Thursday, February 26, 2009

USH15: Organizing the Workers

By 1920, the US government had done major damage to the anarchists, socialists, and the IWW (see my post of 2/14/09 for details). But in 1919, just as the Palmer Raids were getting underway, a new organization emerged, built from the left wing of the Socialist Party and the remains of the IWW, but taking their orders from Russia. I refer, of course, to the Communist Party.

Beginning around 1921, the Communists worked on organizing unemployed workers into "Councils of Action". This work increased in 1929, as the Depression began, and the Communists branched out into union organizing, and began advocating for the rights of African-Americans.

Meanwhile, also in 1929, A J Muste, chairman of the Brookwood Labor College, founded the Conference for Progressive Labor Action to promote industrial unions. At first, the goal was to reform the American Federation of Labor--a rather conservative union. But by 1933, the Conference had been transformed into the American Workers Party, a socialist organization, and began organizing 'Unemployed Leagues'.

Eventually the Socialists, who had been opposed to organizing unemployed workers and felt it was better to work for unemployment insurance, began organizing committees on unemployment. By 1932, they were taking the first steps toward developing a national organization for the unemployed.

In 1935 it all came together. The Communist, Socialist, and Muste-influenced groups all joined together to form the Worker's Alliance of America. Unfortunately, the organization (at least according to Piven and Cloward) put its energy into lobbying and building a bureaucracy. The original demonstrations put on by the various groups of unemployed that caused ruckuses and got concessions from local government were replaced by working within the system, and getting a lot less for it. As a result, millions of the unemployed that might have had relief benefits if they continued agitating for them ended up simply impoverished.

But what of those workers that were employed? I had always heard of the thirties as a time of labor organizing, of strikes and pickets and the growth of the unions.

In fact, major strikes had been going on in the US during the so-called 'prosperous' twenties. In 1922, for example, there were coal mining, railroad, and textile workers strikes. And in 1929, textile strikes spread from Tennessee to North and South Carolina. The National Textile Workers Union (a group with Communist leadership) organized white and black workers throughout the area.

During the thirties, with the economic depression and with hopes raised by the election of Roosevelt and passing of the National Industrial Recovery Act (which included a passage about the right to bargain collectively), strikes began escalating. Between 1932 and 1933 the number of strikes tripled.

Four major strikes occurred in 1934. The first was in Toledo, Ohio, at the Electric Auto-Lite Company where unionizing demands were rebuffed. Workers began picketing the plant and were joined by members of one of Muste's Unemployed Leagues. When the company got a court order against those picketing, the Unemployed Leaguers kept the picket lines up and local Communists got involved as well. The police began arresting the demonstrators but this only got more workers involved and the numbers on the picket lines grew until it became a crowd of almost ten thousand. The crowd broke into battles with the National Guard, but in spite of the deaths of a couple of the workers, things kept building until it reached a point where the company closed the plant and eventually agreed to a wage increase and limited union recognition. A similar battle occurred in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where Teamster (a truck driver's union) organizing, led by Socialist Workers Party (Trotskists), built into a strike which practically paralyzed the city. After confrontations with the National Guard (where again workers were killed), collective bargaining was finally agreed to. A longshoremen's strike on the West Coast (led by Communists and other radicals) immobilized the city of San Francisco, as Teamsters and members of both the Communist and AFL unions (AFL being the American Federation of Labor--the mainstream union) joined in. Another confrontation with the National Guard (yes, there is a pattern here) resulted in, once more, a couple of workers being killed. This time, however, the funeral procession engulfed the streets, as perhaps as much as thirty thousand marchers streamed in its wake. A general strike in the city followed as twenty unions went out in sympathy. But the AFL leadership was against the strike and reined their members in, and the longshoremen has to settle for a compromise agreement.

The largest strike of 1934 was a textile workers strike that started in the Southern US and spread to New England. It eventually involved more than four hundred thousand textile workers across the country, and, of course, Guardsmen were called out and as many as fifteen strikers were killed. Eventually Roosevelt stepped in and a board of mediation was set up.

In 1936, a new kind of strike began. It started at the Firestone Tire plant in Akron, Ohio, when wages were cut and workers laid off. Rather than going out on strike, workers sat down in the plant and refused to move. This had definite advantages over the picket lines--it made it difficult to bring in strikebreakers and meant the strikers didn't have to be outside in whatever weather but could stay in the shelter of the building. The sitdown part of the strike was only a minor portion of the process in the Akron, but the workers won concessions and the idea of sitdown strikes spread. A sitdown strike at a General Motors factory in Flint, Michigan, precipitated a shutdown of the whole GM system. Sitdown strike followed sitdown strike, many of them leading to partial wins, and one turning into a forty-day community which organized meals, recreation, postal service, and even classes. Eventually the workers forced GM into collective bargaining. Sitdown strikes spread across the country: 48 different strikes in 1936 and 477 in 1937 (including members of the same National Guard unit that had been called out on the Flint GM workers that now struck themselves when they weren't paid).

Unfortunately, as unionizing took hold, the unions themselves (including the CIO, which emerged as a counter to the more conservative AFL) reined in the workers. Piven and Cloward point out that most of the concessions won during the 1930s were won through mass struggle and the efforts of workers on the bottom--even though they worked for unionization, often the union leadership betrayed them. "..the Congress of Industrial Organizations did not create the strike movement of industrial workers; it was the strike movement that created the CIO." And even the Communists, who started off as agitators, eventually supported the union leadership--but the leadership of those unions developed cozy relationships with company management and often turned in the Communists as 'Reds'.

There were other movements in the thirties. As I mentioned a few times, the Communists (and other radicals) organized black workers--at that point these were the only groups that crossed color barriers. There were also self-help movements formed--from a bartering system developed by fishermen in Seattle to unemployed miners in Pennsylvania who dug their own little mines, helped themselves to the coal, and sold it in the cities. Who organized the workers during the depression? In many cases, the workers organized themselves.

Quote of the day: "When they tie the can to a union man, sit down! Sit down!
When they give him the sack, they'll take him back, sit down! Sit down!
When the speed up comes, just twiddle your thumbs, sit down! Sit down!
When the boss won't talk, don't take a walk, sit down! Sit down!
Sit down, just take a seat, sit down and rest your feet, sit down, you've got 'em beat.
Sit down! Sit down!" - Worker's song

Staughton Lynd, Nonviolence in America
Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, Poor People's Movements
Wikipedia, various articles (particularly on the Communist Party USA and A J Muste)
Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States

Sunday, February 22, 2009

USH14: The Not-so-Great Depression

On October 24, 1929, "Black Thursday", prices at the New York Stock Exchange dropped like a stone. Wall Street bankers tried to halt the price slide by buying shares of companies like US Steel at inflated prices but on October 29th, "Black Tuesday" an even larger sell off occurred and panic set in. As Kenneth Davis put it, "Within days, the 'wealth' of a large part of the country, which had been concentrated in vastly inflated stock prices, simply vanished." The prosperity of the Roaring Twenties was over.

A lot of that prosperity was a speculative bubble and it burst. In one year 1,300 different banks went under; in three years, five thousand banks failed. The savings disappeared, businesses and factories closed, unemployment was rampant, and many were homeless. Mini-towns made of cardboard boxes sprung up in cities and were nicknamed 'Hoovervilles'.

In 1932, thousands of unemployed WWI veterans made their way to Washington, DC, where the camped along the streets and rivers, demanding that Congress pay them the bonuses that they were told they'd get in 1945. The members of the 'Bonus Army' couldn't wait that long and got the House to pass a bill to pay them, but it was defeated in the Senate. Hoover ordered the current army out to evict them. The cavalry and the infantry, under Douglas McArthur with assistance from Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton, rode in with tanks and machine guns and tore into the Bonus Army's camps, firing tear gas and burning down the cardboard structures.

By this time, the Republicans were no longer viewed as the party of prosperity. In the 1932 election, Democratic candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt swept into office, winning in forty-two of the forty-eight states. (Why does this sound familiar? After years of Republican rule the country is in major financial trouble and the voters elect a Democratic to put the country back on track...)

Roosevelt was determined to change things. His inaugural address contained the famous line "...the only thing we have to fear is fear itself..." (a line he may have taken from Thoreau) but he went on to call it "...nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance

When the Bonus Army returned after Roosevelt was elected, FDR sent his wife, Eleanor, out to meet with them. She served them coffee and led them in songs.

FDR promised the country a "New Deal" and called a special session of Congress which passed legislation at a furious pace, creating the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Tennesee Valley Authority, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Home Owners Loan Corporation, the Federal Security Act, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, and the National Industrial Recovery Act. It was a scattershot approach--trying a bit of everything to see what would work. Roosevelt later created the National Recovery Administration, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Works Progress Administration, which built roads, hospitals, city halls, schools, and courthouses. But perhaps the most useful thing that Roosevelt did was to institute a series of 'fireside chats' on the radio, where he talked directly with the public and reassured them, speaking in tones of confidence, optimism, and hope. (And, yes, that also sounds familiar--I think Obama has been reading his history.)

Although Roosevelt's talks and reforms had great psychological benefits, and some got people employed, what pulled the US out of the Great Depression was our involvement in World War Two. I'll write about the war soon, but first I want to talk about what was happening with the workers.

Quote of the Day: "Because grief will come in measures, only grief alone will know, And you'll see it on your family, on your own face it will grow, And they'll try to keep you hungry, then they'll tell you to eat snow, You know pride can be a moving thing if we learn the strength of 'NO!'" - Ferron

Kenneth Davis, Don't Know Much About History
Wikipedia, various articles (particularly on the Great Depression in the United States and the Wall Street Crash of 1929)
Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

USH13: The Roaring Twenties

The US government was not thrilled with all the socialists and anarchists that I mentioned in my last post. They used the occasion of the Great War to go after them. The Espionage Act was passed in June of 1917. Beyond spying, the Espionage Act was used to imprison anyone who spoke up against the war. Something like nine hundred people were imprisoned under the act.

Some of the arrests bordered on absurdity. A film maker was given a sentence of ten years for making a movie about the Revolutionary War and highlighting British atrocities, which the judge said questioned the "Good faith of our ally, Great Britain." When Eugene Debs visited three socialists in prison for opposing the draft and afterwards made a speech denouncing the war, he was sentenced to ten years. He served nearly three of those years before he was released in 1921 at the age of sixty-six. Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman were imprisoned for opposing the draft. In September of 1917, the US government raided forty-eight meeting halls of the IWW and arrested 165 Wobbly leaders. In April of 1918, the government put over a hundred of the IWW leaders on trial--a trial that lasted five months. Bill Haywood was given a sentence of twenty years but he left the country while on bail and made his way to Russia where he died. The loss of its leaders devastated the IWW which took a long time to recover.

World War I ended in November, 1918; but the government wasn't done. In 1919 a bomb went off outside the home of US Attorney General, A Michell Palmer, set off by an anarchist who died in the explosion. Palmer responded by putting known anti-communist, J Edgar Hoover, in charge of the General Intelligence Division of the US Bureau of Investigation. Palmer and Hoover initiated a series of raids which culminated in a night in January, 1920 when four thousand people were arrested. In all, as many as ten thousand folks were arrested in the Palmer raids. They also deported 249 immigrants (some of which had been US citizens for many years) of Russian birth--including Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman--and shipped them off to the Soviet Union. It wasn't a great time to be a radical.

So the 1920s opened up on a deradicalized America. That year, Republican Warren Harding was elected, promising a "return to normalcy". But what the country got was the 'Roaring Twenties'. Not radical, but hardly normal either. It was mostly a time of contradictions.

The Twenties began with a recession which turned into a decade of prosperity--but while unemployment was low, real prosperity was concentrated in the top 10% of the population. Millions of people lived below the poverty line.

It was the time of prohibition (the Eighteenth Amendment, ratified in 1919, prohibited the manufacture, sale, and transportation of liquor) and an era that produced bootleggers, speakeasys, and bathtub gin--not to mention organized crime.

Women finally got the right to vote when the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920, yet the female image of the 1920's was the 'flapper', a liberated woman to be sure, but hardly what the suffragettes had in mind. It was a time of more open sexuality--when homosexuality was almost accepted--but it slid into a very conservative era. It was a time when Mae West was writing in performing in plays called Sex and The Drag--and getting herself arrested for it as well.

This was an era when blacks, asians, and native americans were treated with more respect and equality in urban areas and it was the time of the Harlem Renaissance when writers like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston wrote and Marcus Garvey preached black nationalism, but it was also the time of a revival of the Ku Klux Klan which preached not only hatred of blacks, but also Jews, Catholics, and immigrants. Congress as well began limiting immigration (starting in 1921), with laws that favored white Anglo-Saxons from Great Britain while practically excluding immigrants from Asia and Africa.

This was the 'Jazz Age', a time of literary and artistic creation, yet many of the writers, such as Ernest Hemenway, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein, wrote from Paris, a 'Lost Generation' in self-imposed exile, and other writers such as F Scott Fitzgerald, H L Mencken, and Sinclair Lewis wrote of disillusionment with the rich and the hypocracies of the middle class. And, of course, the Jazz Age was a time of music and dance: from Louis Armstrong to Duke Ellington, and from the Charleston to the Lindy Hop--much of it done at the speakeasys.

Then there was Art Deco, highways and air travel, radio and telephones and motion pictures (talkies), Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh. There an outpouring of creativity and technology that reminds me in many ways of the sixties--especially the way that a time of prosperity led to a flowering of individuality and freethinking. The Lost Generation could be considered early drop-outs and social critics, the way that the beatniks and hippies were thirty to forty years later. Yet amid the freethinking and hedonism, there was xenophobia and fundamentalism. The midtwenties was the time of the Scopes (Monkey) trial.

The twenties were also the time of three Republican presidents: Warren Harding (who had an administration was wracked with scandals), Calvin Coolidge ('Silent Cal'), and Herbert Hoover. Hoover was helped into office by the 'prosperity' of the times--and by the fact that his opponent, Alfred E Smith,was Catholic and there was a lot of anti-Catholic sentiment in the US at the time (one Hoover campaign banner read: "A vote for Smith is a vote for the pope"). Herbert Hoover preached Rugged Individualism and claimed, in 1928, that the US had a "degree of well-being unparalleled in all the world" and was "nearer the abolition of poverty... than humanity has ever reached before." Unfortunately, this time of prosperity ended rather abruptly with the stock market crash in 1929. The 1930s were a time of Depression.

Quote of the Day: "It was, in fact, only the upper ten percent of the population that enjoyed a marked increase in real income. But the protests which such facts normally would have evoked could not make themselves widely or effectively felt. This was in part the result of the grand strategy of the major political parties. In part it was the result of the fact that almost all the chief avenues to mass opinion were now controlled by large-scale publishing industries." - Merle Curti

Kenneth Davis, Don't Know Much About History
Wikipedia, various articles (particularly the one on the Roaring Twenties)
Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States

Saturday, February 14, 2009

USH12: Socialists and Suffragettes, Writers and Anarchists

The late nineteenth and early twentieth century was a time of war, robber barons, and empire building (see my last post and post of 1/29/09), but it was also a time of resistance and new ideas (see my posts of 1/25/09 and 2/2/09). Above all, it was a time when there were people looking at other ways of being--writing about them, lecturing about them, and organizing around them. I would love to write short biographies of each of these people, but I don't have the time, space, or energy to devote more than a few sentences to each.

Henry George was a newspaper editor who wrote a book on economics, Progress and Poverty, which was published in 1879. He advocated for a tax on land, claiming no other tax would be needed. He felt large tracts were belonged to everyone and said, "We must make land common property."

Edward Bellamy was a Massachusetts lawyer who wrote a utopian novel called Looking Backward. (See my post of 7/14/08 for an extensive list of utopian novels, including Looking Backward.) In the novel, apparently the protagonist wakes up in the year 2000 and found a cooperative socialist society. (Unfortunately, I woke up in the year 2000 and found GW Bush and Dick Cheney.) The novel, published in 1888, was the third best-selling novel of that time (after Uncle Tom's Cabin and Ben Hur) and influenced a lot of people.

Eugene Debs (mentioned in my post of 2/2/09 as the farmers's choice for president) was opposed to worker's strikes when he started his career. Apparently one of the things that helped change his mind was when he read Looking Backward. He helped organize a railway union in 1893 and supported the Pullman Strike of 1894. For that he spent six months in prison. At the trial he denied that he was a socialist, but after studying socialism while imprisoned, he became an impassioned socialist when he got out. Debs spent a life organizing unions and espousing socialism. He was the Socialist Party candidate for president five times.

I mentioned the Haymarket Incident in my post of 2/2/09. Two of the key anarchists who were involved were the leaders of the International Working People's Association, August Spies and Albert Parsons. Both were hanged. August Spies, who was an upholsterer, said at his trial that anarchism stood for "a co-operative organization of society, under economic equality and individual independence." Albert Parsons, who had worked as a printer and a newspaper writer, had left the rally quite a bit before the bomb exploded and was in Wisconsin when the arrests were being made, but turned himself in as an act of solidarity with his comrades. The Wikipedia article on him claims he could have asked for clemency and gotten a life sentence rather than being hung, but didn't do so because he felt it would have been an admission of guilt. His wife, Lucy, was an effective activist also, who organized and gave speeches until her death, at 89, in 1942. The Chicago Police Department once stated that she was "more dangerous than a thousand rioters".

Two anarchists who felt that the Haymarket affair was part of their political awakening were Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. I've mentioned Berkman in my post of 1/29/09 because he shot Henry Clay Frick during the Homestead strike and spent fourteen years in prison for it. Goldman and Berkman were both born in Russia and came to the US in their teens. They met in New York, in 1889. Lovers and lifelong friends, they worked together on the journal, Mother Earth, which was one of the key sources of anarchist ideas for eleven years (1906-1917). They were both arrested in 1917 for conspiracy against the draft, and were both eventually deported to Russia--where they were first excited about the communist experiment, and then rapidly disenchanted. The experience led Goldman to write My Disillusionment in Russia and Berkman to write The Bolshevik Myth. Berkman committed suicide in 1936, in France. Goldman died in Toronto in 1940, while in North America to raise money to support the anti-facists in Spain. Emma Goldman was an amazing speaker. One woman who heard Goldman speak said, "Can you imagine the effect she had on an East Side girl of seventeen who knew nothing of the world of culture? ... I used to travel clear across town to hear her lecture on Saturday nights on literature, birth control, and women."

A different sort of anarchist was Benjamin Tucker. Son of radical Unitarians and a Friends Academy graduate, he early supported women's suffrage and the eight hour workday. He edited two anarchist journals in the late nineteenth century, The Radical Review and Liberty (which ran until 1908) and translated the works of Proudhon and Bakunin. He advocated nonviolence and a more individualist version of anarchism.

The Industrial Workers of the World was formed in 1905 with the support of Eugene Debs, Mary Harris Jones (aka Mother Jones), Lucy Parsons, and many others. More than two hundred anarchists, socialists, and trade unionists were at the founding convention of the IWW which was opened by Bill Haywood, a socialist and union organizer. Notable Wobblies (it's unclear where the nickname came from) included Joe Hill, an activist and songwriter immortalized in the song "I Dreamed I saw Joe Hill Last Night", and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (see below). The IWW is still around and organizing.

The first Women's Rights Convention took place in Seneca Falls, NY, in 1848. It was inspired by an incident at the London World Anti-Slavery Convention of 1840 where women were told that they had to sit up in the balcony and couldn't participate in the meeting. William Lloyd Garrison, who saw the connection between the abolition movement and the rights of women, sat with them. Later Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott began talking and organized the Seneca Falls conference. Elizabeth Cady Stanton became one of the leaders of the women's suffrage movement along with Susan B Anthony and Alice Paul--all pushing to give women the right to vote--something that didn't happen until 1920. To get the vote women picketed, were arrested and imprisoned, and eventually used hunger strikes. (Incidentally, apparently Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B Anthony, and Alice Paul all came from Quaker influenced backgrounds--as did many of the abolitionists.) Susan B Anthony once told Eugene Debs: "Give us suffrage, and we'll give you socialism." Debs said, "Give us socialism and we'll give you suffrage." And writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman's poem "The Socialist and the Suffragist" ended with 'the world' telling both of them that their work was the same.

Beyond the vote, women like Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger fought to give women information about birth control, both being imprisoned for distributing that information. Margaret Sanger's work, unfortunately, was tinged with racist ideas and an advocacy of eugenics.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was a labor organizer, a Wobbly (until Bill Haywood kicked her out), a founder of the ACLU, and a chairperson of the American Communist Party. She gave her first speech at sixteen to the Harlem Socialist Club. She organized workers across the US, fought for women's suffrage, and for access to birth control. She died in 1964 while visiting the Soviet Union.

Helen Keller was a writer, a socialist, a suffragist, and a supporter of birth control. She was an IWW member who defended Bill Haywood when he was expelled from the IWW and was also a founder of the ACLU. Unfortunately, she is best known for her disabilities.

WEB DuBois was briefly a socialist but is best known as an agitator for black rights. He called a conference of Negro leaders together near to Niagara Falls in 1905 starting what was known as the 'Niagara Movement', helped found the NAACP in 1910, and wrote the classic work The Souls of Black Folk. He opposed leaders like Booker T Washington who preached accommodation to the white status quo.

Another leader from the Niagara Movement who opposed Booker T Washington was William Monroe Trotter who came to a Washington lecture in Boston with a series of questions that were provocative enough to cause fistfights and get Trotter arrested. Trotter founded and worked at a journal, the Boston Guardian that was housed in the same building that William Lloyd Garrison once used to publish the Liberator.

The 'muckrakers' were a group of journalists who began exposing the robber barons and industrial corruptions. A few key works by muckrakers were Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (an exposé of the meat industry) and Ida Tarbell's History of Standard Oil (which exposed Rockefeller's unethical tactics--see my post of 1/29/09).

One of the influences on Upton Sinclair was Jack London, best known for his book Call of the Wild. London was a socialist and published a novel in 1906, Iron Heel, where he warned of the possibility a fascist America and contrasted it with a vision of socialism.

Another progressive writer was psychologist William James who published an essay on nonviolence in 1910 entitled "The Moral Equivalent of War". James suggested young men be conscripted to use their aggressive energies for constructive purposes.

Lawyer Clarence Darrow, who campaigned in support of the surviving Haymarket anarchists and defended Bill Haywood in court, was another early supporter of nonviolence and wrote books such as Resist Not Evil and An Eye for an Eye prior to World War I.

World War I was not universally supported. Roger Baldwin (who later became president of the ACLU) was a conscientious objector, as was Ammon Hennacy (who became a leader in the Catholic Worker movement). Jane Addams (who later founded one of the first settlement houses and helped organize the Women's Internation League for Peace and Freedom [WILPF]) spoke out against the war. And WEB DuBois pointed out the imperialist nature of the war, how the Allies and Germany were struggling over who could exploit Africa and Asia. (Also see my last post on how the US was becoming an empire.)

And once WWI was over with, the prosperity that followed led to a flowering of writers and artists.

Quote of the Day: "If you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of the capitalist wilderness you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into this promised land if I could, because if I could lead you in, someone else could lead you out." - Eugene Debs

Kenneth Davis, Don't Know Much About History
Hippolyte Havel, "Emma Goldman", and Richard Drinnon, "Introduction: Harking Back to the Future", in Emma Goldman, Anarchism and Other Essays
Staughton Lynd, Nonviolence in America
Wikipedia, various articles (particularly on the individuals cited)
Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

USH11: The Road to Empire

In 1890 the Bureau of the Census officially declared the frontier closed. Politicians and military officers (including future president, Theodore Roosevelt, who said, "I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one") had already begun discussing how to expand the country. (Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge was another one of the voices in this discussion. He said, "The great nations are rapidly absorbing for their future expansion and their present defense all the waste places [sic] of the earth. ... As one of the great nations of the world the United States must not fall out of the line of march.")

In February, 1898, the battleship Maine, a US vessel docked in the harbor of Havana, blew up. While it was never determined what led to the explosion, the explosion led to war with Spain. President William McKinley, two years in office, didn't seem to want the war, and the government of Spain didn't want the war, but the banks, and the steel and oil industries, and above all the newspapers, wanted the war. The war was fought in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. After Spain suffered defeats in Cuba and the Philippines, they sued for peace, and the US acquired the colonies of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. Cuba soon gained independence, but on terms dictated by the US. Ironically, the Monroe Doctrine, which may have been originally written in opposition to colonialism, was here being used to justify the US taking on colonies.

(In fact, the US had already been interfering in the affairs of other nations. Howard Zinn points out that one document lists "103 interventions in the affairs of other countries between 1798 and 1895.")

However, the Philippines did not want to be an American colony, any more than they wanted to be a colony of Spain, and that led to the Philippine-American War which lasted from 1889 to 1902 (with a low-level ongoing resistance that lasted until 1913). It was by many accounts a very bloody, nasty, racist war. In the midst of all this this, Hawaii was annexed as a territory by a resolution of Congress (1898).

When President McKinley was assassinated in 1901, his vice president, Theodore Roosevelt took office. Roosevelt was a hero for his exploits in the Spanish-American war and, as mentioned earlier, an avowed expansionist. In 1903, Roosevelt became involved in separating Panama from Columbia, for the expressed purpose of constructing and controlling the Panama Canal. And in 1904, Roosevelt declared his own 'Corollary' to the Monroe Doctrine: that the US had the right to intervene in Central American and Caribbean nations, especially if they weren't able to pay international debts. This led to multiple interventions in Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic during the first third of the Twentieth Century.

Roosevelt did promote anti-trust legislation and other somewhat progressive policies in his administration under the term 'The Square Deal'. But his successor, William Howard Taft, was involved with tariffs, and, in spite of some progressive sentiments, was seen as a conservative. In the election of 1912, he was defeated by the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson.

While Wilson's first term in office was marked by anti-trust legislation, lowering of tariffs, and the creation of the Federal Reserve, it was overshadowed by the war in Europe, which started in 1914 and threatened to draw in the United States. Wilson was re-elected in 1916, partly on the strength of his slogan, "He kept us out of war". In spite of this, when the Germans began sinking vessels with submarines and attempted to draw Mexico into the war, Wilson called for war and Congress declared it in April 1917. The war wasn't popular. When enough men didn't volunteer for service, a draft was started, along with a propaganda office called the Committee on Public Information that sent out seventy-five thousand speakers to give 755,190 four minute speeches in more than five thousand cities and towns. Wilson supported the Espionage Act of 1917 which led to massive arrests; in addition, more than 330,000 men were classified as draft evaders.

When the war was over, Wilson pushed for a progressive post-war agenda, but most of it was dismissed by the British and French and, although he succeeded in getting a League of Nations started, Congress did not allow the US to become involved. (Meanwhile, while the war was going on, the US was continuing its policy of intervening in the affairs of Latin American countries, notably Mexico, Nicaragua, Haiti, Cuba, and Panama.)

By the time the nineteen-twenties came around, the US was a world power.

Quote of the Day: "This national argument is usually interpreted as a battle between imperialists led by Roosevelt and Lodge and anti-imperialists led by William Jennings Bryan and Carl Schurz. It is far more accurate and illuminating, however, to view it as a three-cornered fight. The third group was a coalition of businessmen, intellectuals, and politicians who opposed traditional colonialism and advocated instead a policy of an open door through which America's preponderant economic strength would enter and dominate all underdeveloped areas of the world." - William Appleman Williams

Kenneth Davis, Don't Know Much About History
Wikipedia, various articles
Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States

Friday, February 6, 2009

USH10: Economic Currents of the Nineteenth Century

Before I push into twentieth century US history, I'd like to get an overall view of the US economy in the nineteenth century. I've talked about the Gilded Age (see my post of 1/29/09) as well as touching on the 'other Civil War' (see my post of 1/21/09) and the revolt of the farmers to their economic situation (in my last post). As I was reading up on these events, I started encountering references to various 'Panics'. I thought it would be worthwhile, as a kind of background to everything, to go over the various financial ups and downs the US economy went through, long before the Great Depression of the 1930s.

One of the earliest depressions in US history started in 1807 after Thomas Jefferson passed the Embargo Act. This led to unemployment and depression in all the states that had a shipping industry (especially the New England states). However the first major financial crisis in American history was the 'Panic of 1819', when the economic expansion that followed the War of 1812 came to a halt. There were bank failures, foreclosures, and unemployment everywhere. (Hey, that sounds like 2008!)

Bank failure as well as land speculation led to the Panic of 1837. Though Andrew Jackson's policies were blamed for the Panic, it happened right after Martin van Buren was elected--so his opponents named him 'Martin van Ruin'. Things improved with the Mexican War (I noticed that economic upturns often went with wars--as they say, 'it's good for business) and the California gold rush, but then fell apart with the Panic of 1857. Again things improved with the Civil War.

Following the Civil War there was a period of economic growth that went with the building of the railroads (see my post of 1/29/09) which was interrupted by the 'Black Friday Stock-Market Panic of 1869' (caused by gold speculation by Jay Gould--again see my post of 1/29/09--and James Fisk).

The Panic of 1873 began one of the worst financial periods in US (and world) history prior to the Great Depression of the 1930s. This depression was known as the 'Long Depression' and lasted over twenty years. Even so, railroad expansion continued and so did speculation ending in the Panic of 1893 when the 'bubble' burst--and at the same time there was a run on the gold market.

With the election of William McKinley (see my last post) and the Klondike gold rush, prosperity returned (as did war--more in my next post), at least until the Panic of 1907.

In other words, the nineteenth century was a financial rollercoaster.

Quote of the Day: "They say some men would be warriors, and some men would be kings,
And some men would be owners of land and other man-made things...
And gold would be our power, and other foolish things..." - Ferron

Kenneth Davis, Don't Know Much About History
Wikipedia, various articles (I particularly used the piece entitled List of recessions in the United States and links from it)

Monday, February 2, 2009

USH9: The Farmers Revolt

The downside of 'The Gilded Age' (see my last post) was that millions of people worked themselves incredibly hard, and sometimes to death, to build the empires of these 'Captains of Industry'. There were strikes throughout the period of the Civil War (see my post of 1/21) and after, but by the 1880s the workers, and farmers who produced the food and cotton, began to organize themselves.

In 1886, one of the leading worker's groups, the Knights of Labor, supported a strike demanding that the work day be cut down to eight hours. Three hundred and fifty thousand workers across the country went on strike. On May 3rd, in Chicago strikers and strikebreakers fought at the McCormick Company and the police fired on the strikers killing several and wounding many more. The International Working People's Association (an anarchist group) called a rally for the next day in Haymarket Square. Several thousand people showed up. So did the police. As the rally was ending a bomb was thrown into the midst of the police. Seven policemen died. The police fired into the crowd, killing more people. Without any evidence other than their literature, anarchist leaders were arrested and several of them hanged. This led to an international wave of protests--in England, France, Holland, Italy, Spain, and Russia. Eventually three remaining anarchists were pardoned and released.

In the south and west, farmers were being squeezed by the general economic conditions of the country (the policies that were enriching the bankers were empoverishing them) and a system of borrowing that put them further and further in debt--to the point they were losing their lands and becoming virtual slaves to the merchants.

In Texas in 1877, a group began that was eventually called the Farmers' Alliance. It grew slowly at first and faltered along the way but with some charismatic organizers leading the way it mushroomed in the 1880s--from a membership of 10,000 in 1884 to 50,000 members by the end of 1885. Lawrence Goodwyn, who documented the story of this movement, attributes the growth to a combination of a mass education program (including traveling lecturers), building cooperatives to develop collective buying power, and the fostering of what Goodwyn calls "individual self-respect and collective self-confidence".

The Knights of Labor, who had forced robber baron Jay Gould to acknowledge them (see my post of 1/21 for more on Jay Gould), called a strike against his railroad in 1886 for firing a union spokesman unjustly. Although the Farmer's Alliance leadership did not want to get involved, one of the organizers put out a call to support the Knights of Labor and the membership, who could see that the Knights battle was similar to their own, began supporting the strike over the protests of the leadership. (The Knights eventually lost the strike and along with fallout from the Haymarket incident that same year--see above--began losing membership.)

By the summer of 1886, the Farmers' Alliance had grown to 100,000 members. At their statewide convention in Cleburne, radicals in the group made a list of seventeen 'Demands' that eventually the majority of delegates supported. One of these 'Demands' suggested a national conference of all labor related organizations "to discuss such measures as may be of interest to the laboring classes." The farmers had become activists.

In 1887, the Farmers' Alliance merged with the Louisiana Farmers Union and formed the National Farmers Alliance and Cooperative Union. They sent lecturers to just about every southern state, plus Kansas, and the movement exploded. One observer claimed that the Alliance "swept across Mississippi like a cyclone".

Unfortunately, as the Alliance grew, bankers and businesses began to notice. The cooperatives that they formed were not taken lightly by those who sought to make money from the farmers. In Alabama, a town (pushed by merchants and bankers) levied a tax on a newly built Alliance cooperative warehouse. The farmers then moved their warehouse outside the city limits. When the town council tried to make them pay for transport of cotton in and out of the town it led to a gunfight where two men were killed. Alabama Alliance members began considering starting a cooperative bank. As the Alliance built bigger and better coops, they found that the banks wouldn't give them credit and the farmers were too poor to raise it themselves. Eventually the Texas Exchange, a key part of building a cooperative system, failed. The cooperative system couldn't succeed when the people with the economic power went against them. (However, there were some cooperative successes as well. When the merchants who sold the farmers jute bags to put their cotton in raised their prices to almost double, Alliance members began a boycott of the bags--and began making their own bags out of cotton--that eventually collapsed the jute market. The jute merchants ended up lowering their prices to below what they had originally sold the bags for, just to be able to sell jute bags again.)

Rather than becoming demoralized and collapsing, however, the farmers were educating themselves as to who the culprits were and who could be on their side. An idea was hatched to pursuade the government to create a 'sub-treasury' system that would give provide the farmers with financial resources. They began reaching out to workers, contacting what was left of the Knights of Labor, sending lecturers now to states from California, Oregon, and Washington, to Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York.

By 1890, having given up on the current political parties, organizers formed a People's Party. The farmers had become 'Populists'. They ran in elections across the country and sometimes won--but they were again against vested interests (and ingrained prejudices) and often very dirty tricks. Some elections were 'won' by their opponents who were elected by dead voters as well as those who had long ago moved out of the county or the state. Racism in the South was often used to split apart white and black voters. Still, the Populists were often able to create racial unity at a time when it was otherwise unthinkable. The Populists ran James Weaver for president in 1892 and got over a million votes--but he still came in third.

Unfortunately, what happened was that many of the Populist candidates and 'leaders' began focusing on winning elections and downplayed (or forgot or even repudiated) many of the ideals that the Farmers Alliance had stood for. The rank and file (at least in places like Texas and Kansas where there had been good education) still understood what the movement was all about and was often more radical than those who were supposed to be leading them. The man they wanted for president in 1896 was Eugene Debs.

But the 'leadership' of the Populists--as well as Populists from the West and Northeast--decided they wanted to join forces with the Democrats candidate, William Jennings Bryan, and managed to nominate him at their convention. Although Bryan's 'Cross of Gold' speech (which claimed that America could exist without cities but not without farms) seemed to push silver as an answer to the farmers' problems, his candidacy was actually being subsidized by silver (and copper) industrialists. When he lost to Republican William McKinley, it all but destroyed the Populist movement.

The story is a lot more complex and it is worth reading Lawrence Goodwyn's book, The Populist Moment for a much more detailed analysis of where the Farmer's Alliance succeeded and why the Populists failed. The book also holds Goodwyn's useful theories about movements in general, and I will return to his ideas at some point in the future.

(The Quote of the Day is from the Populists' 1892 convention.)

Quote of the Day: "We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot box... The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few. ... From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed two classes--paupers and millionaires..." - Ignatius Donnelly

Kenneth Davis, Don't Know Much About History
Lawrence Goodwyn, The Populist Moment
Wikipedia, various articles (especially the ones on the Farmers' Alliance and the Populist Party)
Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States