Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Zinn, Chapter 14

This chapter is about World War I. It doesn't much discuss the supposed military purposes of the war but rather the political purposes and then the way the civilized West reacted to it.

Political purposes a la Zinn: "Back in 1907, Woodrow Wilson had said in a lecture at Columbia University: "Concessions obtained by financiers must be safeguarded by ministers of state, even if the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged in the process. . . . the doors of the nations which are closed must be battered down." In his 1912 campaign he said: "Our domestic markets no longer suffice, we need foreign markets." In a memo to Bryan he described his aim as "an open door to the world," and in 1914 he said he supported "the righteous conquest of foreign markets.""

W.E.B. Du Bois looked at an even grander scale, bringing up how the increased wealth in nations such as the U.S. was built on the spoils of, basically, Africa. The land of Africa had diamonds, minerals, other precious commodities, and the stronger, whiter nations came in and stole them with Imperialism, leaving the natives desolate. "Du Bois saw the ingenuity of capitalism in uniting exploiter and exploited-creating a safety valve for explosive class conflict. "It is no longer simply the merchant prince, or the aristocratic monopoly, or even the employing class, that is exploiting the world: it is the nation, a new democratic nation composed of united capital and labor."

Zinn writes, "The United States fitted that idea of Du Bois. American capitalism needed international rivalry-and periodic war-to create an artificial community of interest between rich and poor, supplanting the genuine community of interest among the poor that showed itself in sporadic movements. How conscious of this were individual entrepreneurs and statesmen? That is hard to know. But their actions, even if half-conscious, instinctive drives to survive, matched such a scheme. And in 1917 this demanded a national consensus for war."

As for how we and the Allies in Europe handled the PR: "Back home, the British were not told of the slaughter. One English writer recalled: "The most bloody defeat in the history of Britain . . . might occur . . . and our Press come out bland and copious and graphic with nothing to show that we had not had quite a good day-a victory really..." The same thing was happening on the German side; as Erich Maria Remarque wrote in his great novel, on days when men by the thousands were being blown apart by machine guns and shells, the official dispatches announced "All Quiet on the Western Front."

This reminds me so much of the obvious PR disaster that was Vietnam and how the media made sure during Desert Storm to put a good face on the war at all times. More recently, I am reminded of how the covers of recent issues of Time magazine have been grossly different in the U.S. and abroad. Everywhere else we see pictures and read stories of the many conflicts around the world, while stateside it's pictures of puppies and discussions of why anxiety is good for you (nevermind sharing real world issues that might increase one's anxiety).

If you disagreed with the war, you certainly shouldn't say anything about it. The Espionage Act had some points that made sense, but some of its provisions (many since repealed... and then exploded in the much more recent Patriot Act and even more recent Obama-signed bills) were just heinous.

"Two months after the [Espionage Act] passed, a Socialist named Charles Schenck was arrested in Philadelphia for printing and distributing fifteen thousand leaflets that denounced the draft law and the war. The leaflet recited the Thirteenth Amendment provision against "involuntary servitude" and said the Conscription Act violated this. Conscription, it said, was "a monstrous deed against humanity in the interests of the financiers of Wall Street." And: "Do not submit to intimidation."

"Schenck was indicted, tried, found guilty, and sentenced to six months in jail for violating the Espionage Act. (it turned out to be one of the shortest sentences given in such cases.) Schenck appealed, arguing that the Act, by prosecuting speech and writing, violated the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.. . ."" Even the liberal Oliver Wendell Holmes agreed that he was guilty.

People who spoke or wrote against the wall were imprisoned. This is because when the war started, the majority of men drafted tried to get out of it. There was not popular support for the war and people wanted none of it. 2000 people were prosecuted under the Espionage Act. There were 65,000 conscientious objectors to World War I in the U.S. Zinn shares many stories, anecdotes, and events about it all.

After the war, the government still feared the pull of socialism. One way to counteract this was to create a new enemy. One way they did this was to start deporting immigrants (which was not in their Constitutional power to do), pretty much for no good reason. Sexism and racism still ran rampant as well, and, of course, a general classism - the rich owners against the poor workers. Zinn concludes this chapter, " There had been reforms. The patriotic fervor of war had been invoked. The courts and jails had been used to reinforce the idea that certain ideas, certain kinds of resistance, could not be tolerated. And still, even from the cells of the condemned, the message was going out: the class war was still on in that supposedly classless society, the United States. Through the twenties and the thirties, it was still on."

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