American History IV
Chapter 16: A People’s War?
When Germany invaded Soviet Russia in 1941, the American Communist Party, which had repeatedly described the war between the Axis and Allied powers as imperialist, started calling it a “people’s war” against fascism. Most Americans were in agreement. Eighteen million served in the armed forces, 10 million overseas, and 25 million workers contributed to war bonds with every pay check.
The United States had done little about Hitler’s persecution of Jews and other minorities, joining England and France in appeasing him throughout the ‘30s, and failing to provide asylum for refugees. When Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935, the U.S. declared an embargo on munitions, but let American businesses send huge quantities of oil to Italy. And when a fascist rebellion against the elected socialist-liberal government took place in Spain in 1936, the Roosevelt administration sponsored a neutrality act that shut off help to the Spanish government at the same time that Hitler and Mussolini were giving critical aid to Franco.
What brought the United States fully into the World War II was the Japanese attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941. Japan’s incursions in China, and its move toward the tin, rubber, and oil of southeast Asia led to the U.S. measures that inspired to the Japanese attack: a total embargo on scrap iron and, in the summer of 1941, oil. The southwest Pacific area was of great strategic importance to the United States – at the time, most of its tin and rubber came from there, along with substantial quantities of other raw materials.
Zinn says there’s no evidence that Roosevelt knew Pearl Harbor was coming or that he deliberately provoked the attack, but “the records show that a White House conference two weeks before the attack anticipated a war and discussed how it should be justified.” According to Wikipedia, American cryptographers had broken the highest security Japanese Foreign Office code, but prior to Pearl Harbor this carried little information about Japanese plans; the military, which were essentially determining foreign policy for Japan, distrusted the Foreign Office and left it “out of the loop.” The Wikipedia page concludes that the Roosevelt administration knew war with Japan was coming, wanted Japan to make the first move, and planned to use that to get the country into the war in Europe. There were a lot of places Japan could attack, however, and it wasn’t known that Pearl Harbor would be the objective.
Once joined with England and Russia in the war, were American aims humanitarian or centered on power and profit? In August 1941, Roosevelt and Churchill met off the coast of Newfoundland and released the Atlantic Charter with its noble goals for the postwar world, saying that their countries sought “no aggrandizement, territorial or other,” and that they respected “the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live.” Two weeks before the Atlantic Charter, however, the U.S. acting Secretary of State, Sumner Welles, had assured the French that they could keep their empire after the war. In late 1942, Roosevelt’s personal representative assured French General Henri Giraud: “it’s thoroughly understood that French sovereignty will be reestablished as soon as possible” over its former colonial possessions. In the fall of 1942, the United States urged Nationalist China, put temporarily in charge of the northern part of Indochina by the Potsdam Conference, to turn it over to the French, despite the obvious desire of the Vietnamese for independence.
All during the war, American diplomats and businessmen worked hard to make sure that when the fighting ended, American economic power would be second to none in the world, and that American business interests would penetrate areas that had previously been dominated by England. For example, the ARAMCO oil corporation, through Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, got Roosevelt to agree to Lend Lease aid to Saudi Arabia, which would involve the U.S. government there and protect ARAMCO interests. By the end of the war, the U.S. had the dominant interest in Saudi Arabia, and Roosevelt entertained King Ibn Saud on the cruiser Quincy on his way back from Yalta in February 1945.
Before the war was over, the administration was planning the outlines of a new international economic order, based, as usual, on a partnership of government and big business. During the war, England and the United States set up the International Monetary Fund to regulate international exchanges of currency; voting would be proportional to capital contributed, so American dominance was assured. The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, a precursor to the World Bank, was set up ostensibly to help reconstruct war-destroyed areas, but one of its first objectives was, in its own words, “to promote foreign investment.” The United Nations, created during the war and presented to the world as international cooperation to prevent future wars, was dominated by the Western imperial countries – the United States, England, and France – and a new imperial power: the Soviet Union.
During the war, Roosevelt failed to take steps that might have saved thousands of Jewish lives. Not seeing the issue as a high priority, he left it to the State Department, where anti-Semitism and a cold bureaucracy became obstacles to action. And in one of its policies – the treatment of Japanese-Americans living on the west coast – the United States came close to duplicating the racism of fascism. In February 1942, Roosevelt signed an executive order giving the army the power, without warrants, indictments, or hearings, to arrest every Japanese-American on the west coast – 110,000 men, women, and children – transporting them to faraway camps where they were kept under prison conditions. Three-fourths of these were Nisei – children born to Japanese parents in the United States, and therefore American citizens. The other fourth – the Issei, born in Japan – were barred from becoming citizens. In 1944 the Supreme Court upheld the forced evacuation on the grounds of military necessity.
The process of wartime industrial mobilization concentrated the nation’s wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer corporations. In 1940 the United States had begun sending large amounts of war supplies to England and France. By 1941 three-fourths of the value of military contracts was being handled by 56 large corporations. The government also spent $1 billion on scientific-industrial research during the war – $400 million of this going to 10 large corporations.
There were 14,000 strikes involving 6,770,000 workers during the war – more than in any comparable period in American history. In 1944 alone, a million workers were on strike in the mines, steel mills, and auto industries. When the war ended, the strikes continued in record numbers, with 3 million on strike in the first half of 1946.
Many Americans were against American participation in the war. Out of 10 million drafted for the armed forces, only 43,000 refused to fight, but this was three times the proportion of conscientious objectors in World War I. Of these, 6,000 went to prison, four times the number imprisoned during World War I. There were also 350,000 cases of draft evasion.
There seemed to be widespread indifference, even hostility, on the part of the Negro community to the war despite the attempts of Negro newspapers and leaders to mobilize black sentiment. One black man said, “If we win, I still lose;” another asked, “What more could Hitler do to us?” But there was no organized Negro opposition to the war. In fact, there was little organized opposition from any source. The Communist Party was enthusiastically in support, the Socialist party divided.
A few small anarchist and pacifist groups refused to back the war. The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom said: “War between nations or classes or races cannot permanently settle conflicts or heal the wounds that brought them into being.” The Catholic Worker wrote, “We are still pacifists.” The difficulty of merely calling for “peace” in a world of capitalism, fascism, and communism troubled some pacifists, and they began to speak of “revolutionary nonviolence.” A.J. Muste of the Fellowship of Reconciliation believed this movement would have to “make effective contacts with oppressed and minority groups such as Negroes, sharecroppers, and industrial workers.”
Only one organized socialist group – the Socialist Workers Party – opposed the war unequivocally. The Espionage Act of 1917, still on the books, applied to wartime statements. But in 1940, with the United States still not at war, Congress passed the Smith Act, which applied the provisions of the Espionage Act to peacetime and made it a crime to advocate the overthrow of the government by force and violence or join a group advocating such. In Minneapolis in 1943, 18 members of the Socialist Workers party were convicted for belonging to a party whose ideas were said to violate the Smith Act. They were sentenced to prison terms, and the Supreme Court refused to review their case.
In general there was a mass base of support for a war that involved the heaviest bombardment of civilians ever undertaken before: the aerial attacks on German and Japanese cities. At the beginning of the war, German planes dropped bombs on Rotterdam in Holland, Coventry in England, and elsewhere. Roosevelt described these bombings as “inhuman barbarism,” but they were nothing compared with subsequent British and American bombings of German cities. It January 1943 the Allies met in Casablanca and agreed on large-scale air attacks to achieve “the destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial, and economic system and the undermining of the morale of the German people to the point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened.” The saturation bombing of German cities began – with thousand-plane raids on Cologne, Essen, Frankfurt, and Hamburg. The English flew at night with no pretense of aiming at “military” targets; the Americans flew in the daytime and pretended precision. The climax of this terror was the bombing of Dresden in early 1945, when the tremendous heat generated by the bombs created a firestorm throughout the city in which more than 100,000 died.
One night-time bombing of Tokyo took 80,000 lives. Then, on August 6, 1945, the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, leaving 100,000 Japanese dead and tens of thousands slowly dying of radiation poisoning. Three days later, a second atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki, killing 50,000. By ending the war early, these bombings were said to have saved 500,000 to a million lives, but these estimates of invasion losses weren’t realistic – Japan was already desperate to surrender. The United States Strategic Bombing Survey interviewed hundreds of Japanese civilian and military leaders after Japan surrendered, and reported that Japan would have surrendered by the end of December 1941, “and in all probability prior to November 1, 1945 even if the atomic bomb had not been dropped, even of Russia hadn’t entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned.” The Japanese military code had been broken, and its messages were being intercepted, so the Truman administration knew that the Japanese had instructed their ambassador in Moscow to work on peace negotiations with the Allies and saw unconditional surrender – in the words of Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo – as “the only obstacle to peace.” In other words, all the Japanese wanted was that the emperor be allowed to stay in place, which is what happened in the end.
British scientist P.M.S. Blackett has suggested that the United States was anxious to drop the bomb before the Russians entered the war against Japan. The Russians, officially not at war with Japan, had agreed to begin hostilities 90 days after the end of the European war, August 8th. In other words, Blackett says, the dropping of the atomic bomb was “the first major operation of the cold war with Russia.” Blackett is supported by American historian Gar Alperovitz (Atomic Diplomacy), who notes a diary entry for July 28, 1945 by Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, describing Secretary of State James F. Byrnes as “most anxious to get the Japanese affair over with before the Russians got in.”
Since the second bomb was a plutonium rather than a hydrogen bomb, it was probably dropped to test it.
When the papers of the Manhattan Project to build the atom bomb were released years later, they showed that General George Marshall had recommended warning the Japanese about the bomb ahead of time, so they could evacuate civilians.
A.J. Muste had predicted in 1941: “The problem after the war is with the victor. He thinks he has just proved that war and violence pay. Who will now teach him a lesson?” After the war was over, the United States and the Soviet Union went about carving out their own empires of influence, building military machines far greater than those of the fascist countries, and controlling more territory. They also acted undemocratically in their own countries – crudely in the USSR and more subtly in the U.S. – to make their rule secure.
The war rejuvenated American capitalism. The biggest gains were in corporate profits, which rose from $6.4 billion in 1940 to $10.8 billion in 1944. But enough went to workers and farmers to make them feel the system was working for them. It was an old lesson learned by governments – that war solves problems. Charles E. Wilson, the president of General Electric suggested a continuing alliance between business and the military for “a permanent war economy.” And that’s what happened. 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, presenting the Soviet Union not just as a rival, but as an immediate threat. The resulting hysteria about communism allowed the government to escalate the military budget and pursue aggressive actions abroad and repressive actions at home.
Revolutionary movements in Europe and Asia were described to the American public as examples of Soviet expansionism similar to that of Nazi Germany. In Greece, which had been a right-wing monarchy and dictatorship before the war, the popular left-wing National Liberation Front was put down by the British immediately after the war, and a right-wing dictatorship restored. When opponents of the regime were jailed, and trade union leaders removed, a left-wing guerilla movement grew that soon consisted of 17,000 fighters, 50,000 active supporters, and 250,000 sympathizers in a country of 7 million. Unable to handle the rebellion, Britain asked the U.S. for help. It responded with the Truman Doctrine, elucidated in a speech Truman gave to Congress in the spring of 1947, asking for $400 million in military and economic aid to Greece and Turkey. Truman said the U.S. must help “free peoples resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressures.” He added that the world “must choose between alternative ways of life,” one based on “the will of the majority distinguished by free institutions” and the other based on “the will of the minority, terror and oppression, and the suppression of personal freedoms.”
In fact, the biggest outside pressure was the United States. The Greek rebels were getting some aid from Yugoslavia, but none from the Soviet Union, which during the war had promised Churchill a free hand in Greece if he would give the USSR its way in Rumania, Poland, and Bulgaria.
The U.S. moved into the Greek civil war with weapons and military advisors. In the last five months of 1947, 74,000 tons of military equipment were sent to the right-wing government in Athens, including artillery, dive bombers, and stocks of napalm. Two hundred and fifty officers, headed by General James Van Fleet, advised the Greek army in the field. Van Fleet started a policy of forcibly removing thousands of Greeks from their homes to reduce support for the guerillas, and the rebellion was defeated by 1949.
A revolution was already under way in China at the end of World War II. The Red Army, which had fought against the Japanese, now fought to oust the corrupt dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek, which was supported by the United States to the tune of $2 billion in aid by 1949. In January 1949, Chinese Communist forces moved into Peking, causing great consternation in American business circles.
An indirect opportunity to confront the new Chinese regime came in Korea in 1950. After World War II, Korea had been divided into North Korea, a socialist dictatorship that was part of the Soviet sphere of influence, and South Korea, a right-wing dictatorship in the American sphere. When on June 25, 1950, the North invaded the South, the United Nations, dominated by the United States, asked its members to help repel the attack. The American army became the UN army in an undeclared war that reduced both Koreas to rubble in three years of bombing and shelling. Two million Koreans were killed in the name of opposing “the rule of force.”
The UN resolution had called for action “to repel the armed attack and restore peace and security in the area,” but the American armies, after pushing the North Koreans back across the 38th parallel, advanced all the way up through the North to the Yalu River border with China. This forced the Chinese to enter the war, which they did, sweeping southward. There was a stalemate at the 38th parallel until 1953, when peace negotiations restored the old boundary between North and South.
American liberals supported the Korean War, creating the kind of coalition that was needed to sustain a policy of intervention abroad and militarization of the economy at home. Those further to the left had become influential during the hard times of the 1930s and the war against fascism. The actual membership of the Communist Party wasn’t large – fewer than 100,000, but it was a potent force in trade unions numbering millions of members, in the arts, and among Americans focusing on the failure of the capitalist system in the ‘30s. If the establishment was to make capitalism more secure and build a consensus for American empire, it had to weaken and isolate the left.
On March 22, 1947, two weeks after presenting the Truman Doctrine for Greece and Turkey, the president issued an executive order initiating a program to search out any “infiltration of disloyal persons” in the U.S. government. By December 1952, 6.6 million people had been investigated, using secret evidence, secret and often paid informers, and neither judge nor jury. Not a single case of espionage was uncovered, but 500 people were dismissed for “questionable loyalty,” and popular credence was been given to the notion that there were spies all around.
World events also encouraged American anti-Communism. In 1948 the Communist party in Czechoslovakia ousted non-Communists from the government, and the Soviet Union blockaded Berlin, a jointly occupied city inside East Germany, forcing the U.S. to airlift supplies in. In 1949 the Soviets exploded their first atomic bomb, and the Chinese Communists took over their country. In 1950 the Korean War began. These events were seen as signs of a world Communist conspiracy, as were discontent in colonial Africa and revolutionary movements in Indochina against the French, in Indonesia against the Dutch, and in the Philippines against the U.S.
It was an atmosphere in which Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin could thrive. Speaking to a women’s Republican club in Wheeling, West Virginia in early 1950, he held up some papers and shouted: “I have here in my hand a list of 205 names made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party who are nevertheless still working in the State Department!” He repeated this accusation the next day in Salt Lake City and shortly thereafter on the Senate floor, his “information” changing as he went along. As chairman of the Permanent Investigations Sub-Committee of a Senate committee on government operations, he investigated the State Department’s information program, its overseas libraries, and the Voice of America. Books were removed from libraries and burned. In the spring of 1954, McCarthy began hearings to investigate supposed subversives in the military. When he began attacking generals for not being hard enough on suspected Communists, he antagonized Republicans as well as Democrats, and in December 1954, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to censure him for “conduct unbecoming a member of the United States Senate.”
At the same time, Congress was passing a series of anti-Communist bills. Liberal Hubert Humphrey introduced an amendment to one of them to make the Communist Party illegal. In the same spirit, liberals in the government were excluding, persecuting, firing, and even imprisoning Communists. Truman’s 1947 executive order required the Department of Justice to draw up a list of organizations it deemed “totalitarian, fascist, communist, or subversive…or as seeking to alter the form of government of the United States by unconstitutional means.” Membership in and “sympathetic association” with these groups would be considered in determining disloyalty. By 1954, there were hundreds of groups on the list, including, besides the Communist Party and the Ku Klux Klan, the Chopin Cultural Center, the Cervantes Fraternal Society, the Committee for the Negro in the Arts, the Committee for the Protection of the Bill of Rights, the League of Women Voters, the Nature Friends of America, the Washington Bookshop Association, and the Yugoslav Seaman’s Club.
The most important anti-Communist prosecution of this era was the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for espionage in the summer of 1950. Most of the evidence against the Rosenbergs had been supplied by a few people who had already confessed to being spies, and were either in prison or under indictment, with Ethel Rosenberg’s brother, David Greenglass, the key witness. A machinist at the Manhattan Project laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico in 1944 and 1945 when the atomic bomb was being made, he testified that Julius Rosenberg had asked him to get information for the Russians. Greenglass said he had made sketches from memory for his brother-in-law of experiments with lenses to be used to detonate atomic bombs and given them to Harry Gold in June 1945. Gold, already serving a 30-year sentence in another espionage case, corroborated Greenglass’s testimony, saying he had given the sketches to a Russian official. Both men implicated Rosenberg as the mastermind of the scheme.
After serving 15 years, Gold was paroled. Greenglass was given 15 years, served half of it, and was released. Gold’s and Greenglass’s stories had not been in accord at first, but they were both placed on the same floor of the Tombs prison in New York City before the trial, giving them a chance to coordinate their testimony. Gold, who admitted being an inveterate liar in a later trial, and had been prepared by 400 hours of interviews with the FBI, was the only witness connecting Julius Rosenberg and David Greenglass to the Russians. The FBI agent who questioned him admitted later that Gold hadn’t been able to remember the name of his contact, and he suggested to him that it might have been “Julius.”
When the Rosenbergs were found guilty, and Judge Irving Kaufman pronounced sentence, he said, “I believe your conduct in putting the A-bomb into the hands of the Russians years before scientists predicted they would perfect it caused the Communist aggression in Korea with the resultant casualities exceeding 50,000 Americans. Who knows but that millions more innocent people may pay the price of your treason.” He sentenced them both to die in the electric chair. FBI documents subpoenaed in the 1970s showed that Kaufman had secretly conferred with the prosecutors beforehand about the sentences he would give. Another document showed that after three years of appeals, a meeting took place between Attorney General Herbert Brownell and Fred Vinson, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, in which the chief justice assured the attorney general that if any Supreme Court justice gave a stay of execution, he would call an immediate full court session and override it.
There had been a worldwide campaign of protest. Albert Einstein, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Pablo Picasso, among others, appealed for the Rosenbergs, but presidents Truman and Eisenhower stayed firm. When, at the last moment, Justice William O. Douglas granted a stay of execution, Chief Justice Vinson sent out special jets to bring the vacationing justices back to Washington, canceling Douglas’s stay in time for the Rosenbergs to be executed June 19, 1953. It was a demonstration to the people of the country, though few could identify with the Rosenbergs, of what lay at the end of the line for those the government decided were traitors.
Truman’s Justice Department prosecuted the leaders of the Communist Party under the Smith Act, charging them with conspiring to teach and advocate the overthrow of the government by force and violence. The top leadership of the party was put in prison, and most of its organizers went underground.
In 1950, the U.S. spent $12 billion on the military out of a total budget of $40 billion. By 1955, it was spending $40 billion out of $62 billion. In 1960, the military budget was $45.8 billion, 49.7% of the budget. Newly elected president John F. Kennedy immediately moved to increase military spending, adding $9 billion to defense funds in 14 months. By 1962, the United States had overwhelming nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union, with the equivalent of 1,500 Hiroshima-size atomic bombs – more than enough to destroy every major city in the world. To deliver these bombs, the U.S. had more than 50 intercontinental ballistic missiles, 80 missiles on nuclear submarines, and 1,000 supersonic fighters able to carry atomic bombs.
By 1970, the U.S. military budget was $80 billion and the corporations involved in military production were making fortunes. Two-thirds of the $40 billion spent on weapons systems was going to 12 or 15 giant industrial corporations whose main reason for existence was to fulfill military contracts. Senator Paul Douglas, an economist and chairman of the Joint Economic Committee of the Senate, noted that “six-sevenths of these contracts are not competitive…In the alleged interest of secrecy, the government picks a company and draws up a contract in more or less secret negotiations.”
Meanwhile, the United States was creating a network of American corporate control across the globe and asserting political influence over the countries it aided. The Marshall Plan of 1948, which gave $16 billion in economic aid to western European countries in four years, had the goal of building up markets for American exports. It also had the political motive of weakening the French and Italian communist parties. From 1952 on, foreign aid was more and more obviously designed to build up military power in non-communist countries. In the next 10 years, of the $50 billion in aid granted by the U.S. to 90 countries, only $5 billion was for non-military economic development.
From military aid, it was a short step to military intervention. In 1953 the CIA overthrew a democratically elected Iranian government that nationalized the country’s oil industry, previously controlled by the British. In 1954 a legally elected Guatemalan government was overthrown by an invasion force of mercenaries trained by the CIA at military bases in Honduras and Nicaragua. The Guatemalan government, under socialist Jacobo Arbenz, had expropriated 234,000 acres of land owned by United Fruit, offering compensation that United Fruit called “unacceptable.” The invasion put a military dictator into power who gave the land back, abolished the tax on interest and dividends to foreign investors, eliminated the secret ballot, and jailed thousands of political critics.
But the U.S. was most concerned about the Cuban revolution of 1959, in which a rebel force under Fidel Castro overthrew Fulgencio Batista, the American-backed dictator. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy had repealed the Platt Amendment permitting U.S. intervention in Cuba, but the U.S. still kept a naval base at Guantanamo, and U.S. business interests still dominated the Cuban economy. American companies controlled 80-90% of Cuba’s utilities, mines, cattle ranches, and oil refineries, 40% of the sugar industry, and 50% of the public railways.
Castro set up a nationwide system of education, housing, and land redistribution, and his government confiscated over a million acres of land from three American companies, one of which was United Fruit. The International Monetary Fund, dominated by the United States, wouldn’t lend money to Cuba under these conditions, and when Cuba signed a trade agreement with the Soviet Union, American-owned oil companies in Cuba refused to refine Soviet oil. Castro seized the companies, the U.S. cut down on purchases of Cuban sugar, and the Soviets agreed to buy what the U.S. wouldn’t.
In the spring of 1960, President Eisenhower secretly authorized the CIA to arm and train anti-Castro Cuban exiles in Guatemala for an invasion of Cuba. Kennedy moved ahead with these plans, and on April 17, 1961, the CIA-trained force, with some Americans participating, landed at the Bay of Pigs on the south shore of Cuba. They expected to stimulate a general rising against Castro, but the regime was popular with the Cubans and in three days the CIA forces had been crushed by the Cuban army.
The 15-year effort since the end of World War II to break up the radical upsurge of the New Deal and wartime years had been successful. The Communist Party had been destroyed, the trade union movement had become controlled and conservative, and the public was accepting the fact that military expenses took up half the national budget. Wealth was still distributed unequally: in 1953, 1.6% of the adult population owned more than 80% of stocks and nearly 90% of bonds; in 1961 the lowest fifth of families received 5% of the income, while the highest fifth received 45% of it; and 200 giant corporations controlled 60% of the nation’s manufacturing wealth.
Chapter 17: “Or Does It Explode?” from Langston Hughes’ poem “What happens to a dream deferred?”
What W.E.B. DuBois had said long ago, unnoticed, loomed large in 1945: “The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.” In late 1946, President Truman appointed a Committee on Civil Rights, which recommended that the civil rights section of the Department of Justice be expanded, that there be a permanent Commission on Civil Rights, and that Congress pass laws against lynching and to stop discrimination in jobs and voting. Congress took no action, but in 1948 Truman began desegregating the armed forces. During the war, the Supreme Court had ruled that the “white primary” used to exclude blacks from voting in Democratic Party primaries – essentially, the elections in Southern states – was unconstitutional. Now, in 1954, the Court struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine it had defended since the 1890s. The NAACP brought a series of cases before the Court to challenge segregation in the public schools, and in Brown v. Board of Education the court acknowledged that the practice, which “generated a feeling of inferiority” in black children, was wrong. A year later, the Court said that segregated facilities should be integrated “with all deliberate speed.”
In 1955 Mrs. Rosa Parks, a 43-year-old seamstress, sat in the white section of a Montgomery, Alabama bus. When she was arrested and put in jail, Montgomery blacks called a mass meeting and voted to boycott the city’s buses. The city responded by indicting 100 leaders of the boycott and sending many to jail. Bombs also exploded in four Negro churches, and a shotgun blast was fired through the front door of the home of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the 27-year-old Atlanta-born minister who was one of the boycott leaders. King’s home was later bombed as well, but the boycott continued, and in November 1956, the Supreme Court outlawed segregation on local bus lines.
King’s peaceful, nonviolent tactics – adopted in other struggles in the South during the next 10 years – attracted a sympathetic following throughout the nation. On February 1, 1960, four freshmen at a Negro college in Greensboro, North Carolina sat down at a Woolworth’s lunch counter where only whites ate. They were refused service, and when they wouldn’t leave, the lunch counter was closed for the day. In the days that followed, other Negroes came to sit silently. In the next two weeks, sit-ins spread to 15 cities in five southern states. In the next 12 months, more than 50,000 people, some white, participated in demonstrations of one kind or another in 100 cities, and over 3,600 people were put in jail. By the end of 1960, lunch counters were open to blacks in Greensboro and many other places.
A year after the Greensboro incident, CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), a northern-based group, organized “freedom rides” in which blacks and whites traveled together on buses throughout the South, trying to break the segregation pattern in interstate travel. The two buses that left Washington, D.C. for New Orleans on May 4, 1961 never got to their destination. In South Carolina, riders were beaten, and in Alabama, a bus was set on fire. Neither the southern police nor the federal government interfered.
Veterans of the sit-ins, who had recently formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), dedicated to nonviolent but militant action for equal rights, organized another freedom ride, from Nashville to Birmingham. Before they started out, they called the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. to ask for protection. The Justice Department said they couldn’t provide protection, but if something happened, they would investigate. The racially mixed SNCC freedom riders were arrested in Birmingham, Alabama, spent a night in jail, and were taken back to the Tennessee border by police. They made their way back to Birmingham and took a bus to Montgomery, where they were attacked by whites with fists and clubs. Finally, they resumed their trip, headed for Jackson, Mississippi. Instead of insisting on the freedom riders’ right to travel without being arrested, Attorney General Robert Kennedy agreed to their arrest in Jackson in return for Mississippi police protection against possible mob violence.
In Birmingham in 1963, thousands of blacks went into the streets facing police clubs, tear gas, dogs, and high-powered water hoses. Meanwhile, all over the deep South, the young people of SNCC were moving into communities to help with black voter registration. Imprisonment was commonplace, beatings frequent, and only some local people dared to help. As the summer of 1964 approached, SNCC and other civil rights groups working together in Mississippi and facing increasing violence, called on young people from other parts of the country for help.
In June 1964, three civil rights workers – James Chaney, a young black Mississippian, and two white volunteers, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner – were arrested in Philadelphia, Mississippi, released from jail late at night, then seized, beaten with chains, and shot to death.
Later that summer, during the Democratic National Convention in Washington, Mississippi blacks asked to be seated as part of a state delegation to represent the 40% of the state’s population who were black. They were turned down by the liberal Democratic leadership, including vice-presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey.
Civil rights laws passed in 1957, 1960, and 1964 promised much in terms of voting and employment equality, but were poorly enforced or ignored. In 1965 President Johnson sponsored and Congress passed a stronger Voting Rights Law, this time ensuring on-the-spot federal protection of the right to register and vote. The effect on Negro voting in the South was dramatic. In 1952, only a million southern blacks – 20% of those eligible – registered to vote; by 1964 that number and percentage had doubled. By 1968, 3 million southern blacks were registered to vote – the same percentage (60%) as whites.
In the summer of 1963, Martin Luther King led 200,000 blacks and whites in a march on Washington, D.C. to protest the nation’s failure to solve the race problem. Eighteen days after his “I have a dream” speech, a bomb exploded in the basement of a black church in Birmingham killing four little girls. Malcolm X later criticized moderate black leaders for having allowed the urgency of the movement to be blunted by cooperation with white national leaders. He said of the march on Washington, “It ceased to be angry, it ceased to be hot, it ceased to be uncompromising. It was a sellout, a takeover…They controlled it so tight, they told those Negroes what time to hit town, where to stop, what signs to carry, what song to sing, and what speech they could make. Then they told them to get out of town by sundown.”
In the spring of 1963, the rate of unemployment for whites was 4.8%, while for nonwhites it was 12.1%. One-fifth of the white population was below the poverty line, compared to one-half of the black population. The new civil rights bills emphasized voting, but voting wasn’t going to solve racism or poverty. In 1964 and 1965, there were black outbreaks in every part of the country, set off in Florida by the killing of a black woman and a bomb threat against a black high school, in Cleveland by the killing of a white minister who sat in the path of a bulldozer to protest discrimination against blacks in construction work, and in New York City by the fatal shooting of a 15-year old black boy during a fight with an off-duty policeman. There were riots in Rochester, Jersey City, Chicago, and Philadelphia as well.
In August 1965, just as Johnson was signing the Voting Rights Act, the black ghetto in Watts, Los Angeles erupted in the most violent urban outbreak since World War II. The riot was provoked by the forcible arrest of a young Negro driver, the clubbing of a bystander by police, and the seizure of a black woman falsely accused of spitting at police. There was rioting in the streets and looting and firebombing of stores. Police and National Guardsmen were called in, and used their guns. Thirty-four (mostly black) people were killed, hundreds injured, and 4,000 arrested. In the summer of 1966, there were similar outbreaks in Chicago and Cleveland.
In 1910, 90% of Negroes lived in the South, but 4 million blacks left the country for the city between 1940 and 1970. By 1965, 80% of blacks lived in cities, and 50% lived in the North. In 1967 there were eight major uprisings in black ghettos, 33 “serious but not major” outbreaks, and 123 “minor” disorders. Eighty-three – almost all black – died of gunfire, mostly in Newark and Detroit. White racism was blamed for the trouble, including pervasive discrimination and segregation in employment, education, and housing and deteriorating facilities and services. A new mood had sprung up among Negroes, particularly the young, in which self-esteem and enhanced racial pride were replacing apathy and submission to the system.
“Black Power” was the new slogan, an expression of distrust of any “progress” conceded by whites, a rejection of paternalism. Malcolm X, an advocate of black independence, was assassinated in February 1965.
Congress responded to the riots of 1967 by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which strengthened the laws prohibiting violence against blacks and increased the penalties against those depriving people of their civil rights. It also added a section providing up to five years in prison for anyone traveling interstate or using the mail or telephone “to organize, promote, encourage, participate in, or carry on a riot,” defined as an action by three or more people involving threats of violence. The first person prosecuted under the new law was a young black SNCC leader, H. Rap Brown, who had made a militant speech in Maryland just before a racial disturbance there.
Martin Luther King became more and more concerned about the problems of poverty, and in the spring of 1968 he also began speaking out against the war in Vietnam. He connected war and poverty, saying, “We’re spending all of this money for death and destruction, and not nearly enough money for life and constructive development.” King now became a chief target of the FBI, which tapped his phone conversations, sent him fake letters, threatened him, blackmailed him, and even suggested once in an anonymous letter that he commit suicide. FBI internal memos discussed finding a black leader to replace King, who still insisted on nonviolence, but on a “militant,” “massive” scale. He planned a poor people’s encampment in Washington and went to Memphis, Tennessee to support a strike of garbage workers. There, standing on a balcony outside his motel room, he was shot to death. The Poor People’s Encampment, which went on, was broken up by police action. King’s assassination brought new urban outbreaks all over the country, in which 39 people were killed, 35 of them black.
It was beginning to be clear that courts were letting those who killed blacks off lightly. Even worse, there was a planned pattern of violence against militant black organizers, carried out by police and the FBI. On December 4,1969, a little before five in the morning, a squad of Chicago police, armed with a submachine gun and shotguns, killed 21-year-old Black Panther leader Fred Hampton as he lay in his bed. It was later discovered that during the entire civil rights movement the government had acted through the FBI to harass and break up militant groups like the Black Panthers, the American Indian Movement (AIM), and the Puerto Rican Young Lords. According to Wikipedia, COINTELPRO (an acronym for Counterintelligence Program) was “a series of covert and often illegal projects between 1956 and 1971 aimed at surveying, infiltrating, discrediting, and disrupting domestic political organizations. COINTELPRO tactics included smearing individuals and groups using forged documents and by planting false reports in the media; harassment; wrongful imprisonment; and illegal violence, including assassination. COINTELPRO targeted groups and individuals that the FBI deemed ‘subversive,’ including communist and socialist organizations; organizations and individuals associated with the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr.; black nationalist groups; the American Indian Movement; a broad range of organizations labeled ‘New Left,’ including Students for a Democratic Society; almost all groups protesting the Vietnam War; the National Lawyers Guild; organizations and individuals associated with the women’s rights movement; and nationalist groups such as those seeking independence for Puerto Rico. Only 15% of COINTELPRO resources were expended to marginalize and subvert white hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan.”
The Black Panther Party
According to Wikipedia, the Black Panther Party was “an African-American revolutionary socialist organization active in the United States between 1966 and 1982. Founded in Oakland, California by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale on October 15, 1966, the organization initially set forth a doctrine calling primarily for the protection of African-American neighborhoods from police brutality. The leaders of the organization espoused socialist and Marxist doctrines; however, the Party’s early black nationalist reputation attracted a diverse membership.
By 1968, the party had expanded into many cities throughout the United States, among them Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Newark, New Orleans, New York City, Omaha, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. Peak membership was near 10,000 by 1969, and their newspaper, under the editorial leadership of Eldridge Cleaver, had a circulation of 250,000. The group created a Ten-Point Program, a document that called for “Land, Bread, Housing, Education, Clothing, Justice, and Peace,” as well as exemption from conscription for African-American men.
Ultimately, the Panthers condemned black nationalism as “black racism” and became more focused on socialism without racial exclusivity. They instituted a variety of community programs designed to alleviate poverty and improve health among inner-city black communities. The Party’s most widely known programs were its armed citizens’ patrols to evaluate the behavior of police officers and its Free Breakfast for Children program.
After 1969, the Party suffered a series of contractions due to legal troubles, incarcerations, and internal splits. By 1972 most Panther activity centered around the national headquarters and a school in Oakland, where the party continued to influence local politics. In 1980 the Black Panther Party comprised just 27 members.
Three blacks were admitted into the Mississippi delegation at the 1968 Democratic convention, and by 1977, more than 2,000 blacks held office in 11 southern states (in 1965 the number was 72). But blacks, with 20% of the South’s population, still held less than 3% of its elective offices. And a New York Times reporter, analyzing the situation in 1977, pointed out that even where blacks held important city offices, “whites always retain economic power.”
Southern blacks who could afford to go to downtown restaurants and hotels were no longer barred because of their race, and more blacks were attending colleges, universities, and law and medical schools. Northern cities were busing children back and forth in an attempt to create racially mixed schools. None of this, however, was halting what Frances Piven and Richard Cloward (Poor People’s Movements) called “the destruction of the black lower class” via unemployment, ghettoization, and rising crime, drug addiction, and violence. In the summer of 1977, the Department of Labor reported that the rate of unemployment among black youths was 34.8%. A small new black middle class had been created, raising the overall statistics for black income, but there was a great disparity between it and the poor left behind. The median black family income of 1977 was still only 60% that of whites, and blacks were twice as likely to die of diabetes and seven times as likely to be the victims of homicide.
With desegregation in housing, blacks tried to move into neighborhoods where whites, themselves poor, crowded, and troubled, targeted them. In Boston, the busing of black children to white schools and white children to black schools set off a wave of white neighborhood violence. The use of busing to integrate schools – sponsored by the government and the courts in response to black protest – was an ingenious concession, resulting in competition between poor whites and poor blacks for the inadequate schools the system provided for all the poor.
Chapter 18: The Impossible Victory: Vietnam
From 1964 to 1972, the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the history of the world made a maximum military effort, with everything short of atomic bombs, to defeat a revolutionary nationalist movement in a tiny peasant country – and failed. In the United States vs. Vietnam, it was organized modern technology against organized human beings, and the human beings won.
Vietnamese nationalists, led by a Communist named Ho Chi Minh, fought against the Japanese, holding a spectacular celebration in Hanoi in 1945 when they left. A declaration of independence was issued that echoed the American Declaration and listed Vietnamese grievances against French rule: “They have enforced inhuman laws…They have built more prisons than schools. They have mercilessly slain our patriots…They have fettered public opinion…They have robbed us of our rice fields, our mines, our forests, and our raw materials…They have invented numerous unjustifiable taxes and reduced our people, especially our peasantry, to a state of extreme poverty…The whole of the Vietnamese people, animated by a common purpose, are determined to fight to the bitter end against any attempt by the French colonialists to reconquer their country.”
For a few weeks in September 1945 the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was free of foreign domination and united from north to south. Then Britain occupied the south and turned it back to the French, and Nationalist China did then same in the north at the behest of the United States. Between October 1945 and February 1946, Ho Chi Minh wrote eight letters to President Truman reminding him of the self-determination promises of the Atlantic Charter. In one, also sent to the United Nations, he said that two million Vietnamese had died of starvation during the winter of 1944 and spring of 1945 “because of the starvation policy of the French, who seized and stored all available rice until it rotted…Three-fourths of cultivated land was flooded during the summer of 1945, followed by a severe drought; five-sixths of the harvest was lost, and many people are starving. Unless the great world powers and international relief organizations bring us immediate assistance, we face imminent catastrophe.” Truman never replied.
In October 1946, the French bombarded Haiphong, a port in northern Vietnam, beginning an 8-year war with the Vietminh movement. Between 1949 and 1954, the U.S. gave the French 300,000 small arms and machine guns and $1 billion – 80% of the cost of the French war effort. Still, in 1954, defeated, the French had to withdraw from the north. According to the peace agreement at Geneva it was agreed that an election would take place in two years to unify Vietnam. The United States directed events in the south, putting Ngo Dinh Diem in power on condition that he avoid the scheduled unification election.
Diem, a Catholic landlord in a country of Buddhist peasants, replaced locally selected provincial chiefs with his own men and imprisoned people who criticized his regime. Guerilla activities in the countryside began around 1958, aided by Hanoi. In 1960, the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong), composed mostly of southerners, was also formed. The communists brought significant social change to the villages, involving the mass of peasants in their movement.
When, in 1963, Buddhist monks started committing suicide by fire to dramatize their opposition to the regime, Diem’s police raided pagodas and temples, wounding 30 monks, arresting 1,400 people, and closing the temples. When there were demonstrations in Saigon, the police fired, killing 9 people. In Hué, the ancient Vietnamese capital, 10,000 demonstrated in protest.
Under the Geneva Accords, the United States was permitted to have 685 military advisors in south Vietnam. Eisenhower secretly sent several thousand. Under Kennedy, the figure rose to 16,000, and some of them began to take part in combat operations. Most of the south Vietnamese countryside was now controlled by local villagers organized by the NLF. Some Vietnamese generals began plotting to overthrow Diem, staying in touch with American ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, a supporter of the coup, through the CIA. When the generals attacked the presidential palace on November 1, 1963, Diem was given no support, and he and his brother were executed.
When the generals who succeeded Diem made no headway against the NLF, President Johnson used a set of events off the coast of North Vietnam in early August 1964 to launch full-scale war. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara told the American public that there had been an attack by North Vietnamese torpedo boats on American destroyers “on routine patrol in international waters,” but in fact the CIA had engaged in a secret operation in the Gulf of Tonkin, attacking North Vietnamese coastal installations.
A congressional resolution, passed unanimously in the House, and with only two dissenting votes in the Senate, gave Johnson the power to take military action as he saw fit without the declaration of war required by the Constitution. The Supreme Court, the supposed guardian of the Constitution, was asked by a number of petitioners during the course of the Vietnam War to declare it unconstitutional, and again and again it refused to consider the issue.
Immediately after the Tonkin Gulf affair, American warplanes began bombarding north Vietnam. During 1965, over 200,000 American soldiers were sent to south Vietnam. By early 1968, there were more than 500,000 American troops there, and the U.S. Air Force was dropping bombs at a rate unequaled in history. Napalm was used extensively, and many of the victims were civilians. Large areas of south Vietnam were declared “free fire zones,” which meant that all persons remaining within them were considered enemies, upon whom bombs could be dropped at will. Villages suspected of harboring Viet Cong were subject to “search and destroy” missions in which men of military age were killed, homes were burned, and women, children, and old people were sent to refugee camps. In a program called “Operation Phoenix,” the CIA secretly and without trial executed at least 20,000 civilians suspected of being members of the communist underground. After the war, the release of records of the International Red Cross showed that in south Vietnamese prison camps, where at the height of the war 65,000 to 70,000 people were held and often beaten and tortured, American advisers observed and sometimes participated.
By the end of the war, 7 million tons of bombs had been dropped on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia – more than twice the amount of bombs dropped on Europe and Asia during World War II. In addition, planes sprayed a defoliant called Agent Orange over an area the size of Massachusetts, after which Vietnamese mothers reported birth defects in their children.
On March 16, 1968, a company of American soldiers entered the hamlet of My Lai. They rounded up all the inhabitants, including old people and women with infants in their arms. The people were ordered into a ditch and shot on orders of Lieutenant William Calley, some of whose men refused the order to fire. Army investigators discovered the bodies of between 450 and 500 people – most of them women, children, and old men – at the site in November 1969.
The army tried to cover up what had happened, but the story of the massacre appeared in two French publications. Lieutenant Calley was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment, but his sentence was reduced twice – he served three years under house arrest, and was then paroled. Unfortunately, My Lai was unique only in its details – many other American units committed similar atrocities.
In Laos, where a right-wing government installed by the CIA faced a rebellion, the Plain of Jars, a beautiful area, was destroyed by over 25,000 bombing sorties from May 1964 through September 1969. Over 75,000 tons of bombs were dropped, killing and wounding thousands, and driving tens of thousands underground. The truth about these attacks was never reported to the American people.
By early 1968, the cruelty of the war began touching the conscience of many Americans. For others, the problem was that the United States was unable to win the war, even though 40,000 American soldiers had died and 250,000 had been wounded. In the spring of 1968, Johnson, who had become increasingly unpopular, announced he would not run for reelection, and that negotiations for peace with the Vietnamese would begin in Paris.
In the fall of 1968, Richard Nixon, pledging that he would get the U.S. out of Vietnam, was elected president. He began to withdraw troops, and by February 1972, less than 150,000 were left. But the bombing continued.
In the spring of 1970, Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger launched an invasion of Cambodia after a long bombardment that the government never disclosed to the public. The invasion not only led to an outcry of protest in the United States, it was a military failure, and Congress resolved that Nixon couldn’t use American troops to extend the war without congressional approval. The following year, the United States supported a south Vietnamese invasion of Laos, which also failed. In 1971, the U.S. dropped 800,000 tons of bombs on Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
Some of the first signs of opposition to the war in the U.S. came from the civil rights movement. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee declared in early 1966 that “the United States is pursuing an aggressive policy in violation of international law” and called for withdrawal from Vietnam. That summer, six members of SNCC were arrested for invading an induction center in Atlanta. They were convicted and sentenced to several years in prison. Around the same time, Julian Bond, a SNCC activist who had just been elected to the Georgia House of Representatives, spoke out against the war and the draft, and the House voted that he not be seated because his statements violated the Selective Service Act and brought “discredit” to the House. The Supreme Court restored Bond to his seat, saying he had a right to free expression under the First Amendment. One of the nation’s greatest sports figures, the black boxer and heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, refused to serve in what he called a “white man’s war,” and boxing authorities took away his title.
Young men began to refuse to register for the draft, or to be inducted if called. Others publicly burned their draft cards. In mid-1965, 380 prosecutions had been initiated against men refusing to be inducted; by mid-1968 the figure was up to 3,305. At the end of 1969, there were 33,960 delinquents nationwide. In May 1969 the Oakland induction center, where draftees reported from all of northern California, reported that of 4,400 men ordered to report for induction, 2,400 had failed to show up. In the first quarter of 1970, the Selective Service system failed to meet its quota for the first time.
In early 1965, when the bombing of north Vietnam began, 100 people gathered in the Boston Common to voice their indignation. On October 15, 1969, the number of people assembled on the Common to protest the war was 100,000. Two million others gathered that day across the nation. In the summer of 1965, a few hundred people had gathered in Washington to march in protest against the war – by 1970, Washington peace rallies were drawing hundreds of thousands. In 1971, 20,000 came to Washington to commit civil disobedience, trying to tie up Washington traffic to express their revulsion at the killing. Fourteen thousand of them were arrested, the largest mass arrest in American history.
As the war became more and more unpopular, people in or close to the government began to break the circle of assent. The most dramatic instance was the case of Daniel Ellsberg, a Harvard-trained economist and former Marine officer employed by the RAND Corporation, which did special, often secret, research for the U.S. government. Ellsberg had helped write the Department of Defense history of the war in Vietnam, and he decided to make the top-secret document public, giving copies of it to Congressmen and the New York Times. In June 1971, the Times began printing selections from what came to be known as the Pentagon Papers, creating a national sensation.
The Nixon administration tried to get the Supreme Court to stop further publication, but the Court said this would be an unconstitutional “prior restraint” of the freedom of the press. The government then indicted Ellsberg for violating the Espionage Act by releasing classified documents to unauthorized people, but the judge called off the trial during jury deliberations, because of Watergate events unfolding at the time.
Catholic priests and nuns aroused by the civil rights movement or experiences in Latin America also got involved in the anti-war movement. When priest brothers Daniel and Philip Berrigan were sentenced to prison for burning draft records in Maryland in 1967, Dan wrote: “Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise…We say killing is disorder; life and gentleness and community and unselfishness is the only order we recognize. For the sake of that order, we risk our liberty and our good name. The time is past when good men can remain silent, when obedience can segregate men from public risk, when the poor can die without defense.”
Students, often spurred by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), were heavily involved in the early protests against the war, and many were arrested, suspended, or expelled. At Brown University’s 1969 commencement, two-thirds of the graduating class turned their backs when Henry Kissinger stood up to address them. Student protests against the Reserve Officers Training Program (ROTC) resulted in its being cancelled at over 40 colleges and universities. There was also protest at the high school level. The climax came in the spring of 1970, with the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. On May 4th at Kent State University in Ohio, National Guardsmen fired into a crowd of student demonstrators, killing four and paralyzing one for life. Students at 400 colleges and universities went on strike in protest – the largest general student strike in the history of the United States.
It’s not as often reported that on May 14, 1970, two black students were also shot and killed and 12 wounded by state police during anti-war protests at Jackson State College in Jackson, Mississippi. Another instance of protesting black students being killed that seems not to be remembered as vividly as the deaths of white students or civil rights workers took place on February 8, 1968. A crowd of black students gathered on the campus of South Carolina State University to protest segregation at Orangeburg’s only bowling alley. Dozens of police arrived on the scene, and the students lit a bonfire on a street in front of the campus. Tensions escalated, and police officers opened fire into the crowd. When the shooting stopped, three students were dead and twenty-seven wounded.
The publicity given to student protests created the impression that the opposition to the war came mostly from middle-class intellectuals, but a number of polls in American cities, including those where mostly blue-collar workers lived, showed that antiwar sentiment was strong there, too. In Dearborn, Michigan, an automobile manufacturing town, a poll as early as 1967 showed 41% of the population favoring withdrawal from the war. In late 1970, when a national Gallup poll asked whether “the U.S. should withdraw all troops from Vietnam by the end of next year,” 65% of those questioned said, “Yes.” Most surprising was a University of Michigan survey showing that, throughout the Vietnam War, Americans with only a grade school education were much stronger for withdrawal from the war than Americans with a college education. In June 1966, 41% of the less educated were for immediate withdrawal compared with 27% of college graduates. By September 1970, both groups were more antiwar: 61% of grade school graduates and 47% of college grads. Bruce Andrews, a Harvard student of public opinion, found that the people most opposed to the war were people over fifty, blacks, and women.
Among American soldiers, volunteers and draftees from mostly lower-income groups, opposition to the war grew to a degree not seen in any prior war. It began with isolated protests. In June 1965, Richard Steinke, a West Point graduate in Vietnam, refused to board an aircraft taking him to a remote Vietnamese village. He was court-martialed and dismissed from service. The following year, three army privates, one black, one Puerto Rican, and one Lithuanian-Italian – all poor – refused to embark for Vietnam, denouncing the war as “immoral, illegal, and unjust.” They were court-martialed and imprisoned. Individual acts multiplied: A navy nurse, Lieutenant Susan Schnall, was court-martialed for marching in a peace demonstration while in uniform, and for dropping antiwar leaflets from a plane on navy installations. Two black marines, George Daniels and William Harvey, were given long prison sentences (Daniels 6 years and Harvey 10 years, both later reduced) for talking to other black marines against the war.
Desertions mounted, with thousands going to France, Sweden, and Holland and 50,000 to 100,000 crossing the border into Canada. The first GI coffeehouse was set up near Fort Jackson, South Carolina as a place where soldiers could get coffee and doughnuts, find antiwar literature, and talk freely. Others sprang up in half a dozen places across the country, and antiwar bookstores were opened near Fort Devens, Massachusetts and at the Newport, Rhode Island naval base. Underground newspapers sprang up at military bases across the country as well; by 1970 more than fifty were circulating. These papers printed antiwar articles, and gave news about the harassment of GIs and advice about the legal rights of servicemen.
The dissidence spread to the war front, with soldiers in Vietnam wearing black armbands in support of the Moratorium Day demonstrations in the U.S. in October 1969. A soldier stationed at Cu Chi wrote to a friend in October 1970 that separate companies had been set up for men refusing to fight. Among black soldiers, there was bitterness against army racism and disgust with the war. More and more incidents of “fragging” were reported, in which servicemen rolled fragmentation bombs under the tents of officers ordering them into combat. The Pentagon reported 209 fraggings in Vietnam in 1970 alone. During Christmas 1972, the first B-52 pilots refused to fly bombing missions against Hanoi and Haiphong. On July 14, 1973, the New York Times reported that American prisoners of war in Vietnam, ordered by officers in the POW camp to stop cooperating with the enemy, shouted back: “Who’s the enemy?”
By 1971, 177 of every 1,000 American soldiers were listed as “absent without leave.” Deserters doubled from 47,000 in 1967 to 89,000 in 1971. And in 1973, 563,000 GIs had received less than honorable discharges (one of every five discharges that year were in that category).
Veterans back from Vietnam formed a group called Vietnam Veterans against the War, and in December 1970, hundreds of them participated in “Winter Soldier” investigations in Detroit, testifying publicly about atrocities they’d participated in or seen in Vietnam. In April 1971 more than a thousand of them went to Washington, D.C. to demonstrate against the war. One by one, they went up to a wire fence around the Capitol, threw medals they’d won in Vietnam over the fence, and made brief statements.
A sign that the ideas of the antiwar movement had taken hold was that juries became more reluctant to convict antiwar protestors, and local judges were treating them differently as well.
In the fall of 1973, the United States agreed to accept a settlement that would withdraw American troops from Vietnam, leaving Vietnamese troops where they were pending the formation of a new government including both Communist and non-Communist elements. But the Saigon government refused to agree, and the U.S. decided to make one final attempt to bludgeon the north Vietnamese into submission. It sent waves of B-52s over Hanoi and Haiphong, destroying homes and hospitals and killing unknown numbers of civilians. Many of the B-52s were shot down, and there was angry protest all over the world. Finally, Kissinger went back to Paris and signed essentially the same peace agreement that had been agreed upon before. The U.S. 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 of south Vietnam, its government collapsed. In late April 1975, North Vietnamese troops entered Saigon. The American embassy staff fled, along with many Vietnamese. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, and Vietnam was unified as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
This was the first clear defeat of the global American empire formed after World War II – administered by revolutionary peasants abroad and an astonishing movement of protest at home.
In late 1973, after American troops were removed from Vietnam, Congress passed a bill limiting the power of the president to make war without congressional consent. According to the “War Powers Resolution,” the president could only make war for 60 days on his own without a congressional declaration. Later, the draft was also abolished.
Chapter 19: Surprises
In 1967, women in the civil rights and antiwar movements began meeting together, and in the fall of 1968, a group called Radical Women attracted national attention when they protested the Miss America pageant by throwing bras, girdles, curlers, and other “women’s garbage” into a “freedom trash can.” Also in 1968, Dorothy Bolden, a laundry worker in Atlanta, began organizing the National Domestic Workers Union. Other women, black and white, organized as well. In 1967, after lobbying by women’s groups, President Johnson signed an executive order banning sex discrimination in federally connected employment, and NOW (the National Organization for Women, formed in 1966) brought hundreds of sex-discrimination suits against U.S. corporations. By the start of 1974, there were women’s programs at 78 colleges and universities, and many women’s magazines and books.
A woman’s right to an abortion became a major feminist issue. Before 1970, a million abortions were performed every year, of which only about 10,000 were legal. Perhaps a third of the women having illegal abortions had to be hospitalized for complications, and no one knows how many died. Court actions to do away with the laws against abortions were begun in over 20 states between 1968 and 1970, and in the spring of 1969 a Harris poll showed that 64% thought the decision should be a private matter. Finally, in early 1973, the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that the state could prohibit abortions only in the last three months of pregnancy, that it could regulate abortions for health purposes during the second three months of pregnancy, and that during the first three months, a woman and her doctor had the right to decide.
Women also began to speak openly about the problem of rape. Each year, 50,000 rapes were reported and many more went unreported. Women began taking self-defense courses, and there were protests against police treating women insensitively when they filed rape charges.
Perhaps the most profound effect of the women’s movement came about through “consciousness raising,” often done in small groups of women meeting in homes across the country. This involved a rethinking of roles, the rejection of inferiority, and a bond of sisterhood. Many women believed that the fight began with the body, which seemed to be the beginning of exploitation – as sex plaything, helpless expectant mom, or older woman no longer seen as sexually attractive. Adrienne Rich advocated “the repossession of our bodies…a world in which every woman is the presiding genius of her own body” as a basis for bringing forth not just children, but new visions, new meanings, and a new world.
Rebellion in the nation’s prisons climaxed at Attica, New York in September 1971. Prisons in the United States had long reflected the extreme differences between rich and poor and white and non-white of the American system. The poorer you were, the more likely you were to end up in jail – and not just because the poor committed more crimes. The rich didn’t have to commit crimes to get what they wanted, Zinn points out, since the laws were on their side. When they did, they often weren’t prosecuted. If they were, they could get out on bail, hire clever lawyers, and get better treatment from judges. The poor, the black, the homosexual, and the radical weren’t likely to get equal treatment before white, upper middle class judges.
The prison rebellions of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s had a different character than earlier ones, as outside events had underlined what prisoners already sensed – that whatever crimes they had committed, much greater crimes were being committed by the authorities who maintained the prisons. George Jackson, having served 10 years of an indeterminate sentence for a $70 robbery in California’s Soledad Prison, wrote a book, Soledad Brother, that became one of the most widely read expressions of black militancy in the U.S. He saw himself as a “colonial victim” whom “anyone who can pass the civil service examination can kill tomorrow with complete immunity.” In August 1971, Jackson was shot in the back by guards at San Quentin while allegedly trying to escape. The state’s story, analyzed by Eric Mann in Comrade George, was full of holes, and there was a chain of rebellions around the country in response.
The rebellion at Attica prison in September 1971 was one of these. Fifty-four percent of the inmates at Attica were black, and 100% of the guards were white. Prisoners spent 14-16 hours a day in their cells; their mail was read, their reading material restricted, their medical care disgraceful, and their parole system inadequate. In addition, most of the prisoners were there as a result of plea bargaining. Of 32,000 felony indictments a year in New York, only 4,000 to 5,000 were tried. The rest were disposed of by deals made under duress.
An inmate-instructed sociology class at Attica became a forum for ideas about change. A series of organized protest efforts followed, and in July an inmate manifesto set forth a list of moderate demands. Nothing was done, and tensions continued to mount, culminating in a day of protest over the killing of George Jackson. On September 9, 1971, a series of conflicts between prisoners and guards ended with a group of inmates breaking through a gate with a defective weld and taking over one of the four prison yards, with 40 guards as hostages. During the next five days, the prisoners set up a racially harmonious community in the yard. Then governor Nelson Rockefeller approved a military attack on the prison. National Guardsmen, prison guards, and local police went in with automatic rifles, carbines, and submachine guns in a full-scale assault, and 31 prisoners were killed. The first stories given the press by prison authorities said that nine of the guards held hostage had their throats slashed by the prisoners during the attack, but official autopsies showed that they died in the same hail of bullets that killed the prisoners. Charges against those who had participated in the riot were eventually dropped.
In the last days of the year 1890, the last massacre of Indians took place at Pine Ridge, South Dakota, near Wounded Knee Creek. Sitting Bull, the great Lakota leader, had just been assassinated by Indian police on a reservation to the north, and members of his band sought refuge at Pine Ridge. At Wounded Knee, these 120 men and 230 women and children were surrounded by U.S. cavalry and ordered to turn over their weapons. An Indian fired his rifle, and the soldiers let loose with their carbines and shelled the teepees with the big guns. When it was over 200-300 Indians lay dead. The 25 soldiers who died were hit mostly by their own bullets or shrapnel, since the Indians had only a few guns.
The Indian tribes, attacked, subdued, and starved out, had been put on reservations where they lived in poverty. When an Allotment Act in 1887 tried to break the reservations up into individual plots in hopes that Indians would become small farmers, much of the land was taken by white speculators. Of the original million or more in the area of the United States, only 300,000 Indians were left at the turn of the century.
The U.S. government had signed more than 400 treaties with Indians and violated every one. On November 9, 1969, 78 Indians occupied Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. By the end of the month, 600 Indians, representing more than 50 tribes, were living on Alcatraz. Calling themselves “Indians of All Tribes,” they issued a proclamation, declaring that they would make the island a center for Native American Studies of Ecology. In the months that followed, the government cut off telephones, electricity, and water, but a year later some Indians were still there, holding the island in the name of “true freedom, justice, and equality.” Six months later, federal forces invaded the island and physically removed those still living there.
Hopis and Navajos were protesting strip mining by the Peabody Coal Company on their land at this time.
In the fall of 1970, 60 Pit River Indians occupied land in northern California they said belonged to them, defying the Forest Service when they were asked to leave. When they built a Quonset hut to serve as shelter, meeting place, church, business office, and cultural center, it was attacked by 150 marshals with machine guns, riot sticks, Mace, and dogs. A 66-year-old man was beaten unconscious, and a white reporter arrested and his wife beaten. They Indians were thrown into trucks and taken away, charged with assaulting state and federal officers and cutting trees – but not with trespassing, which might have brought into question the ownership of the land.
In February 1973, several hundred Oglala Lakota and friends occupied the site of the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee as a demand for Indian land and rights. At this time, 54% of the adult males on the Pine Ridge reservation were unemployed, one-third of the families were on welfare or pensions, alcoholism was widespread, and suicide rates were high. Life expectancy was 46 years. Just before the Wounded Knee occupation, an Indian named Wesley Bad Heart Bull had been killed by a white gas station attendant in the nearby town of Custer. The killer was let out on a $5,000 bond and indicted for manslaughter, facing a possible 10-year term. A gathering of Indians protesting this clashed with police, and Mrs. Sarah Bad Heart Bull, Wesley’s mother, was arrested on charges that called for a maximum sentence of 30 years.
On February 27, 1973, 300 Oglala Sioux, many of them members of the militant American Indian Movement (AIM), entered the village of Wounded Knee and declared it liberated territory. Within hours, more than 200 FBI agents, federal marshals, and police of the Bureau of Indian Affairs surrounded and blockaded the town. They had armored vehicles, automatic rifles, machine guns, and grenade launchers, and soon began firing. People were arrested and fired on for trying to supply the demonstrators with food. Two people were killed. Finally, after 71 days, a negotiated peace was signed in which both sides agreed to disarm. The U.S. government promised to investigate Indian affairs and a presidential commission was formed to examine the 1868 treaty. After 120 occupiers were arrested, the government said the treaty was valid, but had been superseded by the power of “eminent domain.”
It wasn’t just a women’s/prisoners’/Indian movement during the sixties and seventies, Zinn says, but “a general revolt against oppressive, artificial, previously unquestioned ways of living that touched every aspect of life.” Men and women began living together openly outside of marriage, and homosexuality was no longer concealed. Communal living arrangements flourished especially among young people, and Bob Dylan and Joan Baez became popular idols. Priests and nuns resigned from the Catholic Church.
Chapter 20: The Seventies: Under Control?
In the early ‘70s, the system seemed unable to hold the loyalty of the public. Much of this national mood of hostility to government and business came out of the atrocities of the Vietnam War and official lies about it. The Watergate scandal that led to Nixon’s resignation in August 1974 – the first resignation of a president in American history – intensified this skepticism and mistrust.
In June 1972, during the presidential campaign, five burglars carrying wiretapping and photo equipment were caught breaking into the offices of the National Democratic Committee in the Watergate apartment complex of Washington, D.C. One of the five, James McCord, Jr., worked for the Nixon campaign. Another had an address book containing the name of E. Howard Hunt, assistant to Charles Colson, special counsel to President Nixon. Both McCord and Hunt had worked for the CIA for many years. Hunt had been the CIA man in charge of the invasion of Cuba in 1961, and three of the Watergate burglars were veterans of the invasion. McCord worked for John Mitchell, the Attorney General. After a September grand jury indicted the Watergate burglars, Howard Hunt, and G. Gordon Liddy, one after another of Nixon’s lesser officials began to talk, giving information in judicial proceedings and to a Senate investigating committee. In addition to John Mitchell, they implicated Robert Haldeman and John Erlichman, Nixon’s highest White House aides, and finally the president himself in a series of illegal actions against political opponents and antiwar activists. One witness told the Senate committee that the president had tapes of all personal and phone conversations at the White House. Nixon at first refused to turn them over, and when he finally did, they’d been tampered with – 18½ minutes of one tape had been erased.
In the midst of all this, Nixon’s vice-president, Spiro Agnew, was indicted in Maryland for receiving bribes from Maryland contractors in return for political favors. He resigned from office in October 1973.
In the November 1972 presidential election, before much was known about Watergate, Nixon and Agnew won 60% of the popular vote and carried every state except Massachusetts, defeating an antiwar candidate, Senator George McGovern. The following year a House committee drew up a bill of impeachment that Nixon’s advisers told him would pass the House by the required majority. On August 8, 1973, Nixon resigned.
Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, two Washington Post journalists who’d investigated and helped exposed Nixon, wrote that now there might be “restoration.” Claude Julien, editor of Le Monde Diplomatique was the only one to point out that “the elimination of Mr. Richard Nixon leaves intact all the mechanisms and false values which permitted the Watergate scandal.” Julien noted that Nixon’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, would remain at his post – in other words, Nixon’s foreign policy would continue. “That is to say,” Julien wrote, “that Washington will continue to support General Pinochet in Chile, General Geisel in Brazil, General Stroessner in Paraguay, etc…”
Months later, it was disclosed that top Democratic and Republican leaders in the House of Representatives had given secret assurance to Nixon that if he resigned they wouldn’t support criminal proceedings against him.
Vice President Gerald Ford, a conservative Republican who supported all of Nixon’s policies, became president, and one of his first acts was to pardon Nixon, saving the disgraced former president from possible criminal prosecution and enabling him to retire with a huge pension.
Chapter 21: Carter-Reagan-Bush: The Bipartisan Consensus
American voters showed their disaffection with the system by staying away from the polls. In 1960, 63% of those eligible to vote voted in the presidential election. By 1976, this figure had dropped to 53%. In a CBS News and New York Times survey, over half of the respondents said that public officials didn’t care about people like them. Electoral politics dominated the press and TV screens, and the doings of presidents, members of Congress, Supreme Court justices, and other officials were treated with great importance. But there was something pumped up and false about it.
From 1977 to 1980, President Jimmy Carter, despite a few gestures toward black people and the poor and talk of “human rights” abroad, remained within the historic political boundaries of the American system, protecting corporate wealth and power, maintaining a huge military machine, and allying the United States with right-wing tyrannies. Zbigniew Brzezinski, a traditional Cold War intellectual, became Carter’s National Security Adviser. Under Carter, the United States continued to support regimes that engaged in the imprisonment of dissenters, torture, and mass murder – in the Philippines, Iran, Nicaragua, and Indonesia, where the inhabitants of East Timor were being annihilated.
By the early ‘70s, 300 U.S. corporations, including the seven largest banks, were “multinationals,” earning 40% of their net profits outside the U.S. As a group, they now constituted the third largest economy in the world after the United States and the Soviet Union. The relationship of these global corporations with the poorer countries had long been an exploiting one, as shown by U.S. Department of Commerce figures: Whereas U.S. corporations in Europe between 1950 and 1965 invested $8.1 billion and made $5.5 billion in profits, in Latin America they invested $3.8 billion and made $11.2 billion, and in Africa they invested $5.2 billion and made $14.3 billion. It was the classic imperial seizure of natural resources. American corporations depended on the poorer countries for 100% of their diamonds, coffee, platinum, mercury, rubber, and cobalt. They got 98% of their manganese from abroad, and 90% of their chrome and aluminum. Twenty to forty percent of platinum, mercury, cobalt, chrome, and manganese came from Africa.
Another fundamental of American foreign policy was the training of foreign military officers in the Army School of the Americas in the Canal Zone. To give an idea of the results, six graduates of this school were in the military junta that overthrew the democratically elected Allende government in Chile in 1973.
And yet the United States cultivated a reputation of being supportive of democracy and generous with its riches. In fact, aid often depended on political loyalty. When the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) was criticized for being inefficient and neglectful in giving aid to the inhabitants of the sahel region of west Africa during a six-year drought that killed 100,000, it responded that the countries involved had “no close historical, economic, or political ties to the United States.” In early 1975 it was reported that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had formally initiated a policy of cutting back aid to nations siding against the U.S. in UN votes. In some cases the cutbacks involved food and humanitarian relief.
Most aid was military in any case, with the U.S. exporting $9.5 billion in arms by 1975. And the military continued to take a huge share of the national budget. Though he ran for office on a pledge to cut defense spending from $7 billion to $5 billion annually, Carter’s first budget proposed an increase of $10 billion for the military. At the same time, the administration announced that it would be saving $25 million a year by not giving second helpings of milk to 1.4 needy children receiving free meals at school.
Carter’s greatest failure was not solving the economic problems of most Americans. The price of food and other necessities continued to rise faster than wages, and unemployment remained high – 20 to 30% among young people. In 1977, the top 10% of Americans had an income 30 times that of the bottom tenth and the top 1% owned 33% of the wealth. The richest 5% owned 83% of personally owned corporate stock. According to Marian Wright Edelman, director of the Children’s Defense Fund in Washington, one of every seven American children (10 million altogether) had no regular source of primary health care, and one of every three children under 17 (18 million altogether) had never seen a dentist. In a New York Times editorial, Ms. Edelman wrote: “The Senate Budget Committee recently knocked off $88 million from a modest $288 million administration request to improve the program that screens and treats children’s health problems. At the same time, the Senate found $725 million to bail out Litton Industries and to build two destroyers.” In 1978, Carter approved tax cuts mainly benefiting corporations.
One of the dictators the U.S. had supported was the shah of Iran, who’d been driven out of his country by strikes and demonstrations in January 1979. Two weeks later, an exiled religious leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Tehran. On April 1, 1979, Iran voted by national referendum to become an Islamic Republic. The referendum approved what Wikipedia calls “a new democratic-theocratic hybrid constitution” whereby Khomeini became Supreme Leader of the country in December 1979. On November 4, 1979, the U.S. embassy in Teheran had been taken over by student militants demanding that the shah be returned to Iran for punishment. Fifty-two embassy employees were held hostage. For the next 14 months, this took over headlines in the U.S., arousing powerful nationalist feelings. The hostages were still captive when Carter faced Ronald Reagan in the election of 1980, which, along with the economic distress felt by many, was largely responsible for his defeat.
The hostage crisis ended with the signing of the Algiers Accords in Algeria on January 19, 1981. The hostages were formally released into United States custody the following day, just minutes after the new American president Ronald Reagan was sworn in. They’d been held at the U.S. embassy in Tehran for 444 days. Since then many people have surmised that Reagan’s representatives made an illegal deal with Iran before the election.
The dozen years of the Reagan-Bush presidency transformed the federal judiciary, never more than moderately liberal, into a predominantly conservative institution. By the fall of 1991, Reagan and Bush had filled more than half of the 837 federal judgeships, and appointed enough right-wing justices to transform the Supreme Court.
In the ‘70s, with liberal justices William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall in the lead, the Court had declared the death penalty unconstitutional, had supported the right of women to choose abortions, and had interpreted civil rights law as permitting affirmative action – special attention to blacks and women to make up for past discrimination. In the Reagan-Bush years, the Court, headed by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, made a series of decisions that weakened Roe v. Wade, brought back the death penalty, and gave police more powers over detainees. The final blow was Bush’s nomination of black conservative Clarence Thomas to replace the retiring Marshall. Despite dramatic testimony from a former colleague, a young black law professor named Anita Hill, that Thomas had sexually harassed her, Thomas was approved by the Senate.
Conservative federal judges and pro-business appointments to the National Labor Relations Board left striking workers with no legal protection, and one of Reagan’s first acts was to dismiss, en masse, striking air traffic controllers.
In 1970, president Nixon had signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) establishing a universal right to a safe and healthy workplace into law. Carter had enforced this – along with environmental regulations – less than strictly. Reagan appointed a businessman hostile to OSHA’s aims as its head. Bush presented himself as the “environmental president,” pointing with pride to the Clean Air Act of 1990. But two years after the act was passed, it was seriously weakened by a new rule of the Environmental Protection Agency that allowed manufacturers to increase hazardous pollutants in the atmosphere by 245 tons a year. Furthermore, little money was allocated for the enforcement of health and environmental regulations. The issue of global warming, becoming a concern in Europe and Japan, was ignored, and deep cuts were made in money to research renewable energy sources.
Reagan built up the military with allocations of over a trillion dollars in his first four years of office while making massive cuts in benefits for the poor. Corporate taxes were also lowered without increasing investment as had been predicted. The income tax rate on the rich was lowered to 28% (it had been 91% in 1945), almost completely wiping out the its “progressiveness.” From 1978 to 1990, the net worth of the Forbes 400, the richest individuals in the country, tripled, while $70 billion a year was lost in government revenue – in those 13 years, while 12 million American children lived in poverty, the wealthiest 1% gained a trillion dollars.
Not only did the income tax become less progressive during these years, but the Social Security tax became more regressive – more and more was deducted from the checks of the poor and middle class. When salaries reached $42,000 a year, however, no more was deducted. By the early 1990s, a middle-income family earning $37,800 a year paid 7.65% of its income in Social Security taxes, while a family earning ten times as much paid 1.46%. Three-fourths of all wage earners were paying more each year in Social Security than in income tax.
At the end of the ‘80s, a third of African-American families were below the poverty level, black unemployment was two and a half that of whites, and the life expectancy of blacks was ten years below that of whites.
The deregulation of savings and loan banks, begun under Carter, continued under Reagan, leading to risky investments that left the banks owing billions of dollars to government-insured depositors.
One of the Reagan administration’s favorite military programs was Star Wars, in which billions were spent to build a shield in space to stop enemy missiles. Results of failed tests of the system were faked with the approval of Reagan’s Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger.
When the Soviet Union began to disintegrate in 1989, a public opinion survey done for the National Press Club showed that 59% of American voters wanted a 50% cut in defense spending over the next five years.
Reagan came into office just after a revolution in Nicaragua, in which the popular Sandinista movement overthrew the corrupt Somoza dynasty long supported by the U.S. Loathe to let a socialist society succeed, especially so close to home, the Reagan administration waged a secret war, in which the CIA organized a counter-revolutionary force (the “contras”), many of whose leaders were former leaders of Somoza’s hated National Guard. Based in Honduras, a poor country dependent on the United States, the contras crossed the border, raiding farms and villages, destroying schools and health clinics, and killing and wounding men, women, and children. In 1984, the CIA mined Nicaraguan harbors. Later that year, Congress made it illegal for the government to support “directly or indirectly, military or paramilitary operations in Nicaragua,” but the Reagan administration continued to support the contras, smuggling arms through Guatemala.
In 1986, a story appeared in a Beirut magazine alleging that the U.S. had sold weapons to Iran (a supposed enemy) in return for the release of hostages held by Muslim fundamentalists in Lebanon. Once the scandal was out in the open, neither the Congressional investigating committees, the press, nor the trial of Colonel Oliver North, who oversaw the contra aid operation, got to the critical questions, Zinn says. The limits of Democratic Party criticism of the affair were revealed by a leading Democrat, Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia, who, as the investigation was getting under way, said, “We must, all of us, help the president restore his credibility in foreign affairs.”
It became clear that both President Reagan and Vice President Bush were involved in the Iran-contra affair, but their underlings gave them room for “plausible denial,” and a resolution for Reagan’s impeachment introduced in the House by Henry Gonzalez of Texas was quickly suppressed. Colonel Oliver North stood trial for lying to Congress and was found guilty, but not sentenced to prison.
In addition to aiding the Nicaraguan contras, the Reagan administration had also sharply increased military aid to the repressive right-wing dictatorship in El Salvador.
Direct foreign military interventions during these years, all in violation of the 1973 War Powers Act, included:
- In the fall of 1982, President Reagan sent American marines into a dangerous situation in Lebanon, where a civil war was raging. The following year over 200 of them were killed when a terrorist bomb exploded in their barracks.
- In October 1983, perhaps to take attention away from the Lebanon disaster, Reagan sent U.S. forces to invade the tiny Caribbean island nation of Grenada. The reason given for Operation Urgent Fury was that a recent coup had put American students at a Grenadian medical school in danger. There was no evidence that the students were being mistreated or held against their will, and no attempt was made to negotiate a peaceful evacuation.
- Blaming Muammar Khadafi of Libya for the 1986 bombing of a West Berlin discotheque that killed a U.S. serviceman, Reagan sent planes over the Libyan capital, Tripoli, with specific instructions to drop bombs on Khadafi’s house. One hundred people were killed, included an adopted daughter of Khadafi’s.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, military budgets remained huge, and the Bush administration launched wars against Panama and Iraq.
By 1987, Manuel Noriega, the dictator of Panama, had outlived his usefulness to the United States. Claiming that it wanted to bring him to trial as a drug trafficker and that U.S. citizens in Panama needed protection, the U.S. invaded the little Caribbean country in December 1989 with 26,000 troops. Noriega was captured, tried in Florida, and sent to prison. During the invasion, Panama City was bombarded, and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of civilians were killed. 14,000 were left homeless. In 1992 the New York Times reported that the invasion and removal of Noriega had “failed to stanch the flow of illicit narcotics through Panama.”
In August 1990, Saddam Hussein, another American dictatorial ally who was acting too independently, took over the neighboring kingdom of Kuwait. There were several chances to negotiate an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait right after the invasion, including an Iraqi proposal reported on August 29th. But the U.S. failed to respond, and in January 1991 Bush, Sr. asked Congress for the authority to make war. The Senate voted for military action by a few votes; the House supported the resolution by a large majority. Once Bush ordered the attack on Iraq, both houses voted to “support the troops.” In mid-January the U.S. launched Operation Desert Storm, an air war against Iraq. The public was deceived about how “smart” the bombs being dropped were – 40% of them missed their targets, and there were thousands of civilian casualties. American reporters were kept from seeing the war close-up, and their dispatches were subject to censorship. In mid-February, U.S. planes dropped bombs on an air raid shelter in Baghdad at four in the morning, killing 400-500 people. The Pentagon claimed it was a military target.
The final stage of the war, barely six weeks after it had begun, was a ground assault, which, like the air war, encountered virtually no resistance. With victory certain and the Iraqi army in full flight, U.S. planes kept bombing the retreating soldiers. After the war, it was revealed that the bombings of Iraq had destroyed massive amounts of infrastructure, thus causing starvation, disease, and the deaths of tens of thousands of children.
Although Saddam Hussein had been depicted by U.S. officials as another Hitler, the war ended short of a march into Baghdad, leaving him in power. The U.S. didn’t even support Iraqi dissidents trying to overthrow the dictator.
Chapter 22: The Unreported Resistance
During the Carter years, a small but determined movement against nuclear arms began to grow that included nuns and priests like the Berrigan brothers committing active civil disobedience to the point of physically destroying missiles. Randall Forsberg, a young specialist in nuclear arms, organized the Council for a Nuclear Weapons Freeze, whose simple program – a mutual Soviet-American freeze in the production of new nuclear weapons – appealed to many throughout the country. A small group of doctors, led by Helen Caldicott, spoke about the medical consequences of nuclear war and formed the core of Physicians for Social Responsibility.
On June 12, 1982, the largest political demonstration in the country’s history took place in New York City’s Central Park, with close to a million people gathering to express their desire for an end to the arms race. By the spring of 1983, a nuclear freeze had been endorsed by 368 city councils, 444 town meetings, 17 state legislatures, and the House of Representatives. This was echoed by a Harris poll indicating that 79% of the population wanted a nuclear freeze agreement.
Antimilitarist feeling also expressed itself in draft resistance. When President Carter, responding to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, called for the registration of young men in a military draft, more than 800,000 (10%) failed to register. Once in office, Ronald Reagan hesitated to renew draft registration, because, as his Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger explained, “President Reagan believes that resuming the draft to meet manpower problems would lead to public unrest comparable to that in the sixties and seventies.”
Early in the Reagan presidency, over a thousand people marched in a procession in Tucson and attended a mass to commemorate the anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, who had spoken out against the U.S.-supported government death squads in his country. Over 60,000 Americans signed pledges to take action of some sort if Reagan invaded Nicaragua, and there were demonstrations around the country to protest the U.S. blockade of Nicaraguan ports. There were also hundreds of actions to protest Reagan’s support for the apartheid regime in South Africa. Public opinion was strong enough to cause Congress to legislate economic sanctions against the South African government in 1986, overriding Reagan’s veto.
Surveying a series of news events in the first week of January 1983, David Nyhan of the Boston Globe wrote: “There is something brewing in the land that bodes ill for those in Washington who ignore it. People have moved from the frightened state to the angry stage and are acting out their frustrations in ways that will test the fabric of civil order.”
When Reagan arrived in Pittsburgh in April 1983 to make a speech, 3,000 people, many of them unemployed steelworkers, demonstrated against him in the rain outside his hotel. Demonstrations by the unemployed were taking place in Detroit, Flint, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Washington, and 13 other cities. Around the same time, Miami blacks rioted against police brutality and general deprivation. The unemployment rate among young African-Americans had risen above 50%, and the Reagan administration’s only response was to build more jails. Understanding that blacks wouldn’t vote for him, Reagan tried, unsuccessfully, to get Congress to eliminate a crucial section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Zinn points out that when the repeated elections of Republican candidates – Reagan in 1980 and 1984, and George H.W. Bush in 1988 – were treated by the press with words like “landslide” and “overwhelming victory,” four facts were being ignored: half of those eligible to vote didn’t, and those who did vote were limited in their choices to two not very different parties, both of which represented the rich and powerful. As a result, many of their votes were cast without enthusiasm, and there was little relationship between voting for a candidate and voting for specific policies.
In 1980 Reagan received 51.6% of the popular vote, while Jimmy Carter received 41.7% and John Anderson (a liberal Republican running on a third-party ticket) received 6.7%. Only 54% of the voting-age population voted, which means that of the total eligible to vote, only 27% voted for Reagan. When Reagan ran for reelection against former vice president Walter Mondale, he won 59% of the popular vote, but again only half the electorate participated, which means only 29% of the voting population was for him. In the 1988 election, with Vice President George Bush running against Democrat Michael Dukakis, Bush’s 54% victory added up to 27% of the eligible voters.
In Seabrook, New Hampshire there were years of persistent protests against a nuclear power plant residents considered dangerous. Between 1977 and 1989, over 3,500 people were arrested in these protests. Ultimately, the plant, also plagued by financial problems, shut down. Fear of nuclear accidents was intensified by an accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 and by the Chernobyl disaster in the Soviet Union in 1986.
The women’s movement faced a powerful backlash – the “pro-life” movement – in the ‘80s, and Congress passed (and the Supreme Court let stand) a law eliminating federal medical benefits to help poor women pay for abortions. Still, in 1989, a Washington rally for the “right to choose” drew over 300,000 people. In 1994 and 1995, abortion clinics were attacked and several proponents of “a woman’s right to choose” murdered.
The gay rights movement became a visible presence in the nation in the ‘70s, with parades, demonstrations, and campaigns for the elimination of state statutes discriminating against homosexuals.
The labor movement of the ‘80s and ‘90s was considerably weakened by the decline of manufacturing, the flight of factories to other countries, and the hostility of the Reagan administration and its appointees on the National Labor Relations Board. Organizing continued, however, especially among white collar workers and low-income people of color. Also, in 1991, the corrupt leadership of the powerful Teamsters’ Union was voted out of office by a reform slate.
On the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the western hemisphere in October 1992, there were nationwide protests against honoring a man who’d kidnapped, enslaved, and murdered the natives who greeted his arrival with gifts and friendship. The largest ecumenical body in the country, the National Council of Churches, called on Christians to refrain from celebrating the Columbus quincentennial, saying, “What represented new freedom, hope, and opportunity for some was the occasion for oppression, degradation, and genocide for others.”
Chapter 23: The Coming Revolt of the Guards
“Mainstream histories of this country, centered on the ‘founding fathers’ and the presidents, weigh oppressively on the capacity of ordinary citizens to act,” Zinn writes, “suggesting that in times of crisis we must look to a leader to save us. They teach us that the supreme act of citizenship is to choose between two rich, white Anglo-Saxon males of inoffensive personality and orthodox opinions every four years. Beyond politics, we look to stars and experts in every field, surrendering our own strength, demeaning our own ability – obliterating ourselves.
But occasionally Americans rebel. So far these rebellions have been contained. 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. People are isolated from one another, distracted by wars that encourage patriotism, and mollified by reforms that preserve the system.
One percent of the nation owns a third of the wealth. The rest is distributed in such a way as to turn those in the 99% against one another: small property owners against the property-less, black against white, native-born against foreign-born, and intellectuals and professionals against the uneducated and unskilled. The scheme never worked perfectly. The Revolution and the Constitution didn’t quite succeed in containing the class angers of the colonial period. After the Civil War, a new coalition of southern and northern elites developed, with southern whites and blacks of the lower classes occupied in race conflict, native and immigrant workers clashing in the North, and farmers dispersed, while the system of capitalism consolidated itself in industry and government. Then came rebellion among industrial workers and a great opposition movement among farmers. The use of elections and war to absorb and divert white rebels wasn’t enough, in the conditions of modern industry, to prevent a great upsurge of socialism and massive labor struggles before the First World War. Neither that war, nor the partial prosperity of the ’20s, could prevent another radical awakening and labor upsurge in the economic crisis of the ’30s.
World War II created a new unity, followed by an apparently successful attempt, in the atmosphere of the Cold War, to extinguish the radical temper of the war years. Then the ’60s brought protest and new ideas, and a new radicalism threatened to spread widely in a population disillusioned by the Vietnam War and the politics of Watergate. Restoration under Carter, Reagan, and Bush didn’t resolve the alienation, and the hope engendered by Clinton in 1992 went unfulfilled.
With such continuing malaise, it’s very important for the Establishment – business executives, generals, and politicos – to maintain the historic pretension of national unity, in which the government represents all the people, and the common enemy is overseas, where disasters of economics or war are unfortunate errors or tragic accidents, to be corrected by members of the same club that created them.
The world is still in the hands of the elites, with people’s movements, though they show an infinite capacity for recurrence, so far either defeated, absorbed, or perverted. Still, in a highly developed society, the Establishment cannot survive without the obedience and loyalty of millions of people given small rewards to keep the system going: soldiers, police, teachers, ministers, administrators, social workers, technicians, production workers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, transport and communication workers, garbagemen, and firemen. These people – the employed, the somewhat privileged – are drawn into alliance with the elite, becoming the guards of the system, buffers between the upper and lower classes. If they stop obeying, the system falls.
That will happen when we see that we are like the guards at Attica – expendable; that the Establishment, whatever rewards it gives us, will also, if necessary to maintain its control, kill us.
There’s evidence of growing dissatisfaction among the guards. White workers are angry over economic insecurity, unhappy with their work, worried about their neighborhoods, and hostile to government – combining elements of racism with elements of class consciousness, contempt for the lower classes with distrust of the elite, and thus open to solutions from any direction, right or left. Capitalism has always been a failure for the lower classes; it’s now beginning to fail the middle classes as well.”
Chapter 24: The Clinton Presidency
In the 1992 election, 45% stayed away from the polls, and of those who voted, barely 43% voted for Clinton. Bush, Sr. received 38% of the vote, and almost 20% of the voters deserted the major parties and voted for Texas billionaire Ross Perot, who promised a departure from traditional politics.
Clinton had been backed by the Democratic Leadership Council, which wanted to move the Democratic Party closer to the center. Its plan was to promise enough for blacks, women, and working people to keep their support, but to appeal to white conservative voters with a program of toughness on crime and a strong military. Accordingly, Clinton made a few cabinet appointments that suggested support for labor and social welfare programs. But his key appointments to the Treasury and Commerce Departments were wealthy corporate lawyers, and his foreign policy staff – Secretary of Defense, CIA director, and National Security adviser – were traditional players on the bipartisan Cold War team.
Clinton had barely been in office six months when he sent the Air Force to drop bombs on Baghdad, presumably in retaliation for an assassination plot against George H.W. Bush on the occasion of the former president’s visit to Kuwait. The evidence for such a plot was very weak, coming from the notoriously corrupt Kuwaiti police, and Clinton didn’t wait for the results of a trial supposed to take place in that country of the accused. U.S. planes, aiming, the government said, at “Intelligence Headquarters,” bombed a suburban neighborhood, killing at least six people, including a prominent Iraqi artist and her husband. There was no significant damage to Iraqi intelligence facilities. Columnist Molly Ivins suggested that the purpose of the bombing – “sending a powerful message” – fit the definition of terrorism.
The Clinton administration increased military spending, and pushed NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico that removed obstacles for corporate capital and goods to move back and forth across the Mexican-U.S. border.
In the congressional election of 1994, Republicans ousted Democrats in both House and Senate in sufficient numbers to give them a majority in both houses. They immediately proposed, in the name of escaping “big government,” starting to dismantle social programs constructed since the New Deal. Though the Republicans claimed a “mandate” to do this, only 37% of the electorate had gone to the polls, and slightly more than half of those voters had voted Republican. Public opinion polls showed support for policies neither party would put forward: 61% for a single payer national health care system and 84% for a surtax on millionaires. Over half of those polled in 1992 (54%) said they wanted “a new national reform party.” In 1996, with half the population not voting, Clinton won 49% of the votes against a lackluster Republican candidate, Robert Dole.
Despite his lofty rhetoric, Clinton showed in his eight years of office that he, like other politicians, was more interested in electoral victory than social change. He appointed more people of color to government posts than his Republican predecessors, but if any potential or actual appointees became too bold, he abandoned them quickly. Lani Guinier, a black legal scholar who was being considered for a job with the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, was dumped when conservatives objected to her ideas on matters of racial equality and voter representation. When Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders, a black, made the controversial suggestion that masturbation was a proper subject in sex education, Clinton asked her to resign – ironic, Zinn feels, considering his later sexual adventures in the White House.
He showed the same timidity in the two appointments he made to the Supreme Court, making sure that Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Stephen Breyer would be moderate enough to be acceptable to Republicans as well as Democrats. He wasn’t willing to fight for a strong liberal to follow in the footsteps of Thurgood Marshall or William Brennan, who had recently left the Court. Breyer and Ginsberg both defended the constitutionality of capital punishment, and upheld drastic reductions on the use of habeas corpus. Both also voted with the most conservative members of the Court to uphold the “constitutional right” of Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day parade organizers to exclude gay marchers. In choosing judges for the lower federal courts, Clinton showed himself no more likely to appoint liberals than Republican Gerald Ford in the ‘70s. According to a three-year study published in the Fordham Law Review in 1996, Clinton’s appointments made “liberal” decisions in less than half their cases.
Clinton was also eager to show he was tough on matters of law and order. Running for president in 1992 while still governor of Arkansas, he flew back to Arkansas to oversee the execution of a mentally retarded man on death row. In April 1993, early in his first administration, he and Attorney General Janet Reno approved an FBI attack on a group of armed religious zealots ensconced in a building complex in Waco, Texas. Instead of waiting for negotiations to bring about a solution, the FBI attacked with rifle fire, tanks, and gas, resulting in a fire that swept through the compound, killing at least 86 men, women, and children.
The Crime Bill of 1996, which both Republicans and Democrats in Congress voted for overwhelmingly, and which Clinton endorsed with enthusiasm, emphasized punishment, not prevention. It extended the death penalty to a whole range of criminal offenses, and provided $8 billion for the building of new prisons, even though statistics show that harsh punishment does nothing to lower the crime rate.
Clinton also cracked down in various ways on illegal immigrants. And in the summer of 1996, in the name of “welfare reform,” he signed a law to end the federal government’s guarantee, created under the New Deal, of financial help to poor families with dependent children. The idea was to make welfare mothers work for what they received, but there weren’t enough jobs for those who lost their benefits, and the problem of childcare was ignored.
Reducing the $4 trillion federal deficit in order to achieve a “balanced budget” became an obsession of the Clinton administration. But since the president didn’t want to raise taxes on the wealthy or cut funds for the military, the only alternative was to sacrifice children, the poor, and the aged, spending less for health care, food stamps, and education.
In the summer of 2000, the New York Times reported that during the previous year the United States had sold over $11 billion worth of arms, one-third of all the weapons sold worldwide, two-thirds of them to poor countries. The U.S. also opposed the establishment of a permanent international war crimes court, and refused to stop using cluster bombs or sign an agreement accepted by 100 other nations to abolish land mines.
Clinton’s early bombing of Baghdad, mentioned above, was a sign that he’d react to foreign policy crises in traditional ways, usually with military action, claiming humanitarian motives. This often had disastrous results. In Somalia, in June 1993, with the country in a civil war and people desperate for food, the U.S. intervened late and badly. The administration’s decision to hunt down General Mohamed Aidid, a prominent warlord, ended with the killing of 19 Americans and perhaps 2,000 Somalis in October 1993.
The following year, in Rwanda, famine and murderous tribal warfare were ignored, resulting in the genocide of at least a million. As Richard Heaps, a consultant to the Ford Foundation on Africa, wrote to the New York Times, “The Clinton administration took the lead in opposing international action.” Shortly after this, the U.S. intervened with military force in Bosnia to prevent ethnic cleansing, inspiring journalist Scott Peterson, who had covered both stories, to ask whether African lives were worth less. Actually, it wasn’t the lives, it was the oil and natural gas of the Caucasus region, and many also believed the intervention may have cost more lives than it saved.
Under Clinton, foreign aid was cut, and the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, both dominated by the United States, adopted a hard-nosed banker’s approach to debt-ridden Third World countries. Unregulated market capitalism became a disaster for people in the former Soviet Union, who saw huge fortunes accumulated by a few and deprivation for the masses.
Two economists for the Institute for Policy Studies, examining NAFTA in early 1995, after a year of its operation, found that it had caused a loss of 10,000 U.S. jobs. More workers in Mexico were now hired by U.S. corporations that had moved there, but they were working at low wages, with “lax enforcement of workers’ rights and environmental standards.” NAFTA also had disastrous results for Mexican farmers, who lost their land and joined the flood of “illegal” immigrants to the U.S.
In 1996, on the television program “60 Minutes,” U.S. ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright was asked about the report that “a half million children have died as a result of sanctions against Iraq…That’s more children than died in Hiroshima…Is the price worth it?” Albright replied, “I think this is a very hard choice, but we think the price is worth it.”
The government didn’t seem to recognize that its punitive foreign policies and military installations all over the globe might arouse anger in foreign countries, and that anger might turn to violence. When it did, the U.S. responded with more violence. When U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed by Islamic militants in 1998, the Clinton administration bombed targets in Afghanistan and the Sudan. The claim was that the Afghanistan target was a base for terrorist activity, though there was no proof that was true. As for the Sudan, the United States insisted it had bombed a plant manufacturing chemical weapons, but it turned out to be a factory that produced medicines for half the population of the country.
Also in 1998, the nation learned that Monica Lewinsky, a young government worker, had been making secret visits to the White House for sexual liaisons with the president. This became a sensational story, occupying the front pages for months. When an independent counsel was appointed to investigate, Clinton lied about his relationship with Lewinsky, and the House of Representatives voted to impeach him. What’s noteworthy here is that impeachment didn’t come for far more serious matters – like endangering the lives of children by welfare reform, violating international law by bombing Iraq, Afghanistan, and Sudan, or allowing hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children to die as a result of economic sanctions.
In 1999, Clinton’s last year in office, a crisis erupted in the Balkans that once again showed the U.S. government’s disposition to use force rather than diplomacy in solving matters of international concern. In 1995 Croats were massacring Serbs and Serbs were killing Croats and Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina, part of the former Yugoslavia, which broke up in 1989. After a vicious Serb attack on the city of Srebrenica, the United States bombed Serb positions, then negotiated an end to the fighting in Oslo, Norway. Bosnia-Herzegovina was divided between Croats and Serbs.
The Oslo accord failed to deal with the problem of another part of the old Yugoslavia, the province of Kosovo, where the majority Albanians were demanding independence from Serbia. The Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic, who had shown his ruthlessness earlier in Bosnia, now attacked Kosovo, killing 2,000 people and causing several hundred thousand to become refugees.
An international gathering in Rambouillet, France was supposed to try to solve the problem diplomatically, but it presented terms to Yugoslavia that seemed certain to be rejected: NATO control of Kosovo and NATO military occupation of the rest of Yugoslavia. On March 23, 1999, the Serbian National Assembly responded with a counterproposal, calling for negotiations leading “toward wide-ranging autonomy for Kosovo.”
The Serbian proposal was ignored, and went unreported in American newspapers. The following day, NATO forces (meaning, mostly U.S. forces) began bombing Yugoslavia, supposedly to stop the “ethnic cleansing” of Kosovo – Serbs forcing Albanians out of the province by death or intimidation. But, according to the New York Times, 350,000 more Kosovars left in the two weeks after the bombing started. Two months later, with the bombing still going on, the figure had risen to 800,000.
The bombing of Yugoslavia, including the capital city of Belgrade, apparently intended to unseat Milosevic, led to an untold number of civilian casualties. When a peace agreement was finally signed on June 3, 1999, it was a compromise between the Rambouillet plan and the Serbian National Assembly proposal.
Forty million Americans were without health insurance, the number having risen by 33% during the ‘90s, and American infants died of sickness and malnutrition at a rate higher than that of any other industrialized country – black infants dying at twice the rate of white children. Also, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1998 one of every three working people in the United States had jobs paying at or below the federal poverty level.
The richest 1% of the country had gained over $1 trillion in tax breaks in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Clinton raised taxes on the super-rich by a few percentage points, changing the top rate from 31% to 37% and corporate taxes from 34% to 35%. But this was a pitifully small step in view of the need. The country could have had a government-funded universal health-care system, full employment, better housing and transport, and a cleaner environment with the four or five hundred billion dollars that could have been gained each year by progressive taxation and demilitarization. Instead, the response of the Clinton administration to the desperation many felt was to build more prisons, so that by 2000 the U.S. had more of its population in prison per capita – a total of two million people – than any other country in the world. The figure had climbed to 2.3 million by the beginning of 2008, when the New York Times reported that the U.S., with less than 5% of the world’s population, had almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners. China, which is four times more populous than the United States, is a distant second, the Times said, with 1.6 million people in prison. That number, however, “excluded hundreds of thousands of people held in administrative detention, most of them in China’s extrajudicial system of re-education through labor, which singles out political activists who haven’t committed crimes.”
Protests included support for Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition of the poor and dispossessed of all colors in the late ‘80s. In 1988, Jackson won millions of votes in the presidential primary. In 1995 a million African American men traveled from all over the country to the Million Man March in Washington, D.C. And in 1999, west coast longshoremen carried out an 8-hour work stoppage in protest against the incarceration and death sentence of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a respected black journalist who’d been targeted for his radicalism and persistent criticism of the Philadelphia police.
There were long, bitter union struggles in the ‘90s in Decatur, Illinois against three corporate giants: Caterpillar, Firestone, and Staley. The new president of the AFL-CIO, John Sweeney of the Service Employees International Union, appeared to depart sharply from the conservatism of his predecessors, encouraging the organizing of service, white-collar, farm, and immigrant workers. United Parcel Service workers went on strike for 15 days, winning their demand that part-time jobs without health and other benefits be converted to 10,000 full-time jobs with benefits. Hotel workers also won strikes in Minneapolis and San Francisco, and cleaning women, mostly immigrants, were victorious in Los Angeles against building owners.
An alliance between students and campus workers advocating a “living wage” spread to 150 colleges and universities. When the administration at Harvard University refused to negotiate, 40 students took over a building and remained there day and night for several weeks, supported by hundreds of people living in tents outside. The upshot was a victory for campus workers, with Harvard agreeing to give the janitors a pay raise to $14 an hour and health benefits, and to insist that outside contractors match these conditions. The living-wage campaign spread to cities like Duluth, Minnesota, where 56 organizations joined forces to demand that the city give contracts only to businesses that paid a living wage – several dollars above the minimum wage – to employees.
These groups and the people they represented – the homeless, struggling mothers, families unable to pay their bills, and those without adequate or any health insurance faced an enormous barrier of silence in the national culture. Their problems weren’t being reported in the major media, so the myth of a prosperous America, proclaimed by the powerful in Washington and on Wall Street, persisted.
In 1996 the Telecommunications Act enabled the handful of corporations dominating the airwaves to consolidate further. Alternative media made desperate attempts to break through this control, reaching relatively small audiences.
The most dramatic attempt to bring the facts of corporate domination over the lives of ordinary people to the attention of the American people and the world was a great gathering of demonstrators in Seattle, Washington in the last months of 1999. Seattle had been chosen as the meeting place of the World Trade Organization, and representatives of the most powerful and wealthy institutions on the planet were there to make plans to maintain and augment their wealth and power.
Tens of thousands of people converged on Seattle to protest the WTO’s plans to expand “free trade” agreements that hurt workers and the environment. Remarkable alliances were formed between workers, environmentalists, and animal rights activists. Farmers joined a huge labor march of 40,000 on November 30th, and union people attended a family farm rally a few days later.
The press gave disproportionate attention to a small number of demonstrators who broke windows, but the overwhelming majority in Seattle were nonviolent, and it was these that the police chose to attack with tear gas and then arrest. Hundreds were jailed, but the demonstrations continued. Women from Africa, Latin America, India, Europe, and the United States marched together in human chains through the downtown streets. Finally, the WTO talks collapsed because of the disruption in the streets and the disaffection of Third World countries.
Seattle was the first of a series of international gatherings of trade unionists, students, and environmentalists in opposition to the increasing control of the world economy by giant corporations. In the years following the Seattle demonstrations, protestors showed up wherever a summit meeting of corporate rulers was taking place: Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia; Davos, Switzerland; Los Angeles; and Prague.
Zinn says that “citizen movements like this are the only force able to push democracy beyond the limits of capitalism and nationalism and give it meaning.”
Chapter 25: The 2000 Election and the “War on Terrorism”
Both mainstream candidates in the 2000 presidential elections represented the corporate elite. Neither Democrat Al Gore nor Republican George W. Bush had a plan for national health care, low-cost housing, or effective environmental controls. Both supported the death penalty and the growth of prisons, a large military establishment, the continued use of land mines, and the use of sanctions against the people of Cuba and Iraq.
Ralph Nader, running for the Green Party, had criticized corporate control of the economy for decades, and his program was sharply different from that of the two major candidates, emphasizing health care, education, and the environment. But he was shut out of the nationally televised debates, and had to raise money from the small contributions of ordinary people. It was predictable, given the unity of both major parties around class issues and the barriers put up against any third-party candidate, that half the country, mostly at lower-income levels, didn’t vote.
In the end, Al Gore received hundreds of thousands more votes than Bush, but the electoral vote was determined by the electors in Florida, where there was a vote-count dispute. Many votes hadn’t been counted, especially in districts where black people lived; ballots had been disqualified on technical grounds; and the marks made on the ballots by the voting machines weren’t clear. Bush had the advantage that his brother Jeb was the governor of Florida, and the secretary of state, Katharine Harris, a Republican, had the power to certify who had more votes and had won the election. She rushed through a partial recount that left Bush ahead.
An appeal to the Florida Supreme Court, dominated by Democrats, resulted in an order that the recount continue. However, Harris set a deadline, and in the end certified that Bush was the winner by 537 votes. With Gore ready to challenge the certification and ask that the recount continue, as the Florida Supreme Court had ruled, the Republican Party took the case to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court split along ideological lines, with the five conservative judges (Rehnquist, Scalia, Thomas, Kennedy, and O’Connor) overruling the Florida Supreme Court and prohibiting any more counting of ballots, despite the usual conservative position of noninterference with state powers. They said the recount violated the constitutional requirement for equal protection of the laws, because there were different standards in different counties for counting ballots.
The four liberal justices (Stevens, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Souter) argued that the Court didn’t have the right to interfere with the Florida Supreme Court’s interpretation of state law. Breyer and Souter said that if there was a failure to have a uniform standard in counting, the remedy was to hold a new election in Florida with a uniform standard. Stevens wrote in his minority report: “Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It’s the nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.”
Taking office, Bush pursued his pro-big-business agenda as if he had the overwhelming approval of the nation. And the Democratic Party became a timid opposition, going along with Bush’s foreign policy completely and differing only mildly on domestic matters.
Bush pushed tax cuts for the wealthy, opposed strict environmental regulations, and planned to “privatize” Social Security by having the retirement funds of citizens depend on the stock market. He increased the military budget and pursued the dubious antiballistic missile “Star Wars” program.
Nine months into his presidency, on September 11, 2001, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon pushed all other issues into the background. President Bush immediately declared a “war on terrorism,” and Congress rushed to pass a resolution giving him the power to proceed with military action without a declaration of war. The only dissenting vote was from Barbara Lee, an African-American representative from California. On the supposition that the Islamic militant Osama bin Laden was responsible for the 9-11 attacks, and that he was somewhere in Afghanistan, Bush ordered that country be bombed. The months of bombing were devastating to Afghanistan, a country just emerging from decades of civil war. The Pentagon claimed to be restricting itself to military targets, but thousands of Afghan civilians were killed.
Zinn says that the history of British efforts to suppress the Irish Republican Army and the inability of the Israeli government to end Palestinian “terrorism” should have made it obvious that terrorism, however it’s defined, can’t be defeated by force.
The American public was overwhelmingly supportive of the “war on terrorism,” and Democrats competed with Republicans to see who could talk tougher. But the full extent of the human catastrophe caused by the bombing of Afghanistan wasn’t being conveyed to Americans by the mainstream media, all determined to show their “patriotism.” The government also went to great lengths to control the flow of information from Afghanistan, including bombing the building housing the largest television station in the Middle East, Al-Jazeera.
The display of the American flag in the windows of homes and shops, and on automobiles, became widespread, and in the atmosphere of wartime jingoism and revenge-seeking, it became difficult for citizens to criticize government policy. In one of many similar incidents, a retired telephone worker working out at his health club made a remark critical of the president and was visited and questioned by the FBI.
Congress passed the “USA Patriot Act,” which gave the Department of Justice the power to detain non-citizens on suspicion, without charges or procedural rights. It said the Secretary of State could designate any group as “terrorist,” and anyone who was a member of or raised funds for such an organization could be arrested and held until deported. The government began to round up Muslims for questioning, holding a thousand or more without charges. Many were held in solitary confinement without being able to contact friends or family.
Minority voices criticized the war, including some family members of those who’d died in the 9-11 attacks. Amber Amundson, whose husband, an army pilot, was killed in the attack on the Pentagon, wrote to President Bush saying, “If you choose to respond to this incomprehensible brutality by perpetrating violence against other innocent human beings, you may not do so in the name of justice for my husband.” Some of the families of victims traveled to Afghanistan in January 2002 to meet with Afghan families who had lost loved ones in the American bombing.
Critics of the bombing campaign argued that terrorist acts like those of 9-11 were inspired by deep grievances against the United States that needed to be addressed to stop them from happening. These included the stationing of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, site of the most holy of Muslim 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; and continued U.S. support of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land, including billions in military aid. Zinn says, “these issues couldn’t be addressed without fundamental changes in American foreign policy that would have been unacceptable to the military-industrial complex dominating both parties and that would have resulted in the U.S. giving up its role as a military superpower.”
Three years before the terrible events of September 11, 2001, a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, Robert Bowman, who had flown 101 combat missions in Vietnam and then become a Catholic bishop, commented on the terrorist bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. In an article in the National Catholic Reporter he wrote about the roots of terrorism: “We aren’t hated because we practice democracy, value freedom, or uphold human rights. We’re hated because our government denies these things to people in Third World countries whose resources are coveted by our multinational corporations. Instead of sending our sons and daughters around the world to kill Arabs so we can have the oil under their sand, we should send them to rebuild infrastructure, supply clean water, and feed starving children…In short, we should do good instead of evil. Who would try to stop us? Who would hate us? Who would want to bomb us? That’s the truth the American people need to hear.”
“Indeed,” Zinn concludes, “the future of democracy depends on the people, and their growing consciousness of the decent way to relate to their fellow human beings all over the world.”