Backstreets 6/1/80

Sunday night, 10:30, East Rutherford courts. Drunk sober after morning softball and then beers the rest of the day with my friends, nursing my last can of Miller High Life, now warm. Twenty-two, just graduated college, starting what I hoped would be my last summer at the warehouse in the morning. With a ticket for an “Open Container” in my pocket, I was on the cusp of adulthood, not wanting that day to end.

Beware “Blue Lives” Propaganda: All lives won’t matter until BLACK Lives Matter!

Grrr, word limits! Spent most of the day Friday, and a few hours Saturday morning working on a response to a Letter to the Editor that appeared in last week’s SevenDays (see Appendix for the letter). I knew there’s a word limit, and although I haven’t sent a letter to that paper for a couple years, I’d swear I’ve read more than one longer than 250 words. Anyway, when I tried to submit my work I confronted their new form – used to be one just emailed their letter with name, town and phone number for confirmation. Oh well, times change and after filling out the form my letter was rejected automatically for excessive length. After some cussing, and thoughts about a ridiculous amount of shortening, I figured I’d just post it here:

Dear Editor,

As I used to teach my history students at Essex HS, the best propaganda, that is biased information promoting a particular perspective or cause, fuses unsubstantiated claims regarding that agenda with both verifiable truths and false statements. Whether intentional or not, the recently printed letter entitled “Cops Need Protection, Too” is a great example of well-done propaganda.

The letter attempts to establish a false equivalency between police officers killed in the line of duty with individuals killed by police. There is no doubt that “Blue Lives” matter in this country, and have always mattered (Full disclosure: My father had been a corrections officer at Rahway State Prison, and then a Bergen County (NJ) sheriff’s officer.). Unfortunately, no one can truthfully say the same regarding Black lives, and much evidence today indicates that Black lives continue to not always matter to law enforcement. That’s why schools, other public places and private citizens are now displaying flags and signs affirming that Black lives do matter. Quite simply, it is ridiculous to compare the regard enjoyed by “Blue Lives” to Black lives – that false equivalence – in our country.

The letter does accurately state that 73 law enforcement officials died in felonious killings in 2021, up 59 percent from the 46 killed in 2020. Sadly, but unremarked upon in the letter, this increase corresponds to a general rise in felonious killings since the pandemic began (Emma Tucker and Priya Krishnakumar, CNN. “How Many Police Officers Killed in 2021? Intentional Killings Reach 20-Year-High, FBI Says.” ABC7 Chicago, WLS-TV, 14 Jan. 2022). Omitted information can be as misleading as false statements.

The letter then goes on to state “six unarmed Black people were fatally shot by police in 2021.” Since the author provided no context, nor actual verifiable source beyond a vague Washington Post reference, it is difficult to ascertain the accuracy of that statement. Any critical reader would immediately be asking for more details, such as when, where and why those six victims were killed.

When I checked The Washington Post for verification on police killings in 2021, I found that 1,055 people were killed by police last year in the US, up from 1,021 in 2020, but a number roughly equal to those killed yearly over the last seven years (when WAPO began counting). Of those, 15 percent, or 158 victims, were unarmed (Iati, Marisa, et al. “Fatal Police Shootings in 2021 Set Record since the Post Began Tracking, despite Public Outcry.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 10 Feb. 2022).

While I cannot verify at this time the skin colors of those victims, the statement that only six were Black seems misleading. According to data collected by The Washington Post, 27 percent of police victims in 2021 were Black, a rate that, since Black people compose 13 percent of the US population, is two times higher than those of whites (Bunn, Curtis. “Report: Black People Are Still Killed by Police at a Higher Rate than Other Groups.” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 3 Mar. 2022). Therefore, approximately 42 UNARMED Black people were killed by police last year – seven times more than the letter claimed.

It is disappointing that Seven Days published a letter so easily identifiable as propaganda, that is, one written as part of some agenda, with such a questionable and unproven statement peddled as fact. Attempting to equate the tragedy of 73 police officers killed feloniously last year with the 1,000 or so people killed by police every year makes sense only when there is some other motive involved. Today, expressing that “Blue Lives” matter is just another way of saying that Black lives do not. The reality is that all lives will not matter until we agree that Black Lives Matter.

Jericho West

Appendix

Cops Need Protection, Too

[Re “Prudence or … Panic?” June 1]: The author of this article paraphrases Jay Diaz, general counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, saying, “He believes there’s a strong case to be made that ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ or ‘Blue Lives Matter’ flags are associated with the exclusion of students of color and therefore would be disruptive to their education.”

On “60 Minutes,” Federal Bureau of Investigation director Christopher Wray detailed a 59 percent increase in cop murders in 2021, for a total of 73. Assassinations of police officers are at an all-time high, including Black Baltimore officer Keona Holley, who was assassinated with two bullets to the head while sitting in her patrol car in December of 2021. Ambush attacks of police were up 115 percent in 2021.

According to the Washington Post, six unarmed Black people were fatally shot by police in 2021, while criminals killed close to 10,000 Black Americans in 2021.

The average age of police officers who died in 2021 was 48, and he or she left behind, on average, two children.

In a South Burlington public school, “artwork” was hung that had the acronym ACAB, which stands for All Cops Are Bastards.

George Orwell, who wrote the incredibly relevant to modern times dystopian novel 1984, stated: “There are some ideas so absurd only an intellectual could believe them.” That perspective is applicable to Diaz’s perspective on “Blue Lives Matter” being “disruptive or hostile to an educational environment.” In truth, it is essential that students learn that police officers are essential to a civil and safe society.

Gerry Silverstein

South Burlington

Remembering the US-Vietnam War

Maybe because it’s just been Memorial Day, but I’ve been seeing memes and posts reminding us to “Remember Our Vietnam War Vets.” I’m not saying that’s a bad thing – we should remember the vets, and more importantly, tell our politicians to take better care of them. But, if we’re going to truly recall the US-Vietnam War, there’s a hell of a lot more that we need to remember.

     As a longtime history student and teacher, documented and proven facts were always important to me in pursuing historical reality. To that end, I tried to teach a kind of scientific method for learning history. Students, and adults, had to be ready and willing to surrender preconceived notions when confronted with incontrovertible evidence. Reducing the US-Vietnam War to simply remembering our vets glosses over a turbulent and divisive time in our history. It also presents a false narrative that works to erase the actual history of that war.

     Growing up in the 1960s and early ‘70s, the United States (US)-Vietnam War was THE historical event of my childhood. We watched it on TV every night, and I was sure that one day I would be slogging through a rice paddy carrying a full pack and an M-16. Thankfully, I was just 15 when US forces pulled out in 1973. My interest in the war, however kindled by film, books and the greatest music ever created remained high. I consumed all I could about it; and now that I’m retired, I continue to read and learn more about that chapter in history.

     Back in the early ‘90s, when I was the “new” US History teacher at Essex (VT) High School, I created a US-Vietnam War interview project. Since the war, and the events around it, were still in the living memories of many people students knew – parents, neighbors, other relatives, even teachers at the school – I gave my students a list of questions, and assigned them to interview someone they knew. At the unit’s conclusion, after teaching and learning more about the war, we would have a roundtable discussion sharing what we had learned from the interviews.

     During the 1990s and early 2000s, the memories were vivid. Some students learned that people they knew first-hand fought in Vietnam, and others learned that some that they knew were active in the peace movement. A few learned some tragic stories about family members. But although opinions of interviewees sometimes differed, the recollections of facts were mostly clear and generally accurate. Not only was the assignment enriching for students, it was also an effective tool for learning more about the US-Vietnam War.

     Over time, however, memories of the Vietnam War faded. By about 2005, many of my kids’ parents weren’t old enough to remember, some hadn’t even born until after the war ended. Kids had to interview older people, grandparents and those of their ages. Remembrances, further removed from the events, were fuzzy and often inaccurate. More and more, interviewees “remembered” the poor treatment returning veterans received from anti-war protesters.

     Being familiar with Jerry Lembke’s The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam, I took those “memories” with heavy grains of salt. Lembke, a Vietnam vet turned sociology professor, demonstrated with much documentation how returning vets, many of whom were already disgusted by their “service” WERE NOT mistreated by antiwar activists. In fact, many vets joined and were welcomed into their ranks. As proof, the author points out the complete lack of evidence, beyond hearsay that suddenly appeared during the mid-1980s, of the bad conduct supposedly aimed at the returning troops. The image of the mistreated, spat-upon veteran, Lembke explains were fabricated by the US government, especially the Republican administrations of Nixon and GH Bush, newsmedia, and Hollywood, and served to whitewash the Vietnam War narrative.

     While the interview project was the culminating project of our US-Vietnam War unit, the two or so weeks preceding the seminar were spent teaching, reading and learning about the war. As I began to include summaries and excerpts of The Spitting Image with my students to ward off misinformation, I was glad to have had spent time teaching my students the history of that war.

Between my classes and assignments, the living history interviews, and listening to what each other learned from relatives and neighbors, my students gathered much information about the US-Vietnam War and that era. I hope they remember what they learned. With the US withdrawal now nearly 50 years ago, these are among the facts that they, and we should remember:

 1. The US betrayed Ho Chi Minh and Vietnamese nationalists. Vietnam, a French colony until 1940, was under Japanese occupation during most of World War II. Ho Chi Minh, a long-time Vietnamese nationalist, created a partisan military unit called the Vietminh and, allied with US forces, led resistance against the Japanese. Ho believed that Japanese defeat meant a free and united Vietnam with US support. On September 2, 1945, the day of Japan’s surrender, Ho declared Vietnamese independence. Taking inspiration from Thomas Jefferson, Ho began his declaration with “All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”  

2. The US opposed an independent Vietnam. Shortly after Japanese surrender, the French, supported by the British and Americans, re-colonized Vietnam and divided it, North and South. Although seeming to encourage to Ho Chi Minh’s dream of an independent and united Vietnam while Japan occupied the country, the WWII western allies wanted to restore France as an imperial power now that Japan had been defeated. Vietnam, a country with rich natural resources, would be important to that objective. An eight-year war of independence between Ho’s Vietminh and France’s imperialist forces ensued until final French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

3. The US prevented a peaceful transfer of power for an independent and united Vietnam. The peace conference in Geneva following French withdrawal called for a national election, between Ho Chi Minh and Ngo Dinh Diem, a US-educated Vietnamese émigré installed as “President” of South Vietnam, to be held in 1955. The country was to be united under the victor. Since it was obvious that Ho would win (even US President Eisenhower believed that Ho would win handily), Diem did not allow the election to be held in the southern half of the country. With US support, Diem held onto power in South Vietnam, while Ho governed in the North.

4. The US supported a brutal and hated dictator. With terror, violence and US aid, Ngo Dinh Diem ruled the new country of South Vietnam with an iron fist. He was a vicious anti-communist who alienated Vietnam’s urban middle class by suppressing opposition parties, and angered the peasantry by cancelling traditional village elections and moving them off ancestral lands and into barbed wire enclosures. He oppressed South Vietnam’s Buddhist majority so horribly in support of the Catholic upper class that Buddhist monks were incinerating themselves in flaming protests by the 1960s. Diem and his brother were so corrupt and hated by most Vietnamese that they became a political liability. With at least tacit US approval, they were assassinated in a military coup by their own generals. 

5. The pretext for US invasion, the Tonkin Gulf “incident,” never actually happened. On August 2 1964, the US cruiser Maddox, after having been in North Vietnamese territorial water, was approached by three North Viet patrol boats. Shots were fired from the Maddox, and the Vietnamese boats responded. Ten Vietnamese seamen were killed or wounded, a US aircraft launched from the carrier Ticonderoga was damaged, but there were no American casualties.

Route of USS Maddox, July 31-August 2, 1964, including location of attack/engagement

     Two nights later, August 4, another US cruiser, the USS Turner Joy, also in the gulf, reported another attack by North Vietnamese patrol boats. Alarms were sounded, sailors responded from battle stations, but it was dark and no one saw or heard any attacker. Later, there was no evidence – not only no casualties, but no damage to the ship – to conclude that there ever was an attack. Later CIA investigation concluded that there simply had been no attack. Nevertheless, on August 7 Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution by a 533-2 margin giving President Lyndon Johnson the power to make war indefinitely. Johnson sent the first American combat units to South Vietnam the following March.

6. US warplanes dropped over 7.5 million tons of bombs on Vietnam, North and South, as well as on Laos and Cambodia: three times more than it had used in the entirety of World War II. Bombing missions targeted roads, bridges, dams, railroads, factories, and farmland, as well as towns and cities. 

7. US and allied troops brutalized and slaughtered civilians. My Lai, May 15 1968, is the best-known/most infamous atrocity committed by US troops during the war. But according to Nick Turse, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, My Lai was “an operation, not an aberration.” Since killing was deliberate US policy (see “body counts”), a “My Lai,” including rape, torture, arson and other crimes, occurred at least monthly. For any US combat soldier to act in a moral and ethical manner (and to be sure, some did), they would have to buck their commanders and go against their fellow soldiers. Since the average American soldier in Vietnam was 19 years old, without a fully developed frontal brain lobe that was a tall order.

8. By 1971, many US troops in Vietnam were in active revolt against their own commanders and could not be depended on to conduct military operations in a war that increasing numbers of them opposed. Troops listened to the same music, used the same drugs, and were influenced by the same antiwar politics as Americans stateside were. Returning veterans joined/formed antiwar organizations, testified to war crimes, and publicly threw away their medals. In Vietnam, combat soldiers began turning against their commanders, sometimes with lethal force. “Fragging” was the term used when soldiers aka “grunts” killed officers and non-coms they considered uncaring, foolhardy, or sometimes just incompetent (often with a fragmentation grenade, which left no evidence). Although fraggings were not counted before 1969, the Army counted 551 from then until US troops were withdrawn in 1973. Colonel Robert Heinl, in his The Collapse of the Armed Forces (1971), declared “Our army … in Vietnam … is approaching collapse, with units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers, drug-ridden, and dispirited where not near-mutinous.”

US-Vietnam war veterans demonstrating at capitol and throwing medals back (1971).

     As proof of military deterioration during the Vietnam War years, please note that the military draft was abolished in 1973, and US armed forces have been “all volunteer” since then.

9. The US government lied about every aspect of the Vietnam War. Although the “credibility gap” between what Americans were told about the war, and what they believed grew constantly from the mid-1960s until US withdrawal, the publication of The Pentagon Papers, leaked by former Defense Department analyst Daniel Ellsberg in 1971, demonstrated that the lies regarding Vietnam had begun during the 1940s and continued for nearly 30 years.

     Regardless, for many Americans proof of the crusade of falsehoods arrived in early 1968, with the Tet Offensive. For months prior, US leaders from commander in Vietnam William Westmoreland, to Pentagon Chief of Staff Earl Wheeler, to President Lyndon Johnson had orchestrated a campaign of lies that the war was nearly over, that “Charlie (colloquial term for the Vietcong, South Vietnamese freedom fighters)” was nearly defeated and ready to quit; our leaders told us that finally they saw “light at the end of the tunnel.” The combined North Vietnamese Army/Vietcong offensive killed more Americans in two days than had been killed in the previous six months. And although the military and government claimed that the attack was a complete “surprise,” it soon became obvious that that too, was a lie – intelligence reports have been indicating troop movements are arms shipments along the Ho Chi Minh Trail into South Vietnam for months prior to Tet.

10. The US LOST the war. Yeah, many contend that the US could have won the war, that somehow our military, hamstrung by domestic opposition, held back and did not do all they could to win. Well, that’s utter nonsense. In conventional terms, ie casualties, the US won almost every engagement – including Tet. Although 58,000 US soldiers were killed in Vietnam (another 58,000 took their own lives, one way or another, in the decades immediately after), Vietnamese war dead are estimated at two to three million, many if not most civilian. While the US antiwar movement, which included many Vietnam vets, certainly contributed to finally ending the war, so did the resistance of US troops in Vietnam. But maybe the most important reason why the US, the world’s greatest industrial, economic and military power of that time, lost in Vietnam was because of the dedicated Vietnamese soldiers and guerillas fighting for freedom. Despite horrific losses and hardships, the idea of an independent and united Vietnam kept Vietnamese nationalists fighting until the US finally quit.

     The US-Vietnam War needs to be remembered for it was – a gruesome but avoidable catastrophe, an immoral and incorrect, unwise, miscalculated and horrific US government decision that scarred a generation and more. The war was a ghastly tragedy for our country, but in many ways even more so for Vietnam and its neighbors, Laos and Cambodia. Besides the war’s massive death toll there, aerial bombing destroyed vital infrastructure and set back that area’s socioeconomic development for decades. Although nearly 50 years later, the land and infrastructure is much recovered, unexploded ordinance continues to kill. Perhaps even more tragic are the lingering effects of US toxic pesticides and defoliating poisons such as Agent Orange. Land and water are still contaminated, and even today children are born with gruesome defects, deformities and disabilities.

     Back when I was teaching, my mantra was that “History Matters.” As I stated, remembering our veterans of the US-Vietnam War, as well as those who’ve returned from other, more recent ones is certainly important. But knowing and understanding what actually happened in Vietnam is vital if we’re ever going to progress from our country’s appetite for war. Don’t fall for the con job foisted upon us by those not wanting us to remember the truth.  Reducing the horror of that war to misleading memes reminding us to  “Remember Our Vets” is a disservice to the history of that time and all who’ve lived it.

Civility, or Discomfort?

Comedian Richard Pryor reportedly once observed “Ain’t it funny how polite white people get  around Black people?” Well, I’ll posit that’s it’s also pretty funny how defensive some white people, even supposedly “woke” white people, get if you bring up racism when they’re not expecting it.

Gotta admit, I was a little surprised by the negative reaction from my Facebook post two days ago, following the horrific Uvalde, Texas school shooting.

Guess it was inappropriate to bring up racism at such a tragic time; maybe I needed to be reminded that we’re living in a post-racial world? After all, this crime – and the shitshow response – was brown on (mostly) brown. Were some people upset by my post because they considered it uncivil at yet another time like this, or was it because the facts made them uncomfortable?

Never mind that the horrific Uvalde, Texas school shooting occurred one day before the two-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police officers, apparently those white people don’t like being reminded of the fact that most white shooters, although often still heavily armed, are usually taken alive. And too many unarmed Black people some even in their own homes are still being killed by cops. Often with impunity.

As a grandfather of an almost 10-year-old 4th grader … , no as a human being, I have been sick to my stomach since first hearing news of the slaughter in Texas. I will not attempt to put into words my grief and disgust at what happened, and – unbelievable to a sane, objective, rational mind – will happen again, because I know that you’re feeling the same way. But our pain and revulsion at this horror does not wipe away this country’s ongoing and long-lasting war against Black and brown people.

With respect to those who criticized my nerve in bringing up a point as sore as racism at yet another time like this, my post is quite clear. There was no intent to take away or deflect attention away from Tuesday’s tragedy. I confessed that I did not have all the facts, and that I realized there may have been no choice but to kill the shooter (I have a problem with calling an 18-year-old kid a “gunman”). But still I had to call out an obvious, at least to me, fact.

To be unambiguous, I have no sympathy Tuesday’s shooter, whatever the color of his skin. I have nothing but rage for that individual, as I do for the Buffalo shooter, and for all the other shooters who intentionally wiped out innocent lives anywhere, for whatever reason.

If it were up to me, all shooters would be brought in alive. They would stand trial, be found guilty, and incarcerated for as long as deemed necessary. I oppose capitol punishment, and believe that a life sentence, living with the knowledge of what they’d done, would be justice. The way I see it, killing that 18-year-old, although it may have been necessary, was the easy way out for him.    

Three days ago a brown shooter killed brown people in Texas. Nearly two weeks ago a white shooter killed Black people in Buffalo. Next week … later today, who knows? Too many politicians in this country, beholden to wealthy donors as they are, value corporate profit over our lives.

In the meantime, white males, even those heavily armed and who’ve committed murder, will be brought in alive. Unarmed Black people, guilty largely of being Black, will be killed by police.

Neither fact will change unless we make them change. And that’s not going to happen by ignoring one, even in the depths of our anger and sorrow over the other.

To Mask, or Not to Mask? or, Why I’m Still Wearing One

With Covid 19 now in the rear … err, sideview mirror, many Americans are once again going barefaced in public places.

I’m not planning on joining them anytime soon.  

Here are my top seven reasons for continuing to wear a mask in stores, public transportation, and other places where people congregate:

7. It’s considerate to other people. You might be sick, and not know it. In Japan and some other parts of east Asia, it’s customary to wear masks, whether ill or not, during cold and flu season. Because, you know, other people …

6. I’m secure in my masculinity; ‘nuff said.

5. I haven’t had a cold in over two years. I don’t know if wearing a mask helped, but it certainly didn’t hurt.

4. Why the fuck not? It’s not difficult, and doesn’t hurt anybody.

3. I volunteer with Meals on Wheels. My clients are elderly and don’t wear masks in their homes. I don’t want to takes chances when I deliver their food.

2. Might as well stay used to it; you know another surge is coming.

And,

my Number One reason for wearing a mask in public places – Some people, due to compromised immune systems or other health issues, HAVE to wear a mask in public. They don’t have a choice. I don’t want anybody feeling that they are all alone.

As far as I can see, the only upside to not requiring a mask is that it’s easy to see which people care about others, and those who don’t give a shit.

The 1970s: Politics, Culture and the Disappearing Working Class

Had a brother at Khe Sanh,

Fighting off the Viet Cong;

They’re still there, he’s all gone …

Bruce Springsteen, “Born in the USA”

Bruce Springsteen, Born In the USA tour, 1984 (courtesy Ebet Roberts, Redferns).

     It was hard to travel anywhere in the United States during the summer of 1984 and not hear Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In the USA” blaring from radios, phonographs or cassette players. President Ronald Reagan, perhaps not understanding the song but aware of the fist-pumping, flag-waging euphoria the ringing chorus produced among white, politically disaffected, young, and some not so young, adults at Springsteen’s sold-out stadium shows that summer, hoped to use the song during his reelection campaign (Cowie 2010: 357-58). Although presiding over an American economy mending since the disastrous midterm recession of 1982, the President employed a Republican campaign strategy similar to that pioneered by Richard Nixon in 1968. Reagan’s desire to appropriate Springsteen’s anthem for his campaign was indicative of Republican plans to continue wooing class-conscious, blue-collar, semi-skilled, ethnic, urban, often Roman Catholic, sometimes Jewish, mostly male voters – the kind who buoyed New Deal Democrats politically from the depression-wracked 1930s into the turbulent, counter-cultural 1960s – by concentrating on social and moral issues, appealing to their patriotism rather than to their wallets (Stein 2010: 22; 265; 273). Ironically, however, just as the strategic fortress Khe Sahn, commemorated in Springsteen’s song and defended by US Marines besieged in a vicious life-or-death struggle for two and one-half months in 1968, was demolished as a “worthless piece of ground” by the “victorious” Americans a mere two months after the battle, those voters, formerly identifying as “working class,” no longer existed. Their spiritual home, Detroit, once known as the “Arsenal of Democracy,” and to a lesser extent Flint, Gary, Cleveland, Toledo, Buffalo and other “Rustbelt” cities, had become an “abandoned pile of twisted refuse” by the mid-1980s. Like the heavy, “basic industry” that had sustained it and their cities, the US working class, as it had existed, had all but disappeared during the extended “1970s.” It was, in the words of blue-collar “celebrity” commentator of the period Dewey Burton, “gone … and not gonna happen again (Cowie: 360-61; 369).”

     A number of historians have published studies of the decade of disco and punk, Jonestown and Lordstown, a “born again” president and another whose career was reborn – if only for a time.  Commonly, such as Bruce J. Schulman’s The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society and Politics (2001), they focused on culture and “popular recollections (Stein: ix).” Schulman “attempts a rich evocative portrait” of the period, analyzing not only presidential politics and national policy, but also its “broader social and cultural experiences” to explain how the country turned conservative (Schulman 2001: xi; Stein: ix). In 2010, however, at least two historians, Jefferson Cowie and Judith Stein, published books taking different tacks to explain how America’s blue-collar workers who, as a class sentenced conservative Barry Goldwater to one of the greatest landslide electoral defeats ever, then helped elect Republicans in five of the next six presidential elections, two by landslides comparable to Lyndon Johnson’s over Goldwater in 1964. Cowie’s work, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, “part political intrigue, part labor history, with large doses of American music, film and TV lore,” explores the transition of “blue collar” workers from the embedded liberalism and optimistic New Deal thinking still prevalent during the 1960s to “the widening economic inequalities and deflated expectations” existing for most Americans from the 1980s to the present (Cowie: dust jacket). While Cowie concentrates on the working class and how its responses to cultural, economic and political events shaped/was shaped by movies, music and television, Judith Stein’s Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance takes a different approach. Stein studies in-depth the US economic and political policies, while mostly ignoring popular culture, of the first decade since the 1930s where trade deficits, low productivity, high oil prices, unemployment and inflation left most Americans “poorer than they began.” It was the economy, and the politics and policies that shaped it, according to Stein, that led a country with an overwhelming Democratic majority to elect Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972, and Ronald Reagan in 1980. The inability of Democrats to solve the country’s economic crises of the 1970s, especially during the last two years of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, allowed Ronald Reagan to begin enacting the neoliberal economic blueprint existing today (Stein: xi-xii).

     Like the 1960s, the period preceding it, there is no clear consensus, besides chronologically, as to when the ‘70s began. Schulman believes that if one date “delineates the beginning of the Seventies,” it was the “revolutionary” year of 1968 (Schulman: 1). The year of the Tet offensive, “Prague Spring,” Paris student revolts and assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy also witnessed the election of Richard M. Nixon. According to Schulman, however, it was a “small, historically insignificant event” that fall that “signaled the end of the optimistic, liberal 1960s.” The marriage of Jacqueline Kennedy, widow of the “martyred” president, to the substantially older Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis “shocked the nation (Schulman: 4).” The “tawdry end of Camelot,” though politically or economically insignificant, was indicative to many working-class Americans of a cultural betrayal, proof that the country’s intellectual elite – northeastern, educated and increasingly Democrat – was out of touch with their values. But whereas Schulman places cultural issues, like civil rights, the counterculture, and opposition to the Vietnam War at the center of working-class angst, Cowie and, especially Stein focus on economic concerns. 

Jacqueline and Aristotle Onassis on their wedding day, October 1968 (courtesy Getty Images)

     Following World War II, the US economy grew steadily. Industrial production caused the GDP to grow 37 percent by 1960, wages and disposable income rose, and the suburban “baby boom” reflected affluence “as much (as) an ideology as a description of US society.” Prosperity shifted social analyses and political policies; believing that poverty would soon be a plague of the past, like polio, government in the 1960s, especially under Johnson shifted to creating a “Great Society” to ensure its demise, as well as that of its attendant evils – racism, ignorance, poor health. But by the 1960s, the economy began to slow. Competition from abroad and declining industrial production led to a slowdown in the growth of real wages, and a fluctuating and underestimated unemployment rate; at any time, up to 20 percent of workers may have been unemployed. If the number of Americans actually living “in poverty” had declined, the number of Americans barely above it had not (Stein: 12-16). To many working-class, white Americans, especially those in Appalachia, the deep South and the forgotten industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest, expensive programs to guarantee civil rights, provide education, finance healthcare and, eventually, “protect Vietnam from the Vietnamese,” just did not seem like tax money well spent.   

     The primary beneficiary of working-class worry initially in 1968 was George Wallace, populist, former Alabama governor. Running as a third-party (the American Party) candidate for president that year, Wallace “traded (his) racist message for a … championing of ordinary people against an indifferent government and condescending intellectual class.” Although he finished third, Wallace’s campaign demonstrated deep cracks in the Democratic coalition between the professional and the working class, suburb and city, the North and South. Believing that the economy was fine and that conflict between labor and capital was controlled, many new Democrat leaders were indifferent to signs of economic distress, such as widening trade deficits and US investment abroad; instead, these Democrats, who had “toppled” Lyndon Johnson over Vietnam and “embraced” Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy, while not renouncing the New Deal, believed the “key issues were now minority and gender rights, quality of life, and … the war.” Although traditional constituent “Labor” was able to ensure Hubert Humphrey’s nomination as the party’s standard-bearer, and “worked overtime” for him, they were unable to prevent Republican Richard Nixon’s election. While Nixon’s election did nothing to immediately threaten the country’s New Deal ethos, it demonstrated that not only was the South no longer “reliably Democratic,” but also that Republicans could win elections on the “issues of law and order, patriotism, and family (Stein: 22).”

Richard Nixon, Philadelphia PA, September 1968 (courtesy Dirck Halstead – Getty Images)

     The perception that the US intellectual elite had grown out of touch with, even hostile to, “working stiff” Americans was not totally unwarranted. Popular culture during Nixon’s first term in office often openly mocked the white working class; the professional middle-class creators and purveyors of it blamed them for Nixon, whom they considered repugnant. To the intellectual, it was blue-collar America’s reluctance to embrace the fast-changing attitudes and mores of the 1960s, especially their lack of mobilization in favor of black civil rights and against the war that led to Humphrey’s nomination, which they believed to be illegitimate, and Nixon’s election. Television, which debuted All In the Family in 1971, and movies such as Easy Rider and Joe, began to reflect the contempt that “hip” white-collar professionals had for the white, blue-collar masses (Cowie: 189-97).

     The working-class caricatures of Archie Bunker, Joe Curran, and southern rednecks portrayed by Hollywood during Nixon’s first term did not reflect the anger and frustration of “the equally prevalent workers” who would go on to rock the nation in the “biggest strike wave in postwar history” during the ‘70s. As labor leader Gus Tyler explained, “Fury (came) easily to the white worker (in the 1970s). He is ready for battle.  But he does not quite know against whom to declare war (Cowie: 3).” Indeed, the start of the 1970s looked promising for labor.  With nearly 30 percent of the American workforce still organized, unrest among miners, steelworkers and autoworkers, often aimed at their own moribund union leaders and bureaucracies, over corruption or negligence, as at their employers, rocked the early years of the decade. Miners, steelworkers and autoworkers all struck or otherwise demonstrated dissatisfaction and frustration. Similarly, women and African Americans clamored for union and workplace reform (Cowie: 23-74).However, labor discovered that its traditional political ally, the Democratic Party, could not be relied upon in 1972.  

United Auto Workers, Lordstown Ohio, 1974 (courtesy Walter Reuther Library, Wayne State University)

     Labor’s traditional political enemy, at least since passage of the Wagner Act in 1935, had been the Republican Party. But the disastrous 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention, with its floor fights, riots in the streets, and nomination of Hubert Humphrey, led to a party shakeup. “New” Democrats, believing that they had been marginalized by party bosses and by powerful constituencies like labor, formed the New Democratic Coalition (NDC). Overwhelmingly suburban and middle class, many from western, “Republican” states, “more liberal than social democratic,” the NDC took over the party and recast it according to their values. Thus, “the New Deal, once a badge of honor, was now a hurdle to be transcended.” The NDC ignored the white working class and their unions (as well as their economic concerns), considering them too conservative, and focused on women, blacks and youth.  These “New” Democrats planned to take their coalition of northern and western suburban voters, the poor and minorities to the White House on a “New Politics” platform of “posteconomic issues – foreign policy, race, gender, political process and environmental issues (Stein: 51-57).”

     If the “New Politics” Democratic candidate in 1972, George McGovern, chose to ignore the white working class, becoming the first Democrat not endorsed by the AFL-CIO since its establishment nearly 20 years earlier, Richard Nixon was only too happy to seek their support. During the Republican Party convention that year, party faithful were stunned to discover that the party now praised “the nation’s labor unions for advancing the well-being … of our entire free-enterprise system.” Unbeknownst to GOP membership, Nixon, in his “passionate desire to seduce the blue-collar vote,” had dispatched John Erlichman to ensure that the platform ended the Republican “war with labor (Cowie: 158-60).”

George McGovern, campaign poster, 1972 (courtesy Getty Images)

     Although the economy had been showing signs of distress since the mid-1960s, with most working families hovering between a poverty income of less than $7,000 per year and an intermediate annual income of $10,664 (a “middle-class” budget was estimated to be over $15,000/year) in 1970, Republicans really had nothing to offer working families economically. However, Nixon pursued white working class voters, now portrayed as a “47-year-old Dayton, Ohio housewife,” with a socially conservative platform emphasizing moral and patriotic values, and declaring that peace in Vietnam was “at hand (Stein: 13-14; 22-27; Schulman: 36-37).” Attacking McGovern as effete and incompetent, an “elite liberal” supporting the “three As” – abortion, acid (a term substituting for all illegal drugs), and amnesty for draft evaders, Nixon courted northern blue-collar voters by running as “a moderate, not a conservative.” While registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans nationally by nearly two to one in 1972, Nixon won a landslide election by 18 million votes, gaining over 60 percent of the popular vote and every state except Massachusetts. Although few unions officially endorsed Nixon, 54 percent of union members, including 57 percent of manual workers, voted for him (Cowie: 159-161; Stein: 67-73). 

     Nixon’s success allowed him to dream of an independent conservative party uniting white Southerners, blue-collar Northern workers, and traditional conservatives against the Democratic, and liberal Republican northeastern elite he hated (Schulman: 38-39). But despite his resounding victory over McGovern, where both sides all but abandoned party affiliations, there was no national repudiation of the Democrats “liberal” economic policies (Stein: 71-73). In order to initiate his “conservative revolution,” Nixon shifted his focus south (Schulman: 39-42). 

President Richard Nixon, on stage in the White House with country music stars Merle Haggard (with hat, center) and the Osborne Brother (right) – (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

     Nixon realized that country music, besides being an antidote to the rock n’ roll he detested, provided a connection for him to “plain ol’ folks,” especially in the South. George Wallace had been capitalizing on country music’s popularity, reportedly having a country act at every political event since 1958 (Cowie: 170). Nixon thus began inviting country musicians to perform at the White House during his first administration; Nixon clearly identified with southern anger against what was viewed as the elite northern establishment looking down on them, as exemplified by Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” written in response to liberal Canadian transplant Neil Young’s scathing attacks on southern racism, “Southern Man” and “Alabama (Schulman: 102).” The migration of Americans into the “Sunbelt,” and the “demi-rednecks” embrace of “southern culture, subtly anti-black, anti-ethnic, anti-urban, and less subtly anti-union and anti-government, led to what Schulman called “the reddening (as in “neck”),” or conservative shift, of the working class (Schulman: 102-17). Hollywood’s “voyeuristic fascination with working-class culture was demonstrated in Five Easy Pieces. Although Bobby Dupea, a classical pianist from an affluent family has a fling with blue-collar life, he leaves it in disgust, finding a life of cold isolation preferable (Cowie: 188-89).

Diner scene, with Lorna Thayer, Jack Nicholson and Karen Black (l to r), in Five Easy Pieces

     Although Nixon followed through in the removal of US troops from Vietnam in early 1973, economic issues, especially following the quadrupling of oil prices by 1974, doomed his second term from success even before fallout from Watergate and the attempts at cover-up forced his resignation. Rising oil prices impacted every sector of the mixed economy, plunging the Dow Jones stock index nearly 50 percent between 1972 and 1974. Economic turbulence renewed class conflicts by setting off “distributional struggles between capital and labor,” “intensified conflicts among … industrial powers” and “created new ones between the developed and undeveloped worlds.” The troubling situation of South Vietnam following US withdrawal and increasing economic competition from Japan and western Europe led to feelings of vulnerability, anxiety and frustration among many, especially working-class Americans as the country moved into mid-decade (Stein: 74-75). These feelings were explored by director Sydney Lumet in Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Al Pacino, John Cazale – Dog Day Afternoon (courtesy Roger Ebert)

     Based on an actual, 1972 botched Brooklyn bank robbery attempt, critics viewed Dog Day Afternoon as an allegory on class relations in the United States during the mid-70s. Protagonist Sonny’s existential crisis is difficult to separate from his “working-class identity crisis.” The economic pressures upon him – he repeats “I’m dying here” – build and finally destroy his dream of escape (Cowie: 200-05).

      The weak economy and Nixon’s resignation after Watergate allowed the Democrats to win victories in the House and Senate during the 1974 mid-term elections. By 1976, sensing that the White House was theirs, a crowded field of candidates, from the party’s left, right and center, vied for the nomination. Out of that crowded field, James Earl “Jimmy” Carter, a mostly unknown former Georgia centrist governor, with a record as “a competent but unremarkable” administrator, emerged to challenge Republican President Gerald Ford. A former congressman and gridiron hero, once derided by Lyndon Johnson as having played “too much football without a helmet,” Ford had replaced Nixon’s first Vice President Spiro Agnew following revelations of income tax fraud, and ascended to the presidency following Nixon’s resignation, thus being the only US president having never been elected either into that office or the vice presidency. As if circumstances were not stacked enough against him, Ford’s pardon of Nixon and a tremendous debate gaffe regarding Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, made him particularly vulnerable. Nevertheless, Democratic nominee Carter, believing that McGovern had “hit upon the right campaign theme” in 1972, challenged Ford with a campaign that mostly “ignored the economy in favor of moral and good government issues” and, although popular with both southern whites and blacks, nearly blew a 15 percent poll advantage and eked out a victory with barely 51 percent of the popular vote (Stein: 130-51).

President Jimmy Carter (courtesy Getty Images)

     Despite the closeness of Carter’s victory, the Democrats now held huge majorities in both the House and the Senate. Combined with Democrat-controlled legislatures in most states, many believed the continued future of the Republican Party to be uncertain. And although Carter’s liberalism was more social and racial than economic, the Democratic platform returned to traditional economic issues.  Recapturing the union vote in 1976 (63 percent of union members voted for Carter, as opposed to just 46 percent for McGovern in 1972), it appeared likely that the Democrats would be able to achieve New Deal goals, including legislation providing for full-employment. But many of the Democrats elected to Congress that year were “New Democrats,” “not,” according to senator Gary Hart, “a bunch of little Hubert Humphreys;” obviously, these “New Democrats” did not think of themselves “as New Dealers – or proponents of the (Lyndon Johnson’s) Great Society either (Stein 149-53).”   

     Despite seemingly great promise, Carter’s presidency did little for working-class’ economic interests. Essentially an economically conservative southern Democrat, convinced by pollster Pat Caddell that the US had many more “‘haves’ than ‘have-nots,’” Carter showed more interest in tax reform than in repairing the ailing economy. The overwhelmingly Democratic Congress passed tax legislation that betrayed the New Deal by discarding “historic principles of interclass equity and methods of promoting business investment by simply sending money to the rich.” Reductions in tax revenue were compensated by increasing middle-class taxes, leading to a “tax revolt that made governing … difficult (Stein: 176-77; 180).” Reforms such as Ted Kennedy’s UAW-supported national healthcare bill, and Ralph Nader’s national consumer agency bill never saw the light of day. The Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Bill, a weakened version of an earlier bill to ensure full national employment, was unenthusiastically supported by Carter, passed by Congress and signed into law in October 1978. However, rather than calling for full employment, Humphrey-Hawkins required federal policies to achieve four percent unemployment, and four percent inflation by 1983, goals which Bayard Rustin correctly predicted would lead economic policy makers “to regard the employment goals rather casually (Stein: 190-92).” Carter’s lack of enthusiasm for improving economic conditions for workers extended to labor’s aspirations for his presidency. 

 

cartoon by Dana Summers (courtesy Orlando Sentinel)

     Carter’s relationship with organized labor was minimal – “correct, but distant;” he considered the AFL-CIO a “special interest group.” With union membership down to about 25 percent by 1977, the AFL-CIO hoped to improve numbers by passage of the Common Situs Picketing Bill, to legalize joint strikes of different craft unions on common construction sites, and by proposed legislation amending the Wagner Act in order to restrict corporate anti-union efforts, allow new unions to be certified without elections, and require new business owners to honor union contracts signed by the old proprietors.  With the JP Stevens’ organizing struggle in public consciousness due to the success of the film Norma Rae, labor was optimistic. But despite the support of Vice President Walter Mondale and others in his administration, Carter was “cautious.”  Realizing the importance of white southern support for his reelection, Carter expressed support for a watered-down version of the labor bill’s principles in July 1977, but not the bill itself. Despite Carter’s recalcitrance, the House passed the bill decisively. However, Carter’s insistence that the Senate tackle his proposed Panama Canal treaty first allowed anti-labor forces to mobilize against reform. During this time, Carter did nothing to “twist arms” or otherwise persuade senators “on the fence.” Finally, armed with a report from the National Association of Manufacturers “proving” that the proposed legislation will be highly inflationary and … inconsistent with the President’s announced objective of reducing (its) current alarming high rate … ,” Senate Republicans, led by Utah’s Orrin Hatch and North Carolina’s Jesse Helms, filibustered the bill (Stein: 183-90).

     American attitudes toward unions shifted during the 1970s. Although Norma Rae (1977), “a distinct oddity in seventies popular culture,” was unabashedly pro-labor, other films, such as F.I.S.T. and Blue Collar, portrayed unions as illegitimate, unneeded and ultimately harmful to their members (Cowie: 348-50; 329-30; 334-37). Bruce Springsteen captured working-class disillusionment and resentment toward “the union” in his song “The River (1980),” where the protagonist gets “a union card and a wedding coat” for his 19th birthday in order to marry and provide for his pregnant girlfriend. Rather than a way out, the “union card” had become entrapment, symbolic of the working class’ inability to get out (Cowie: 342).

lyrics from Bruce Springsteen’s “The River” (courtesy Pinterest)

     The application of Keynesian solutions to the economic problems he inherited allowed President Carter to believe that the economy was improving, and he focused attention on foreign policy issues, such as the Panama Canal treaty and the Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel in 1978. But a widening trade deficit, balance-of-payment deficits, a declining dollar and critically low productivity were problems that Carter’s Keynesian advisors lacked answers for. Conservatives filled the “intellectual void” with neoliberal solutions, mostly of transferring capital from government to wealthy individuals, who would presumably invest in industrial production. Carter’s inability to deal effectively with the conservative challenge over economic issues, his “national malaise speech,” his unpopular boycott of the Moscow Olympics over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and his at first ineffective, and later disastrous, response to the Iranian revolution, and resultant oil embargo, opened the door to the populist appeal of former actor, conservative spokesman and California governor Ronald Reagan (Stein: 205-07; 216-17; 237-40).

     With Carter as vulnerable in 1980 as Ford was four years earlier, a number of Republicans sought the nomination to challenge him. Coming close to unseating the incumbent from the nomination in 1976, Reagan was the front-runner. Although his conservative credentials were questionable from his tenure as California governor, where he raised taxes and signed “the most liberal abortion law in the country,” Reagan’s “classical definition of freedom,” that its greatest threat came from the state, combined with a “winning personality, self-deprecating humor, and (an) engaging campaign style” won the nomination. Placing his economic policies “front and center,” where “balanced budgets took a backseat to … across-the-board tax cuts for individuals and corporations,” Reagan, challenged Carter for the presidency (Stein: 237-40).       

cartoon by Dana Summers (courtesy Orlando Sentinel)

     For the Democrats, Carter was challenged by Ted Kennedy. Starting on “the right,” but being badly defeated by Carter in the Iowa caucuses, Kennedy shifted to the left, calling Carter a “pale copy” of Reagan and seeking labor’s support. Most unions, however, remained neutral, and Kennedy won just nine of the 33 primaries. Despite his shrinking approval ratings and Kennedy’s continuing challenge, Carter had the nomination sewn up by the convention. But Carter’s acceptance speech declared that deregulation, during his administration, of airlines, trucking and finance, “put free enterprise back” in those industries and was the “greatest change in government since the New Deal.” Celebrating his “hard decisions” of high interest rates and a meager federal budget, Carter lost not only the rhetoric war and the Democrat’s New Deal constituency, but also his chance of effectively competing against Reagan’s promise of “liberating and productive tax cuts (Stein: 240-44).”

     Reagan’s victory in 1980 was “substantial,” carrying 44 states. Although voting was close in the South, Reagan’s totals were “solid” in “blue-collar” strongholds like the industrial Northeast and Midwest, winning more votes from women, ethnics, Jews, Latinos, Catholics and blue-collar workers than any Republican before. At the same time, Republicans gained 12 seats and control of the Senate, and 33 seats in the House (Stein: 259-61). Attempting to paint Reagan as another Goldwater, Democrats failed “to place any real ideas in competition,” and surrendered ideological ground to the Republicans, “conceding that high wages, full employment, and deficit spending caused inflation.” Asking Americans whether they were better off than they were four years before, and stressing values-based issues like busing, abortion, school prayer and gun control, Reagan convinced a sufficient number of working-class citizens, who perceived themselves as “victims of the federal welfare state,” to join his election-winning “odd coalition” with businessmen, bankers and industrialists (Cowie: 227-28; Stein: 259-61).  

Official portrait of President Ronald Reagan (courtesy Wikipedia)

     The election of 1980 can be seen as significant as that of 1932. For Ronald Reagan in 1980, there was nothing wrong with America that freeing it from “the shackles of the state” could not fix; he promised to “unleash the genius of the American individual” from restrictive taxes and regulations. (Cowie: 308-10). Just twelve years earlier, President-elect Nixon, who like Reagan preached that Democrats had turned their backs on social conservatives, dared not dream of making such an economic pronouncement out loud. But by 1980, the Democrats, having “sacrificed their highest political ground for the indefinite future” by abandoning their blue-collar, working-class constituency, prioritizing controlling inflation over full employment and labor rights, were “effectively disarmed” and unable to fight back. Clearly, the politics of the old economic class divisions were over.

     After 12 years of a Republican White House, the Democratic Leadership Council, established in the mid-1980s after Reagan’s reelection, led the party rightward and helped elect Democrat, Bill Clinton president. Although still socially “liberal,” the Democratic Party adopted a conservative economic stance, forcing the party to fight on Republican “turf” ever since. For Bruce Schulman, Reagan’s presidency and the shift of political discourse to the right was the inevitable consequence of the regional power shift, North to South, literal as well as metaphorical, that Nixon capitalized on; this new landscape idolized markets, distrusted government and celebrated the adventurous lone investor who struck it rich. For Jefferson Cowie, of course, the working class of the 1960s and early 1970s, secure in their collective strength, like their unionized mills and factories no longer existed.  In their place are those on a “’survivalist’ social axis,” a new working class, their hope and confidence for a better tomorrow – home, security, health, education – replaced by the “New Right’s” version of what it means to be an American – populist nationalism, a fundamentalist morality and a vague concept of “freedom.”  Despite the pessimism of the present, however, Cowie holds some optimism; he believes the working class of the future will necessarily be less rigid and less limiting than the old, and more democratic, more inclusive and less wedded to the bargaining table. 

     Like Cowie, Judith Stein also expresses optimism. Whereas Cowie and Schulman view the neoliberal transformation of the working class, although for different reasons as something more or less inevitable, or at least beyond anyone’s control, Stein views proletarian declension as the failure of the Democratic Party to protect its constituency. Created by the New Deal, the US working class depended on the Democrats for their wellbeing as much as the party was dependant on their votes. For nearly twenty years, blue-collar faith was rewarded with jobs and a relative degree of affluence. But when the economy began to falter during the 1960s, the Democratic Party was slow to react. Feeling deserted by their patron, workers cast about for a new champion, many pledging to Wallace’s populism, but many more to Nixon’s message to this “Silent Majority.” But even though Nixon was president for six years, and Republican Jerry Ford for almost two, little changed; America’s working class remained Democrats, and the New Deal remained mostly intact. According to Stein, it took another Democratic administration, Jimmy Carter’s, to cut the ties between the party and its people. Carter’s inability, or perhaps unwillingness to stay true to New Deal principles – fair taxation, low unemployment and support for labor – undid his presidency, which began with so much promise, more than the oil crisis or stagflation ever did. But believing that nations “sometimes … get second chances,” Stein hopes that studying the 1970s will prevent the United States from making the same mistakes again.     

Sources Used

Cowie, Jefferson. 2010. Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working 

       Class. New York: The New Press.

Schulman, Bruce J. 2001. The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society

       and Politics. New York: The Free Press.

Stein, Judith. 2010. Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for 

       Finance in the Seventies. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

 

The Bloody Lie of Okinawa

     As someone who’s spent most of his adult life trying to learn, and teach accurate, truthful history, I was taken aback by the Smithsonian Magazine’s article “The Bloody Hell of Okinawa.”1 Not because the title is inaccurate; by all accounts Okinawa was a horrible, bloody HELL where over 200,000 were slaughtered.2

     No, what got me was the subtitle – “More than 75 years ago, the final great battle of WWII convinced Allied leaders to drop the atomic bomb on Japan.” This is the lie that continues to justify the barbarous, unnecessary use of not one, but two atomic explosive devices on urban, civilian populations in early August 1945. The article presents President Harry Truman’s decision to detonate those bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing another nearly 200,000 (almost entirely) civilians as a hard but ultimately unavoidable decision.3 Of course, since the bombing of cities and civilians was one of the atrocities that our country was supposed to be fighting against, admitting to such takes quite a bit of the good out of the US account of “The Good War.”

     To be clear, NO atomic bomb was required to end the US war with Japan. Although President Truman claimed that the bombs were used in lieu of an invasion of Japan proper, with horrific casualties, he knew that was not the truth: No invasion would be necessary. Not only had Japan already suffered over one million civilian casualties – including over 100,000 Tokyo residents on a single night in March 1945 – from US aerial incendiary bombings of cities, its government had been signaling its desire to surrender since earlier that summer. US Secretary of War Henry Stimson reported to Truman’s cabinet “the Japanese had broadcast their offer of surrender through every country of the world.” Japan’s single condition was that Emperor Hirohito would be able to remain on his royal throne (a condition that the Allies would eventually concede anyway).  

     Furthermore, although the Soviet Union had maintained neutrality with Japan while they beat back the Nazi invasion and defeated Germany, Josef Stalin had already promised to go to war against Japan on August 15, 1945 (three months after Nazi Germany surrendered). Truman’s own diary reports “Fini Japs when that comes about.” The Soviets launched powerful attacks on Japanese forces in Manchuria and elsewhere as pledged.

     Finally, shortly after Japan’s September 2, 1945 surrender, the US Strategic Bombing Command had concluded “prior to December 31, and probably prior to November 1, 1945 Japan would have surrendered – without the bomb, without the Soviets entering the war, and without the invasion.”4

     It is not totally clear why President Truman employed the bombs. Nonetheless, with Japan’s surrender imminent before the year ended, its plain that Truman wanted the war over quicker. Aware that Russia was planning to attack Japanese forces on August 15, Truman did not want to risk the Soviets acquiring more territory, perhaps even making a case for joint occupation of the archipelago. Stalin already occupied eastern Europe, including nearly half of Germany. Although Truman almost certainly did not understand all of former President Franklin Roosevelt’s agreements with Stalin (Truman and FDR had spent very little time together since the November election of 1944 and Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, and he was not part of the US delegation to that February’s Yalta Conference), he believed that the Soviets and the US were now rivals in a crippled but evolving bipolar world. The “Cold War” had indeed already begun even before the hot one ended.

     Some historians also believe that the inexperienced Truman, who had been Vice President a mere three months before Roosevelt’s death, felt pressured and unable to stand up to atomic program director General Leslie Groves, Secretary of State James Byrnes, and other proponents of using the weapons.5 Evidence suggests that Truman felt it necessary to prove that could be a decisive leader capable of hard decisions.

     Finally, whatever Truman’s reasons for deploying the atomic bombs, it is a falsehood to state that other Allied leaders supported his decision. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill stated that Japan’s “defeat was certain before the first bomb fell (Hiroshima).”6 Although the Smithsonian article mentions Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral William Leahy’s opposition to the bombing, he was not the only top-ranking military officer to differ with Truman over its use. Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, commander of the US 3rd Fleet in the Pacific, stated that “the first atomic bomb was an unnecessary experiment,” noting that the Japanese had “put out a lot of peace feelers … long before” the bomb was used. Commander of Allied Forces in Europe General (and later President) Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower also opposed using the atomic bombs. In a July 1945 meeting with Secretary Stimson following Germany’s surrender, Ike told him that he “was against it on two counts. First, the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing. Second, I hated to see our country be the first to use such a weapon.”6 Even Army Air Corps General Curtis LeMay, in charge of the year’s mass incendiary bombings of Japanese cities did not think the bombs necessary. He had argued since April 1945 that the war would be over before the year ended, without any invasion, and stated that those bombs “had nothing to do with the end of the war.”7

     Regardless of these facts, the myth of why the atomic bombs were used continues. With the cultural battle regarding the teaching of accurate, fact-based history raging around our country, Smithsonian Magazine should be ashamed of continuing to perpetuate that myth regarding the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. This deception justifies the deaths of thousands of Japanese civilians as an inescapable conclusion.The most distressing part of this lie is that it makes it more likely that someone will do it again.





1   Kindy, David. “The Bloody Hell of Okinawa. Smithsonian Magazine. June 22, 2020.

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/bloody-hell-okinawa-180975148/

2   Sources agree that US losses were approximately 12,500 combined Army, Navy

     and Marine deaths. About 110,000 Japanese military. The rest were Okinawan

     civilians.  

3 Thomas, Evan. “Why We Did It.” Newsweek. July 23, 1995. Although Truman 

    claimed that the bombs were used against “purely military targets,” combined 

    Japanese military deaths totaled about 250 in the two bombings. Another 250 or  

    so victims were Allied prisoners of war. 

https://www.newsweek.com/why-we-did-it-184634

4   Estrin, Marc. “Hiroshima Notre Amour.” July 30, 2005.

https://www.marcestrin.com/Occasionalia/Entries/2005/7/30_HIROSHIMA- _NOTRE_AMOUR.html

5   Thomas.

6    Estrin.

7   Maley III, Leo and Uday Ohan. “Hiroshima: Military Voices of Dissent.” Origins:   

    Current Events in Historic Perspective. July, 2001.

https://origins.osu.edu/history-news/hiroshima-military-voices- dissent?language_content_entity=en

Christmas Guns

We should be living in a world where no one feels the need to own a gun.

     I’m not saying “ban all guns.” Living in Vermont, I know that hunting is still a big thing for many people. Often it’s a family tradition. Although I could never do it, I don’t have problems with safe (for people) and responsible (for the animals) hunting.

     Sport shooting doesn’t bother me either. My father was a cop, and I remember going to the shooting range with him and having a turn with his pistol. I’ve also gone skeet shooting with a former brother-in-law, and did surprisingly well … at least better than I expected. Although I do not own a gun, I would go sport-shooting again if a friend with a gun – and I have several – asked me.

     In both cases, however, I support strict regulations on both guns and ammo, strongly enforced.

     My problem is with the gun owners who “Like” Christmas card gun family photos like the ones recently tweeted by elected members of the House of Representatives from Kentucky and Colorado. These people seem to believe that they have a god-given, or 2nd Amendment* right to wave around any kind of people-killing firearm that they can buy. Maybe they’ve seen too many John Wayne movies, and think that they’re going to protect their hearth and kin from hordes of intruders. Well, it’s the end of 2021, and we, as human beings, should be moving beyond that “Wild West” mentality. For every apocryphal anecdote regarding a foiled house invasion by an armed homeowner, actual evidential studies show that the risk of firearm ownership greatly outweighs any advantages.

Yeah, I know – self-defense. But what are they really defending?

     The answer, quite obviously, is their property. And whom are they defending it from? Again quite obviously, people who do not have what they have and cannot afford to acquire it legally. Crime exists when some people have much, and too many have too little.

     One of my Facebook friends joked recently, although not really a joke, that all our problems stem from capitalism. Well, an economic system that works only to benefit a minority of people, certainly a small minority, and increases economic (and other) inequality, cannot logically be considered successful. Capitalism, which I refer to as “the predatory phase of human development,” has served its historical purpose for the production of an adequate supply of necessary goods. But now, clearly, it’s time for it to go.

     My Christmas wish is that we begin living in a world where no one, certainly not in the wealthiest country that has ever existed, feels the need to own a gun. We have the material abundance to make that possible. All we need is the will.

* read the goddamn amendment, it begins with “A well-regulated militia, … ”  

What a Load of Hooey: That Misleading Democratic Socialist Facebook Meme

Part 2 – Democratic Socialist, or Social Democrat?

In my first piece regarding this meme, I wrote about the differences between socialism and capitalism, why a capitalist cannot be a socialist, and, for those who don’t know much about socialism, I explained one big reason why they did not. Mostly, I wrote about why the meme is misleading, why it’s dangerous, and why it infuriates me. That piece was difficult for me to write, not because I didn’t know what I wanted to say, but because there was too much for me to say in one piece. Therefore, I focused on one aspect of the meme, and tentatively planned to write a sequel on another. Well, I did.

A “democratic socialist” is an objective term that can be scientifically – that is, in finite terms – defined. As I wrote in my last piece, “democratic” is a political term, meaning “rule by (majority of) the people.” “Socialist” is an economic term, meaning public (aka “the people”) ownership of the “means of production (MoP),” property that creates wealth.

In contrast, “social democrat” is a more subjective, esoteric label. It implies someone who believes both in democracy, and in government taking an active role in helping people. There is no economic system intrinsically tied to a “social democracy.”  

The meme describes a “democratic socialist” as one who wants to restrain the “self-destructive excesses of capitalism” in order to “channel” those resources into helping everyone. That’s not a bad thing, but it more accurately describes what is today called a “social democrat.” A social democrat is generally considered to be a capitalist who supports regulated, or controlled, capitalism, and endorses socialist ideas like universal, publicly funded healthcare, paid family leave, subsidized childcare, affordable higher education, etc. Social democracy is seen as a kind of capitalist compromise with socialism – a kinder, gentler form of capitalism if you will.

Franklin D Roosevelt’s “New Deal” was an attempt at a social democracy here in the United States (US). The New Deal made rules for corporations, and initiated reforms like direct aid to people who needed it, a minimum wage, unemployment insurance, protection for labor unions, Social Security and more. Taxes were raised on millionaires and corporations to help pay for all this. Of course, conservatives cried “socialism,” but the MoP remained privately owned, and nobody lost their fortunes. But too many wealthy Americans really didn’t make peace with even the mildest expressions of social compassion and public responsibility if it cost them their fair share. Those plutocrats used their power of wealth to oppose and undermine key aspects of the New Deal and US democracy.1

Although the explosive economic growth beginning with World War II ended the New Deal, the United States can be considered a social democracy into the Carter/Reagan years. Since then, however, neoliberal administrations favored privatization of essential services, thereby reducing the “safety net” to a sieve, and allowed corporate lobbyists to write their own laws regarding business regulations. The US economy today is closer to a hands-off, laissez-faire style of unrestricted capitalism. A good analogy to laissez-faire capitalism is a “state of nature,” where the wealthy prey upon the weaker poor, and only the strong thrive.

Although the US in no longer a social democracy, much of Europe, especially Scandinavia, and other states like Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, still are. Following World War II, these countries transformed themselves into laboratories of social democracy. Sometimes termed “welfare states,” these countries, featuring a combination of higher working-class consciousness, stronger unions, and therefore weaker, higher-taxed (that is, less wealthy) private business interests, created extensive social welfare programs that include comprehensive universal healthcare, affordable higher-education systems, paid maternity leaves and subsidized childcare, and mandatory paid vacations for all workers.

Although often termed “socialist (especially the Scandinavian countries),” individuals and private corporations in those states still retained their resources, their factories, their farms, and their banks. Thus, capitalists kept control of the MoP, and increasing globalization and corporate multinationalization since the 1980s worked to increase their wealth and power. Although these other countries have generally been better able to maintain their social democratic institutions, corporations and neoliberal politicians are using that power, preaching the benefits of lower taxes and the need for “austerity,” to privatize vital public services around the globe.2 Even countries like Sweden are experiencing reduced social programs and rising inequality.

To conclude, the “social democracies” of Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Canada are unquestionably superior in caring for and protecting ordinary people than the increasingly unfettered US capitalist system is. But increased wealth in private hands is even threatening the social “safety nets” of those countries. Here, although the US never had a “welfare state” comparable to those countries, it would not be inaccurate to say that democratic socialists spearheaded the New Deal, and social democrats were complicit in giving it up. Capitalists in those social democracies understand that, and are playing a long game for the same result.

History shows that while social democracies can temporarily lessen problems of economic inequality, private interests of great wealth will continuously threaten their survival. We need to realize that wealth always equals power, more wealth means more power, and great wealth is antithetical to democracy. We’ve got to remember that our country tried social democracy, but wealthy capitalists limited and then dismantled it. Unless the great power of wealth is redistributed to the people, the things we need – including universal healthcare, affordable higher education, environmental protection, as well as greater equality and increased democracy – will never really be achieved. Capitalism, in whatever its form, has proven to be a threat to what is best for workers and their families. It is time to recognize that nothing short of socialism, certainly no compromise such as “social democracy,” can undo the power of great wealth and allow us to create the world that’s best for all people.

Notes

1 For an excellent account of how business leaders and other capitalists resisted and undermined US social democracy, see Kim Phillips-Fein’s Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal.

2 For example, although the center-left Labor Party has the most delegates in the Norwegian parliament, they are forming a minority government with more conservative parties to support the fossil fuel industry, despite protests from climate scientists and environmental activists.

https://jacobinmag.com/2021/10/norway-fossil-fuels-labor-party-election-climate-change

What a Load of Hooey: That Misleading Democratic Socialist Facebook Meme

Part 1 – Socialism and Capitalism

Real writers say they write whether they feel like writing or not. I’m not a real writer. I mostly write only when something inspires me. Or really bothers me. This meme really bothers me.

Yeah, it’s only a meme, but it’s ridiculous and patently false. But maybe what bothers me most is that people I mostly agree with politically post it. If we’re going to move forward, we need to start on the same page.

First off, a socialist cannot be a capitalist; socialism and capitalism are diametrically opposed economic systems. Socialism is the public  – ie, the people’s – ownership of the means of production (MoP – that which produces wealth); capitalism is private ownership, the MoP is the owners’ private property.

In a capitalist system, the owners of the MoP determine compensation for their workers; however, in a socialist system, since the workers themselves own the MoP, they collectively determine their own wages based on their needs, values and other considerations. One needn’t be clairvoyant to predict that workers will do better when they democratically determine their own pay, rather than when the capitalist owners do.

Second, the meme implies that real socialism, ie Marxian socialism, cannot be democratic. Nothing can be farther from the truth. Socialism is inherently more democratic than capitalism. 

Democracy is a political system, it means the people rule. The majority of the people have the power to govern. The opposite of democracy is when political power is held by a smaller group of people, usually socioeconomic elites; examples include an autocracy, an oligarchy, or a plutocracy. Since those are all governments by numerical minorities, they must have some intrinsic advantage to wield power over the majority. That advantage is the advantage of wealth. As I made sure my history students learned, wealth always equals power. Capitalism, then is innately anti-democratic.

Capitalism works to increase economic inequality, and we know that democracy can’t really work unless people – all people – are socially, politically and at least roughly economically equal. Socialism’s goal is to reduce economic inequality, thus increasing social and political equality.

Third, the meme is disingenuous. and detrimental to achieving the changes that we need. It is clear, by objective measure, that capitalism has failed. An economic system that fails to benefit the majority of the world’s population, or even that of its wealthiest country, cannot be considered a success. Plainly, an alternative is necessary. In Marxian terms, it is time to relegate capitalism to the dustbin of history.1

Karl Marx was a social scientist, and I believe it helps to view Marxian socialism in evolutionary terms. To Marx, despite its evils of exploitation, corruption, and inequality, capitalism was economic progress, and a necessary stage (some call it the predatory phase) in human economic development. It allowed private enterprises to produce enough of the material goods that people needed. But, because of its natural evils, Marx believed that capitalism, once enough people realized that it had served its purpose and was NOT the epitome of human economic evolution, would eventually give way to socialism.

However, socialism has not supplanted capitalism as the world’s economic system. This is NO accident. Although capitalism has clearly fulfilled its role, and humankind now has the ability to produce enough of what everyone needs and more, the capitalist establishment has waged a long and expensive campaign to prevent people from reaching the logical conclusion that its time has passed.

Corporate America has railed against “socialism” since its conception.2 As a consequence, USians turned against socialism even though most don’t know what it actually is. That was not the case 100+ years ago.

By the beginning of the 20th century many, if not most workers around the world and in the US had very positive connotations of socialism, as well as of “communism.”3 Between 1900 and 1920, socialists were elected across the US to municipal and state offices. Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party candidate for President, received over 900,000 votes in 1912. During World War I, the party grew even more for its strong democratic nature as well as its strict anti-war stance.

Following World War I and the Soviet Revolution, government repression – arrests, imprisonments, and deportations – curtailed the socialist movement. But economic inequality as the 1920s progressed, followed by the Great Depression of the ‘30s led to a surge of socialist activity here that lasted into World War II.

Interestingly, fascist and other 20th century authoritarians like Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler, Mao and beyond, both before and after World War II used the term “socialist” to describe themselves and their policies in order to attract popular support. But none of them ever came close to allowing public ownership of the means of production.4

After the war, during Cold War global polarization when the US and the Soviet Union dueled for economic domination, socialism became “Enemy Number One.” Despite the Soviet economy’s being far from socialist, western capitalism used the full weight of its power – including militarily – to stifle socialist efforts around the world. Domestically the media and education system were used to indoctrinate USians with a positive view of capitalism, and suppress any objective, critical thoughts and doubts about it. That so many of us were taught that socialism has already “failed” is proof of their efforts.

The state of the world today is proving that major economic change is needed. Socialism would certainly be a major change. Polls indicate that more and more young people are developing positive views of socialist ideas and consider it a sound economic alternative; they believe that a socialist economy would benefit more people around the world than the present capitalist economy ever will. However, the desire for a more equitable and egalitarian society is opposed by those at the top of the economic chain – capitalists all. They are not inclined to voluntarily give up their wealth, their position, and their power. They are doing all they can to smother the majority’s desire for a better world.5

I know the people who post this meme have good intentions – I get it. They want positive change, and don’t want people to be afraid of it by associating that change with “socialism.” They are attempting to assuage Americans’ fear of socialism by claiming that “democratic socialism” is not real (aka bad) socialism. But by doing that they are perpetuating the fallacy that socialism is something bad, something to be feared. Whether intentional or not, that “Democratic Socialist” Facebook meme is helping prevent the change we need.

Thank you for reading this piece to the end. A sequel, subtitled “Part 2 – Democratic Socialist, or Social Democrat?” is currently in the works.

Notes

1 The phrase was popularized by Leon Trotsky, who told the Mensheviks departing from the 1917 Congress of Soviets, ”Go to the place where you belong from now on – the dustbin of history! … .”

2 I had thought the word “communist,” at least for non-Marxists was a 20th century term. I was surprised, way back during the first round of grad school to find the book Strikers, Communists, Tramps and Detectives (published 1878), by Allan Pinkerton. The author was the founder of the infamous Pinkerton Detective Agency, employed by US corporations to bust unions and other socialist “conspiracies” in the 19th century.

3Think about it – To be social is generally considered to be a good thing. Who is opposed to living in a social community? Yes Virginia, socialism and communism do share the same etymological roots with those other words. Now, anyone can say anything about themself without it being true; for instance I can say that I’m a great athlete or orator, but those who know me would laugh. So why haven’t the media guardians of our “democracy” called those dictators on their lies? Instead, the corporate-political, capitalist establishment, in a campaign that has now lasted over 100 years, has convinced us that socialism is something foreign and bad without ever really teaching us what it is.

4 To be sure, no national state in modern times has ever established a socialist economic system. The closest any ever came to it was when the Soviet Union (USSR), for a brief time following the November revolution of 1917, attempted to establish an actual socialist system with public ownership of the means of production. However, since Russia had not adequately progressed into its capitalist phase – Marxian theory predicted that the first successful socialist economies would be established in countries with highly developed capitalist (he predicted Britain or the US to develop the first successful socialist economy) – and was devastated by both World War I and civil war, which both included invasions from capitalist powers, the Soviets had to resort to a small-scale capitalist system called the New Economic Policy. Following Lenin’s death in 1924 and Stalin’s subsequent takeover of the state, the USSR entered a long period sometimes referred to as “state capitalism” in which the government, not the public, took over the means of production and the distribution of revenue.

5 In keeping with neoliberal privatization philosophy, much anti-socialism indoctrination efforts today, such as those aimed at The 1619 Project, Critical Race Theory, and educational equity, are being promoted through private/corporate-financed groups like the Heritage Foundation, Parents Defending Education, and Turning Point USA among others. Major donors for those right-wing organizations include foundations begun by the Koch Brothers, the Walton Family, and Ed Uihlein.