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International Socialist Review Issue 39, January–February 2005


When "Unimportant" People Speak Out

Voices of a People’s History of the United States
Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove, eds.
Seven Stories Press, 2004
666 pages $19

Review by ALAN MAASS

GEORGE WASHINGTON was the father of our country. Thomas Jefferson declared independence. Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, and Franklin Roosevelt gave us Social Security.

The history of the United States as it’s taught to schoolchildren is filled with such claims. And it doesn’t get much better as we get older, either. Whether in the classroom or in the media, U.S. history is typically dominated by the lives of a small number of Great Men (and a very few women), and maybe some of their Great Ideas.

That leaves out a lot. Who, for example, served in Washington’s army? How many other people thought Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence was a good thing? Answering these questions isn’t only a matter of giving credit where credit is due, but more importantly, understanding what really happened. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation would have been meaningless without the actions of masses of other people–from Black slaves who resisted bondage from the beginning, to the abolitionists who tirelessly built a movement against slavery even when it seemed like an unreachable goal, to the soldiers of the Union Army who fought and died to defeat the Confederacy.

Since it was first published more than twenty years ago, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States has opened countless people’s eyes to the other side of American history. Now, with Anthony Arnove, who is on the editorial board of this magazine, Zinn has produced a new book called Voices of a People’s History of the United States. It collects excerpts from speeches, articles, essays, pamphlets, songs, poems, novels, and more–all reflecting the experiences, beliefs, and struggles of those on the other side of history.

Voices works as a companion volume to A People’s History, but it also stands on its own. Together or separately, both books turn history upside down–viewing the history of America, as Zinn and Arnove put it in their introduction to Voices, from the point of view of Native Americans, of slaves, of trade unionists, of the pioneers of the women’s movement, of the victims of Washington’s imperialist wars.

One result is that Voices presents a very different picture of events than the one we learn about from early on. The first chapter, for example, focuses on Christopher Columbus’s "discovery" of the "New World"–and exposes the horrific crimes of conquest by quoting Bartolomé de Las Casas, a contemporary of Columbus who tried to persuade the Spanish monarchy to stop the cruelties committed against the natives of the Americas:

On one occasion when we went to claim ten leagues of a big settlement, along with the food and maintenance, we were welcomed with a bounteous quantity of fish and bread and cooked victuals. The Indians generously gave us all they could. Then suddenly, without cause and without warning, and in my presence, the devil inhabited the Christians and spurred them to attack the Indians, men, women and children, who were sitting there before us. In the massacre that followed, the Spaniards put to the sword more than three thousand souls. I saw such terrible cruelties done there as I had never seen before nor thought to see.…

Afterward, when all the Indians of this island were subjected to servitude and the same ruin had befallen there as on the island Hispaniola, the survivors began to flee to the mountains or in despair to hang themselves, and there were husbands and wives who hanged themselves together with their children, because the cruelties perpetrated by one very great Spaniard (whom I knew) were so horrifying. More than two hundred Indians hanged themselves. And thus perished a countless number of people on the island of Cuba.

Readers of the ISR may be familiar with some of this (not least from reading A People’s History). But there are selections in Voices that give a fuller picture of certain eras than many specialist books. For example, the chapter on the Civil War collects accounts of class conflict within the Confederacy. "Acts of resistance took place not only among soldiers, but also among women forced to deal with the growing costs of the war," Zinn and Arnove write in introducing the selections. These excerpts together show something about the slave South that is barely acknowledged in mainstream histories–that the interests of the super-wealthy Southern elite and the poor whites who made up the Confederate Army were in conflict, something that wasn’t always overcome by appeals to white supremacy, still less "Southern traditions."

One theme that comes across in this section of Voices as in many others is the question of class. As Zinn writes in his introduction to Voices:

The dominant culture in the United States–in education, among politicians, in the media–pretends that we live in a classless society, with one common interest.… [The] use of government for class purposes, to serve the needs of the wealthy and powerful, has continued throughout American history, down to the present day.

The excerpts in Voices likewise reflect this continuity, from accounts of pre—Revolutionary War uprisings of indentured servants and poor farmers against the men of property, to speeches by workers fighting to defend union power against Corporate America’s offensive of the last three decades.

Voices collects some of the most important statements from the African American struggle for equality in the U.S., and it highlights the little-known history of the women’s movement. Another great strength is the book’s depiction of the causes and consequences of imperialist war. Samuel Clemens’ disgust at the U.S. government’s barbaric behavior in conquering the Philippines a century ago, and Kurt Vonnegut’s questioning of U.S. motives in the Second World War fifty years later, fit together with the statements of Tim Predmore, a U.S. soldier who spoke out against George Bush Jr.’s new Gulf war slaughter.

At every point, Zinn and Arnove search out the spirit of resistance–including the times in U.S. history where there seemed to be little. The accounts of struggle in this book cover the well-known demonstrations, when masses of people came together to make their voices heard. But just as often, the protests are local events–the kind of struggles that take place constantly in U.S. society, even if few people hear about them or learn the names of the participants. One inspiring selection in Voices is the story told by a Communist Party member, Rose Chernin (via a memoir by her daughter, Kim Chernin), about the spread of rent strikes in New York City during the Great Depression of the 1930s:

Life changes when you are together in this way, when you are united. You lose the fear of being alone. You cannot solve these problems when you are alone. They become overwhelming. When you are standing, one to one, with an employer, he has all the power and you have none. But together, we felt our strength, and we could laugh. Someone who knew how to sing would start singing. Others would know how to dance. There we were, unemployed people, but we were dancing.…

Sometimes we failed and the furniture was carried into the street. Immediately we would cover it with a tarpaulin so it wouldn’t get spoiled, and then we’d hold a mass meeting on the furniture, using it as a platform. We were only waiting for the police to leave. As soon as they were gone, the people standing around would pick up the furniture and carry it right back into the building. We’d break the lock, put back the furniture, install a new lock, and the landlord would have to go through the whole procedure another time. Within two years we had rent control in the Bronx.

For Zinn and Arnove, such struggles make all the difference in what has happened in society. As Zinn writes in the introduction:

History, looked at under the surface, in the streets and on the farms, in GI barracks and trailer camps, in factories and offices, tells a different story. Whenever injustices have been remedied, wars halted, women and blacks and Native Americans given their due it has been because "unimportant" people spoke up, organized, protested, and brought democracy alive.

Or, as the abolitionist Reverend Theodore Parker put in a speech, excerpted in Voices, at a meeting in Boston after a former slave was kidnapped by slavecatchers to be returned to his owner under the federal government’s Fugitive Slave Act:

Well, gentlemen, I say there is one law–slave law; it is everywhere. There is another law, which also is a finality; and that law, it is in your hands and your arms, and you can put that in execution just when you see fit. Gentlemen, I am a clergyman and a man of peace; I love peace. But there is a means, and there is an end; liberty is the end, and sometimes peace is not the means towards it.

Maximum Sentencing, Maximum Misery

Jennifer Gonnerman
LIFE ON THE OUTSIDE: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett
Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2004
368 pages $24


LIFE ON the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett is an honest and, at times, infuriating account of how the criminal justice system destroys lives. At the age of twenty-six, Bartlett was convicted of selling four ounces of cocaine for a drug informant who set her up.

Under the Rockefeller mandatory minimum drug laws, she was sentenced to twenty years in prison. The judge who sentenced her was nicknamed "Maximum John."

Bartlett was granted clemency after serving sixteen years. The bulk of the book details what happened after her release. Without a job or any assistance to help her rebuild her life, Bartlett moves back to a run-down, crime-infested public housing complex.

While she was incarcerated, her mother and two brothers died, and her four children struggled to survive living with various family members. As a convicted drug felon, she can be denied public housing, student loans, a driver’s license, parental rights, welfare benefits, many types of jobs and, in some states, the right to vote.

The parole system itself is an invisible prison. She can’t leave the city without a pass, there’s a curfew (usually 9 p.m.), she can’t associate with other felons, and she must submit to random drug tests. Any violation can result in immediate arrest.

The strength of this book is that it makes clear that the real criminals are the "get-tough-on-crime" politicians, prosecutors, and judges who sacrifice the lives of women like Elaine Bartlett for political gain.

The other power of the book is Bartlett herself. Smart and tough, sixteen years in prison haven’t humbled her or made her bitter. They turned her into an activist in the long-term fight to repeal the Rockefeller drug laws.

This struggle made significant gains in December when the New York legislature voted to reduce the state’s mandatory minimums, although penalties are still quite harsh, and incarceration is still mandatory.

Bartlett told New York Newsday, "[T]his is the beginning of breaking a cycle that will spare my community and other families my pain."

Her book is a first-rate exposé of the criminal justice system that will leave the reader incredulous and more educated–and maybe angry enough to fight for more sweeping changes.

Method in the Imperial Madness

Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair (eds.)
IMPERIAL CRUSADES: Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia
Verso, 2004
378 pages $15


THE IDEA that U.S. foreign policy has been hijacked by a small band of neoconservative fanatics who have single-handedly pushed it in an aggressively expansionist and recklessly unilateral direction, became almost an article of faith among the "Anybody but Bush" liberal Left during last year’s election campaign.

From this perspective, Washington’s invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and, in particular, Iraq, represent not an expression of the needs and interests of the U.S. capitalist class, but some kind of mad, right-wing aberration that could only be stopped by changing the occupant of the White House. Thus the most urgent task was not to build the strongest possible antiwar movement, independent of both the main political parties, but to remove Bush from office and to replace him with a supposedly more moderate representative of the ruling class.

Like many myths, this story contains a grain of truth. Since the attacks of September 11, there has been a more aggressive shift in U.S. policy. But this shift was not due to the machinations of an isolated group of neocons, but was supported by most leading figures in the Democratic Party, including, of course, John Kerry. As problems with the continued occupation of Iraq mount, some Democrats and Republicans have begun to make tactical criticisms of the way in which the Bush administration has handled things, but there continues to be almost total support for the broader goal of using American military power in the Middle East and elsewhere to extend U.S. hegemony and advance Washington’s geostrategic interests. If Kerry had won the election, the differences with Bush’s foreign policy would likely have been minor.

The aggressive policy shift has been a result of changed circumstances much more than of changed ideology in the Pentagon or the State Department. The Bush administration saw September 11 as an opportunity to use military intervention to pursue U.S. interests (or, more accurately, the interests of its corporate and political elites) in a way that had not been possible before, but a Democratic administration would almost certainly have responded in a very similar way. Those who doubt this claim should consult Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair’s new collection Imperial Crusades, which documents the underlying continuity in U.S. foreign policy from Clinton to Bush and demonstrates how Clinton’s brutal war on Yugoslavia in 1999 prepared the ground for the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq.

Despite the pious claims about defending human rights and preventing genocide, Washington’s bombing campaign against the Milosevic regime in Serbia was fundamentally about demonstrating U.S. power and strengthening NATO as an instrument of U.S. policy in Europe.

Just as in the case of Iraq, negotiations before the war began were a fraudulent exercise in creating a pretext to attack. As Cockburn and St. Clair report:

A senior State Department official boasted–at the time in deep background briefings of U.S. reporters–that the U.S. "had deliberately set the bar higher than the Serbs could accept" and that "they need some bombing and that’s what they’re going to get."

Just as in the case of Iraq, the war on Yugoslavia was a blatant violation of international law, in which "Clinton more or less left the UN’s secretary-general, Kofi Annan, to find out from CNN about NATO’s decision to bomb." And just as in the case of Iraq, Clinton’s war violated the Geneva Conventions by attacking civilian targets, including hospitals, schools, and public housing, resulting in many thousands of casualties.

Imperial Crusades, which the editors call "A Diary of Three Wars," consists of scores of short essays originally posted on the CounterPunch Web site ( and republished here in chronological order (apart from the entry for July 29, 2002, which accidentally finds itself placed in 1999).

Much of the material is from Cockburn and St. Clair themselves, but there are also many contributions from other regular CounterPunchers, including former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, historian Gary Leupp, journalist JoAnn Wypijewski, and the late, great Edward Said. The authors expose the real motives behind Washington’s aggression, remind us that the war on Iraq went on for eight genocidal years under Clinton, and show how Republicans and Democrats have colluded to expand the U.S. empire in a post—Cold War world.

There is much sharp wit and insight in Cockburn and St. Clair’s collection and it is a fine advertisement for how valuable a resource CounterPunch has become for the Left over the past several years. Because of the nature of the collection, there is unavoidably a degree of repetition in some of the contributions.

And because these were essays written literally in the heat of battle, they sometimes assume a level of background knowledge and of contemporary figures and events that not every reader will share. My biggest disappointment was that the editors had not added an introduction to the whole volume providing some of that background and drawing out more explicitly some of the common themes.

But these are minor issues. Imperial Crusades is an antidote to many of the myths about U.S. foreign policy and a powerful indictment of the new imperialism. Every antiwar activist should read it.

Ninth Circle of Hell

Michael Ratner and Ellen Ray
GUANTÁNAMO: What the World Should Know
Chelsea Green Publishing, 2004
159 pages, $15


SINCE SEPTEMBER 11, the Bush administration has operated under the assumption that civil liberties are expendable.

Nowhere is this as apparent as at the U.S. prison camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where hundreds of prisoners rounded up during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continue to languish–some, three years after their initial arrest.

Guantánamo: What the World Should Know, a recent book by civil rights expert Michael Ratner and journalist Ellen Ray, is a useful primer for those interested in not only the situation of the prisoners at Guantánamo, but the legal implications of the Bush administration’s continuing attack on civil liberties.

Done in an interview format, Ratner, the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, one of the main organizations that has handled legal challenges on behalf of the Guantánamo prisoners, explains in detail the horrific conditions at the camp that have led to dozens of suicide attempts. Ratner says:

Guantánamo is like Dante’s ninth circle of hell. The temperature is often 110 degrees Fahrenheit, and of course the prisoners have no such thing as air conditioning. The place is infested by scorpions and banana rats. The detainees sleep on concrete floors, with no mattresses; the toilet is a hole in the ground. It is a horrific situation from a physical, psychological, and legal point of view.

Ratner provides a rundown of the legal issues involved in high-profile cases, such as those of U.S. citizens Yaser Hamdi and Jose Padilla, and chillingly details how the sickening mental and physical abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq can be traced to Guantánamo.

One of the documents included in the book’s useful appendix, for example, is a memo from White House legal counsel Alberto Gonzales to the president, making the case for why the "war on terror" renders the Geneva Conventions "obsolete." In particular, Gonzales expresses concern that the Geneva Conventions could be used to prosecute U.S. soldiers for war crimes or "outrages against personal dignity" committed against prisoners.

As Ratner points out, this memo helped give legal justification to the kind of horrific abuses that have occurred at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, at Guantánamo Bay, and elsewhere around the globe since September 11.

Gonzales’s name is now once again in the news–as Bush’s new pick to replace John Ashcroft as attorney general.

Readers looking for up-to-date information on Guantánamo will have to do some supplemental research, as the book went to press prior to important legal developments–including a Supreme Court decision granting detainees the right to address their cases in U.S. courts, and a recent federal court ruling that declared the military tribunal process to be illegal under both the Constitution and the Geneva Conventions.

However, this slim volume paints a stunning portrait of the arrogance of the Bush administration as it continues to roll over our rights–and is a valuable resource for those interested in learning more about the scope and impact of the Bush administration’s attacks.

As Ratner concludes, "We are at the beginning of what will be a long struggle to repair the damage that the government has inflicted on us all."

The Terrorist Training Camp at Fort Benning

Lesley Gill
THE SCHOOL OF THE AMERICAS: Military Training and Political Violence in the Americas
Duke University Press, 2004

281 pages $20


AS COVERAGE of the ongoing "war on terror" continues to be periodically interrupted by images of brutalized Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib, or unarmed and wounded Iraqis being shot dead in cold blood by marines, a new book by Lesley Gill helps to put these various images into perspective.

The School of the Americas paints an ugly picture of U.S. military meddling in international affairs dating from the end of the Second World War to the present. Gill focuses on the U.S. Army’s military training center at Fort Benning, Georgia, known as the School of the Americas (SOA), but does an excellent job of connecting the role and rationale of this institution to broader U.S. imperial aims.

The SOA was first established in Panama in 1946 as a mechanism for the U.S. to develop closer relations–as well as to mold to its interests–the various military forces throughout Central and South America. This situation involved a quid pro quo: The governments of willing Latin American countries would receive U.S. aid in putting down internal peasant and workers’ rebellions, and the U.S. would secure its post-war economic and military dominance over the region. As expressed in a 1945 War Department memo cited by Gill:

It took the war and the elimination of our chief competitors to put us in the unique position we occupy today. Immediate action must be taken to furnish arms and equipment to our Latin American neighbors. Even now we are confronted with the probability of losing the advantage we have gained at high cost and much effort.

Some of the world’s worst dictators, human rights violators, and terrorists have passed through the SOA. The Salvadoran army major who ordered the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero during that country’s civil war in the 1980s was an SOA graduate. The Panamanian dictator, Manuel Noriega, was an SOA graduate, as was Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, the commander of the Honduran armed forces who organized the Battalion 316 death squad in the 1980s.

In fact, SOA graduates were winning honors as recently as two years ago, when the SOA-trained commander-in-chief of the Venezuelan army backed a coup against the democratically elected Venezuelan president.

But Gill gives us more than an analysis of the school’s bloody history. She reveals the extent to which the SOA has been put on the defensive over the past several years by a growing protest movement.

Especially in the wake of the 1996 public exposure of actual torture manuals included in the school’s curriculum, the SOA has had a rough time. Forced to change its name and course content in 2001, the school continues to be dogged to this day by thousands of protesters who descend on Fort Benning every November–to commemorate the anniversary of the 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests who were killed at the hands of SOA-trained Salvadoran security forces.

Although in some regards limited in its scope, The School of the Americas is not just for those interested in learning about this particular institution. Gill’s work is both a scathing condemnation of U.S. imperialism as well as a ringing call to action.

As Gill warns the reader at the end of the book, simply closing the SOA won’t solve the fundamental problem and that "without ending U.S. imperialism and dismantling the military apparatus that supports it…the government will almost certainly continue to ride roughshod over [human] rights."

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