a Socialist dictatorship under Soviet influence, and South Korea, a right-eing dictatorship under the influence of the U.S. On June 25, 1950 NorthKorean forces moved south in an invasion of South Korea and the United Nations (dominated by the U.S.) called for help in repelling the attack. Truman famously said, “a return to the rule of force in international affairs would have far-reaching affects. The United States will continue to uphold the rule of law”(427). HA! In three years, the U.S. had reduced North and South Korea to a shambles with bombing and shelling. Zinn makes the ironic observation that “perhaps 2 million Koreans, North and South, were killed in the Korean war, all in the name of opposing the ‘rule of force’”(428). Hypocrites! Somehow the Korean War managed to mobilize liberal support, creating the coalition needed to sustain a “policy of intervention abroad, militarization of the economy at home”(428). As Zinn notes, “if the Establishment, after World War II, was to make capitalism more secure in the country, and to build a consensus of support for the American Empire, it had to weaken and isolate the left”(429). One way to do this was to isolate and condemn the most radical among them.
On March 22, 1947, Truman issued Executive Order 9835, which was a program designed to search out any “infiltration of disloyal persons” in the U.S. government (429). Thus began the ant-Communist policies that led to the “Red Scare” fury. With Communist activity erupting across the globe, this was not difficult. As Zinn suggests, “World events right after the war made it easier to build up public support for the anti-Communist crusade at home. In 1948, the Communist party in Czechoslovakia ousted non-Communists from the government and established their own rule. The Soviet Union that year blockaded Berlin, which was a jointly occupied city isolated inside the sphere of East Germany, forcing the United States to airlift supplies into Berlin. In 1949, there was the Communist victory in China, and in that year also, the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb. In 1950 the Korean war began. These were all portrayed to the public as signs of a world Communist conspiracy”(429). And so the government began a rule of terror that has not relented to this day. It’s no longer Communists, but terrorists, but the idea remains the same–keep a citizenry scared enough, and they’re easier to control. Even outside of Communist-controlled countries, revolutionary groups were overthrowing corrupt governments. ”It was a general wave of anti-imperialist insurrection in the world, which would require gigantic American effort to defeat: national unity for militarization of the budget, for the suppression of domestic opposition to such a foreign policy”(430). Something tells me this had been done before.
Zinn then outlines some of the ridiculous policies and actions that came about during the Red Scare, such as changing the description of “liberal” to “communistically inclined.” What surprises me is that Senator McCarthy was actually considered to have gone too far by the government. Most government officials were trying to oust those with Communist affiliations, but McCarthy was trying to expose liberals as Communists, endangering the critical liberal-conservative coalition. I guess that was too much. In 1950, Republicans sponsored the Internal Security Act which required the registration of any organization that conducted “Communist-action.” At one point, a bill even proposed a detention camp for Communists ready for use during times of unrest. Although the bill passed, it was repealed in 1968. Perhaps one of the most well-known stories of the Red Scare is that of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who, in the summer of 1950, were charged with espionage, specifically the sharing of sensitive information with the Soviet Union. Despite inconsistent stories and mass appeals from writers and personalities worldwide, the Rosenbergs were sentenced to death in the electric chair. Again, there was mass opposition worldwide, a brief stay granted, but ultimately the Rosenberg were executed June 19, 1953. It was clear that the American government was coming down hard on Communism, in both law and enforcement. With so many of its leaders in prison, the remaining organizers went underground. And thus, “the system, so shaken in the thirties, had learned that war production could bring stability and high profits. Truman’s anti-Communism was attractive”(436-7).
With Communism a constant threat, the weapons industry had a field day. By 1962, the U.S. had the equivalent of 1,500 Hiroshima0size atomic bombs, 50 intercontinental ballistic missiles, 80 missiles on nuclear submarines, 90 missiles on stations overseas, 1,700 bombers capable of reacher the Soviet Union, 300 fighter-bombers on aircraft carriers….the list goes on, but the bottom line is that we were far and away the nuclear superpower, which makes sense when you realize we were spending $80 billion on the military alone by 1970 making a few industrial corporations very rich (437). Just think how things would be different if that even 1/10 of that money was redistributed throughout society. Instead, all this extra money was being used to provide economic aid to certain countries, creating “a network of American corporate control over the globe, and building its political influence over the countries it aided”(438). The Marshall Plan of 1948 gave $16 billion in aid to Western European countries, which meant the building up of markets for American exports. And, as Zinn notes, “from military aid, it was a short step to military intervention. What Truman had said at the start of the Korean war about ‘the rule of force’ and the ‘rule of law’ was again and again, under Truman and his successors, contradicted by American action”(438). To really drive this hypocritical point home, Zinn closes the chapter with a brief discussion of the United States’ role in the Cuban Revolution.
After spending some time in prison, Fidel Castro traveled to Mexico, where he met the Argentine revolutionary Che Guevra. In 1956, they returned to Cuba, and by 1959 were leading rebel forces in the overthrow of American-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. The rebels used guerilla warfares from the jungles and mountains and on New Year’s Day 1959, the Batista government fell to the revolutionaries. What followed was a series of moves that seriously changed the relationship between Cuba and the U.S. As Zinn summarizes, “Cuban needed money to finance its programs, and the United States [after the fall of Batista] was not eager to lend it. The International Monetary Fund, dominated by the United States, would not loan money to Cuba because Cuba would not accept its “stabilization” conditions, which seemed to underline the revolutionary program that had begun. When Cuba now signed a trade agreement with the Soviet Union, American-owned oil companies in Cuba refused to refine crude oil that came from the Soviet Union. Castro seized these companies. The United States cut down on its sugar buying from Cuba, on which Cuba’s economy depended, and the Soviet Union immediately agreed to buy all the 700,000 tons of sugar that the United States would not buy”(440). Each one of these seems like smart business move on Cuba’s part–why wait around for the U.S. to play catty games of alliance, they had a new country to build. At the same time, the U.S. was welcoming Cuban exiles, Batista loyalists, and training them in military tactics. ”On April 17, 1961, the CIA-trained force, with some Americans participating, landed at the Bay of Pigs on the south shore of Cuba…In three days, the CIA forces were crushed by Castro’s army”(440). So much for Truman’s “rule of law” instead of force.
Despite its intriguing title, this was a chapter I could have done without. Not that Zinn’s writing is boring–it just starts to get a bit repetitive. Having just spent a chapter profiling the early labor movement, Zinn now profiles some of the wealthy industrialists as we plunge into the machine age. This, of course, brings more labor issues. Nonetheless, the chapter begins with Zinn’s characteristic summative context: ”In the year 1877, the signals were given for the rest of the century: the black would be put back; the strikes of white workers would not be tolerated; the industrial and political elites of North and South would take hold of the country and organize the greatest march of economic growth in human history. They would do it with the aid of, and at the expense of, black labor, white labor, Chinese labor, European immigrant labor, female labor, rewarding them differently by race, sex, national origin, and social class, in such a way as to create separate levels of oppression–a skillful terracing to stabilize the pyramid of wealth”(254). This pretty much sums up the chapter and I could stop here…but that would be too easy. In all honesty, this quote could start a current piece of writing and still be just as relevant–we’ve just added more bottom layers to the pyramid.
After the civil war, Americans watched as steam and electricity replaced human muscle; iron and steel became our building materials; machines changed the way we farm; man-made ice changed the food industry; and with all of this, railroads were beginning to stretch coast to coast and across continents. Americans were at work; “to accomplish all this required ingenious inventors of new processes and new machines, clever organizers and administrators of the new corporations, a country rich with land and minerals, and a huge supply of human beings to do the back-breaking, unhealthful, and dangerous work. Immigrants would come from Europe and China to make the new labor force”(254). And we didn’t even have to drag these people here in chains–they came willingly to build this nation at their own expense. It’s as if wealthy Americans see inhumane work as the ticket price for citizenship. Well, what did Columbus have to pay?
With industry came corporation and with corporation came greed and corruption. The same wealthy capitalists that had skipped out on Civil War duty were now investing in industry and the network of wealthy industrialists created an “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” kind of attitude. Manufacturers needed railroads to distribute goods; railroad kept steel production steady, bankers financed everything–and of course it all linked back to the government and the creation of business-friendly policies–”profit by law rather than by theft”(255). Zinn writes about J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie and launches into their practices of buying and selling stocks and bonds which, quite frankly, goes over my head a little. What I DO understand is that the government gave a LOT of money to develop these industries, and then passed policies that would benefit them even more, all while taking advantage of cheap labor. Zinn puts it pretty nicely: “shrewd, efficient businessmen building empires, choking out competition, maintaining high prices, keeping wages low, using government subsidies”(257). The government was behaving exactly as Karl Marx described the capitalist state: ”pretending neutrality to maintain order, but serving the interests of the rich…the purpose of the state was to settle upper-class disputes peacefully, control lower-class rebellion, and adopt policies that would further the long-range stability of the system”(258). In the 1877 presidential election, both the Republicans and Democrats were so concerned with supporting business (while appearing to be “for the people”) that there was no discernible difference in their platforms. Instead, the press had to focus on petty gossip and personalities. Zinn cites one commentator of the time–”Instead of this the press is engaged in most amusing dispute whether Mr. Cleveland had an illegitimate child and did or did not live with more than one mistress”(259). Well damn, that explains why the press was so concerned with Hilary and Sarah Palin’s looks, Barack Obama’s nationality, Bill Clinton’s affair…
In 1887, President Cleveland had a huge surplus in the national treasury, but vetoed a bill to give $100,000 of aid to farmers during a drought; he didn’t want to encourage “paternal care.” He then turned around and used that surplus to pay off wealthy bondholders at values above the worth of the bond. It was quite clear where Cleveland’s interests lay. His passage of the Interstate Commerce Act sealed the deal. The act was designed to regulate the monopolistic practices of the railroad companies through price control, but never gave the federal government the powers to do so! His successor, Benjamin Harrison, is equally as infamous for the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890, which made it illegal to form a “combination or conspiracy” to restrain trade in interstate or foreign commerce. However, the law was interpreted by the courts much differently–a monopoly in sugar refining, for example, was not a monopoly in commerce, but in manufacturing. A railroad strike, on the other hand, was an attempt to restrain trade and therefore s violation. Somehow the law was also used to declare unconstitutional an attempt by Congress to tax higher incomes at higher rates (hell yeah!); Zinn glosses over this, but I found it interesting. Undoubtedly, the government has spend the better part of the past two centuries in bed with business; as one New York banker toasted the Supreme Court in 1895: “I give you, gentlemen, the Supreme Court of the United States–guardian of the dollar, defender of private property, enemy of spoliation, sheet anchor of the republic”(260)–is that in the Constitution somewhere?
The Supreme Court was really on a roll in the late 1800s: ”By this time [it] had accepted the argument that corporations were “persons” and their money was property protected by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Supposedly, the Fourteenth Amendment had been passed to protect [black] rights, but of the Fourteenth Amendment cases brought before the Supreme Court between 1890 and 1910, nineteen dealt with [African-Americans], 228 dealt with corporations”(261). Really.
Perhaps the most interesting part of this chapter, in my opinion, was the birth of the public education system. With such a precarious system established, in which the wealthy were dependent on the labor and oppression of the poor (well, and the federal government), the public had to be indoctrinated at a young age. As Zinn writes, ”Control in modern times requires more than force, more than law. It requires that a population dangerously concentrated in cities and factories, whose lives are filled with cause for rebellion, be taught that all is right as it is. And so, the schools, the churches, the popular literature taught that to be rich was a sign of superiority, to be poor a sign of personal failure, and that the only way upward for a poor person was to climb into the ranks of the rich by extraordinary effort and extraordinary luck”(262). The American Dream–that we all can be rich if we just try a little. Instead, we’re teaching our children how to function and be “successful” in a system whose very goal it is is to keep them unsuccessful. Public education grooms the majority of our students for the working class. As Zinn notes, “it was important that these people learn obedience to authority”(263), for they would someday be the new labor force. Zinn cites Joel Spring, “The development of a factory-like system in the nineteenth-century schoolroom was not accidental”(263). The problem is that this same model plagues us today. Kids are taught that authority figures are always right; to raise their hands before doing anything and never get out of their seat; that to fall behind or do something differently just a little is not normal. We even assess our students’ growth with a factory mentality–state standardized testing, with its multiple-choice, culturally irrelevant content. It’s no wonder then, that the rich saw the education system as an opportunity–they framed themselves as “philanthropists” when they started donating money to build huge learning institutions like Vanderbilt, Cornell, Duke, and Stanford–these schools would only reinforce the mentality they hoped to preserve.
Nonetheless, rebellion bubbled to the surface, just as today we have public schools that don’t fit the mold and, on a rare occasion, actually educate our children (they’re usually small and controlled by the people in that community, and not the government or the wealthy). Zinn notes, “against this gigantic organization of knowledge and education for orthodoxy and obedience, there arose a literature of dissent and protest which had to make its way from reader to reader against great obstacles”(264)–the counterculture. Henry George, a self-educated working-class man in Philadelphia, was one of those writers. In his Progress and Poverty, he made the connection that “the basis of wealth was land, that this was becoming monopolized, and that a single tax on land, abolishing all others, would bring enough revenue to solve the problem of poverty and equalize wealth in the nation”(264). This is an observation that is still true today. There are frequently ballot initiatives (if they’re lucky enough to make it to the ballot) that attempt to tax corporations, the wealthy, at higher rates, yet they rarely succeed. One such initiative recently was California’s Proposition 30 on the recent 2012 presidential election. While the initiative raised sales tax slightly, it also created four separate high income tax brackets to be taxed at higher rates for the next 7 years to raise money for public education. I can only hope that this money is used for good, and doesn’t just get funneled back into the system that generated it originally.
The well-established education system was also an opportunity to bring immigrants fully into American society. At the same time, this immigration of “different ethnic groups contributed to the fragmentation of the working class,” groups facing the same challenging conditions (265). If all these working class groups could be kept toiling under the false notion that they would one day be rich if they could just work hard and stay away from that group over there, then the system would keep chugging along. Children were not exempt from this kind of exploitation. If they weren’t in schools being brainwashed, they were in factories working–”in 1880 there were 1,118.000 children under sixteen (one out of six) at work in the United States”(267). This was before laws for compulsory education (which were only implemented after labor unions demanded child labor laws).
Throughout this period, men, women and children continued to resist the system. As Zinn writes, “what was astonishing in so many of these struggles was not that the strikers did not win all that they wanted, but that, against such great odds, they dared to resist, and were not destroyed”(268). This is a thread that I had seen woven through Zinn’s book–that rebellion and resistance against the dominant power structure is frequently not successful, but it keeps happening. By surviving alone we are rebelling against the system. Out of this spirit arose The Socialist Labor Party in 1877. ”Perhaps it was the recognition that day-to-day combat was not enough, that fundamental change was needed, which stimulated the growth of revolutionary movements at this time”(268). This period bore revolutionary thinkers and writers who were planning to overthrow the entire system, instead of just one factory or railroad. By 1883, an anarchist congress took place in Pittsburgh and drew up a manifesto that I absolutely loved:
“All laws are directed against the working people…Even the school serves only the purpose of furnishing the offspring of the wealthy with those qualities necessary to uphold their class domination. The children of the poor get scarcely a formal elementary training, and this, too, is mainly directed to such branches and tend to producing prejudices, arrogance, and servility; in short, wont of sense. The Church finally seeks to make complete idiots out of the mass and to make them forego the paradise on earth by promising a fictitious heaven. The capitalist press, on the other hand, takes care of the confusion of spirits in public life…The workers can therefore expect no help from any capitalist party in their struggle against the existing system. They must achieve their liberation by their own efforts. As in former times, a privileged class never surrenders its tyranny, neither can it be expected that the capitalists of this age will give up their rulership without being forced to do it…”(268)
I love how this manifesto links in the role of the church and religion into society’s control over the working class. The manifesto also asked for “equal rights for all without distinction to sex or race” and quoted the Communist Manifesto: “Workingmen of all lands, unite! You have nothing to lose but your claims; you have a world to win!”(268).
In general, the labor movement took on a more organized feel with revolutionary writing, ideas, and leaders circulating. On May 1st, 1886, the american Federation of Labor, on its 5th anniversary, called for a nationwide strike for the 8-hour workday (this suddenly makes it clear why Oakland’s 2012 General Strike was on May 1st…). 350,000 people in 11,562 establishments across the nation went on strike (270). The wealthy responded, gathered militia and asked that Albert Parsons and August Spies–leaders of the International Working People’s Association–be “watched” and “made an example of.” A series of gatherings in Chicago’s Haymarket Square took place in the first few days of May. On May 4th, at a gathering of 3,000 people, a police battalion of 180 showed up and marched to the stage. When the speeches were just about to be wrapped up, a bomb was thrown into the crowd, wounding 66 policemen and (eventually) killing 7. The police then opened fire on the crowd, killing several and wounding nearly 200. With absolutely no evidence as to who thew the bomb, the police arrested eight people that night, including Parsons and Spies. As Zinn notes, “the evidence against the eight anarchists was their ideas, their literature; none had been at Haymarket that day except for Fielden, who was speaking when the bomb exploded. A jury found them guilty, and they were sentenced to death. their appeals were denied; the Supreme Court said it had no jurisdiction”(271). This is unbelievable to me–to arrest men who were not even present at the time?! The corrupt actions of the Illinois Supreme Court roused international excitement. One year after the trial, four of the accused–Spies, August, Adolph Fischer, and George Engel–were hanged. Many suspect the police threw the bomb as a distraction–as a chance to arrest threatening anarchists leaders on whom they had no evidence–a tactic I would wager the government still used today.
“While the immediate result [of the Haymarket Riots] was a suppression of the radical movement, the long-term effect was to keep alive the class of anger of many, to inspire others–especially young people of that generation–to action in revolutionary causes”(272). Zinn notes how the actions of the “Haymarket martyrs” inspired revolutionaries like Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, and, nearly a century later, the “Chicago Eight” the 1968. Instead of killing the spirit along with the leaders, the events had instead inspired and moved workers to greater action–a result I’m sure the government was not anticipating. ”It seemed that the weight of the Haymarket had not crushed the labor movement. The year 1886 became known to contemporaries as “the year of the great uprising of labor”(273). John Commons, in his History of the Labor Movement in the United States likens this great movement to a “social war.” As Zinn notes, “the year 1892 saw strike struggles all over the country”(276).
One notable strike took place at the Carnegie Steel Plant at Homestead, Pennsylvania. Plant Manager Henry Clay Frick, in an effort to break the union, had reduced wages and built a barbed wire fence around the entire plant. When the workers didn’t accept the wage cut, Frick laid all of them off, then brought in strikebreakers, protected by the Pinkerton Detective Agency. When the guards tried to enter the plant, they were attacked by the angry workers and forced to retreat. the strikers maintained control of the area for a few days until the government brought in militia and the entire Strike Committee was arrested for treason, although no jury would convict them. As Zinn suggests, “one reason for [this] defeat was that the strike was confined to Homestead, and other plants of Carnegie kept working”(277). In the midst of the strike, anarchist Alex Berkman, his partner Emma Goldman, and their friends attempted to kill Frick, but Berkman missed and was instead arrested for attempted murder and served 14 years.
The year 1893 ushered in the biggest economic crisis in the country’s history. ”642 banks failed and 16,000 businesses closed down…No state government voted relief, but mass demonstrations all over the country forced city governments to set up soup kitchens and give people work on streets or parks”(277). Emma Goldman spoke to a crowd in NYC and “urged those with children who needed food to go into the stores and take it.” She was arrested and served 2 years for “inciting to riot”(278). However, the depression also inspired a wave of strikes across the country, including the largest–a nationwide strike of railroad workers that began at the Pullman Company in 1894 and propelled Eugene Debs into a lifetime of activism, unionism, and socialism.
At the time, “railroad work was one of the most dangerous jobs in America; over two thousand railroad workers were being killed each year, and thirty thousand injured”(278). Debs had worked on the railroads from the time he was 15, until his friend was killed falling under a locomotive. Interestingly, at the time of the great strikes in 1877, Debs opposed them, believing there was no “necessary conflict between capital and labor.” Then he read Edward Bellamy’s accounts of places like Homestead in Looking Backward. By 1893, Debs was helping to form the American Railway Union (which unfortunately excluded blacks at the time) a national alliance of railroad workers. In June 1894–after worker layoffs and drastic wage reductions–workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company went on strike. For the first few weeks, they had support from unions throughout Chicago, but eventually asked the American Railway Union for support. ”The American Railway Union responded. It asked its members all over the country not to handle Pullman cars. Since virtually all passenger trains had Pullman cars, this amounted to a boycott of all trains–a nationwide strike” with a magnitude never seen before (280). Soon all rail traffic out of Chicago came to a halt; strikers burned hundreds of cars and it took the state militia one day to move in. ”In Chicago that day [July 6], thirteen people were killed, fifty-three seriously wounded, seven hundred arrested. Before the strike was over, perhaps thirty-four were dead. With fourteen thousand police, militia, troops in Chicago, the strike was crushed”(281). As with many of the strikes that came before–it seems that the bigger the strike, the more crushing the defeat, but the more inspiring the survivors and ripples that spark further action. Debs was arrested for contempt of court and told the courts, “It seems to me that if it were not for resistance to degrading conditions, the tendency of our whole civilization would be downward; after a while we would reach the point where there would be no resistance, and slavery would come”(281). Without resistance we are slaves to the system. Two years later Debs was released and wrote in the Railway Times. “the issue is Socialism versus Capitalism. I am for Socialism because I am for humanity. We have been cursed with the reign of gold long enough. Money constitutes no proper basis of civilization. The time has come to regenerate society–we are on the eve of a universal change”(282).
Have Deb’s words come to fruition? Zinn seems to argue that they have: ”the [eighteen]eighties and nineties saw bursts of labor insurrection, more organized than the spontaneous strikes of 1877″(282). New radical leaders and literature were emerging, and farmers across the nation were organizing “the greatest movement of agrarian rebellion the country had ever seen” The Farmer’s Alliance, later known as the Populist Movement.
The population of the United States in the late 1800s was growing rapidly: ”From 1860 to 1900 the population…grew from 31 million to 75 million.” The demand for food had drastically increased and with industrialism, farming had become mechanized. But, land and machines cost money and farmers were forced to borrow upfront. However, prices of produce was going down, while prices for storage and transportation were going up “because the individual farmer could not control the price of his grain [due to federal commerce polices], while the monopolist railroad and the monopolist banker could charge what they liked”(283). The farmer was kept in a state of debt and constant dependence on loans and subsidies. ”the government played its part in helping the bankers and hurting the farmers; it kept the amount of money–based on the gold supply–steady, while the population rose, so there was less and less money in circulation”(284). The farmers had to pay off their loans in paper money, which was harder to get, while banks would get loans back with interest. This is why so much of the farmers’ platform in those days had to do with “putting more money in circulation–by printing greenbacks (paper money for which there was no gold in the treasury0 or by making silver a basis for issuing money”(284).
The Farmer’s Alliance Movement began in Texas, and this “crop-lien” system was most brutal in the South. Farmers would get a lien–a mortgage on their crop–in the beginning of the season to pay for seed and machinery, but they had to pay 25% interest, and were driven deeper and deeper into debt. ”the crop lien system became for millions of Southerners, white and black, little more than a modified form of slavery. The man with the ledger became to the farmer ‘the furnishing man,’ to black farmers simply “the Man.” The farmer would owe more money every year until finally his farm was taken away and he became a tenant”(284) which, according to most socialist/communist thought, renders one powerless in a capitalists society. So, at the height of the 1877 Depression, a group of white farmers gathered in Texas to form the Farmer’s Alliance, where farmers could form cooperatives, buy things together and get lower prices (“bulking”). By 1882 there were 120 suballiances across the state and by 1886, 100,000 farmers had joined in 2,000 suballiances (285). From their inception, the Farmer’s Alliance showed sympathy to the labor movement. When the Knights of Labor went on strike against a steamship in Gavelston, a leader from the Texas Alliance, William Lamb wrote an open letter to Alliance people to call for their support of the Knights. Historian Lawrence Goodwyn notes that “Alliance radicalism–Populism–began with this letter”(285). Indeed, now workers across the nation and across industries were not only organized and striking, but supporting eachothers’ causes–a dangerous play for the wealthy elite. In the summer of 1886 the Alliance gathered in Cleburne, TX to write up their first official document, “The Cleburne Demands” calling for “legislation as shall secure to our people freedom from the onerous and shameful abuses that the industrial classes are now suffering at the hands of arrogant capitalists and powerful corporations”(286).
At a time when 90% of farmers were living on credit, one radical Alliance member, Charles Macune, developed the “sub-Treasury plan.” This plan set up government warehouses where farmers could store produce and receive certificates in the form of greenbacks. Thus, more currency would be in circulation, backed not just by gold, but based on something truly valuable to a growing nation: farm produce. But, this plan depended on the government, and since no major party would support it, it meant organizing a third party. In 1890, 38 Alliance members were elected to Congress, and eventually Governors in Georgia and Texas. However, “the alliances were not getting real power, but were spreading new ideas and a new spirit. Now, as a political party, they became the People’s Party, or Populist Party”(288). This new party, then, had the job of unifying a very diverse working class. One of the most difficult groups to persuade (probably because racism had become so entrenched by this time) was black farmers. ”Blacks had aligned themselves to the Republican party, the party of Lincoln and civil rights laws. The Democrats were the party of slavery and segregation”(289)–isn’t that an interesting twist! Furthermore, “blacks and whites were in different situations. The blacks were mostly field hands, hired laborers; most white Alliance people were farm owners” which often pit them against each other in labor strikes (290). Finally, “racism was strong, and the Democratic party played on this, winning many farmers from the Populist party. When white tenants , failing in the crop-lien system, were evicted from their land and replaced by blacks, race hatred intensified”(291). Thus poor whites and blacks were manipulated, like puppets, into detrimental infighting when in reality, “the laws that took the vote away from blacks–poll taxes, literacy tests, property qualifications–also often ensured that poor whites would not vote [either]“(291). Tom Watson, a Populist leader in Georgia said to his people, “you are kept apart that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings. You are made to hate each other because upon that hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism which enslaves you both. You are deceived and blinded that you may not see how this race antagonism perpetuates a monetary system which beggars both”(291)–and still today we fight this.
And so we had two key movements–the radical Labor Movement and the Alliance Movement that pushed the struggles of the lower classes onward in the late 1800s. According to Goodwyn, “if the labor movement had been able to do in the cities what the Populists did in the rural areas, ‘to create among urban workers a culture of cooperation, self-respect, and economic analysis,’ there might have been a great movement for change in the United States”(293). I believe this is true–the cramped spaces and poor conditions of cities led to greater tension which may have had a stronger impact on the success of the labor movement. Nonetheless, “populism regarded itself as a class movement, reasoning that farmers and workers were assuming the same material position in society”(293). After all these years, can we still not see that race is a construction invented to keep us looking one direction when we are being robbed from the other? In 1896, the Populist movement supported the Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan, but he was defeated by a corporate and press-backed William McKinley. Zinn ends this chapter with his own “state of the union”: ”the black was being kept under control in the South. The Indian was being driven off the western plains for good; on a cold winter day in 1890, U.S. army soldiers attacked Indians camped at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, and killed three hundred men, women, and children. It was the climax to four hundred years of violence that began with Columbus, establishing that this continent belonged to white men. But only to certain white men, because it was clear by 1896 that the state stood ready to crush labor strikes, by the law if possible, by force if necessary. And where a threatening mass movement developed, the two-party system stood ready to send out one of its columns to surround that movement and drain it of vitality”(295).
So I guess this chapter proved to be a bit more interesting, in retrospect. Nonetheless…shorter responses from now on…
252 pages down…436 more to go…36% complete…and losing steam…
Chapter 9: Slavery Without Submission, Emancipation without Freedom
Having been an Oakland public schools teacher, I am happy (and proud) to say that most of my students are fairly aware that Abraham Lincoln was not half the man the history books make him out to be, nor was the Civil War about ending slavery. Nonetheless, Howard Zinn devotes this rather long chapter to proving these two points. He starts the chapter by giving some context around how much the cotton industry had grown by the time of the Civil War: ”In 1790, a thousand tons of cotton were being produced every year in the South. By 1860, it was a million tons; [for another startling figure, that's only 1/30 the amount of plastic thrown away each year in the US today]. In the same period, 500,000 slaves grew to 4 million”(171). This is an outrageous number, considering that slave importation became illegal in 1808. Then again, when have laws stopped corrupt people from doing anything in this country. It was clear that the slave plantation system had taken hold of the south (indeed, built this nation) and “it would take either a full-scale slaves rebellion or a full-scale war to end such a deeply entrenched system. If a rebellion, it might get out of hand, and turn its ferocity beyond slavery to the most successful system of capitalist enrichment in the world. if a war, those who made the war would organize its consequences. Hence, it was Abraham Lincoln who freed the slaves [that's debatable], not John Brown. In 1859, John Brown was hanged, with federal complicity, for attempting to do by small-scale violence what Lincoln would do by large-scale violence [indeed, one of the bloodiest in US history] several years later–end slavery [well, kindof]“(171). This quote pretty much sums up chapter 9, but Zinn goes on for another 39 pages to make it clear just how much the outcome of the Civil War benefitted white property owners more than slaves. He does bring up the interesting point that “liberation from the top would go only so far as the interests of the dominant groups permitted”(171-172). I would agree with this statement completely–if we rely on those in power to give us our freedom, they’ll only give what they want to. But what does it look like to liberate ourselves? How can the power structure be inverted without those at the top willingly giving up power?
Zinn goes on to show us a few examples of what self-liberation looked like in the years around the Civil War. In 1831, Nat Turner led an armed slave rebellion in Virginia killing at least 55 people. While this was an extreme case, rebellions like this were happening all over the south, putting white slaveowners on alert. Historian Henry Tragle notes, “during a period when neither the State nor the nation faced any sort of exterior threat, we find that Virginia felt the need to maintain a security force roughly ten percent of the total number of its inhabitants”(174). It was clear that southern whites were fearful. However, rebellion didn’t always come in the form of mass violence; “the resistance [also] included stealing property, sabotage and slowness, killing overseers and masters, burning down plantations, running away”(175). It was during this time that Harriet Tubman was leading runaway slaves along the Underground Railroad to freedom, sharing her philosophy: ”there [i]s one of two things I ha[ve] a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other”9175). With so much organized rebellion among blacks, white slaveowners became fearful that poorer whites would also join the fight for liberation. So, it’s during this time that we start to see the passage of laws and police measures that forbade the fraternization of whites and blacks, unless, of course, the relationship could be leveraged to benefit the plantation owner, as was the case in “paying poor whites…to be overseers of black labor and therefore buffers for black hatred”(177).
Despite all, what emerged among black communities, Zinn notes, was a strategy of survival, and a strong, extended kinship network. Slaves not only fought for survival against all odds, but had to learn how to cope when families were torn apart and stripped of nearly all sense of humanity. As George Rawick noted in interviews with ex-slaves in the 1930s: “the activity of the slaves in creating patterns of family life that were functionally integrative did more than merely prevent the destruction of personality…It was part and parcel, as we shall see, of the social process out of which came black pride, black identity, black culture, the black community, and black rebellion in America”(178). As African tradition and culture blended with a struggle to survive and resist, what emerged was a distinct culture involving “music, magic, art, religion…all ways…for slaves to hold on to their humanity”(179). In the north, where most blacks were already free, this culture translated into an even stronger movement for abolition. Zinn cites David Walker, the free-born son of a slave, famous for writing his pamphlet Walker’s Appeal, in which he asserts that “there was no slavery in history, even that of the Israelites in Egypt, worse than the slavery of the black man in America”(180). Certainly none that have persisted as long and so systemically. Less than a year after the publication of his pamphlet, Walker was found dead outside of his Boston shop.
Another famous abolitionist Zinn profiles is Frederick Douglass, a slave who escaped to the North in 1838, taught himself how to read and write, and went on to become one of the most famous black men in American history. Frustrated with blacks (and whites) who weren’t willing to fight for the cause, Douglass exclaimed in 1857: ”If there is no struggle there is no progress…Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will…”(183). Douglass’ words still ring true today and remind me of my frustration with the latter period of the Occupy Oakland movement–Occupiers had effectively gained the attention of local, state (and even national) officials, yet no clear demands were made and the movement lost its steam. A movement needs both force and direction. Zinn points out that this spirit of (to quote Malcolm X about a century early) “by any means necessary” was much more prevalent among blacks than whites; “blacks were more willing to engage in armed insurrection, but also more willing to use existing political devices–the ballot box, the Constitution–anything to further their cause”(184). Well, yeah, they had a hell of a lot more to lose (or gain) at that point than whites did. This is not to say that there weren’t well-meaning and effective white abolitionists, but, as Zinn notes, “black abolitionists…were the backbone of the antislavery movement”(184). This obviously proves Zinn’s point nicely that any true liberation had to come from the bottom up. Indeed, a conference of black abolitionists in 1854 declared: ”our relations to the Anti-Slavery movement must be and are changed. Instead of depending upon it we must lead it”(184).
It is here (14 pages in, but still 25 pages from the end…) where Zinn comes full circle and tells us of John Brown’s plan to seize the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. Both Tubman and Douglass were consulted during the planning. In the end, Harriet fell sick, while Douglass , inspired though he was, doubted the plan’s chances for success. With the jacked-up security in the South at the time, I would have had to agree with Douglass. And, he was right–Robert E. Lee’s local militia of 100 marines had the place surrounded–but still, Brown did not give in. In his book John Brown, W.E.B Du Bois describes the final scene in which John was “lying in the cold and dirt, without sleep for fifty-five nerve-wracking hours, without food for nearly as long, with the dead bodies of his two sons almost before his eyes, the piled corpses of seven slain comrades near and afar, a wife and a bereaved family listening in vain, and a Lost Case, the dream of a lifetime, lying dead in his heart…”(185). John Brown was executed by the state of Virginia, his last written words: ”I, John Brown, am quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood”(186). Given his die-hard conviction to the cause, it’s interesting to note that John Brown was white.
And so, with tension running high in the young nation, we launched into a war on behalf of the antislavery movement, right? Wrong. In fact, the US government supported the South through and through. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, although “a concession to the southern states in return for the admission of the Mexican war territories…into the Union as nonslave states” still meant that slaves weren’t really free anywhere”(181). And in 1857, it was the Supreme Court that declared that “the slaves Dred Scott could not sue for his freedom because he was not a person, but property”(187). No matter how many times I heard that phrase in college classes, I am still blown away by its insanity. Again, Zinn returns to his initial assertion that “such a national government would never accept an end to slavery by rebellion. it would end slavery only under conditions controlled by whites, and only when required by the political and economic needs of the business elite of the North. It was Abraham Lincoln who combined perfectly the needs of business, the political ambition of the new Republican party, and the rhetoric of humanitarianism”(187). The latter half of the chapter lays out how a political move designed to benefit the capitalist system was packaged and sold to people throughout history as a war for emancipation.
While I have always been aware that Lincoln was really not much of an abolitionist, I was never fully aware of the extent to which he actually spoke out publicly against racial equality. Even in his civil war, he refused to denounce the Fugitive Slave Law and wrote to a friend, “I confess I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down…but I bite my lips and keep quiet”(188). Only two months after an 1858 campaign speech in Illinois that called for unity and ended with “all men are created equal,” Lincoln gave another speech (this time in Charleston): ”I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races”(188). Like all politicians–more performer than leader–Lincoln knew how to move his audience. as Zinn notes, “[Lincoln] opposed slavery, but could not see blacks as equals, so a constant theme in his approach was to free the slaves and to send them back to Africa”(188). Wow.
In 1860, Lincoln was elected president, ushering in a wave of policy clashes between the North and South–not over slavery (“most northerners did not care enough about slavery to make sacrifices for it”(188-189), but over economics. ”The northern elite wanted economic expansion–free land, free labor, a free market, a high protective tariff for manufacturers, a bank of the United States. The slave interests opposed all that; they saw Lincoln and the Republicans as making continuation of their pleasant and prosperous way of life impossible in the future. So, when Lincoln was elected, seven southern states seceded from the Union”(189). It wasn’t until pressures mounted from northern abolitionists that Lincoln began to even act against slavery, and it was certainly only for the purpose of gaining a union victory. Even the US congress admitted in 1861 that “this war is not waged…for any purpose of…overthrowing or interfering with the rights of established institutions of those states, but…to preserve the Union”(190). Congress did pass the Confiscation Act, which ordered the freeing of slaves for those fighting the Union, but the act was never enforced by either side. In reality, the freeing of slaves was more of a threat to Confederate soldiers, than a victory for abolitionists. ”When in September 1862, Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, it was a military move, giving the South four months to stop rebelling, threatening to emancipate their slaves if they continued to fight, promising to leave slavery untouched in states that came over to the North…Thus, when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued january 1, 1863, it declared slaves free in those areas still fighting against the Union…and said nothing about slaves behind Union lines”(192). It seems that blacks were essentially pawns in one more political game. But, in society–as in the game of chess–the pawns are the largest group–they outnumber the kings and queens. When will manpower beat financial power? Why hasn’t it yet?
With the 13th amendment “freeing” the slaves, the Union army was open to black enlistment and “the more blacks that entered the war, the more it appeared a war for their liberation”(192). I think it’s already clear that this simply was not so. One fact I never knew was that “the Civil War was one of the bloodiest in human history up to that time: 600,000 dead on both sides, in a population of 30 million”(192). I also had to laugh when Zinn points out the (comical) shock of southern plantation owners whose slaves just…ran away; he quotes a Mississippi minister: ”On my arrival was surprised to hear that our negroes stampeded to the Yankees last night or rather a portion of them”(193)–well what the fuck did you expect?!
Even with the 13th Amendment, life after the Civil War was not much better for ex-slaves, when their status “would depend on whether they owned the land they worked on or would be forced to be semislaves for others”(196). That fact has not changed since 1863; our society is built on capitalism and every policy, system and institution that persists does so only if it can perpetuate the funneling of money from the masses to the elite. Property confiscated during the war was returned to heirs of the Confederate owners. And while Special Field Order No. 15 designated the entire southern coastline for black settlement (indeed, 40 acres and a mule per family), by June 1865, President Andrew Johnson returned this land to the Confederate owners, literally forcing the inhabitants off at gunpoint.
The years following the Civil War also saw in influx of black political organizations and black representatives in Congress and the Senate (at both state and national levels). The 14th Amendment reversed Dred Scott and declared all persons born or naturalized in the US to be citizens; the 15th Amendment guaranteed the vote for all male citizens; while the 1875 Civil Rights Act outlawed the exclusion of blacks from hotels, theaters, railroads, and other public places. There was also a Freedman’s Bureau to and a stationed Union army in the South to assist newly freed blacks. BUT, none of this stood up for long against President Johnson (Lincoln’s VP…promoted only after Lincoln’s assassination). Johnson vetoed bills that helped blacks, and admitted Confederate states back into the union without requiring the guarantee of equal rights for blacks. So the south saw the emergence of “black codes, which pretty much made the freed slaves work like serfs–it was illegal to rent or lease farmland, so they were forced to work under labor contracts which, when broken, were punishable by prison. With no money, and decades of training revolving only around specialized farming and domestic work, there were little to no options for ex-slaves. Blacks who had managed to teach themselves to read and write and earn positions in political office, like Henry MacNeal Turner, were soon forced out. Furthermore, southern whites were re-stacking the power structure with terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan.
With federal law dismantling the plantation system and the entire way of life for southern whites, what emerged was a more state-level white power structure that relied on discriminatory policies, violence and citizen groups. In one case, a black man named Charles Caldwell, who has been elected to the Mississippi senate, was shot at by the son of a white judge. When Caldwell fired back and killed the man, he was arrested, tried by a white jury and acquitted on account of self-defense–making him the first black man to be acquitted for killing a white person. However, Caldwell was shot dead on Christmas day by a white gang. As Zinn notes, “The old white rulers were taking back political power in Mississippi. and everywhere else in the South”(204). And for the icing on the cake, the 1875 Civil Rights Act was nullified by the Supreme Court in 1883; “the mood of the Court reflected a new coalition of northern industrialists and southern businessmen-planters. The culmination of this mood came in the decision of 1896, Plessy v. Ferguson, when the Court ruled that a railroad could segregate black and white if the segregated facilities were equal”(204-5). Whites had to adapt the power structure for it to be maintained in a slave-less society. This post-war period saw the ushering in of a new capitalism, a “New South.” The Southern Homestead Act made land available to anyone who had money; the railroad expanded our nation exponentially, and nearly all of it was inaccessible to blacks and poor whites. With this lack of options and anti-black laws and propaganda pervading the South, it’s no wonder that black leaders like Booker T. Washington urged blacks to “cast down your bucket where you are,” accept the endless cycle of poverty that awaits you with the penitentiary system, sharecropping and other low-skilled labor. It seemed easier than continuing to fight. However, it was W.E.B Du Bois that saw something larger and more powerful taking hold: “a new capitalism and a new enslavement of labor”(210)–one that is not overt, but that is dangerously woven into the fabric of modern society that goes unnoticed. We’re now slaves to a system, instead of to people, and a shackle that has no clear lock is a difficult one to cast off.
OK, so I see why it was a long chapter.
Chapter 10: The Other Civil War
Focusing on the early labor movement in the US, this is another chapter I loved, but alas, have worn myself out tonight with my Chapter 9 re-cap, and am afraid I will not do this one justice. Here goes. First, I really love Zinn’s choice in title. The labor movement truly was a civil war being fought (and still being fought!) between labor and management. In many ways, it’s a war much more representative of the real division of our country than “North” and “South.” Zinn begins, actually, with the chapter focusing on the Anti-Renter movement in the Hudson Valley. He cites a letter from a tenant on the Rensselear estate, handed to a sheriff who had arrived to collect back rent: ”the tenants have organized themselves into a body, and resolved not to pay any more rent until they can be redressed of their grievances…The tenants now assume the right of doing to their landlord as he has for a long time done to them, viz: as they please”(211). As I read this, with rain seeping into my unsealed windows and flooding my living room floor, I couldn’t help but smile and commiserate. Having struggled for nearly 4 years with a certain Oakland-based Baseball Hall of Famer landlord, I admire these tenants. I also found myself Googling the origins of Ed Wuncler, a capitalist realtor from The Boondocks whose name sounds an awful lot like Rensselear. However, it seems that Wuncler was derived from “Once-ler,” a character in Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax. But I digress.
What fascinates me about this period in history is the simple genius of using the power of numbers to overcome capital. This kind of simple, yet organized action laid the foundation for tenant and labor unions of all kinds, while “sticking it” to the financial elite right where it hurt: their wallets. But, as always, the right have the government on their side and “the power of the law thus crushed the Anti-Rent movement”(213). Zinn goes on to note, “the famers [of the Anti-Rent movement] had fought, been crushed by the law, their struggle diverted into voting, and the system stabilized by enlarging the class of small landowners, leaving the basic structure of rich and poor intact. It was a common sequence in American history”(214). Zinn seems to be suggesting that throughout history, rebellious, revolutionary action is always redirected and mitigated with moderate concessions that don’t actually change the socioeconomic structure, but only create more of a buffer between rich and poor. If this is true, won’t these small victories eventually add up? Won’t the middle become the total?
Zinn then highlights Dorr’s Rebellion in Rhode Island–a movement “for electoral reform and an example of radical insurgency”(214). At the time, Rhode Island had a law that you had to have property to vote. Thomas Dorr was a lawyer and suffragist who, in 1842, helped organize the “People’s Convention,” which drafted a new constitution that didn’t include property requirements for voting. 14,000 people (including 5,000 with property) voted for the constitution in their unofficial election, in which Dorr ran (unopposed) for governor. On May 3, 1842, Dorr and his supporters held an inauguration and convened the newly elected People’s Legislature. Dorr was ordered to be arrested, but fled the state. However, even this constitution was imperfect, maintaining “white” as a qualification for voting. Again, I am fascinated (and inspired) by the will of people to take matters into their own hands and simple start a new government. While it wasn’t successful, it’s a solid reminder of our constitutional right as citizens to overthrow an unjust government. Zinn goes on to conclude that “Armed force had failed, the ballot had failed, the courts had taken the side of the conservatives. the Dorr movement now went to the U.S. Supreme Court, via a trespass suit by Martin Luther against Law and Order militiamen, charging that the People’s Government was the legitimate government of Rhode Island in 1842. Daniel Webster argued against the ‘Dorrites.’ If people could claim a constitutional right to overthrow an existing government, Webster said, there would be no more law and no more government; there would be anarchy”(216). Precisely. And it IS our constitutional right–what’s wrong with a little anarchy? the only people who fear an absence of government are those who benefit from it. It’s with this case that the Supreme Court sealed their conservative flair in deciding, from then on, to defer all “critical issues–war and revolution” to the President and Congress.
From here, Zinn moves on to discuss Andrew Jackson and his “liberal rhetoric.” Zinn asserts that Jackson was the first president to “speak for the common man…[which] was a necessity for political victory when the vote was being demanded–as in Rhode Island–by more and more people, and state legislatures were loosening voting restrictions”(217). Zinn refers to this as “the new politics of ambiguity–speaking for the lower and middles classes to get their support in times of rapid growth and potential turmoil…To give people a choice between two different parties and allow them, in a period of rebellion, to choose the slightly more democratic one was an ingenious mode of control”(217). To “speak for” a group, in politics, does no necessarily mean you act for them. Additionally, I am reminded of a tactic they teach in education courses of presenting a misbehaving student with two options, both of which appeal to you, the teacher. The student, feeling like s/he has control of the situation in making a choice will pick an option from which you are assured to benefit. Talk about manipulation. Thus, we see the rise of the Democratic Party, not (as some think) as a true alternative to Republican, but a different form of it–”spoonful of sugar with the medicine,” if you will. ”The Jacksonian idea was to achieve stability and control by winning to the Democratic part the ‘middling interest, and especially…the substantial yeomanry of the country’ by ‘prudent, judicious, well-considered reform’ That is, reform that would not yield too much”(217-8). Someone had finally realized the power of the lower class masses–it’s just too bad that it was a politician, instead of a member of that class. Another effect of this “middling interest” tactic was the strengthening of the middle class–”Americans who would be wooed enough and paid enough to consider themselves members of the bourgeois class, and to give support to that class in times of crisis”(218-9). This is like middle school 101–the popular kids convince you you’re their friend so they can get what they need–homework help, test answers, your new shoes,someone ugly to stand next to so they look better–all while allowing you to believe you might actually become popular! The political elite dangled this carrot of the “American Dream”–that you too can achieve wealth and status if you just work hard enough, knowing full well it was never possible–they keep moving the carrot.
I sense I am digressing again (it’s late…and Zinn did it, too, in this chapter), so back to the text. During this time of rapid economic and industrial growth, all arrows pointed to economic stability, and “one way to achieve stability was to decrease competition, organize the businesses, move toward monopoly”(219). However, “the attempts at political stability, at economic control, did not quite work. The new industrialism, the crowded cities, the long hours in the factories, the sudden economic crisis leading to high prices and lost jobs, the lack of food and water, the freezing winters, the hot tenement in the summer, the epidemics of disease, the deaths of children–these led to sporadic reactions from the poor…’Jacksonian Democracy’ had tried to create a consensus of support for the system to make it secure. Blacks, Indians, women, and foreigners were clearly outside the consensus. But also, white working people, in large numbers, declared themselves outside”(221). Ironically, out of a movement to appeal to “the common man” came a movement that pitted that same common man against the upper classes. There was also a dehumanizing nature to industrialism. Frances Wright, an early feminist and socialist questioned the Revolution at a 4th of july event in 1829–”she wondered if the new technology was not lowering the value of human labor, making people appendages to machines, crippling the minds and bodies of child laborers”(221). These were quite astute observations. The poor working classes were taking note of their inferior living conditions, education, access to food and water, healthcare–and were speaking up about it.
It is amidst all this activity that we see the rise of trade union–which, at the time the courts referred to as conspiracies to restrain trade, making them illegal. Nonetheless, the battle of the “rich against the poor” waged on. In one noteworthy case–the Flour Riot of 1837–this manifest itself as citizens storming into a store and seizing barrels of flour whose prices had more than doubled. Riots, unions, organizations called for better working conditions, a ten-hour work day. However, one thing that hurt this movement initially (and to some extent, still today) was the fragmentation of the working class. ”Many working-class activists at this time ignored the plight of blacks”(227)–did they fear it would hurt their own cause? Zinn also suggests that “the anger of the city poor often expressed itself in futile violence over nationality or religion”(227). At a time, cities were already crowded, and more immigrants from Ireland and Eastern Europe were pouring in, further cramping the conditions and draining limited resources. Instead of directing anger at the source (the economic elite who controlled the resources, it often got misdirected to other nationalities or religious groups.
One particular group Zinn profiles is women: ”of the country’s work force of 6 million in 1850, half a million were women…[and] they organized. Women struck by themselves for the first time in 1825″(228). At the time, The “Lowell system” allowed for young girls to work long days at mills while living in dormitories nearby. Dissatisfied with the long hours and poor conditions, the women organized, but the threat of hiring other workers brought them back at lower wages. In response, the women organized the Factory Girls’ Association and 1,500 went on strike in 1836, including an 11-year old girl! The women held out for a month, until money ran out and they were evicted from the bordinghouses. Many went back to work, but others, like the 11-year old’s mother, were fired. Nonetheless, resistance continued. 1835 saw 140 strikes in the eastern United States alone. With such persistence, including the formation of the Female Labor Reform Association in Lowell, the Massachusetts legislature finally agreed to hold a public hearing to investigate labor conditions and were the first governmental body to do so.
The following years witnessed continued (and strengthened) resistance from labor and Zinn does a nice job of providing examples from all areas of industry. The shoemakers of Lynn, Massachusetts organized the largest strike in the U.S. prior to the Civil War, and were also publishers of the militant newspaper the Awl. In one 1844 issue (years before Communist Manifesto) the authors noticed “the division of society into producing and the non-producing classes, and the fact of the unequal distribution of value between the two, introduces us at once to another distinction–that of capital and labor…labor now becomes a commodity…Antagonism and opposition of interest is introduced in the community; capital and labor stand opposed”(231). The shoemakers had given clear labels and structure to the movement the was taking hold in the United Stated, while solidifying a (somewhat) clear target and realizing the power of unions. The employers were also realizing the threatening power of unions–when the Lynn shoemakers struck in 1860 in solidarity with the Mechanics Association, the manufacturers eventually offered higher wages to bring strikers back, but they would not recognize unions. With the deliberate political, racial, and religious fragmentation of the masses, unions simply were not yet organized enough to stand up fully to management.
When the Civil War erupted, the entire movement was sidetracked–”national issues took over from class issues…and on these issues the political parties took positions, offered choices, obscured he fact that the political itself and the wealthy classes it represented were responsible for the problems they now offered to solve”(233). Wasn’t it Kevin Spacey (as Kaiser Soze in The Usual Suspects” who said The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. Through the past two chapters, that quote kept popping into my head as I read about a government that was able to win support from its oppressed victims by convincing them government was on their side–that they just needed to work a little harder. Throughout the War, workers were attacked by soldiers if they dared to strike, while employers benefitted from the higher prices war time brought, without increasing wages for workers. The war also brought many women into the factories and strengthened their labor unions. ”All together, by 1864, about 200,000 workers, men and women, were in trade unions, forming national unions in some of the trades, putting out labor newspapers”(235). Racial and ethnic divisions were continually manipulated by the wealthy to keep the masses in check, especially blacks who were often forces out of jobs when white immigrants came, but then brought in as strikebreakers during times of unrest.
With much of the nation distracted by war and or racial and ethnic differences, the Lincoln administration was able to pass a series of laws that benefitted big business. The 1861 Morrill Tariff made foreign goods more expensive, allowed American manufacturers to raise their prices, forcing consumers to pay more. It goes without saying that the higher profits never trickled down to the labor force. the Homestead Act gave 160 acres of land to anyone willing to cultivate it for five years and pay $1.60 per acre. Homestead land added up to 50 million acres, but few people had the $200 necessary to afford a parcel–the government had deliberately sized the parcels to weed out poor people. At the same time, the government gave 100 million acres of land to railroads, free or charge and set up a national bank, “putting the government into partnership with the banking interests, guaranteeing their profits”(238). It’s no wonder that large industry has prospered–they’ve had the protection of the federal government from the very beginning. Nonetheless, employers felt the pressure of organized labor and felt the need to ask Congress for just a little more help. The 1864 Contract Labor Law made it possible for comapnies to sign contracts with foreign workers if they agreed to give 12 months of wages towards their cost of emigration–this created a plentiful source of cheap labor and strikebreakers. This law, in my opinion, set the precedent for modern outsourcing–now we don’t even bother bringing foreign labor here; companies just build overseas. The American government was clearly more invested in its businesses than its people. Historian Gustavus Myers sums this up nicely: “Law did not represent the ethics or ideals of advanced humanity; it exactly reflected, as a pool reflects the sky, the demands and self-interest of the growing propertied classes…”(238).
Thus, the years leading up to and even during the Civil War, saw an increasing tendancy to interpret the law in the favor of capitalist interests. The “Law of Eminent Domain” was essentiall used to take farmers’ land and give it as subsidies to companies building canals or railroads. As Zinn notes, “the ancient idea of fair price for goods gave way in the courts to the idea of caveat emptor (let the buyer beware”(239). This is an interesting point–I’ve never stopped to consider how much the laws and policies (even on merchant sites like eBay) are bent to protect the seller; I mean, how many stores have “No Returns” policies? The inaccurate pretense, of course, was that worker and management, buyer and seller, enetred into a contract with equal bargaining power. New laws were simply ratifying what the market system had informally set-up. Zinn arrives at the conclusion that “in premodern times, the maldistribution of wealth was accomplished by simple force. In modern times, exploitation is disguised–it is accompanied by law, which has the look of neutrality and fairness”(240). If crooked people are making the laws, of course they’re going to turn out crooked as well.
The post-war years saw a return of people to their “ordinary lives.” Soldiers began flooding back into cities looking for work, but mostly unsuccessful. With increased pressures on labor and greater unemployment numbers, the organized labor movement gathered steam again. Unions began a push for an 8-hour workday, fostered by the creation of the first national federation of union, the National labor Union, or NLU, and a 3-month, 100,000-member strike succeeded in securing the 8-hour day in 1862. After years of fragmentation across racial, ethnic adn gender lines, the 1869 NLU convention, committed to organizing women and African-Americans, recognizing that it recognized ”neither color nor sex on the question of the rights of labor”(241). An economic depression in the late 1860s and early 1870s brought massive unemployment, and then hunger and homelessles along with it. Hundreds of thousands of workers organized and rallied across the nation in protest to layoffs. Not so coincidentally, the national centennial celebration was accompanied by unemployment, poverty and unrest among the masses of citizens whose labor had built this very nation. However, there was also a round of new declarations on the parts of women, of workers, of blacks, denouncing the oppressive forces in society. The “Negro Declaration of Independence” actually called for the elimination of all allegiance to exisiting political parties, and the establishment of their own laws, production, and political system.
The new railroad industry saw a rash of strikes from unions protesting working conditions, and out of this action emerged The Workinmen’s Party, a fairly active and militant union deeply connected to the railraod industry. What was interesting about the railroad strikes were their tendancy to draw together unions across different trades in solidarity (hence the party name. they believed that “what man makes, belongs to him, and the workingmen made this country(249). The group called for the nattionalizaton of the railroad, mines, and all industry, and set the precedent the “general strike.” Crowds of people began storming the railraod yards, factories and mills stopping production. Police responded–as government servants tend to–with violence and brutality. In a St. Louis rally of nearly 10,000 cheering the message: “the people are rising up in their might ad declaring they will no longer submit to being opporessed by unproductive capital”(250). However, as with all movements of this size, it could not be sustained. As the crowds, rallies, meetings and enthusiasm diminished, the police moved in and tookm over. However, this is not to say these movements (then or now) are ineffective. To the contrary: “when the great railroad strikes of 1877 were over, a hundred people were dead, a thousand people had gone to jail, 100,000 workers had gone on strike, and the strikes had roused into action countless unemployed in the cities. More than half the freight on the nation’s 75,000 miles of track had stopped running at the height of the strikes”(251). What this early movement did more than anything else, was illustrate the power of collective action and prove that the masses, when united, have a strong voice. What they do with this voice is the critical issue–as was the case with Occupy Oakland.