Monday, March 13, 2017

People's History of the United States - Book Review

At a time when the United States is in the news for a lot of reasons I undertook reading this widely known book. This book bursts a lot of myths about the United States. Being the most developed nation in the world, it is believed that everything was and is rosy there. This book highlights how the foundation of the U.S was laid on top of the corpses of native Indians, laborers, African-Americans and the minorities.

The book accuses (with a lot of evidence) that the -

Founding Fathers deliberately set up a strong central government to protect the interests of the bondholders, the slave owners, the land speculators, the manufacturers. For the next two hundred years, the American government continued to serve the interests of the wealthy and powerful, offering millions of acres of free land to the railroads, setting high tariffs to protect manufacturers, giving tax breaks to oil corporations, and using its armed forces to suppress strikes and rebellions.

And this is in strike contrast with the grand claim inscribed on the Statue of Liberty –
Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

#Tidbit – The book is mentioned in the movie “Good Will Hunting” in the bar scene where Matt Damon talks about it. Maybe in reciprocation, the book recalls a protest where Ben Affleck and Matt Damon appear. There is a documentary with the name The People Speak (IMDB) based on the book which was broadcasted on History Channel starring the Good Will Hunting duo.

The book ends with the author calling upon the masses and the cogs in the System to wake up and rise against the oppression, selfish purposes of the Establishment.
Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth, like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you -
Ye are many, they are few!

I managed to note some of the key points while reading it. I strongly recommend you to read the book but if you're hard pressed for time here is a gist :-

In 1740s – 1830s

The author points out an uncomfortable fact – that Men who engineered American revolution were largely members of ruling class. They were people who were already well-to-do, landowners and the idea of ushering in the revolution was to drive away the British in such a way that their status quo maintained. [Thomas Jefferson -  American founding father - was a slaveholder, rich and had regressive views about women]

The govt. thus established represented the dominant economic interests of the wealthy elite, small property owners, for middle income mechanics and farmers. It enabled the elite to keep control.

Normal ordinary people were swept into the rhetoric of “We The People” and under the fanfare of patriotism and unity. Interestingly it didn’t include women and African-Americans.

The condition of women at that times was deplorable. Women who were Afro-Americans were at a double disadvantage – firstly being a woman and then being a slave. They went through unspeakable miseries and it was only after a long struggle with lot of resistance (including from the “wise” men) – women finally managed to get equal share in the society. Lot of women thinkers, leaders during the time just after Independence worked hard to bring in an awakening among their sisters about their rights and prepped up their self-esteem.

In 1830s – 1880s

A forgotten fact is that Native Indians used to inhabit most of the present United States of America. Even after driving out the British – a streak of Imperialism remained in the people and this is what led them to take over the lands of Native Americans. They used to inhabit those lands where their fathers and their forefathers had lived and died. But they were driven out by conniving outsiders using methods like bribing, war and atrocities. Treaties were made under pressure and deception broke up tribal land into individual holdings making each person prey to contractors.

Even though slave importation was declared illegal in 1808, the South continued to illegally import slaves and the slave population grew. Slaveholding was in practice and racism was prevalent in the North as well as the South.
However, the socio-economic system was such that the North was more prosperous and elite – with the first wave of capitalism deepening its roots there. The South meanwhile was rich with economic resources.

Leading to the US Presidential election in 1860 (Abraham Lincoln became POTUS), there were lot of policy clashes between the North and the South. The Northerners wanted economic expansion, free land, free labor, a free market, a high protective tariff for manufacture, a bank of the US. The slave interests in the South opposed all of that and it finally culminated in 11 southern states seceding from the Union.

The popular perception is that Lincoln abolished slavery and the Civil War was fought to abolish slavery from the United States. But the book suggests that Lincoln wasn’t very keen on abolishing slavery.
In a letter to his commander General Halleck, Lincoln wrote[verbatim from the book] :
Dear Sir:... I have not meant to leave anyone in doubt.... My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy Slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about Slavery and the colored race, I do because it helps to save this Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.... I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty, and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men, everywhere, could be free. Yours. A. Lincoln.

The main purpose of the Civil War was to hold the nation together. And it so happened that abolishing slavery fell in the path to hold it. This is how - Emancipation Proclamation declared in Sept, 1862 was a military move which gave the South 4 months to stop rebelling, and threatening to emancipate their slaves if they continued to fight.
Lots of slaves fled from the South and joined the Union Army and fought with the North against the Confederates. It is ironic – that in the war assumed to be fought for abolishing slavery: Initially, the blacks and whites were not on equal pay until the Congress passed a law in 1864 granting that.

When the war was over, the property confiscated in the slave states were returned back to the heirs of the owners inexplicably because the slave owners were not due any compensation. The govt. did not give a fair chance to the freed people to start afresh by awarding them land and property. Instead they remained dependent on the privileged southern whites for jobs and living even after the War was over.

The 13th Amendment (1865) provides for abolition of slavery from the United States, however the situation on the ground didn’t change a lot. Ku Klux Klan and other such organizations sprang up.

1870s – 1930s

As a way of drowning class resentment in a flood of slogans for national unity – there was patriotism. Modus Operandi

America supported Cuba in its liberation attempts against the Spanish – thinking it to be an act of generosity by helping the rebels. They could see parallels of 1776 in Cuba. Also, at the back of the mind was the idea of opening of a new market for their products.

Under Teller Amendment -> U.S pledged not to annex Cuba.
However, U.S didn’t annex Cuba but after sending its forces to help the Cuban rebels against the Spanish (without even being formally asked for help) – the Cuban Constitutional Convention was told that the U.S forces won’t leave Cuba until the Platt Amendment was incorporated into the Cuban Constitution.
Platt Amendment gave U.S the right to intervene for preservation of Cuban Independence whenever it felt it was in danger.

At this time, factories employed lots of skilled and unskilled labor, immigrants and locals who worked at pitiful wages with no perks and benefits. The workers’ attempts to unionize were dealt with a strong hang – strikebreakers, force, blacklisting the leaders and all the weapons System could put together (newspapers, the courts, the police, the army, mob violence).
Women and colored workers were at a double disadvantage as some sort of radical and sexist under-currents were still present in the trade unions. (around 1908)

There were strikes, new unions forming from time to time. These new unions resolved to improve workers’ conditions and negotiate better workplace conditions.

Amidst rising furor for reforms, Theodore Roosevelt (Progressives) realized it was necessary to stem the tide of rising Socialism (Socialist Party had record membership) and that could be done by blunting the main arguments of Socialists (by doing some reforms).

U.S under Woodrow Wilson first proclaimed out of the First World War. But it supplied materials to the Allies during the War which revived its economy. After the sinking of Lusitania – the U.S joined WW1.
Lots of Socialists were against the War as they could see through the proclamation of War by the Congress as a ploy to bridge the class resentment and divide.
Some Socialists did side with the govt. after the proclamation. However, those who opposed were hounded under the Espionage Act.

Draft was made compulsory. The public gave a lukewarm response and the book claims that a lot of effort was put in to excite a reluctant public towards the War.


In the Vietnam War, US put in a lot of resources – soldiers and money to win in those improbable conditions. As the War stretched it stretched the patience of the public with the public opinion plummeting. There were some desertions and considering the anti-war sentiment – compulsory draft was abolished.

In the judicial system lot of convictions were racially and economically biased.
For example –
For fraud worth $190,000 sentence was for 7 months.
For fraud worth $1000, sentence was for 18 months.

It is easy to imagine people belonging to which economic class were committing what kind of crimes.

Dostavski once said – “Degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons”.

At this time questions about conditions of women started gaining prominence [pay, wages, abortion etc]. Women who worked only in their homes – worked very hard but this wasn’t looked on as work because in a capitalist society if work is not paid for, not given a value it is considered valueless. So women doing housework were people outside the modern economic system – like serfs or peasants.

At the time when Pres. Nixon was in office it was alleged that he was behind the Nixon Gate. He eventually resigned amidst all evidence pointing at him.
Howard Zinn says that the system agreed to sacrifice Nixon to appease and pacify the outrage but kept the values and connections in place which had allowed Watergate scandal to happen in the first place. Part of the problem is the corporate influence on the White House which is a permanent fact of the American system.

Also, mass media tends to co-operate with the govt. (it did in the 70s and does it even today) by not reporting certain incidents on matters of national security.

The Establishment, which the book describes as a caucus of “Law firms, Media, Bureaucracy, Important Businesses, Banks, Foundations/Think Tanks, Executive Branch, Parliament/Senate”, is eager to keep the masses attention away from the main problems.


The inequality in the U.S rose sharply with the top 1% holding disproportionate wealth. This leaded to a bitter battle for resources made scarce by elite control as the remaining 99% fought for the leftovers.

The Establishment wants to deflect the masses’ attention from the plunder done by people in power on the pretext of national unity. It is shown that the threat is abroad and not within (Soviet Union, after Soviet Union disintegration – in Iraq and Gulf regions). The only unity Establishment cares about is the top 1%. The remaining 99% fight bitterly over the scarce resources and are splintered into various factions. Moreover, the society is so stratified by wealth and education that suppresses to class anger and envy.

The middle class is taxed to pay for the relief of the poor. It helps in building a layer of resentment (middle class) on top of humiliation (lower class).

As a result, middle class resents paying for the poor. They start believing the poor are lazy and they are poor in the first place because of their own doing.

The Establishment wants the masses to forget the enormous capacity in them to bring change (hence many such entertainment galas).
And it is an irony that -
People’s movements have so far been defeated. “Socialist” revolutions have betrayed Socialism. Nationalist revolutions have led to dictatorships.

In times like these when Establishment has such tight control over the masses - the hope rests on the Guards of the System – soldiers and police, teachers and ministers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, transport and communication workers, garbage men and firemen. The prisoners of the System (the normal working masses) will continue to rebel as before, but now there is a chance they will be joined by guards.

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