Howard Zinn’s book is excerpted from his million-selling, A People’s History of the United States (1978). Published just short of century’s end, 1983, he is careful to set the tone by including from the earlier book his account of the great navigator Columbus’ arrival in the Americas, devastating for the natives who were enslaved, slaughtered or ruthlessly exploited. Zinn chronicles the malignant force as it sweeps across and occupies the “new” continent, focusing on the United States. His sympathies obviously lie with the People as they resist the rapacious rulers. There are many discouraging defeats and you could describe the fewer successes as making up what is admirable about the U.S. today. Power yields nothing without a fight. Zinn remarks that… “in a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioner.”
Theodore Roosevelt, the soon to be president, is quoted in 1897, “I should welcome almost any war, for I think the country needs one.” and, the psychopathic, “…no triumph of peace is quite so great as the supreme triumph of war.” Zinn describes the U.S. war with Spain as not one of liberation, as the rhetoric would have it, but a supplanting of a colonial power. President McKinley claims that we must civilize and christianize the brown brothers, incapable of governing themselves, overlooking that thanks to the Spanish occupation most Filipinos were already catholic. In both cases, Cuba and the Philippines, the pattern persists: support rebel groups fighting the occupation then betray them, putting into place the same collaborators used by the former power. In the case of the Philippines that meant crushing the local resistance and allies with a brutality dictators throughout history would understand.
Socialists, at least the leadership, understood, claiming that in this war, as in most, we will provide the corpses, they will reap the profits. From selling rotten meat and guns to the military to dividing up the spoils of local resources, the critics were shown to be correct. Dictators and the Mafia soon owned Cuba, dictators and corporations soon owned the Philippines. There was disagreement at home; Mark Twain complained that the stars and bars should be replaced by the skull and crossbones. One labor newspaper cried, …thousands of useful lives are sacrificed to the molach of greed, the blood tribute paid by labor to capitalism… industrial accidents and murderous thugs, whether police or national guard, brings forth no shout for vengeance and reparations,… no popular uproar is heard but when capital wants to invade another nation, out comes indignant rhetoric. Then the fever and drumbeat of war can hardly be resisted. Socialism is just a word to describe people of various economic opinions organizing for justice but it is also a word demonized by the wealthy in order to slap it on any movement opposing their rule.
Aside from believing that expansion was necessary to solve the problem of excess production (Guam and Hawaii were annexed around this time), the wealthy class also sought to distract the populace from the “socialist menace” then growing in popularity, thanks to extreme conditions for workers, where long, difficult, dangerous hours were required with no compensation for injuries, nor even death, on the job, frequent occurrences. Unionization was growing also for the same reasons. As today the debate among the rulers was whether to placate or suppress the masses and how much of each. Movement strength became such that the faction that thought, better to deal with a conservative union than to face a militant one, came to predominate. Theodore Roosevelt is portrayed as being an anti-business trust-buster but in reality, according to Zinn, he was of that faction. Private meetings with industrialists created the policies aimed to defuse the socialist and militant union movement. A compliant middle class was needed to buffer the rulers against “the menace”. Back and forth over the years did the ruling class argue over the size the middle class needed to be until most recently the parsimonious faction seems to have gained the upper hand.
Zinn provides a partial list of the 108 military actions taken by the U.S. between 1798 and 1945, taken from a State Department document. The 1823 Monroe Doctrine became the pseudo legal justification for many of these expansionist incursions.
To the rescue of the elite, under siege from the socialist/union menace, comes World War I. Eugene Debs, socialist leader, and significant presidential candidate, is jailed for speaking against the war, under the 1917 Espionage Act, still in force. The Act specifically stated that it in no way violated the first amendment but this doublespeak was ignored by the courts. Ten million will die in an incredible orgy of folly, all the time being mis-informed by the loyal free press. French and English troops began to mutiny to such an extent that the U.S., on flimsy pretext, ended its formal neutrality and joined the slaughter. The Act and the war were used to decimate unions and justice-seeking organizations. The peace was so vindictive that the rise of a Hitler for a second act was almost guaranteed. This helped bring the total killed in the 20th century to 100 million. But a lot of money, as usual, was to be made.
It might have been a different world had Franklin D. Roosevelt survived, or his earlier progressive vice-president remained in place to take the reins once Roosevelt died. These folks were of that faction, the one that aimed to thwart socialism by softening capitalism but their softening was, or would have been, significant. As it was, we got a cold warrior, Harry Truman, brought to us by those with a harder, more parsimonious view. But post-World War II. did involve widening the middle class while at the same time demonizing the left. With Reagan, slightly beyond the scope of Zinn’s book but of the century, came swift roll-back with a vengeance – out sourcing, union-busting etc; Those coopted over the years were now set up and betrayed, the unions whose leaders so enjoyed golfing with the owners even while extracting worker benefits (but nothing too radical). The alienation felt across the hapless work force was easily channeled onto scapegoats or into the arms of demagogues or both, given that the primary source of information for most of the population, the mainstream media, were (are) owned by the 1%. The book is really worth a read, containing a myriad of details, way beyond what I can cover here, marking the century, indicting yes, but more importantly, elucidating what any reform movement is up against.
The feature illustration by the author, © Tom Ferguson.