Archive for agosto 2015

How the Empire Struck Back Starting with Jimmy Carter

by Jeremy Kuzmarov
HNN August 30, 2015


Jimmy Carter’s illness has prompted an array of retrospectives of the man and his presidency both positive and negative. Missing from many of these commentaries is the fact that his presidency was crucial to the revival of American militarism after Vietnam even though Carter wants to be remembered as a peace president and spoke out against ill-considered military interventions later on.

Following the end of the Vietnam War, the Pentagon had embarked on a crash-program to revitalize its fighting forces and to incorporate new technologies fit for the information age to ensure greater military efficiency while transitioning to an all-volunteer force. Proponents of the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), including prominent defense intellectuals like Albert Wohlstetter and Andrew Marshall, believed that new precision guided weapons and a reinvigoration of air power supremacy could help the United States to maintain its global hegemony after Vietnam by decisively defeating its enemies with reduced manpower expenditure and limited “collateral damage.”

The 1970s was a watershed in American political history, as the country could have gone in two directions. Building off the momentum of the 1960s social movements, Democratic candidate George S. McGovern promoted a progressive economic vision and the scaling back of defense spending and overseas military commitments in the wake of the Vietnam debacle. Like his political hero Henry Wallace, McGovern’s platform scared societal elites who coordinated a vigorous counter-offensive, championing the reassertion of American military power as a moral counter-force to communism and a mechanism for overcoming the economic crises of the 1970s, including waning economic competitiveness, energy shortages and stagflation (inflation and unemployment).

Jimmy Carter’s presidency helped to advance the neoconservative agenda by supporting the RMA that lay the groundwork for the revitalization of American military power after Vietnam. A wealthy land and agribusiness owner, Carter was part of the New Democrats, who wanted to push the party to the center after McGovern’s defeat in ‘72. His administration was dominated by members of the Trilateral Commission, an executive advisory committee to trans-national finance which envisioned a tri-polar world order led by the United States, Germany and Japan. It abandoned campaign pledges to cut defense spending by $7 billion, and initiated budgetary increases that in his last year amounted to the largest in history during peacetime. Under the direction of Defense Secretary Harold Brown, Air Force Secretary during the Vietnam War and former president of California Institute of Technology, heavy investment was made in the development of laser-guided bombs, space based satellite systems and fighter planes equipped with complex avionics systems consisting of large radars to detect enemy planes and computerized fire control systems. Funding for missiles increased $485 million or 63.5 percent, leading to the development of the Patriot Air Defense Missile system which gained fame in the Persian Gulf War, along with Tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided (TOW) antitank and “Tomahawk” cruise missiles built by General Dynamics which were accurate within a 100-foot range from 1,500 miles and possessed on-board computer guidance systems that allowed it to duck around hills and make necessary course corrections while eluding enemy radar.

Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPVs) equipped with TV cameras and a laser designator for target-spotting and sophisticated photo-mapping and communications systems were also advanced, along with Navstar, the precursor to Global Positioning System (GPS) in which satellites circling the earth at an altitude of 11,000 miles sent out signals allowing for users to determine their positions and velocity in three dimensions anywhere in the world under all-weather conditions. As part of the race to militarize space, the Pentagon even began developing killer satellites capable of hunting down and destroying enemy satellites along with alien spacecraft presumably, as a New York Times reporter joked!

In promoting these new weapons systems, Carter’s presidency was crucial to the RMA’s policy dominance in ensuing years. Neglected in many academic studies1, this revolution, with its emphasis on precision-guided strikes and “smart weapons,” actually complemented Carter’s human rights agenda in its aim of facilitating public demand for a more “activist foreign policy” by fostering the illusion that wars could in the future be waged more cleanly and with less collateral damage.

Carter to be sure was more dovish than his successor Ronald Reagan, promoting a soft-power approach in advancing U.S. geostrategic and corporate interests in line with the ideals of the Trilateral Commission. Carter’s administration renegotiated the Panama Canal Treaty and SALT II treaty with the Soviets mandating a reduction in nuclear missiles and bombers and secured the Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt. It also cut off aid to Latin America dictators and tried to reign in elements of what Peter Dale Scott has called “the deep state,” cutting the CIA’s budget by a third, prompting former agency operatives to establish their own “shadow CIA,” which worked to support traditional client regimes and promote American corporate interests through private contracts and off-the-books means.

While governor of Georgia, however, Carter had supported Nixon’s bombing of North Vietnam and mining of harbors and as president sought to exonerate the United States from paying reparations to Vietnam, saying we “owe Hanoi no debt because the destruction from the war was mutual,” a bald lie. His human rights policy was uneven with his administration providing $2.3 billion in military aid to ten nations cited by Amnesty International for systematic human rights violations (Guatemala, Indonesia, El Salvador Morocco, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand) along with $6 billion to Saudi Arabia and at least $12 billion to the Shah of Iran. Police aid was sustained through the cover of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) with Carter’s administration championing herbicidal defoliation programs in Colombia and Mexico that destroyed nearly 60,000 acres of non-target vegetation causing pronounced health and environmental damage including contamination of drinking water.

The appointment of neoconservative Zbigniew Brzezinski to replace Cyrus Vance as top national security adviser signaled a decisive shift away from a human rights agenda, which Carter had succeeded mainly in crafting into a “new language of power,” historian James Peck writes, “and potent ideological weapon for extending Washington’s global reach,” largely by focusing on abuses in the Soviet Union or Soviet client states. This transformation pushed many liberals to support military interventions for humanitarian purposes carried out through adoption of surgically precise strikes that could theoretically reduce human rights violations and casualties in war.

Pressured by right-wing lobby groups like the Committee on the Present Danger, Carter during the last year of his presidency pushed for the development of a rapid mobility force warning the Soviets that “any attempt to gain control of the Persian Gulf region” would be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States” and would be “repelled by any means necessary.” Carter had by this time taken an increasingly hardline stance toward the USSR, supporting covert operations and dissidents in Eastern Europe and funding mujahidin freedom fighters in Afghanistan in order to provoke a Soviet invasion. Robert Gates, former CIA director and Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush and Obama, noted that “the Carter administration waged ideological warfare on the Soviets with a determination and intensity that was very different from its predecessor by attacking the legitimacy of the Soviet government in the eyes of its own people.” The Carter presidency was thus crucial overall in reviving the Cold War after détente and rebuilding public consensus for a revived American militarism, laying the groundwork for Reaganism and the indefinite perpetuation of the American warfare state in the years thereafter. Carter’s career in turn casts light on the structural imperatives that lead fundamentally decent men who advance humanitarian causes as private citizens, to support policies and programs while in power that engender violence on a gargantuan scale, with Bill Clinton and Barack Obama having followed in his footsteps.

1Daniel Sargent in a generally comprehensive though overly top-down overview of U.S. foreign policy in the 1970s (A Superpower Transformed. Oxford University Press, 2014) omits discussion of Carter’s promotion of the RMA and its significance. David Schmitz is overly positive in his assessment of Carter’s human rights policy and evades his promotion of militarism in The United States and Right-Wing Dictatorships (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006). Even James Peck in his outstanding and superior study, Ideal Illusions, neglects the importance of the RMA under Carter.

Jeremy Kuzmarov teaches at the University of Tulsa and is author of «Modernizing Repression: Police Training and Nation Building in the American Century»(Massachusetts, 2012) and «The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs» (Massachusetts, 2009). He is currently working on a book on the revolution in military affairs and American techno-war from the Korean War to the Endless War on Terror. 

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The Security State, COINTELPRO, and Black Lives Matter

Excerpt of letter sent to MLK from FBI

Excerpt of letter sent to MLK from FBI.(Photo: NYT/NARA)

The revelations reported over the last several weeks that various federal, state, and local authorities have been regularly monitoring individual organizers and protest activities associated with the Black Lives Matter movement may seem unsurprising in light of the expansive American state security infrastructure developed since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Such covert operations nonetheless remain deeply disturbing. They are embedded in a long history of government officials equating civil rights activism with subversion and of a mindset that understands black leaders and black citizens as dangerous when they demand an end to the racism underpinning the socioeconomic and political order of the United States.

Arguably that mindset dates back to the era of slavery, when whites patrolled for and snuffed out signs of potential unrest among the enslaved, understood black churches and ministers as possible agents of dissent, and tried to embargo word of international events like the Haitian Revolution and British abolition lest enslaved people get any ideas. But nothing in recent memory more clearly demonstrates how concerns about threats originating abroad can bleed into government efforts to contain black domestic activism than the project known as COINTELPRO.

Shorthand for Counter Intelligence Program, COINTELPRO formally began in 1956 as a secret program led by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Its goal was to infiltrate the Communist Party USA, disrupt its activities, and monitor its members for signs that they agitated against the American government or even fed intelligence to the Soviet Union. Within months, however, Hoover had begun widening the purview of COINTELPRO, and by the late 1960s the FBI’s targets included a large number of individuals and groups Hoover and his agents considered “subversive.” These sometimes included white supremacist and hate groups on the far right, such as the Ku Klux Klan, the National States’ Rights Party, and the American Nazi Party. But far more frequently, domestic organizations targeted by COINTELPRO were leftist groups associated with socialism, the student movement, the antiwar movement, and the women’s rights movement.

None of the activities falling under the COINTELPRO umbrella, however, were more notorious or extensive than those directed at the black civil rights movement. The FBI had been monitoring black leaders of the burgeoning movement long before 1956, claiming that they harbored communists in their ranks. But over the course of the ensuing fifteen years, agents of the COINTELPRO program trained their sights on almost every organization and individual working on behalf of black civil rights. Suspicions of communism gradually became little more than a pretext for clamping down on protest, and in 1967 COINTELPRO undertook an operation entirely focused on black activism. Ostensibly created in response to growing black nationalist and black power movements in the United States, the operation not only targeted groups willing to countenance relatively radical ideas and activities such as the Deacons for Defense and Justice, the Black Panther Party, and the Nation of Islam, but also mainstream groups like the Congress of Racial Equality, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the NAACP.

The directive creating the “racial intelligence” operation made no pretenses about its aims, which were to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities” of civil rights organizations and to frustrate the “efforts of the various groups to consolidate their forces or to recruit new or youthful adherents.” Although the directive claimed that the organizations most heavily targeted were “hate-type organizations and groupings” with a “propensity for violence and civil disorder,” few people came under greater scrutiny than Martin Luther King, Jr. Prior to King’s assassination in 1968, the FBI bugged King’s home and every hotel room in which he stayed, sent him audio recordings that supposedly captured his adulterous liaisons along with a blackmail letter urging him to commit suicide, and smeared him publicly as a communist and a “notorious liar.”

These tactics, nasty as they were, barely begin to capture the range of COINTELPRO’s activities, which included rooting through people’s mail and trash, breaking into organizational offices and the homes of individuals to conduct searches, planting false rumors and informants to turn activists and groups against one another, creating false documents and correspondence, attempting to get people fired from their jobs, fabricating evidence and perjured testimony at trials, carrying out acts of vandalism, soliciting beatings and sometimes assassinations, and otherwise engaging in a campaign of nearly unrestrained harassment, psychological warfare, and violence.

COINTELPRO might have continued indefinitely had it not been for a group of citizen activists who broke into an FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania early in 1971, stole a number of incriminating documents, and released them to the press. The ferocity of the ensuing criticism led Hoover to announce several months later that COINTELPRO had ceased to exist. But resignations, lawsuits, and investigations followed for years, and in 1976 a Senate committee chaired by Senator Frank Church investigated the FBI generally and COINTELPRO specifically. Its report blasted the entire American intelligence community for engaging in domestic activities that went well beyond the boundaries of what was either acceptable or legal. Senior intelligence officials, the report concluded, sanctioned operations that routinely violated Americans’ constitutional rights and failed entirely to control field agents, who often neglected to consider the law and sometimes purposefully violated it.

With regard to COINTELPRO in particular, the Church Committee concluded that “many of the techniques used would be intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity, but COINTELPRO went far beyond that.” The FBI, the Committee reported, had been less involved in legitimate counterintelligence than it had been conducting “a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association, on the theory that preventing the growth of dangerous groups and the propagation of dangerous ideas would protect the national security and deter violence.”

The exposure of COINTELPRO substantiated legitimate and accurate accusations about government abuses that had been floated for years. If it also lent credence to some wilder claims about government surveillance and repression that likely amount to conspiracy theories, the FBI has only itself to blame. Moreover, while public knowledge of COINTELPRO helped produce some reforms of American intelligence agencies, a number of the tactics used under COINTELPRO to investigate domestic activists and their organizations continued long after the program formally ended. Today, government officials scrutinizing those in the Black Lives Matter movement who stand on the front lines of the battle against white supremacy might be wise to direct more of their time and resources toward monitoring right-wing racist and antigovernment extremists, who have carried out nineteen lethal attacks resulting in the deaths of nearly fifty people since 2001. That is what a genuine domestic threat looks like.

About the Author

Joshua D. Rothman

Joshua D. Rothman is Professor of History and Director of the Frances S. Summersell Center for the Study of the South at the University of Alabama. He is the author, most recently, of Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson (2012), and is currently working on a book about the slave traders Isaac Franklin, John Armfield, and Rice Ballard.

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Race to Nowhere

For over a century, black elites have pushed improved “race relations” instead of redistribution as the solution to inequality.

Jacobin  Issue 18 Summer 2015

«The Union as It Was. The Lost Cause, Worse than Slavery.» Illustration by Thomas Nast, 1874.

The new issue of Jacobin, commemorating the 150th anniversary of Union victory and emancipation, is out now.

When black progressives today think about the Civil War, they are often more struck by what didn’t happen than what did.

Michelle Alexander’s much-lauded The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness is a case in point. Citing W. E. B. Du Bois’s lament that “former slaves had ‘a brief moment in the sun’ before they were returned to a status akin to slavery,” Alexander intimates that abolitionists failed to see that slavery was just one instance in a series of forms of “racialized social control” that not only have reappeared, but have also “evolved” and “become perfected, arguably more resilient to challenge, and thus capable of enduring for generations to come.”

What this narrative of unremitting bleakness overlooks is that the South chose armed rebellion in order to maintain political control over its system of labor — a system that enslaved blacks while impoverishing white agricultural and industrial laborers. From the standpoint of Southern planters and industrialists, the most terrifying prospect of emancipation was the possibility that laborers, black and white, would eschew elite guidance and wield political power in the form of the ballot and office-holding to further their own interests.

It came as no surprise, then, that when former slaves did begin to make this prospect a reality, Southern elites responded not only with violence and political fraud, but also with an intellectual campaign carried out in newspapers, journals, fiction, poetry, and historical writing to demonstrate the incapacity of blacks for self-government and the corruption that would ensue when the unlettered and inexperienced held the reins of power.

What is more surprising, if lesser known, is the role that many black elites (along with their sympathetic white counterparts) played in ratifying aspects of white reactionary thought toward the end of the nineteenth century. Some twenty-five years after Appomattox the fact that black men and unpropertied whites could vote made possible the rise of the Populist Movement, which directly challenged the economic order of the South by “proposing to substitute popular rule for the rule of capital.”

Black elites, whose political viability depended on their perceived legitimacy as “race leaders,” were disturbed by the reality of poor blacks acting politically without their guidance or sanction. And when the planter and industrial elite struck back against Populism with violence and disfranchisement — a backlash that tended to make all blacks, and not merely workers, its target — black elites sought to meliorate these effects by proposing a transformation — not of the economic basis of society, but rather of the black image in the white mind — to improve “race relations.”

Indeed for nearly 130 years, black elites in the United States have been offering up improved “race relations” rather then interracial workers alliances against capital as the primary solution to American inequality.

From the moment the Civil War ended, the question of what an American society without slavery would look like dominated political discussion. If the inaugural issue of the Nation magazine opined that“Nobody whose opinion is of any consequence, maintains any longer that [blacks’] claim to political equality is not a sound one,” the actual picture was more complicated.

While many black commentators and freedmen expected emancipation to usher black Americans fully and without restriction into the nation’s civic, social, and economic life, relatively few white Americans — even among those who abhorred slavery and championed the freedman’s political rights — felt similarly.

And while many Americans, black and white, celebrated the idea that the freedmen would now be able to join the ranks of wage laborers, few of either race saw this change as a significant step towards enhancing the political and economic power of workers generally against employers and landowners in the immediate aftermath of the war.

Recent commentary on the limits of emancipation has typically made much of the lack of racial egalitarianism within the Republican Party and even among abolitionists, seeing within this the seeds of subsequent political defeats.

On this account what made the Civil War and the Civil Rights victories of the 1960s something like “non-events” (and what could likewise undermine any success at ending mass incarceration) was the failure to, as Michelle Alexander puts it, “address . . . racial divisions and resentments,” which thereby allowed the next “system of racialized social control [to] emerge.”

In bringing slavery to an end the Civil War opened up contestation not only over the place that former slaves would have in American society, but also over the role that wage earners and women would play in a post-slavery political order.


Egalitarian visions, however, were met by concerted forces that did not want the end of slavery to lead to the complete emancipation of wage laborers. That is, any newly won freedoms should not address the way that market coercion severely limited the capacity of working Americans to control their lives and destinies. And while this limitation would ultimately prove equally consequential for the subsequent history of social justice, it has often been hidden by the significant shadow cast by the narrative of American racism and white supremacy.

When John William De Forest, a former Union officer and Freedman’s Bureau administrator, published his 1867 novel Miss Ravenal’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty — which is perhaps the only significant novel about the Civil War written by an actual combatant — he sought, among other things, to champion a view that the “victory of the North is at bottom the triumph of laboring men living by their own industry, over non-laboring men who wanted to live by the industry of others.”

Steeped in the free labor ideology of the North, De Forest’s novel spliced a love story onto a realist account of the war in a way that reflected even as it sought to suppress tensions within the idea of free labor that had come to mark the difference between North and South.

In finally uniting the book’s hero Captain Edward Colburne of the Union army with erstwhile Southern sympathizer, Miss Lillie Ravenal, whom he has loved from the beginning of the novel, De Forest reveals that his view of the ideal free laborer was less the “propertyless proletarian” whose “freedom derived not from the ownership of productive property but from the unfettered sale of . . . labor power — itself a commodity — in a competitive market” than the “independent proprietor,” who had long been identified as being independent enough to secure the freedom of thought and action necessary for responsible citizenship.

We can see the inadequacy of wage labor in Colburne’s assessment of his economic situation after the war. Here we learn that “his salary as captain” had enabled him “to lay up next to nothing,” and that rising gold prices had diminished “the cash value” of what salary he did earn.

These dire prospects, however, do not turn out to be ultimately damning. Trained as a lawyer and in possession of a small inheritance from his dead father, Colburne, by partnering with a colleague, is able in short order to find himself “in possession of a promising if not an opulent business” and is ready to assume his role as head of household with the widowed Lillie Ravenal as his wife and her son as his stepson.

As the novel moves toward a full elaboration of its vision of free labor, it also leaves by the wayside the attempt by Lillie’s father, Dr Ravenal, to reconstruct black labor. Despite being born in South Carolina and having resided in New Orleans for twenty years, Dr Ravenal is a staunch Union man. At a moment when it appears that the Union forces have secured the area around New Orleans, Dr Ravenal determines to demonstrate the superiority of free labor to slave labor by eagerly taking charge of a plantation leased to him by the federal government. His responsibility, as he sees it, is not only economic, but also ideological and pedagogical. To be successful he must “produce not only a crop of corn and potatoes, but a race of intelligent, industrious and virtuous laborers.”

So, with lectures to the ex-slaves about the virtue of labor, sobriety, and the like, Dr Ravenal sets out to put black labor to work for wages. A Confederate counterattack cuts short his “grand experiment of freedman’s labor,” but not before the novel has had time enough to make clear its view that while reconstructing black labor may ultimately succeed, the effort will take time because the habits and attitudes ingrained by a history of enslavement will not disappear overnight.

Contrasting the realities of the South as he sees it to the “pure fiction” of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom, Dr Ravenal asserts, “There never was such a slave, and there never will be. A man educated under the degrading influences of bondage must always have some taint of uncommon grossness and lowness.” De Forest reiterated this vision in his reflections on his experience with Reconstruction in South Carolina, observing that “the Negro’s acquisition of property, and of those qualities which command the industry of others, will be slow. What better could be expected of a serf so lately manumitted?”

Undergirding De Forest’s vision of black freedmen gradually acquiring the skills and habits necessary to become prosperous cooperative laborers is what Eric Foner terms free labor’s belief that “a harmony of interests” defined the relation of capital to labor. The conditions necessary for capital to profit from its outlays were deemed to be those that were most conducive to the flourishing of labor. Class conflict could be imagined only in terms of deficiencies of character among the uncooperative.

Thus, despite their sympathies for the freedmen, black and white elites in the North generally embraced a view of the recently emancipated as a population in need of tutelage and leadership rather than as peers who had the capacity to present their own visions of social and economic life.

Black novelist, former abolitionist, and temperance advocate Frances E. W. Harper begins her 1892 novel, Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted, with depictions of illiterate and semi-literate black slaves debating among themselves the best course of action to take in response to the approaching Union army.

However, by the later chapters of that novel, as she seeks to validate genteel black leadership, a less flattering view of freed people emerges. In one instance Harper has one of her exemplary black characters respond to a claim in the newspaper that “colored women were becoming unfit to be servants for white people,” by concluding “that if they are not fit to be servants for white people, they are unfit to be mothers to their own children.”

This character’s readiness to interpret the uncooperativeness of black domestics as indication of debility is of a piece with the novel’s larger attempt to present black labor as educable and not rebellious. As we learn from another of the novel’s admirable characters, “the Negro is not plotting in beer-salons against the peace and order of society. His fingers are not dripping with dynamite, neither is he spitting upon your flag, nor flaunting the red banner of anarchy in your face.”

These sentiments were echoed by black social reformer, Anna Julia Cooper, in her landmark 1892 work of cultural commentary, A Voice From the South, which famously asserted that it would only be when the black woman was able to enter into American society on terms of equality that true social justice would be achieved. While on Cooper’s account genteel black women should expect acceptance as full equals, laboring blacks were to be prized for racial qualities that guaranteed their capacity as tractable workers.

Cooper writes that the Negro’s “Instinct for law and order, his inborn respect for authority, his inaptitude for rioting and anarchy, his gentleness and cheerfulness as a laborer, and his deep-rooted faith in God will prove indispensable and invaluable elements in a nation menaced as America is by anarchy, socialism, communism, and skepticism poured in with all the jail birds from the continents of Europe and Asia.”

To be sure black workers were not often met with open arms by their white counterparts. And it was not always the case that black novelists assumed innate antagonism between black and white laborers. J. McHenry Jones’s 1896 novel, Hearts of Gold, depicts Welsh miners in a Southern town who, moved by their sense that convict labor “degraded” labor generally and by “a deep-seated hatred . . . against systematic cruelty,” harbor a black runaway from a convict labor camp and then march en masse to destroy the camp and liberate its inmates.

Nonetheless, the representational tendency to align black Southern labor with the interests of their employers also reflected the continued commitment of black elites to the idea “that a community of equal men could be created by allying labor (blacks) and capital to produce material progress and enlightenment,” rather than by allying black laborers with their white counterparts. Instead of building the political power of labor, they called for building the integrity and esteem of the black race.

But whether these representations of black and white labor were disparaging or laudatory, what connected them was that they were, in some way or another, a response to the rise of the Southern Alliance in the 1880s, which was followed by the emergence of the Populist Party in the 1890s.

More to the point, according to Judith Stein, the Southern Alliance was paralleled by and helped fuel the Colored Farmers Alliance, which grew to encompass more than a million black farmers by the early 1890s. While in many cases the political organization of black farm laborers strengthened the hand of black political elites in seeking concessions from white industrialists and landowners, the efficacy of these alliances also challenged the ability of these elites to set the terms and goals of black political activity.

Black elites had sought to assure whites in both the South and the North that black political participation was consistent with the idea of rule by the “best” men of society. In principle then, if not always in fact, the stance of black political elites placed them at odds with the idea that relatively uneducated laborers could wield political power effectively. Thus, in novel after novel produced by the black political class, writers inserted scenes where unschooled black laborers pleaded for the leadership and guidance of their black genteel betters.

Of course, the most egregious disparager of interracial labor alliances against capital was Booker T. Washington, the founder of the Tuskegee Institute. Indeed, historian Michael Rudolph West has credited Washington with inventing “race relations.” Washington’s 1901 autobiography, Up From Slavery, attributed Southern labor unrest to the interference of “professional labour agitators” who had their eyes on the savings of thrifty workers and goaded them into going out on strikes that would leave them “worse off at the end.”

Washington’s rise as a political force in the South coincided with the rise of Populism. The ability of Populists to mount successful political challenges to Southern Democrats depended on the votes of black Alliance members.

It was their awareness of this fact that drove white industrialists and planters in the 1890s to secure the dominance of the Democratic Party by pursuing across-the-board disfranchisement of blacks as well as many poor whites. Jim Crow America was the result of a successful counterrevolution against an interracial labor threat — a counterrevolution aided and abetted by the rise of Bookerism and the Tuskegee Machine.

What Tuskegee represented as an institution, and what Up From Slavery testified to as a program, was the idea that the problem of the South was not primarily a problem of who held political power, but rather one of determining how best to incorporate a despised caste into the social and economic fabric of the nation. In the place of political transformation Washington offered up race relations, with Tuskegee positioned to provide an army of “trained men and women to confront the militancy of an industrial proletariat.”

Viewed against the rise of Populism one can see that the Civil War, by granting blacks political rights, set the stage for what would become one of the most profound challenges to capital in the history of the United States. That the Populist challenge was defeated does not diminish its significance. And given that it was only after the defeat of Populism that disfranchisement and Jim Crow were able to succeed suggests the potential instructiveness of that history for the present moment, a history that does not attest simply to the periodic reemergence of white supremacy across time as Alexander and so many others have alleged.

Rather, if racialized forms of exclusion tend to rise in the wake of successful efforts by industrial and financial interests to undermine the political power of labor, to make our primary task that of addressing “racial divisions and resentments,” as Alexander calls for, risks giving pride of place to a new era of race relations, and not the broader vision of social justice that she describes at the end of The New Jim Crow.

Then, as now, the most reliable path to a progressive politics that produces true justice and human rights is that which begins with building the political power of workers. It is this proposition that has often made elite opponents of white supremacy — both black and white — deeply uncomfortable.

Kenneth W. Warren is a professor of English at the University of Chicago. His most recent book is What Was African American Literature?

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The Cold Cases of the Jim Crow Era

The New York Times  August 28, 2015
At the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala., in 1995. Credit Eli Reed/Magnum Photo

At the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala., in 1995. Credit Eli Reed/Magnum Photo

In March 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt received a letter from a desperate mother. Her son, who was black, had been killed two years earlier, his body pulled from a river near Pickens, Miss.

“I am sending a contract in regards to the lynching of my son Willie Jack Heggard,” wrote Jane Heggard. “I have tried every way to have a trial, but no lawyer will accept the case, because a white man killed an innocent man.”

Despite her plea, it is unlikely we will ever know who killed Ms. Heggard’s son. Roosevelt’s assistant attorney general said it was up to the state of Mississippi, which apparently failed to investigate the crime. Like the thousands of Latin American “desaparecidos” who were terrorized in the 1970s and ’80s, Willie Jack Heggard is among America’s “disappeared,” one of hundreds of black Americans who were victims of racial violence from 1930 to 1960.

Our opportunity to capture their stories — and an important part of our nation’s history — is quickly vanishing as memories fade, witnesses die and evidence disappears. Time is running out to achieve some measure of justice.

For the past seven years, we have traveled throughout the South to document these cold cases. Many of the documents — sworn statements, court transcripts and coroners’ reports — are stored in dusty courthouses, threatened by fires, floods and rodents. Compared with the relatively robust archive on lynchings between 1882 and 1930, researchers have not fully explored the social and political costs of racial violence during the 30 years before 1960.

In 2008, Congress acknowledged this gap in our historical knowledge and passed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, named for the 14-year-old boy who was pulled from his bed in Mississippi on Aug. 28, 1955, tortured and thrown in the Tallahatchie River. His case has not been fully resolved, although his killers confessed to a magazine in exchange for $4,000. The Emmett Till act authorizes the Department of Justice to coordinate with local authorities and investigate racially motivated homicides that occurred before 1970.

The problem is, the act has not been adequately funded, and its narrow focus on viable prosecutions limits its efficacy. Many homicides can no longer be prosecuted. In some cases, the government has limited federal jurisdiction. In others, witnesses and perpetrators have died. This year, the Department of Justice reported that it had completed just 105 investigations and three prosecutions over the past several years.

Clearly, the federal government needs to expand the act’s focus. Even if they are largely symbolic, prosecutions themselves are a form of truth telling, and require local governments who often ignored or sanctioned the killings to help re-examine this history.

In addition, prosecutions should be considered alongside remedies like truth commissions, restitution and official apologies which acknowledge that these murders were part of a pattern of intimidation against entire communities, intended to stifle full citizenship. Finally, along with better funding for the Till act, President Obama and Congress should establish an initiative to collect oral histories from this period.

It wouldn’t be the first time the federal government has undertaken a large oral history project. From 1936 to 1938, the Federal Writers’ Project conducted over 2,300 interviews with elderly former slaves. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 funded oral histories and gave reparations to Japanese-Americans sent to internment camps during World War II. In 2000, Congress created the Veterans History Project so Americans could “better understand the realities of war.»

And several states — including North Carolina, Oklahoma and Florida — have already sponsored commissions on race riots before 1930 that attempted to assess the long-term impact of the murders, looting, arson and other property damage that ruined thriving African-American communities. Some recommended monetary reparations, economic redevelopment or commemorative monuments. Not all of the solutions were implemented, but the work itself was a significant step forward.

Some countries are confronting shameful episodes in their histories that had been intentionally ignored. In 2007, Spain passed the Law of Historical Memory to recognize those who suffered under Franco, which has supported the exhumation of graves from that era. In June, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission called the decades-long abuse of aboriginal children in residential schools “cultural genocide.”

A full accounting of the past may evoke shame, pain and impulses to remember and forget. But an acknowledgment that this legacy of violence still haunts African-American communities may foster more productive conversations and help generate trust in our legal system.

Emmett Till, who was killed 60 years ago today, is a victim whose story we know. His name endures because his mother “wanted the world to see what they did.” His memory beckons us to learn the fate of hundreds of others, like Willie Jack Heggard. We must find America’s disappeared, learn their stories and allow them to live in our history.

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Our Forgotten Labor Revolution

After the Civil War, workers struggled to make wage labor go the way of chattel slavery.

Slaves shown working in the sweet potato fields on the Hopkinson plantation, located on Edisto Island, SC.

Slaves shown working in the sweet potato fields on the Hopkinson plantation, located on Edisto Island, SC

The new issue of Jacobin, commemorating the 150th anniversary of Union victory and emancipation, is out now.

The Founding, the Civil War, the New Deal. The holy trinity of the American political tradition.

In the beginning was the word, the sacred text celebrating the end of arbitrary colonial government and the creation of a constitutional republic. Then there was the redemptive war, a punishment for the original sin of slavery and whose reward was the Union reborn. The new United States declared the primacy of the national state, declared free labor the foundation of its economy, and established national citizenship. Finally, the third deed put a human face on the capitalism that the Civil War unleashed.

This, anyhow, is how the standard undergraduate syllabus is arranged. It is how publishing houses organize their books; it is how the typical historical survey punctuates the American story. To be sure, other moments, like the Civil Rights Movement and the Reagan revolution get honorable mentions.

But they receive their meaning primarily as decorative fabric stretched across the tripartite scaffolding: the Founding, the Civil War, the New Deal. We are supposed to believe that there is nothing to remember in those historical voids. If we go looking, all that we will discover is a series of errors, like Jim Crow, that we have since corrected.

How then to think about the fall of 1887, when a small group of labor organizers connected to the Knights of Labor, started agitating among sugar cane workers deep in the Louisiana bayou?

In August, the Knights started talking to the mostly black cane-cutters who were now working for their former slave masters. They promised higher wages, an end to payment in “scrip” rather than money, and even the hope of running a plantation “on the co-operative plan” instead of under the thumb of a boss. By September thousands had joined the Knights, by October they were ready to stop working if the local planters refused to raise wages, by the first of November they were on strike.

Three weeks later they were slaughtered. With the aid of a judge and state militia leader, white vigilantes disarmed the strikers, corralled them into the town of Thibodaux, Louisiana and unleashed a three-day orgy of violence. “No credible official count of the victims of the Thibodaux massacre was ever made,” writes historian Rebecca Scott, but “bodies continued to turn up in shallow graves outside of town for weeks to come.”

Precise body counts were beside the point. The question of who ruled town and country, plantation and courthouse, had been answered. As a mother of two white vigilantes put it, “I think this will settle the question of who is to rule, the nigger or the white man? For the next fifty years. . . .”

Where does an event like this fit in our national history? Who were the Knights? What was their vision of society? What was the threat they posed?

These are questions we cannot answer by reference to the “holy trinity” narrative. That is because between Reconstruction and Jim Crow was a forgotten time in which the emancipation of slaves inspired a further movement to emancipate workers from the domination of the labor market. It was a moment of promise and of danger — the promise of freedom, the danger of challenges to class power.

If we want to understand our history, rather than just congratulate ourselves about it, we have to abandon the prevailing, comforting narrative of progress that carefully extrudes those moments that do not fit with America’s national image as a self-correcting liberal democracy.

Looking back at forgotten labor struggles is therefore not just an exercise in setting the record straight, it is an exercise in emancipating our own thinking from attempts to discipline and control it.Reconstruction and its aftermath is an especially fertile period because it is when the language of liberty began to take new form, but had not yet been thinned out into the libertarian discourses that we know today.

Union soldiers of the First Massachusetts Cavalry posed in front of plantation house on Edisto Island, South Carolina.

Union soldiers of the First Massachusetts Cavalry posed in front of plantation house on Edisto Island, South Carolina.

The Promise of Reconstruction

The Civil War saw the largest, uncompensated expropriation of property in American history: the abolition of slavery. Nullifying slave owners’ property in persons meant returning personhood to the slaves. It also extinguished roughly half the value of all Southern assets, which in today’s prices amounts to roughly $3 trillion.

This expropriation was followed by “Recon­struction,” a period of constitutional dictatorship maintained by the North’s military occupation of the South. The purpose of occupation was not only to ensure orderly return of the South to the Union, nor just to secure passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, but also to coercively guarantee the freedom of former slaves against those who would resist it.

There was no extending of economic, civil, and political rights to former slaves without a period of coercion against the ancien regime. When communists today propose such measures it is denounced as the most horrible violation of the democratic spirit and personal liberty. But here, at the heart of our own history, is forced expropriation of one class to emancipate another.

And there is more. Reconstruction inaugurated a struggle over how to define the freedom in whose name the North fought. Abolition was just the beginning. What followed was the question of emancipation.

This might sound odd: didn’t the Thirteenth through Fifteenth Amendments abolish slavery, establish due process, and guarantee national citizenship? That would have been news to former slaves. They had been famously promised, as a part of their emancipation, “forty acres and a mule.” And not just them. In fact, in the Morrill Land Grant and Homestead Acts of 1862, the state had affirmed the idea that a fully free citizen was someone who had access to a piece of land — some share of the means of production — so that they did not have to be dependent on another.

Lincoln himself had declared, prior to the war, that free labor was not the same as wage labor: “The prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land, for himself; then labors on his own account another while . . . [This] is free labor.” The promise of American freedom was that everyone might enjoy this full independence.

More to the point, former slaves had learned that their emancipation was not something done to them but something they seized for themselves — they no longer had to ask for permission from a master. The connection between emancipation, independence, and self-assertion was found in the organization of black militias for the protection of civil rights, their seizure of land, and the working of this land individually or in self-directed labor companies.

Consider, for instance, these words from former slaves on Edisto Island, South Carolina, who occupied abandoned plantations and then were commanded, by a Freedmen’s Bureau commissioner, to return the land to former masters:

General we want Homestead’s; we were promised Homestead’s by the government . . . [without them] we are left in a more unpleasant condition than our former . . . we are at the mercy of those who are combined to prevent us from getting land enough to lay our Fathers bones upon.

Without land they were forced to work for former masters, or some other masters, for a pittance. To be formally free but possess no land was to find oneself “in a more unpleasant condition,” since in principle one might even find oneself homeless, in even more abject dependence on an employer. The promise of land, whether worked individually or collectively, was that one would no longer work under the arbitrary command of another.

Here was a possible meaning of Reconstruction: all forms of economic dependence are incompatible with free citizenship. In the name of freedom, being without property and dependent on employers was a condition that also had to be abolished. Free people had a right to some share of the means of production — be it land or some other productive property. They even had a right to take it from those who opposed this equal freedom.

One expropriation would follow another and, as those same former slaves put it, each should enjoy the protection of the state. What made such ideas so dangerous was that they were not exclusive to the South. Northerners who fought in the name of this freedom or who supported the Northern cause also believed they had a right to property, to a full and equal freedom.

It is not hard to see how such ideas could unify workers in the North and the South and turn Reconstruction into a radical project of reform, one wholly consistent with, even motivated by, American ideals of freedom. That is just what happened, but what did it look like? Here is where the Knights of Labor, who preserved the free labor ideals of Reconstruction well past its official conclusion, matter so much.

The Red Banditti

The Knights of Labor first formed in 1869 and grew, by the 1880s, into the first national labor association ever to organize unskilled black workers together with whites on a mass basis — an effort not meaningfully duplicated in the United States for another fifty years. Their founding documents said they had come together “for the purpose of organizing and directing the power of the industrial masses.”

Casting their concerns in a familiar, post–Civil War idiom, they asked, “Is there a workshop where obedience is not demanded — not to the difficulties or qualities of the labor to be performed — but to the caprice of he who pays the wages of his servants?” They called the new wage labor “wage slavery” and they wanted “to abolish as rapidly as possible, the wage system, substituting co-operation therefore.”

To advance their mission, the Knights established assemblies everywhere from the male-dominated mines of rural Pennsylvania to the mostly women-employing garment factories of New York to the railroads of Denver.

The Knights’ expansion into the American South began in 1886 at their general assembly meeting in Richmond, Virginia. In a conspicuous show of racial solidarity, a black worker named Frank Ferrell took the stage to introduce the Knights’ leader, Terence V. Powderly, before Powderly’s opening address. To defend his controversial decision to have a black Knight introduce him, Powderly wrote “in the field of labor and American citizenship we recognize no line of race, creed, politics or color.”


After the general assembly the Knights spread throughout Southern states like South Carolina, Virginia, and Louisiana, setting up cooperatives, organizing local assemblies, and agitating for a new political order.

They enjoyed initial success in Louisiana. One district assembly in the Bayou region claimed 5,000 black members, more than forty local assemblies were spread across planter country, and the membership included some of the most influential local leaders from the headier days of Reconstruction. These were some of the same leaders who had served in politics, drilled self-defense militias, and organized labor companies in the 1870s, prior to the withdrawal of federal troops from the South.

A spirit of self-assertion not seen for over a decade blew through the cane fields. The plantocracy knew it. The Thibodaux Sentinel, a racist local paper hostile to the Knights’ organizing efforts, warned “against black self-organization by trying to remind whites and blacks of what happened a generation earlier, in the days of black militias, and white vigilantism” and evoked “the old demons of violence and arson by ‘black banditti’.”

But the Knights brushed aside these warnings. Just four hundred miles away, near Birmingham, Alabama, the Knights had already founded cooperative settlements, including a collectively managed iron foundry and cigar works. They hoped to reproduce such efforts in Louisiana, starting in the cane fields. If planters would not raise wages and pay in proper currency rather than useless scrip, the Knights were ready to call a strike. The planters refused and the workers struck.

But it was not to be. First the Louisiana state militia showed up, sporting the same Gatling guns that had, only a few decades before, been used for the first time in the North’s fight against the South. The militia broke the strike and forced thousands of defenseless strikers and their families into the town of Thibodaux, where a state district judge promptly placed them all under martial law. A group of white citizen-vigilantes called the “Peace and Order Committee,” organized by the same judge that had declared martial law, then took over and went on their three-day killing spree.

The Knights’ influence was broken. Farming a plantation “on the co-operative plan” was not even a dream deferred — it was easy to forget it had ever been possible for cane cutters.

The officially sanctioned mob violence at Thibodaux was one of many such instances over the course of Southern history. In each instance, a challenge to race-based class rule was met with vigilante justice in the name of white supremacy.

In this case, however, it is worth recalling that the Knights articulated their challenge in a specific, usually overlooked, language of freedom. This was that same conception of liberty that led former slaves during Reconstruction to refuse to work for former masters, even when offered a formal labor contract and wages. It was the same idea of emancipation that motivated them to seize land and work it in “labor companies,” to organize their own militias, to vote as they wished, to hold local and national office. This radical moment of Reconstruction was momentarily suppressed and its end appeared to spell the defeat of any but the narrowest interpretation of what emancipation would mean.

When the Knights of Labor swept into Louisiana speaking the language of freedom, they not only revived old hopes for self-organization and economic independence, but also integrated these regional aspirations of former slaves into a recast national ideology of republican freedom.

Former slaves were now modern workers and the Knights trumpeted the same emancipatory language throughout the nation, heralding “co-operation” as a solution to the problems facing wage laborers everywhere. They sought a reconstruction not just of the South but of the entire country.

This program of liberation through cooperative self-organization, articulated in the trans-racial language of making all workers into their own bosses, scared Northern industrialists just as much as Southern planters. Indeed, if we see the Thibodaux massacre only as a story of Southern racism, we run the risk of unintentionally and retrospectively ceding too much to the planter class and its attempts to control labor relations by transforming economic conflicts into questions of racial superiority.

After all, wherever the Knights went and wherever their message of cooperation and independence took hold they were met with a violence not all that different from that of Louisiana’s “Peace and Order Committee.” Throughout the 1870s, ’80s, and ’90s, the Knights faced violence from employers and their hired guns, most notoriously the Pinkertons. The Pinkertons operated in legal grey zones, sometimes with outright legal sanction from the courts, and often in cooperation with the police, state militia, and federal troops.

Indeed, on occasion it was the public violence of the state that was responsible for spectacular acts of legally sanctioned murder and coercion. Perhaps the most famous was the Haymarket incident in Chicago, in May 1886, when workers and police died during marches for an eight-hour working day.

But even before Haymarket, in Chicago no less than the bayou, capitalist overlords had been baying for blood. “Load Your Guns, They Will Be Needed Tomorrow to Shoot Communists,” read oneChicago Times headline from 1875, responding to a possible demonstration of socialists and reformers against the city’s half-hearted efforts to address poverty. Republican Chicago was a hotbed of bourgeois financing of labor repression. In 1877, a business group called the Citizens Association responded to strike riots by raising $28,000, which they used to buy rifles, cannons, cavalry equipment, and a Gatling gun.

In 1886, after the famous Haymarket incident, an organization of Chicago’s wealthiest businessmen raised $300,000 in private donations to buy land and equipment for a fort and an armory located near the city. In Haymarket, and numerous other strikes, capital got what it paid for.

Labor reformers labeled this unholy alliance of the state with capital, its private guards, spies and “provocative agents,” a kind of “Bonapartism in America,” threatening to turn “the free and independent Republic of the United States of America” into the “worm-eaten Empire of Napoleon the Third.” Just as in Thibodaux, the lines between vigilante violence and legal coercion blurred into a haze.

What, then, was the idea of freedom that triggered such extreme responses? It was nothing less than the promise of the Civil War itself. Or, put more precisely, it was a particular interpretation of the ideal of republican liberty that free-labor abolitionists so frequently invoked before and during the Civil War. It was the ideal that all citizens should live in an economy in which they determine their fate rather than find themselves subject to the arbitrary will of another.

The language the Knights used was shot through with the antislavery ideal. William H. Seward’s famous abolitionist line that there is an “irrepressible conflict” between Northern freedom and Southern slavery was echoed in the Knights’ own slogan that “there is an inevitable and irresistible conflict between the wage-system of labor and the republican system of government.” Whether Southern agricultural worker, Northern shoemaker, or Western switchman, wage-laborers were propertyless and therefore dependent, seeking the same kind of freedom as the freed slaves of Edisto Island.

Here was the source of their “co-operative plan,” which they found equally applicable to the cane fields of Louisiana or the shoe factories of Massachusetts. The Knights wrote the cooperative program into their official constitution, the Declaration of Principles of the Knights of Labor, and, at their peak, organized thousands of cooperatives across the country. This ideal threatened Southern planters, Northern industrialists, and Western railroad owners alike because it struck at the dominant industrial relations between employer and employee.

Affording all workers shared ownership and management of an enterprise, whether a sugar plantation, newspaper press, or garment factory, was, according to the Knights, the only way to secure to everyone their social and economic independence.

While these ideas had been around well before the Civil War, it was only the abolition of chattel slavery and the rise of industrial capitalism that allowed the republican critique of wage labor to come forward as a unifying, national cause — one that had its roots deep in the critique of slavery itself. As Ira Steward, a child of abolitionists and prominent postwar labor republican, wrote in 1873, “something of slavery still remains . . . something of freedom is yet to come.”

Freedmen’s School. Edisto Island, South Carolina.

Freedmen’s School. Edisto Island, SC.

The Revolution Betrayed

Northern Republicans agreed to end Reconstruction of the South when the industrialists, merchants, and financiers that made up the heart of the party started to fear that workers were taking the promise of emancipation too seriously. A few of the most radical Republicans were won over to elements of labor reform, perhaps most famously Wendell Phillips. But by 1877, the bourgeois heart of the Republican Party was beating a different pulse.

Violent railroad strikes in 1873–74 foreshadowed the Great Strike of 1877, which not only paralyzed the country but briefly witnessed workers taking over St. Louis and running the railroads themselves — cooperatively, without bosses. They were quickly brought to heel by a mixture of armed guards, local police, and the newly reformed National Guard. Indeed, the National Guard was created out of the compromise of 1877, in which federal troops would no longer be allowed to enforce domestic law — as they did during Reconstruction — but with an exemption written in for cases of “insurrection,” namely, strikes.

Republicans had lost the heart for Reconstruction of the South because they were losing control of its meaning. The constitutional dictatorship that Northern leaders had imposed on the South had lost its charm, especially as freed slaves demanded redistribution of property, or, as in cases like Edisto Island, just seized that property themselves. Employers worried they now needed armed forces back home, to control workers, rather than bringing the former Confederacy to heel. Strikebreaking looked like a much better use for federal troops and state militia than helping redistribute property in the name of emancipation.

It was time to proclaim former slaves free, close up shop, and turn to making money.

Those former slave-owning planters now looked like less threatening, even useful, allies in the project of disciplining labor. And, in any case, for the Northern investors in US wartime debt, it was time to get freed blacks back onto plantations, picking cotton, so that it could be sold on international markets. After all, an influx of foreign exchange was needed to help put the dollar back on the gold standard, stabilize the currency, and allow them to cash in.

It was well and good to have freed the slaves but enough was enough. The limits of bourgeois universalism had been reached. It was time for Northern capitalists to make a deal, end Reconstruction, and get back to the business of making money.

Work Left Unfinished

Official Reconstruction might have been bargained away in the halls of Congress but, as the Knights of Labor reminds us, the ideals of Reconstruction had not been put to rest. Rather they had been nationalized and radicalized.

In fact, the Knights were not even the most dangerous of those who sought to extend the new freedom into the industrial economy. After all, they rejected revolutionary violence. Yet even their vision of an alternative future had to be suppressed. Their demand for an egalitarian economy, of nationalized public utilities like telegraphs and railroads, and built around producers’ cooperatives was still considered far too dangerous to the emerging capitalist order.

The radicalization of the promise of freedom was not only why Reconstruction had to be ended but why a certain memory of that period has had to endure.

Emancipation had to be understood as abolition, abolition had to be understood as the end of just slavery, and Reconstruction had to be told as a purely Southern question. These days, the dominant story about the Civil War and Reconstruction is so powerful that some dismiss the very idea of freedom as conservative, or at least “bourgeois.” But it is worth remembering that Reconstruction ended not because freedom had been achieved but because it started to become dangerous.

The quest for independence had transcended the abolition of slavery and become a call for self-organization and the redistribution of property. One expropriation threatened to follow another. A proper reconstruction of America meant that the majority should seize its freedom, through its own efforts, by turning the economy into a reflection of the democratic ideal. That is not just an ideal worth remembering but one worth recovering.

Reconstruction matters because it is dangerous.

Alex Gourevitch is an assistant professor of political science at Brown University and the author of From Slavery To the Cooperative Commonwealth: Labor and Republican Liberty in the Nineteenth Century.

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Struggle and Progress

Eric Foner on the abolitionists, Reconstruction, and winning “freedom” from the Right.

W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois

No living historian has done more to shape our understanding of the American Civil War era than Eric Foner. A rare scholar who is both prominent outside the historical community and esteemed within it, over the course of a fifty-year career Foner has acquired virtually every award, tribute, and professional honor available to a historian in the United States.

Yet the true measure of his legacy lies not in accolades but influence. Foner’s most important books have transformed the way we see — and the way we teach — the origins of the Civil War, the significance of slave emancipation, and the politics of postwar Reconstruction.

Foner grew up in a New York family equally devoted to historical scholarship and left-wing politics. His father, Jack, and his uncle, Philip, both taught history at City College before they were dismissed and blacklisted as Communists.

For the elder Foners, a radical approach to US history involved placing the black freedom struggle at center stage. “In the 1930s,” Eric later wrote, “the Communist party was the only predominantly white organization to make fighting racism central to its political program.” It was no coincidence that the family was friendly with W. E. B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson, or that Philip Foner’s five-volume selection of Frederick Douglass’s writings and speeches, which he completed while on the blacklist, was the first collected edition of its kind.

Foner’s family background has produced occasional clumsy efforts at red-baiting, including a 2002 National Review essay which denounced him as a Soviet sympathizer and “left-wing polemicist.” In reality, Foner’s own contemporary political interventions have generally remained within the American liberal mainstream. Yet it would not be unfair to credit his Old Left upbringing with a major influence on his scholarly career.

Foner’s first book, Free Soil, Free Labor, and Free Men (1970), which remains the standard work on the rise of the Republican Party, showed how antebellum Republicans were not merely critics of slavery, but exponents of a powerful political-economic ideology of their own. His most celebrated book, Reconstruction (1988), provided a synthesis that decisively rejected the racist folklore that had informed popular and scholarly treatments of the post–Civil War period for much of the twentieth century.

In these and other works, a central theme in Foner’s scholarship has been the contested terrain of freedom in American history. (This is no less true of his most recent book, Gateway to Freedom, on the antebellum underground railroad.) The Civil War era, in his view, represented a revolutionary clash of political ideas and forces — a period that unmade and then remade American society. The revolution, of course, remained unfinished — but it was a revolution nonetheless.

Three Jacobin contributors sat down with Foner to discuss the achievements and failures of Reconstruction, how to reclaim the idea of freedom from the Right, whether the antislavery movement has any lessons for the contemporary left, and why Karl Rove is one of his biggest fans.

So what’s this story we’ve heard about an argument you had with your eighth-grade history teacher about Reconstruction?

This was a long time ago, probably 1957 or ’58 — it was tenth or eleventh grade. And yeah, it was American History class, in Long Beach, Long Island, and the teacher was basically giving us the old, traditional Birth of a Nation view of Reconstruction. She said theReconstruction Act of 1867, which gave the right to vote to black men in the South, was the worst law in all American history.

So I raised my hand and I said, “I don’t agree with you, Mrs. Berryman, I think the Alien and Sedition Acts were worse.” I don’t know where I got that from. And she said, “Alright, Eric, if you don’t like the way I’m teaching, you come in tomorrow and you give a lecture on Reconstruction.” Which I did — my father was a historian, Du Bois was a friend of the family, we had Black Reconstruction at home. So we used that.

I came in and I gave my presentation, and at the end of the class the teacher says, “All right, we’re now going to have a vote as to who’s right: me or Eric.” Well, she won by a landslide, let’s put it that way.

When would you say high school students started learning a new way of seeing Reconstruction?

Maybe the 1970s, or even after that. Of course, Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction had been out there since 1935, but it was ignored in the mainstream [white] universities. It was taught in the black colleges. In the black colleges you had a different view of Reconstruction, but that was totally sealed off from the larger academic world.

But I think a real turning point was in 1965, when Kenneth Stampp published this book called The Era of Reconstruction, which was not a very detailed research book but it gave a more positive view of Reconstruction. And because of the civil rights revolution, people wanted a different history. People were talking about the “New Abolitionists,” the “Second Reconstruction.” Little by little people started chipping away.

So in the seventies there was a lot of scholarship being done, but exactly when it got into the high schools I don’t know. Maybe the eighties. You’d have to look at the textbooks for that.

Today I think all the textbooks are good, but I still find, wherever I talk about this, that there are plenty of people — and not just the older ones — who say, “All I know about Reconstruction is corruption, carpetbaggers.”

The main thing is that people know next to nothing about Reconstruction. And what they do know is just not correct. I mean, just basic myths. People say, “They gave the right to vote to blacks but they disenfranchised all the whites.” Well, that’s completely untrue, they did not disenfranchise all whites. But people think that’s a known fact.

What percentage were actually disenfranchised?

A tiny percent. The people disenfranchised were people who held during office before the Civil War. Nobody knows how many that was. It might have been 8,000, 10,000, nobody knows, but it was not all whites. Your average Confederate veteran was not disenfranchised.

Oh, and the idea that all the blacks in office were illiterate and ignorant, also a total myth — we could go on about this but the point is, there are still a lot of misconceptions. I’m hoping that with the 150th anniversary of Reconstruction coming up there will be a little more interest.

There’s a 2011 Pew Poll showing that Americans still don’t even agree on the cause of the Civil War. There’s a plurality saying it was “states’ rights,” rather than slavery — and it’s not a North-South divide, either.

Yes, I see that all the time. It isn’t regional. The thing is, it’s an index of cynicism about political life. Which is totally understandable. The idea that anyone could do anything for an idealistic reason, or that you can believe anything that politicians say . . .

You look at our own world, with politics today, it’s easy to say, “Hey, it must have been just a bunch of Northern capitalists trying to control the South,” or “It was just states’ rights.” Whenever I lecture, someone raises the issue of states’ rights, and the thing I like to say is: “Yes, you’re right, the South believed in states’ rights. And the right they were interested in was the right to own slaves.” And that was a right created by state law, so naturally they wanted to protect states’ rights.

And then I say, if that was really the issue, then explain the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 to me — which was a federal law, probably the most powerful federal law before the Civil War in terms of overriding local judicial procedures, overriding local law enforcement. Federal troops, federal marshals, going into states, you think that’s a reflection of states’ rights? No.

When it came to vigorous federal action in defense of slavery, the South was perfectly happy to go that route. So they did not dogmatically believe in states’ rights . . .

Just look at the Mississippi Declaration of Secession. Or Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’s “Cornerstone Speech.” One thing I admire about these guys is that they didn’t beat about the bush. They were very candid. “We are seceding because the future of slavery is in danger.”

After the war, the myth developed that everybody had already agreed that slavery needed to go.

Yes, slavery got washed out of the writing on the war. But it didn’t happen in a straight line. When it comes to the Civil War, what historians write is a reflection of the world they are living in at the moment.

During World War II there was an upsurge in people seeing the Civil War through its lens, through the fight against fascism and the knowledge that entrenched evil is not going to go away without violence. So in that period they saw slavery as the root of it.

But later you get a post-Vietnam thing, which was a little more cynical. I think even today we’re in a post-Iraq moment, where the idea is basically, “War is hell and politicians justify it with all this rhetoric which has no meaning, so how can you believe anything anyone says?”

My view on this is Du Bois’s, actually. Sometimes the “neo-abolitionist” historians get a little too gung-ho for war, the glorifying of the war. I agree with Du Bois, who says that war is murder, chaos, anarchy. But sometimes good comes out of it. I don’t think it’s a good thing that all these people got killed in the Civil War. I’m not glorifying it and waving the flag for it. But what I’m saying is that I’ve never seen a peaceful scenario for the abolition of slavery in this country.

Now, a lot of people say it would have died out as a result of being uneconomical. How do you know that? When would it have died out? It was plenty economical before the Civil War, why would it suddenly die out?

People say, “Oh, well Brazil abolished slavery.” Brazil abolished slavery partially because we abolished slavery. Do you think Brazil would have abolished slavery if we hadn’t? I think political economy is very important here. The clash of two fundamentally different societies with two fundamentally different labor systems is what’s going on, in my opinion.

Do you think it makes sense to talk about the Civil War and Reconstruction as a “bourgeois revolution”?

I tend not to use terminology like that, which I feel is an insider terminology. I try to write as clearly and accessibly as possible. So I understand what it means to call it a bourgeois revolution, and there are a lot of ways one could say it is. But I don’t think you would find that phrase in my writings.

But I do call it a revolution. I call the Civil War the Second American Revolution, as historian Charles Beard did, and as abolitionist Wendell Phillips did. But the Revolution is the destruction of slavery, that’s the revolutionary quality. That’s Du Bois’s point.


I call it a capitalist revolution. I don’t know if that’s the same thing as a bourgeois revolution. It destroys a system that is both capitalist and non-capitalist in ways that are quite difficult to explain, but the consequence of the Civil War is capitalist hegemony throughout the entire United States.

But that’s not the cause of the Civil War, because the capitalists were perfectly happy with the slave South. They made a lot of money off the slave South and there was no reason for them to go to war. But theconsequence of the war was certainly the hegemony of Northern industry and finance throughout the entire country.

American Jacobins

I wanted to talk about Karl Rove, who is apparently a big fan of your book Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, on antebellum Republican ideology.

He said he learned how to build a political coalition from that book.

A student came up to me one year and said, “You might not approve of this, but I’ve got an internship in the White House working for Karl Rove this summer.” I said I don’t disapprove, they need all the help they can get down there. He said, “I’m glad you feel that way,” and he whipped out his copy of my Reconstruction book and said, “Mr Rove asked if I could get you to sign this for him.”

I think this kind of thing scares off the young contemporary left, because they see the legacy of antislavery being claimed by this vicious capitalist force.

Anything can be claimed by anyone! I mean, Glenn Beck held his civil rights rally a little while ago.

The National Review does something on Frederick Douglass from time to time.

We shouldn’t allow them to take possession of these struggles. By the way, Obama absorbs all of this into his narrative of American history, obviously, and what’s objectionable about all this — from Obama’s vision of American history to Karl Rove’s — is that they see all these things as struggles within a stable system, so to speak.

Instead of denying, like the Right used to, that we’ve ever had inequality in this country, the Right says, “Well of course slavery was horrible, but we abolished it. We abolished slavery.” We! We! Who’s this “we,” you know?

And then they say, “Jim Crow, it was terrible.” No one’s defending Jim Crow anymore. We had a great civil rights struggle, Martin Luther King is a hero to everybody left, right and center, but it’s a defanged Martin Luther King. Martin Luther King is the guy who gets up at the Lincoln Memorial and, you know, says one sentence — I want my children to be judged by the content of their character — and that’s Martin Luther King. You don’t get the King who spoke out against the Vietnam War, or the Poor People’s Campaign King.

King was a radical guy. King said that the Civil Rights Movement was a fundamental challenge to American values. The people who absorb it into a feel-good thing now say it was an expression of basic American values. In other words, there is a stable thing called Americanism which all these struggles are just improving all the time.

So I can see how people can be cynical about the appropriation of that, but I don’t think we should let it be appropriated. I wrote a book about the history of the idea of freedom, and then shortly thereafter George W. Bush took control of the idea of freedom for the War in Iraq. Operation Iraqi Freedom — freedom, freedom, freedom, that’s all it was. It turned a lot of people off the idea of freedom.

Obama doesn’t even talk about freedom much, except when he’s going to war. Freedom is the last refuge when they want to go to war.

I don’t think we should cede freedom to the Right. Absolutely not. We should not concede the common sense idea of freedom. In my book there are many other concepts of freedom equally embedded in the American tradition, which have a lot more to do with equality and economic rights, which we should insist on. It’s not just owning a gun and getting the government off your back.

So yes, I can understand that people look back at the abolitionist movement and say, first, “Well, the whites were racist.” Well some of them were racist, no question about it. But hey, they were willing to put themselves on the line to end slavery, so what else do you want?

This is a pseudo-politics, a psycho-politics, that says people ought to be loving each other. That’s not what politics is, people loving each other. It’s people acting together, even if they don’t love each other, for a common purpose. If you’re going out to a labor picket line, are they all loving each other, the people on that picket line? Probably not. But they have a common self-interest that they’re pursuing.

Then they say, “It didn’t succeed. They abolished slavery, but racism is permanent, and another form of slavery came in.” Of course, terrible injustice came in. But it wasn’t slavery. I think that’s a very cynical view of social change — that if you don’t get utopia nothing has happened.

There’s a related myth that emancipation happened, but immediately it was replaced by Jim Crow. But in reality there was a long period between Reconstruction and complete black disenfranchisement, and across the late nineteenth century there were all these struggles in the South, with whites and blacks acting together.

You’re absolutely right, it didn’t just end in 1877. There was Radical Reconstruction, which I think was a very idealistic effort to, as Du Bois said, create democracy. Du Bois’s subtitle talks about “the part which black folk played in the attempt to reconstruct democracy in America.” It’s not about black people, it’s about democracy — are we going to have a democracy in this country or not?

But then there was a generation at least which was kind of inchoate, as you say. There was a tendency towards more and more racism, but there were also struggles like the Readjusters in Virginia, the Populists of course, and other things. It’s not until around 1900 that Jim Crow, which is a shorthand for comprehensive white supremacy in the South, comes in.

The struggle is the story. I don’t think we should romanticize it, but the idea that racism is permanent and there’s nothing you can say or do and that’s it — that’s a totally unhistorical way of thinking about it.

Among other things, it’s a story of attempts at interracial cooperation from below, which ultimately failed by 1900. It’s sometimes argued that the political failure of Reconstruction in the South was due to the fact that Republican support among Unionist whites, which was significant at the beginning, seemed to have disappeared or diminished by 1877. Why do you think that happened?

That’s one of the reasons for the failure of Reconstruction — it’s one reason. Of course, there were some states where they never had any white support, like South Carolina and maybe a couple of other places. Louisiana had very, very little.

The problem of getting poor white support was very difficult and was exacerbated by the difference between the Northern Republican Party and the Southern Republican Party. In some of these states, like North Carolina or Georgia, there were poor whites, Unionists, and so on, who were interested in supporting the Republicans for economic advantages like debtor’s relief.

But the Northern Republican Party was not interested in supporting them. They rejected Georgia’s Constitution because it suspended the collection of debts, and they said, “Hey, I’m sorry, you guys have got to pay your debts.” It’s like Greece, they were acting like Angela Merkel.

I actually think the failure of Reconstruction was not solely or even primarily on that basis. Rather, you have to go to the federal level and look at what was basically a failure to enforce the law. There were these constitutional amendments — the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth — but you get a withdrawal from enforcement after a while, and that reflected changes in Northern society — political, economic, and intellectual. And without a willingness to enforce the law, the power structure in the South — the economic power structure — is going to take over eventually.

It’s possible to imagine continued federal intervention — not, you know, military intervention for forty years, but enough to make it clear that these laws will be enforced. Like what happened in the Civil Rights Movement. There was a social movement, but there was also the National Guard, federal courts, other things just making it clear to people, not that they have to love each other, but that they have to act in certain ways and they can’t act in other ways. That if people act in ways that are in violation of federal law, they will be punished. And if that becomes clear, then people eventually abide by the law.

This is the point where Karl Rove’s attempt at appropriation fails, because when you’re looking at that moment, where Northern support dries up and people are beginning to doubt the effort to enforce the law, they have exactly the same kinds of concerns that Karl Rove has, that the Republican Party today has.

Yes, exactly. Rove would probably say this was an outside imposition on the South and therefore whites were never going to accept it. Maybe there’s some truth to that. But as you said, there were the Populists, the Readjusters, there were grounds for white militancy in the South all through this period, which occasionally come to the fore and helped work out things with blacks. But they were usually overturned by violence.

So you go back to the question: are you going to allow political violence to determine elections and political power in this country? If you are, that’s what’s going to happen. And if not, you’re going to need federal intervention to prevent it. I think the national story of Reconstruction and its failure is very important, not just the local story.

Of course, there’s an old argument about corruption in the Reconstruction state governments, but newer scholarship has looked more closely at the problem of state government revenue, and the new property taxes imposed after the war.

Yes, these state governments faced a real Catch‑22. Before the war, state revenue was basically from the tax on slaves, not on landed property. Planters could accumulate large tracts of property and not be taxed on it, but be taxed on their slaves instead. And this left the poorer whites not paying taxes on their land. Most people owned land, but they didn’t pay taxes.

This was a weird fiscal system, where it’s the tax on slaves that’s supporting the government, but it does allow a lot of fiscal autonomy to poorer areas. After the Civil War, there are no more slaves, so no more tax! It becomes a general property tax. That’s bad for the planters, but it’s also bad for the poorer whites, who are now paying a tax on their land they didn’t have to before.

So that becomes a big problem. These governments are setting up school systems, and they’re now serving a doubled citizenry where blacks are now suddenly getting benefits from the government as well as whites, but the fiscal resources are very, very weak. And that’s why they were issuing bonds that were deteriorating in value. And you get corruption out of that.

But even the way you posed the question, which pops up in a lot of this literature, shows the hold of modern day politics: corruption and taxation are thrown into the same bag. But taxation is not corruption! This notion that levying taxes is bad is part of this critique of Reconstruction.

But surely if these are poor farmers who want schools, and you raise taxes to build these school systems and stuff — if it had been done well, wouldn’t they ultimately have benefited from it?

The immediate problem was that they couldn’t get debtor’s relief. They were all in debt. The Republican Party was divided, because a lot of Republicans — including black Republicans — thought they shouldn’t alienate planters too much. They wanted to get the planters into the Republican Party.

So it was very hard to have a radical party, to have a populist party, because the local parties were dependent on the Northern Republican Party, which more and more was the party of industry and sound finance. It was a political coalition that was very difficult to maintain. It was a coalition between the poorest people in the country and the richest people in the country!

And then there was the need for cotton. That’s one of the reasons they didn’t distribute land to the former slaves: because they thought they’d have to grow cotton. The problem is, there was actually an overproduction of cotton after the war, because the British had encouraged cotton in India and Egypt during the war. There’s a lot more supply in the world than there had been before because the Civil War had cut it off.

The thing is, the agricultural system in the South was not a racial system. It affected blacks more severely but there were more white sharecroppers than black in every census. The crop lien system (which left indebted farmers dependent on cash crops) forced people to grow cotton. So yes, the expansion of cotton production was in the white areas, and that was very detrimental to them because the price was falling throughout this whole period. There was overproduction, so growing cotton was a losing game.

So here you get into total counterfactual fantasy: if they had changed the whole credit system — if, if, if! That’s what the Populists called for [in the 1890s]. Get out of dependence on merchants and banks. Let the government be the one who loans the money to the farmers. It didn’t happen, of course. (Now it happens, but that’s with agribusiness, that’s a different story.) So there are a million problems.

I don’t think Reconstruction in its utopian phase could have succeeded, but I don’t think it’s crazy to imagine more modest kinds of success which would have made the shift over to Jim Crow more difficult.

What do you think about land redistribution, as a counterfactual?

Well, in an agricultural society it’s a lot better to have land than to not have land. Would it have been a panacea for everything? No. The credit system, you’d have had to change that too, because land is not the only scarce resource. It certainly would have given blacks more bargaining power in the system, but it was not the end-all, be-all answer. Most white farmers owned land after the war, but they were losing it through this whole period.

To me, the key thing wouldn’t necessarily have been the direct benefits to African Americans, which were significant but still limited. I’m thinking of the political dynamic. Because that’s the divide that arose later on, the poor whites who owned land and poor blacks who owned nothing. Steven Hahn called them the “propertyless poor.”

Though a lot of whites are losing their property too.

But you know, you can take that even farther. To Thaddeus Stevens, the biggest thing this would have accomplished was to destroy the planter class. Take away their land and they’re gone, and that would have changed the whole political configuration of the South.

I mean, he wanted to sell it to Northerners too.

Forty acres to the blacks and then sell the rest. Then you’ve got a whole different society. That’s a great counterfactual. Blacks would have ended up at the bottom of the economic ladder anyway because they lacked resources, but the whole system would have looked very different.

Okay, let’s do counterfactuals. But let’s say in 1867 blacks get the right to vote, and there’s a general white uprising in the South and you have to send the Army back in. Then people might have said, fuck these guys! This is impossible, we’re gonna take their land away again. Crisis creates that kind of radicalism.

In the dominant discourse, the American Revolution was very moderate, it was legalistic, and that’s good because it was relatively peaceful, unlike the French Revolution. Yet it left slavery in place. And then even the Second American Revolution ended up so moderate and legalistic that it prevented them from doing a lot of radical things — the kind of things you’d imagine the French Jacobins doing had they been in the United States.

Well you know, Georges Clemenceau was here after the war and he was reporting for a French newspaper. He called Thaddeus Stevens the Robespierre of the Second American Revolution. So he saw what was going on.

But on the other hand, the abolition of slavery seems so normal and inevitable in retrospect, yet it was an incredibly radical act. Especially the uncompensated abolition of slavery, the liquidation of what was by far the largest concentration of property in the country — slaves. No compensation was a pretty radical thing. I guess you’re right, it wasn’t radical enough, but it was certainly pretty radical for the nineteenth century.

Lessons for Today’s Radicals

What if some young socialist came up to you and asked, “Is there anything here, in antislavery and Reconstruction, that’s useful for an anti-capitalist, socialist project?”

Yes! First of all though — the abolitionist movement was not an anticapitalist movement.

But it was a radical movement.

Yes, it was a radical movement. The abolitionists show you that a very small group of people can accomplish a lot by changing the discourse of the country. After the Civil War, everybody claimed to have been an abolitionist. But they weren’t!

There weren’t a whole lot of abolitionists before the war. There were a few beleaguered individuals scattered about, in upstate New York, for example. There were only a couple dozen abolitionists in New York City!

Now, there was a free black community, they were very militant, and you could say they were abolitionists, but I’m talking about the organized abolitionist movement. That was very small. Nonetheless, they managed to actually accomplish quite a bit. They pioneered the use of the media of that time — the steam press, the telegraph, the petitions, the traveling speakers — to change public discourse. If you want to learn something from the abolitionists, that’s what you learn. The first thing to do is intervene in public discourse.

And the Occupy movement — success, failure, gone, still around, whatever you want to think about it — it changed the public discourse. It put this question of the 1 percent and the 99 percent, inequality, on the national agenda. That doesn’t mean they’re going to do much about it in Washington, but it is now part of our consciousness, just as by 1840 the abolitionist movement put the issue of slavery on the agenda in a way it had not been. Now, it took twenty years for anything to happen, but I think that’s something to learn from them, how they managed to do that.

Here’s the point. I am a believer in the abolitionist concept — that the role of radicals is to stand outside of the political system. The abolitionists said, “I am not putting forward a plan for abolition, because if I put forward a plan, people are just going to be debating my plan. ‘Oh, it’s going to be two years, five years, seven years.’ No: I’m putting forward the moral imperative of dealing with slavery.” And if people are convinced of that, then politicians will come up with a plan to do it. That means politicians are eventually going to pick up those ideas and use them in other ways and turn them into political strategies.

A guy like Lincoln was not a radical abolitionist by any stretch of the imagination. He was a moderate. And yet by the 1850s Lincoln understood that abolitionists were part of — to use a Karl Rove term — his “base.” Lincoln understood that you don’t win by just appealing to your base, but no politician is going to kick his base out and say “I don’t want to deal with these guys.”

So yes, there are some radical guys in the party, like Joshua Giddings, like Salmon P. Chase. But you know, Giddings represented one very unique district. He was like Bernie Sanders. Not too many Giddingses are going to get elected.

Then how do you interpret the debate among abolitionists, like the split that eventually happened between William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass?

You know, this is where I differ from the tradition I grew up in. I don’t believe there is one true party line that every movement has to have. The Maoist view is better: let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred tactics bloom. Let some people go into politics and other people not go into politics, let some people work above ground and others not. You know, you have the Underground Railroad, you have people working illegally, but you also have people working totally legally and openly. There’s no one correct tactic. The more different tactics you have, the better.

I totally agree with that, but in some ways, Garrison was making the argument that you started out with just now: let’s just stand out and say what’s right. And Douglass said, look, at a certain point, you have to intervene.

But Douglass’s concept of politics is still politics as agitation. He doesn’t support the Republican Party. He supports the Radical Abolition party which gets twenty votes! But the point of that is just to get the idea out there. Politics is another venue for getting your idea out there.

But the idea is out there! In your most recent book, you quote Charles Sumner talking about the “anti-slavery enterprise” as an inclusive movement. Isn’t the striking thing about this moment in American politics the fact that even though they’re at each other’s throats, they’re working towards a common goal? Even though Douglass is trashing Lincoln in his editorials, fundamentally they still build through the Republican Party. This is the real radical moment, in the mid 1850s — when the Republican Party, the antislavery party, wins control of the North. Just a few years earlier that was unimaginable.

No, you’re right. Yes, I make this argument, but I think one should not homogenize things. Douglass and Wendell Phillips are trying to get rid of Lincoln in 1864! They nominate John C. Frémont to run instead. Lincoln and the abolitionists have this odd, interesting relationship. It’s partly symbiotic, it’s partly antagonistic, but these guys are not holding Lincoln’s coat by any means.

Very good historians make very big mistakes talking about this because they look at Douglass’s speeches about Lincoln. But Douglass is a very shrewd guy. He understands you’ve got to get Lincoln on your side, especially after the Civil War. So suddenly Lincoln is the guy who we were all really wrong to criticize, and he was actually a believer in racial justice. By the 1870s he’s trying to invoke Lincoln to get people’s support for Reconstruction.

But as you said, this is politics, right? It’s not about loving each other — it’s about changing the world.

Absolutely. But even though there’s an antislavery enterprise, I still think there’s a fundamental difference between abolitionists and the politicians. I mean, I hope that people on the Left do not just throw up their hands and say, “Well, there’s nobody you can trust.” It’s politics! You make deals. But I also believe that this is the luxury of an intellectual with a full-time job, so I don’t have to worry about it.

But I think radicals shouldn’t be involved in the day to day business of politics. I’m on the board of the Nation, which is not as radical asJacobin, but in our current political climate it’s to the left of the mainstream, let’s put it that way. A lot of our editorial board meetings are about: “Oh God, should we support Hillary? Should we support Obama?” and I say, “Hell no, that’s not even what we should be talking about! We should not be getting involved in Democratic Party internal battles. That’s not what our job is.”

Our job is to put out new ideas, different ideas, pressure people, and I don’t care fundamentally if Obama or Hillary gets the nomination in 2008. Sure I have an opinion about it but I don’t think that’s our job to worry about it. All of this maneuvering, “Oh, what do we do in this or that election.” We are not politicians. Politicians do it better.

In 1864 Lincoln absolutely outmaneuvered these guys, because they weren’t politicians. I mean they put up John C. Frémont. Who the hell is that? Lincoln controlled the machinery.

But there had to be a point at which people with abolitionist views decided that they were going to involve themselves in the process — even if it was the [1848–54] Free Soil Party, or something like that. There was a process of coalition-building in which people who didn’t like each other, who thought they were too radical, or not radical enough, worked together on a common project. It was anti-sectarian, or non-sectarian.

I agree with you. On the other hand, Douglass welcomed the Free Soil Party because its politicians were moving toward antislavery. He didnot welcome the [1840–44] Liberty Party — even though it was more radical than Free Soil — because that was abolitionists moving towards politics. He thought that was a deterioration of the abolitionist statement.

I’m giving you a rigid kind of view of what radicalism is, when what I actually believe is that people should be doing everything at the same time. There is no one correct way. If people want to work in the Democratic Party, let ’em. There are good people in the party, in some places, running.

I’m certainly happy de Blasio was elected here. De Blasio is not Thad Stevens but he’s certainly an improvement on what we’ve had. And I think that’s great. But I don’t think the role of radicals is to just jump on board and say de Blasio’s our man.

Maybe a good example is Thaddeus Stevens. He’s a party man, he’s a politician, but he’s certainly as much an abolitionist as anybody, and more of a racial egalitarian than a lot of people on the Left then.

Even than a lot of Underground Railroad types.

Absolutely. But Thaddeus Stevens is central in the political system. He doesn’t control the Congress, but he’s important. He’s almost like John Boehner today. He’s a key guy in the House of Representatives. So Stevens is another way of looking at it. He’s an abolitionist using a position of power in the political system.

But Stevens also knows how to compromise. He sees what you can get and he takes it. On the Fourteenth Amendment, Charles Sumner initially says he won’t accept it because it recognizes the power of the state to disenfranchise people — it punishes states in terms of numbers of their members in Congress if they don’t allow blacks to vote, but it still allows the possibility of doing it.

Stevens says, “Hey, this is a step toward what we want and we have to do it. It’s imperfect, but we’ve got to take it.”

Same thing with Frederick Douglass on the Emancipation Proclamation: “This is one step.”

One of my numerous differences with President Obama is that a few years ago he went to a college and he was chatting with some students, and he was complaining about liberals criticizing him, and he said, if these guys were around when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, they would have said it’s no good. And I said, wait a minute, the abolitionists didn’t say it was no good! They said it was great, but you’ve got to do more!

I guess why we’re so interested in this juncture between abolitionists and Republicans is just that we’re wondering about the process. You have a situation where Wendell Phillips is invited to the White House in 1862. Thinking about it, that’s like, what, the equivalent of Noam Chomsky being invited to the White House by Obama? That would never happen — it seems impossible for Obama even to say anything about the 99 percent.

I wrote my book about Lincoln, and I wouldn’t say it was written for Obama but I had hoped Obama would read it. Because it’s about exactly how a political figure and a social movement can somehow, not exactly coordinate with each other, but influence one another.

I would like to see Obama inviting the equivalent of Frederick Douglass today, whoever that is, to the White House and listening to him and talking to him about things, asking his advice about things. Lincoln didn’t care when these guys came in and criticized him, he was perfectly happy to learn something from them.

Obama isn’t like that. He’s very thin-skinned. He doesn’t like differences of opinion within his own party. I think that’s a serious flaw. I think for Jacobin — and I say this to the Nation — the number one thing is to put out a different worldview than the dominant one today.

I think the financial crisis has cracked open the old consensus. I read two newspapers in the morning, over breakfast, the New York Timesand the Financial Times. I don’t read them online, I get them delivered to my door, the old-fashioned way. The Financial Times is more radical than the New York Times! You read the Financial Timeson the fiscal crisis, the financial system, they’re up in arms that no banker has gone to jail, about the austerity program. The Financial Times tells you what’s actually happening, it’s amazing.

My point is that the consensus has cracked open, and therefore publications like Jacobin have to put forward an alternative point of view, and worldview, an alternative vision.

The problem is the abolitionists had a vision. It was a society without slavery and with equality for all. And that’s what they put out, but I don’t think they had any concept of what abolition would mean economically, what would be the implications for the country. Yes, they wanted the South to be like the North — more farms, little towns.

But the funny thing is, in New England the factory system was very powerful in the 1840s and the abolitionists didn’t look in their own backyard and say, “What about Irish laborers in the factories?” That’s why I say their vision was basically a moral one.

So let’s talk a little about the vision of the Republican Party. The early GOP brought together both ex-Whigs and ex-Democrats, but the majority had been lifelong Whigs. It was almost sort of an offshoot of the Whigs. The traditional view is that the Whigs were basically elitists. But in the context of the time wasn’t there something historically progressive about their kind of bourgeois liberalism?

You’re right. Of course the Whigs were very skeptical of democracy. In the 1830s, you have the Jacksonians who seem to represent a popular politics of democracy, and yet they’re anti-Indian, they’re racist. Then you have the Whigs who seem to be more forward-looking, but they’re capitalists.

But the guys who come to the fore are the ones who combine things. Lincoln and Seward are more small-d democratic Whigs who see that you can’t run in this country in the 1830s in favor of the elite and say, “Vote for me, I’m for the elite.” Although some Whigs tried. So you get these democratic Whigs who have this forward-looking economic view, but also have a mass politics, which many Whigs are not that comfortable with.

Lincoln’s got the economic progress, free-labor notion, but not the kind of elite finance capitalist thing. Going into Reconstruction, Thaddeus Stevens is actually into inflation, greenbacks. Guys like him have this vision of uplifting everybody through money and credit, low-interest rates. Every man his own capitalist, but without big capitalists out there.

Seward is a very interesting guy, because he tries to get the Whig party to appeal to immigrants. But the Whigs were very nativist, and that’s part of the reason he didn’t get the nomination in 1860. The Know-Nothings didn’t like Seward because when he was governor twenty years before he’d tried to get public money for Catholic schools.

What I meant by the question about the Whigs is that, the way I see it, the Democrats, in addition to their racism, represented a very agrarian, decentralized, yet small-d democratic vision that was opposed to improvement of society through collective means. That’s a very American thing in the sense that Europe, where the suffrage was restricted, really had no equivalent of the Democratic Party.

You’re right. Because in Europe the Industrial Revolution happened before democracy came in. People were excluded as a class and that encouraged class consciousness because people were excluded from the political system as a class. The labor struggle and the political struggle were interconnected with each other. That’s the point ofE. P. Thompson’s book on the English working class. That book is about politics as much as labor, it’s about the struggle for the vote for working-class people.

I think the fundamental thing is that in the US in the nineteenth century, the mainstream of radicalism is based on individual autonomy, equality, and small property. Whether it’s a homestead thing, or even the Knights of Labor later. That’s what the Socialist Party breaks with — the idea that small property will solve capitalism. They say you’ve got to find a more collective solution to this.

Eventually the free labor ideology dies out. But in the nineteenth century the free-labor ideology was the source of much of American radicalism, and there’s no point in going back and saying, “Hey, they shouldn’t have thought that, they should have been socialists.”

That’s the peculiarity of this 1850s moment, isn’t it? This free-labor vision develops that bequeaths industrial capitalism and laissez faire, but at the same time it’s inchoate, it’s undetermined, and labor struggles can come out of it too. And that’s how Lincoln in the 1850s could say nobody should remain a wage earner for life.

But there is no real connection between that and socialism, and indeed there were plenty of socialists then and later, who said, “This is retrograde, this idea of small property being the essence of freedom. It’s a barrier against a collective view of society.” To say that today, however, is unhistorical anyway, because socialism was not on the agenda in 1850.

One thing about free labor is that when it emerges in the fifties, conservative elites in the South had no hesitancy finding anticapitalism in antislavery. They talked about Red Republicans and Black Republicans. They thought the way the antislavery people fundamentally challenged property was dangerous, that it cracked the egg.

The abolitionists always insisted they were not attacking property. They were attacking property in man as an illegitimate thing. Of course, others picked this up, and radical laborites called themselves the new abolitionists later on. When Thaddeus Stevens was proposing confiscating land in the South, there were Northern Republicans who said, “Wait a minute! The Irish are going to start talking about confiscating factories.” Even then they said, slavery was different, it was not legitimate property.

Let’s put it this way: after the Civil War, the free-labor vision becomes the essence of a radical labor critique of the Industrial Revolution.

Yet it also becomes the seed of right-wing laissez-faire . . .

Yes, free labor cracks up on class lines. The labor movement in the twentieth century — it’s not just rhetoric when they said, “We’re the new abolitionists.” Because the free-labor ideal was now under assault.

What we should be talking about is maybe the old Socialist Party, before World War I, Debsian socialism. Because what they had, which the abolitionists didn’t quite have, was an umbrella under which all sorts of groups could find a common ground, whether it’s birth control advocates, labor activists, anti-monopolists, and socialists, people like Debs who had a vision of socialism.

The idea of socialism they had was kind of a vague one, and of course the great historical fallacy is to view it back through the lens of World War I and the Russian Revolution. But before that, this was a large umbrella radical movement, with all sorts of people with very specific aims who could get together.

Today one of our problems is we have a lot of movements going on and they’re sympathetic to one another but they don’t seem to connect with one another. Whether it’s antiracist movements, gay movements, environmentalist — they all seem kind of fragmented. Whereas the Socialist Party, they all came together. You had Emma Goldman in there, you had Debs, you had municipal reformers, Jane Addams, progressives — it was part of the political dynamic of the country.

Even though in 1912 Debs got his million votes — 6 percent, that’s not a hell of a lot — but we’d take it now. But I think that’s a different model than the abolitionist model.

Maybe part of the reason they were able to have this unity with all these different causes was that it was a socialist party, which meant that even though their ideas were vague, what gave form to them was this idea of a different kind of society. People could invest their hopes in that.

Whereas today, with all the various struggles, we don’t have that, there’s no clear alternative.

Well, maybe we need a new word. Socialism unfortunately has gotten a bad name in this country.

It’s pretty popular with our generation, if you believe polls.

Good! If people are willing to talk about socialism, I think that’s gre

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Did the Founding Fathers Believe In American Exceptionalism?

 by Sheldon Stern 

HNN August 14, 2015

In a recent critique of the highly controversial 2015 College Board APUSH revision, Stanley Kurtz of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, faulted the document for its failure to highlight “American exceptionalism,” which he defined as “America’s sense of principled mission, its unique blending of religious and democratic commitment, its characteristic emphasis on local government, the high cultural esteem in which economic enterprise is held, and America’s distinctive respect for individual liberty.”[1]

The idea of “American exceptionalism” has, in fact, become a political hot potato—reflexively embraced on the right and passionately denounced on the left. Perhaps we can gain some valuable insight into the historical merits of this concept by turning to one of the most underappreciated, but arguably the most brilliant of the Revolutionary generation, John Adams.

Adams was confident that the new United States was on the cusp of a brilliant future. But he did not believe that Americans, as a people, were exempt from the flaws and faults of other nations and peoples. “There is no special Providence for Americans … and their nature is the same with that of others. …We are not a chosen people … and we must and we shall go the way of all earth.” Americans, he warned, were not immune to the hubris, greed, and foolishness of the rest of mankind.[2]  He was convinced that negative rather than benign forces had largely shaped—and would continue to shape—human political behavior; and Americans were no exception.

In fact, Adams shared the prevailing view of human nature in the late 18th century: people, especially in the political sphere, were believed to be driven by irrational motives and corrupt passions. Vanity, prejudice and the desire for personal gain were the real motive forces in political behavior. Human beings would therefore appear unlikely to construct an orderly and stable political system.  The framers of the Constitution embraced this view of human nature and endeavored to construct a system to neutralize the problem.  The essence of their solution was to channel this inherently flawed human material into productive ends by balancing harmful things against one another.  The theory of counterpoise (stressed by James Madison in the Federalist Papers) argued that negative human traits could be harnessed and counterbalanced to create a workable and mutually beneficial system. This is the philosophical principle behind the practical implementation of checks and balances in the Constitution.

Americans, Adams believed, were neither unique nor exceptional. Local and representative political institutions, religious freedom and diversity, and a respect for personal liberty and entrepreneurship did not spring full blown from a special gift of (or to) the American people, but were instead essentially the product of an unanticipated set of historical circumstances in which the fledgling nation originated and developed: its remoteness from central political and religious authority in Britain and Europe; its great size and abundant natural resources; its relative lack of inherited and rigid legal, class and social barriers (excluding Native Americans and forcibly imported Africans).

Distinctive socio/political, geographic and economic circumstances enabled the American colonies to gradually develop institutions which, as it turned out, would have a far-reaching impact on the ideas and values of the rest of mankind. “American exceptionalism,” far from being the result of inherent superiority, was largely an unanticipated consequence of historical time and place. Nonetheless, understanding this historical context does not make this “exceptionalism” any less real or any less genuinely revolutionary.

[1] “Sorry, Still No American Exceptionalism in APUSH,” Stanley Kurtz, National Review, August 3, 2015.

[2] Joseph J. Ellis, Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams, 1993, 106-07

Dr. Stern is the author of numerous articles and “Averting ‘the Final Failure’: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings” (2003), “The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis” (2005), and “The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myths vs. Reality” (2012), all in the Stanford University Press Nuclear Age Series. He was Historian at the Kennedy Library from 1977 to 2000.

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Refresher Course: How Bad Was the Corruption in Warren Harding’s Administration? This Bad.

by Rick Shenkman

HNN August 13, 2015

«Warren G Harding-Harris & Ewing» by Harris & Ewing

The name Teapot Dome refers to a tract in Wyoming under which there lay a large pool of oil, one of the giant oil fields of the time.  It is because of the euphony of the name — which alludes to a giant sandstone rock formation that dominates the site and once looked like a teapot but no longer does, alas — that we tend to remember Teapot Dome as a scandal involving oil.  There was much more to it than that, however.  To Americans who lived through it Teapot Dome referred to a long litany of unsavory events involving fraud, intimidation, several overlapping cover-ups, bribes, blackmail, and even sex.  Teapot Dome had it all.

The first whiff of scandal rose up from the Veterans Bureau like the malodorous stench at a badly run pig farm.  Warren Harding, who was president, set up the bureau to handle the claims coming in from the wounded veterans of World War I.  Harding looked with pride upon his creation, which consolidated some half a dozen malfunctioning agencies, and had the biggest budget in the government.  It was one of the accomplishments for which he hoped to be remembered.  Unfortunately, he made the mistake of putting his old drinking buddy Charlie Forbes in charge.  There is a wonderful description of Forbes as a «pursy, rufous, convivial, highly energized individual, full of snappy stories and insinuating gossip boisterous in mirth and fellowship» that suggests why Harding fell for him.  But he shouldn’t have. Forbes was a thief. After he got Harding to give him control of the warehouses where the government stored hospital sheets, pajamas and gauze, among other items purchased for World War I, Forbes arranged for the sale of the stuff at rock bottom prices to a Boston firm run by friends.  It was the deal of a lifetime and it could make you rich.  The company was allowed to buy goods that were worth more than $5 million on the open market for $600,000.  Forbes, of course, took a cut.  He made off even better when he got into the hospital-building business.  Hospitals were needed to take care of wounded vets.  Under a deal with one of his contractors, he received a $50,000 kickback for every hospital that was built.

Harding himself was no paragon of virtue.  Rumors trailed him.  One was that as a newspaper publisher before he got into politics he had colluded with other publishers to rig the bids on county printing contracts so that all of them got a «little slice of the profits.»  The rumor was true.  As a politician he hung around with unsavory people and repeatedly cheated on his wife.  He had a baby with a mistress, Nan Britton, shortly before he became president and enjoyed carnal relations with her in a White House closet.  But he never took responsibility for the child.  In his will he left Nan nothing.  As president he recklessly bought half a million dollars in stocks on margin based on a tip that came through the president of Bethlehem Steel. (The stock plummeted, resulting in a margin call of over $100,000.)  But he considered himself basically honest and as president tried to do the right thing — or told himself he did.  When he found out about Forbes he was furious and heartsick.  «The next afternoon,» Harding’s biographer Francis Russell reports,

a visitor to the White House with an appointment to see the President was directed by mistake to the second floor.  As he approached the Red Room he heard a voice hoarse with anger and on entering saw Harding throttling a man against the wall as he shouted:  «You yellow rat!  You double-crossing bastard!  If you ever …»  Whirling about at the visitor’s approach, Harding loosed his grip and the released man staggered away, his face blotched and distorted.   «I am sorry,» Harding said curtly to his visitor.  «You have an appointment.  Come into the next room.»  On leaving the White House, the visitor asked the doorman who it was who had just gone out after he had come in, and the doorman replied:  «Colonel Forbes of the Veterans Bureau.»

Harding let Forbes flee to Europe, where he resigned.

The story of the oil scandal that is closely identified with Teapot Dome revolves around the man Harding installed to run the interior department:  Senator Albert Bacon Fall. By profession Fall was a New Mexico rancher.  He liked to wear string ties and a broad hat and he looked like a Teddy Roosevelt Rough Rider, which was appropriate, as he had been one. A large walrus mustache hung loosley over his mouth like Yosemite Sam’s adding (to modern eyes) a somewhat comical touch to his appearance.  But there was nothing funny about Albert Fall and you didn’t toy with him.  Once he drove a New Mexico newspaper that was publishing unfavorable articles about him into bankruptcy by having a bank call in a note and pressuring advertisers to stop running ads.  The president had absolute confidence in him.  «If Albert Fall isn’t an honest man,» he told one associate, «I’m not fit to be president of the United States.»  But Fall proved to have as little integrity as Charlie Forbes.

The scandal that led to Fall’s fall from grace began with the project he thought would be what he would be remembered for (to the extent that secretaries of the interior are ever remembered for anything).  It was an ingenious idea and it involved the Navy, which was in the process of switching its ships from coal to oil.  The switch, which had started before the war, was going well thanks to years of careful planning.  Officials had been so careful that they had even purchased huge tracts of land in California and Wyoming that were known to contain large supplies of oil so that their ships would never find themselves stranded for lack of oil.  Three of the biggest reserves were Elk Hills (Naval Petroleum Reserve No. 1) and Buena Vista (Naval Petroleum Reserve No. 2), which were located in the San Joaquin Valley south of Sacramento, and Teapot Dome (Naval Petroleum Reserve No. 3), which lay just north of Caspar, Wyoming. There was just one problem.  The next likely war was expected to be with Japan and that meant the ships would need accessible oil tanks in the Pacific at Pearl Harbor.  And there weren’t any oil facilities there. They would have to be built along with wharves, a shipping canal and the like.  The cost was estimated to run north of $200 million.  Unfortunately, the Navy lacked the requisite funds.  Following the end of World War I military budgets had been slashed as the public became disenchanted with the outcome of the war that was supposed to make the world safe for democracy but didn’t.  Fall’s solution was to lease the reserves to private companies and then divert a certain percentage of the royalties earned from the sale of the oil to the Navy.

The deal attracted controversy from the outset, even from some leaders in the military, who were upset that the interior secretary was involved in a decision involving their oil, but that wasn’t his fault.  The new secretary of the navy under Harding had asked Fall’s department, which oversaw millions of acres of public land, to take over control of the reserves, which were in danger (it was feared) of being drained by nearby wells.  Some also questioned the wisdom of selling oil that had been purchased expressly to provide the Navy with a ready supply in the event of war.  That, in hindsight, seems ludicrous.  The supply of oil in the United States was increasing every year. But at the time not everybody was confident the supply of oil would last, which was why the government had purchased the reserves in the first place.

But these complaints, though serious, weren’t the stuff of scandal.  To have a real, rock-ribbed, blood curdling scandal, something the dictionary says is defined by «an action or event regarded as morally or legally wrong and causing general public outrage,» you need something more.  You need a villain.  You need an Albert Fall.  If you were a novelist you couldn’t do better.  He had the misfortune to be born with a name that seemed to invite jokes once his demise began.  Fall.  It was too good to be true, like something Dickens would concoct.  Better yet, he was like the chef of scandals.  He seemed to know exactly the right ingredients that you need to make a dish that draws an outraged response.

First, as we’ve seen, he came up with the idea of selling the Navy’s oil, which was guaranteed to be controversial among military people who had taken comfort in the fact that the government was sitting on vast supplies.  Then he decided it would be a good idea to sell the oil leases secretly to friends without competitive bidding and without public discussion.  Then he decided to take «gifts» from these friends.  You can see how this didn’t look too good. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.  First, about those friends …

His friends happened to be two of the richest people in America:  Edward Doheney and Harry Sinclair.  Doheney was worth about 100 million dollars.  Sinclair was the founder of the multimillion dollar oil company that still bears his name.  Both were known for using their money to buy influence in Washington. Doheney’s dealings particularly smelled.  Recently, he had hired one Franklin Lane at a salary of $50,000 a year, a salary equal to what Woodrow Wilson earned just a few years earlier as president of the United States before the salary of the president was increased.  What merited this extravagance? Lane had been Wilson’s secretary of the interior and had useful contacts. Doheney bragged that he hired four of Wilson’s cabinet secretaries «for their influence.»

Inevitably, news of the land deals with Doheney and Sinclair leaked, immediately causing a ruckus among local oil men.  A Denver newspaper, fed information by a politician with oil holdings in Wyoming, began running frontpage stories about a land grab.  A New Mexico newspaper began reporting that Fall had recently started making major improvements on his  ranch, installing new wells and irrigation ditches, which raised questions.  Was Fall using his position in Washington to his personal benefit?  It turned out, he was.

Fall had decided — innocently, of course, he always claimed — to use his connections with Doheney and Sinclair to improve his situation.  It started with a visit Sinclair made to Fall’s ranch.  The two men, sitting in front of a warm fire, were discussing the Teapot Dome lease when Fall happened to mention that he sure wished he had some milking cows but unfortunately, he couldn’t afford them.  No worries, said Sinclair.  He had some he didn’t need.  When he went back home to New Jersey Sinclair sent Fall a barn’s worth of farm animals including six heifers, a bull, two young boars, four pigs, and an English thoroughbred.  Encouraged, Fall then thought, he later claimed, it would be a good idea to bring Sinclair in as a partner in his ranch, which hadn’t been doing too well.  So he reoganized his ranch holdings under a new company and supposedly sold a third interest to Sinclair, Sinclair paying for his share with two installments of bonds.  The first one was worth $198,000, the second $35,000.  Sinclair also ponied up $36,000 to cover operating expenses and made two other payments of $10,000 and $25,000.  Yet nowhere on any official document could you find Harry Sinclair’s name identifying him as a partner in the operation.  The reason is obvious.  Sinclair never was a partner.  The money was paid to help grease the oil deal, a deal that garnered Sinclair $17 million in instant profits after his company’s stock went up in price.  Fall kept the payments secret because they would look bad if disclosed (because they were bad).

Fall’s dealings with Doheney were also secret and just as brazen.  One day Doheney had his son go to their brokerage house, Blair Company, to pull out a cool $100,000.  In cash.  Then, in a scene that sounds like it came from a Hollywood movie, the young Delaney put the money in a black satchel and headed over to Washington D.C.’s Wardman Park Hotel on Woodley Road where Fall lived and handed it over.  Needless to say, the money wasn’t reported.  On his next trip back home Fall simply packed the money along with his suitcase and off he went.  In all Albert Fall’s dealings with his rich friends, Doheney and Sinclair, netted him a small fortune:  $404,000.

While Charlie Forbes was cleaning out the Veterans Bureau and Albert Fall was making bank with his buddies in the oil business, the attorney general, Harry Daugherty, was busy using his office to help select businesses escape prosecution.  The most egregious case involved the Wright-Martin Aircraft Corporation.  Investigators had found that the company had failed to deliver aircraft bought and paid for during the war, defrauding the government of $2,267,342.  It was an open and shut case.  The company was supposed to deliver aircraft for the battle in France.  The company never delivered any.  Daugherty, however, decided not to prosecute.  This infuriated the lead investigator, who resigned.  What could possibly have been Dougherty’s reason?  He never explained.  But it may have been owing to his owning stock in the company.  He owned 500 shares when he took office.  Sometime during his tenure as attorney general he accumulated another 2,000.

That gives you an idea of Daugherty’s moral bearings.  But it barely begins to suggest the brazen breadth of his larceny.  A case which does involved the Alien Property Bureau.  This was an office set up during World War I to confiscate enemy property.  If you were German and you owned property in the United States the government claimed the right to take possession of it without compensation.  Of particular interest were companies involved in war-related industries such as metals. One of these companies was the American Metal Company.  Despite the name it was owned by a German family.  In 1917 the Bureau confiscated the company and sold it to buy Liberty Bonds.  This raised some $6 million dollars for the war effort, making it one of the bureau’s largest single acts of confiscation.  (Half a billion dollars in property was confiscated in all during the war.)

After the war the German family that had owned the company wanted to be compensated.  The American Metal Company wasn’t actually a German company, they claimed.  A month before war broke out with the United States, the family had transferred the ownership of the parent company to a Swiss outfit.  In their eyes this made the company Swiss.  This was arguable since they conceded that the family actually retained ownership of the company. But this wasn’t what was so remarkable about the case.  What was remarkable was that they didn’t have any paperwork to back up their assertion that the company had been sold and reconstituted as a firm based in Switzerland.  The transfer allegedly had been made by oral agreement.

On its face this was about as weak a case as was possible.  No paperwork?  No proof?  See you later.  But in Washington under Harding there were ways to overcome a bad case.  You just had to know the right people.  The German family knew this but didn’t know who the right people were or how to get to them.  So they asked around.  Somebody suggested they should go see John King.  It turned out he was exactly the right person to go see.  For King, a GOP political hack, knew Jess Smith and Smith knew everybody who counted in Harding’s Washington.  If you wanted to get things done, it was said, go see Smith.  It wasn’t, in fact, entirely true.  Smith gave off the appearance that he could get things done but often he couldn’t.  While he knew everybody he didn’t have them all in his hip pocket.  But he happened to have the one person who counted in this situation, his roommate at the Wardman Park Hotel (yes, the same hotel where Albert Fall had a suite).  His roommate was Attorney General Harry Daugherty.

In a short matter of time Smith set up a meeting for the family with the head of the Alien Property Bureau and himself.  One day later exactly the bureau decided the case in the family’s favor, awarding them an amount greater than the value placed on the company at the time it was confiscated.  The family would get their money back plus interest.  The payment was to be made in the form of checks and bonds.  The checks came to:  $6,453,979 and 97 cents.  The bonds were worth $514,350. One more step was needed, however.  The deal had to be approved by the United States government’s official approver in such matters.  This was Attorney General Harry Daugherty.  This turned out not to be a problem.  Two days later he affixed his signature to the document.   And that was that.

But that wasn’t the end of the story.  There was a coda.  To express their gratitude for the speed and size of the compensation package the German family decided their new government friends deserved a reward.  They gave King, the party hack, $391,300 in bonds and $50,000 in cash.  King, in turn, gave $50,000 to the head of the Alien Property Bureau, and $224,000 to Jess Smith, the man-about-town, who promptly put at least $50,000 into a mysterious joint account («Extra No. 3») which he and Attorney General Daugherty, his roommate, controlled.  No doubt more made its way to Daugherty through other means.

One day in the summer of 1923, as Harding was making his way west by train across the country on a long and arduous speaking tour, he conferred with his secretary of commerce, Herbert Hoover, whom Harding had invited along on the trip.  Hoover later recalled what ensued:

When we were a few days out, Harding asked me to come to his cabin. He plumped at me the question: ‘If you knew of a great scandal in our administration, would you for the good of the country and the party expose it publicly or would you bury it?’ My natural reply was ‘Publish it, and at least get credit for integrity on your side.’  I asked for more particulars. He said that he had received some rumors of irregularities, centering around Smith, in connection with cases in the Department of Justice. He had followed the matter up and finally sent for Smith. After a painful session he told Smith that he would be arrested in the morning. Smith went home, burned all his papers, and committed suicide.

Harding, troubled by what he had learned about both Smith and others (including Charlie Forbes, the official who’d fled to Europe), found sleeping difficult.  He complained that he wasn’t feeling well, forcing the cancellation of many of his scheduled appearances.  Nonetheless he carried on, traveling to Alaska, where he became the first president to visit the territory.  On his way back, as his train headed to San Francisco, exhausted and worn down by a job he protested he wasn’t qualified to hold, he laid down on his bed, his head jerked, and he died.

Harding passed away before the worst of the Teapot Dome scandals became public. At the time so few of the scandals had come to light that he remained a respectable figure.  Millions turned out to watch his funeral train go by.  His body lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda on the same catafalque that had held Abraham Lincoln’s.  His hometown in Ohio even made plans to remember him with a large 48 columned Greek-style memorial made out of white Georgian marble. Unfortunately, by the time it was ready, in 1927, the public had long since lost interest in him. Too much had happened.

Jess Smith, paranoid and afraid, committed suicide, of course.  Charlie Forbes, the fellow who stole the Veterans Bureau blind, resigned and ultimately was prosecuted after returning from Europe.  He spent eight months in prison.  Albert Fall, the secretary of the interior, took the Fifth when he testified at a Senate hearing and was tried for conspiracy.  He was sentenced to prison for a year.  He was the first member of a presidential cabinet to be convicted of a crime in connection with his official duties.  His business friends Sinclair and Doheney were also prosecuted, but protected by a phalanx of high-priced attorneys, managed to evade harsh penalties.  Though Fall had been found guilty of accepting a bribe from Doheney, Doheney himself was acquitted of giving it to him. Sinclair got six months in the D.C. jail for criminal contempt in connection with an attempt at jury tampering. This was on top of a three month sentence for failing to answer questions put to him by the Senate.  And Attorney General Daugherty?  After being forced to resign he was tried twice and acquitted twice. Harding’s girlfriend Nan published a memoir in which she laid out all of the lurid details of their affair.  She referred to their baby as The President’s Daughter, the title she gave her book.

Despite the scandal Ohio officials pressed for a grand opening of the Harding memorial in 1931.  They invited Calvin Coolidge, who’d succeeded Harding as president, and Herbert Hoover, who’d succeeded Coolidge and was now the incumbent.  Though Coolidge and Hoover had both served in the Harding administration, they agreed to accept the invitation only grudgingly.  Warren Harding had by then become the president presidents wanted to forget — as did the country.

Rick Shenkman, the founder and editor of the History News Network, is the author of Presidential Ambition. His newest book is Political Animals: How Our Stone Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (January 2016).


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Inside the Crazy Back-Channel Negotiations That Revolutionized Our Relationship With Cuba

Mother Jones    September/October 2015
 Inside the Crazy Back-Channel Negotiations That Revolutionized Our Relationship With Cuba
On a rainy day last December, President Barack Obama gathered a small group of senior officials in the Oval Office and placed a telephone call to Raúl Castro. Sitting on a couch to Obama’s left were National Security Council aides Benjamin Rhodes and Ricardo Zuniga, personal emissaries whose 18 months of secret negotiations were about to culminate in the first substantive conversation between the presidents of the United States and Cuba in more than half a century.

Obama later told reporters that he’d apologized to Castro for talking for such a long time. «Don’t worry about it, Mr. President,» Castro responded. «You’re still a young man and have still the time to break Fidel’s record—he once spoke seven hours straight.» After Castro finished his own lengthy opening statement, Obama joked, «Obviously, it runs in the family.»

Raúl Castro meets with President Obama on the sidelines of the 7th Summit of the Americas in Panama City, Panama in April, 2015. Estudio Revolucion/Xinhua/ZUMA

Despite the levity, both leaders understood the seriousness of their 45-minute conversation. «There was,» one White House official recalled, «a sense of history in that room.»

At noon the next day, the two presidents stunned the world when they simultaneously announced the dramatic breakthrough. Obama repudiated 55 years of US efforts to roll back the Cuban revolution, declaring that peaceful coexistence made more sense than perpetual antagonism. Both leaders described a prisoner exchange that had occurred earlier that morning. For «humanitarian reasons,» Cuba had released Alan Gross, incarcerated since December 2009 for setting up illicit satellite communications networks as part of a US Agency for International Development (USAID) «democracy promotion» program. Cuba also released Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, a CIA spy whom Obama called «one of the most important intelligence agents that the United States has ever had in Cuba.» In return, Obama commuted the sentences of the last three members of the «Cuban Five» spy ring—Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, and Ramón Labañino—imprisoned for 16 years after they were caught infiltrating anti-Castro Cuban American groups and providing information that (the United States claimed) allowed Cuba to shoot down two planes flown into its airspace by an exile group, killing four Cuban Americans. (The other two members of the Cuban Five had been releasedearlier, having completed their sentences.)

 But the prisoner exchange was only the beginning. Obama promised to loosen restrictions on travel and trade, and authorize telecommunications companies to bring internet services to the island. For its part, Cuba pledged to release 53 political prisoners and engage with the International Red Cross and United Nations on human rights and prison conditions. Most importantly, the two presidents agreed to reestablish diplomatic relations. On July 20, Cuba’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodríguez, traveled to Washington to raise the Cuban flag over the former embassy on 16th Street; on August 14 Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Havana to reopen our embassy in the sleek, modernist structure built for that purpose in 1953.

What brought about this radical change was a unique alignment of political stars: a shift in public opinion, particularly among Cuban Americans; a transition in Cuban leadership from Fidel to Raúl, followed by Cuba’s slow but steady evolution toward a market socialist economy; and Latin American leaders no longer willing to accept Cuba’s exclusion from regional affairs. Seizing the opportunity were a handful of dedicated US legislators, well-financed lobbyists, Alan Gross’ aggressive legal team, an activist pope from Latin America, and a woman hell-bent on getting pregnant.

But one factor trumped the rest: Obama’s determination. He was, one top aiderecalls, «a president who really wanted to do it.»


Obama’s push to break «the shackles of the past» began shortly after his reelection, when, according to one aide, he «told us we needed to design a play to run with Cuba.» By April 2013, Obama had chosen Rhodes and Zuniga to lead the negotiations. Rhodes had joined Obama’s 2008 campaign as a speechwriter and was personally close to the president. «All it takes is one Google search for these guys to know that Ben speaks to the president, and has daily access, and can be a trusted back channel,» explained a former White House official. Zuniga, meanwhile, had served in the US Interests Section in Havana (the embassy stand-in) and as the State Department’s acting coordinator for Cuban affairs.

Over the next 18 months, the two men met nine times with a small team of Cuban officials in various locales, from Ottawa to Rome. From the start, it was clear that before any discussion of normalizing relations could occur, both countries wanted their imprisoned citizens released.

But US officials believed that such a direct exchange would be politically toxic. Instead, they hoped their growing rapport would convince the Cubans to free Gross. As a show of good faith, they arranged for the wives of Hernández and González to secretly visit them. In exchange, the Cubans permitted Judy Gross regular visits with her husband, held in a military hospital in Havana.

«We thought this would lead to the release of Alan Gross,» one US official recalls. But the Cubans continued to hold out for the swap, even as the parole dates for two of their five spies neared. Eventually US negotiators realized their strategy was doomed. In May 2012, Clinton received a memo from her team that stated: «We have to continue negotiating with the Cubans on the release of Alan Gross but cannot allow his situation to block an advance of bilateral relations…The Cubans are not going to budge. We either deal with the Cuban Five or cordon those two issues off.»

The memo hit at an opportune time. Clinton and Obama had just returnedfrom the Sixth Summit of the Americas, where they’d been chastised by heads of states furious over the US stance on Cuba. «It was clearly an irritant and a drag on our policy in the region,» says Roberta S. Jacobson, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs.

Clinton had previously pushed the White House to liberalize regulations on educational travel to Cuba, finally going directly to the president to bypass White House aides worried about political fallout. In the wake of the summit debacle, she instructed her deputy to assemble what one adviser called «the full monty» of potential actions to change Cuba policy. «I recommended to President Obama that he take another look at our embargo,» Clinton recalls in her memoir. «It wasn’t achieving its goals and it was holding back our broader agenda across Latin America.»

Following his reelection, Obama approached Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry about replacing Clinton as secretary of state—and immediately raised the prospect of a new approach to Cuba. Kerry was receptive. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he’d been a vocal critic of the USAID democracy promotion programs that financed Gross’ secret missions to Cuba. Kerry had also long opposed the US economic embargo, and played a key role in normalizing relations with Vietnam—a triumph he hoped to repeat with Cuba.

Still, when a new round of secret talks began in June 2013, Kerry was not privyto them. Only a handful of US officials knew, among them Vice President Joe Biden, White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, and National Security Advisor Susan Rice. No one at the Pentagon was «read in.» Although Kerry was eventually brought into the loop, «we kept it fairly tight on our side, and the Cubans, I think, did the same on their side,» a senior US official said. «We didn’t want any wrench to be thrown in the gears that could complicate attempts to secure Alan Gross’ release.»

The effort at secrecy was aided by Canada, which allowed the two sides to meet in Ottawa and later Toronto. The Cubans’ top priority was still getting their spies back—particularly Gerardo Hernández, who, as the ringleader of the Cuban Five and the broader crew of spies known as the «Wasp Network,» was serving two life sentences. Zuniga and Rhodes came to the table with a more fluid approach. «We had no fixed vision of what an agreement would be,» recalls a White House official knowledgeable about the talks. Instead, they wanted to «try out different formulas» to explore what could be agreed on. «We never went in thinking there would be a grand bargain.»

But politically the White House was in a tricky spot. If all that came out of the talks was a prisoner exchange and a few travel and trade tweaks, Obama’s initiative would not register as a serious policy change. Lifting the embargowas in Congress’ hands, but restoring diplomatic ties was the one dramatic action he could take unilaterally.

«Look, I wasn’t even born when this policy was put in place,» he told the Cubans. «We want to hear and talk about the future.»

During the first negotiating sessions, the US team had to listen to the Cubans recite the long history of US depredations against the island, starting with the Spanish-American War in 1898. To old hands, it was the requisite throat-clearing to be endured before getting down to real business. But Rhodes had no prior dealings with Cuba and at one point interrupted the diatribe. «Look, I wasn’t even born when this policy was put in place,» he told the Cubans. «We want to hear and talk about the future

Historical disagreements were only the beginning. The US team wasn’t willing to talk about the USAID programs or Guantán­amo; the Cubans weren’t willing to discuss human rights or US fugitives hiding in their country. «There were a lot of dry wells for us and for them,» according to a White House official. Both sides were eager to talk about the prisoners, but a straight-up trade—Gross for the three remaining members of the Cuban Five—was still a nonstarter for the White House. The president had said repeatedly that Gross had done nothing wrong, was not a spy, and therefore could not be exchanged for spies. In the administration’s public portrayal of Gross, he was just a development specialist attempting to bring internet access to Cuba’s small Jewish community. To the Cubans, Gross was a covert operative engaged in a program to subvert their government, and the Cuban Five were patriots protecting their country against the far-right zealots of Little Havana.

To break the deadlock, the US negotiators raised the case of Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, who’d been a top CIA mole inside Cuban intelligence until his arrest in the mid-1990s. Sarraff had provided the United States with information that led to the prosecution of many Cuban spies, including Ana Montes, the Defense Intelligence Agency’s top Cuba specialist; State Department employee Walter Kendall Myers and his wife, Gwendolyn; and the Wasp Network—including the Cuban Five.

During negotiations in Toronto in January 2014, the Americans suggested that if the ailing Gross were released on humanitarian grounds, they would swap the three Cuban spies for Sarraff. But the Cubans did not want to give up Sarraff—a double agent they considered so treacherous they’d held him in solitary for 18 years.

Left: Alan Gross greets Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) on Dec. 17, 2014. Right: Gross departs Havana with his wife, Judy Gross, attorney Scott Gilbert, and members of Congress. Lawrence Jackson/White House

Negotiations got even pricklier in May 2014, when the Obama administration announced it was swapping five Taliban leaders held at Guantánamo for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, a US soldier captured and imprisoned by the Taliban since 2009. The political uproar in Congress and the media was intense, especially after Bergdahl was reported to have deserted his post. From the US perspective, this made a similar trade with Cuba completely out of the question. The Cubans, however, figured that since Washington had traded five Taliban combatants for one US soldier, the White House would eventually agree to trade their three spies for Alan Gross.

It took months of negotiations for US diplomats to convince the Cubans that the only exchange the White House could abide would be trading spies for spies, namely the Cuban agents for Sarraff. Finally the Cubans relented, and talks turned to what one US official describes as «a bigger package»—including the restoration of full diplomatic relations.


In defending the Bergdahl deal, Obama officials cited intelligence indicating his mental and physical health were deteriorating after five years of captivity. They faced a similarly dire situation with Alan Gross. More than four years after being arrested, Gross was despondent over the administration’s inability to obtain his freedom. At one point he lost more than 100 pounds. By December 2013, when the coauthor of this article, Peter Korn­bluh, visited him in the military hospital where he was held, he seemed determined to get out on his own—dead or alive. «I’m a ticking time bomb. Tick. Tick. Tick,» Gross warned during the three-hour visit, in which he alluded to a plan to break down the «flimsy» door of his cell and challenge the heavily armed guards on the other side. A few months later, in April 2014, Gross went on a nine-dayhunger strike. On his 65th birthday on May 2, he announced it would be the last he would spend in a Cuban jail.

When Gross’ terminally ill, 92-year-old mother, Evelyn, took a severe turn for the worse in late May, negotiations became urgent. Meeting in Ottawa in early June, the Cubans pushed for a quick prisoner trade, expressing their fear that Gross would kill himself when his mother passed away. US officials, meanwhile, worried that if Gross died in a Cuban prison, a change in US policy would become politically impossible.

Kerry reached out to Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodríguez and proposed a «furlough» to the United States—Gross would wear an electronic bracelet to allow the Cubans to monitor his movements, and he would return to prison after his mother’s death. «Alan promised unequivocally that he would return to incarceration in Cuba after visiting his mother at the hospital in Texas,» his lawyer Scott Gilbert recalls, «and I offered to take his place until he returned. That is how important this was.»

But the Cubans considered the plan too risky. After Evelyn Gross died on June 18, 2014, Kerry warned Rodrí­guez that if any harm came to Gross while in Cuba’s custody, the opportunity for better relations would be lost.

Left: Alan Gross talks with President Obama onboard a government plane headed back to the United States. Right: Gross arrives at at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. Lawrence Jackson/White House

Gross was in «a difficult state of mind,» Gilbert recalls. As the summer progressed, he refused to meet with officials from the US Interests Section who routinely brought him care packages, and he told his wife and daughter that unless he was released soon, he’d never see them again. His lifeline was Gilbert, who pressed the Cubans to allow him to speak to Gross every day, and who traveled to Cuba 20 times to sustain his client’s morale.


Gross was also taking regular calls from Tim Rieser, a top aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). Rieser was instrumental in securing better conditions for Gross in return for one of the more unusual confidence-building measures in the annals of diplomacy—a long-distance effort to impregnate the wife of Gerardo Hernández, the jailed Cuban spymaster.

This idea was first conceived in early 2011, when the head of Cuba’s Interests Section in Washington met with the State Department’s Julissa Reynoso to deliver a diplomatic note stating that Cuba did not see «any solution» to the incarceration of Hernández and that his wife, Adriana Pérez, was nearing the age of 40. Cuba sought US support to «facilitate» her ability to get pregnant.

It was one of the more unusual confidence-building measures in the annals of diplomacy—a long-distance effort to impregnate the wife of Gerardo Hernández, the jailed Cuban spymaster.

After what she calls a «sensitive» meeting on the matter, Reynoso explored the possibility of a secret conjugal visit between Pérez and her husband, but efforts to arrange such a rendezvous «fizzled out» due to Bureau of Prisons regulations. Two years later, in February 2013, Pérez met with Leahy, who was visiting Cuba with his wife, Marcelle. In a Havana hotel room, Pérez made an impassioned appeal to the Leahys to help her find a way to have a child with her husband, who had been in jail for 15 years. «It was an emotional meeting,»Leahy remembers. «She made a personal appeal to Marcelle. She was afraid that she would never have the chance to have a child. As parents and grandparents, we both wanted to try to help her. It was a human thing. It had nothing to do with the politics of the two countries.» But it would.

Leahy asked Rieser to find a solution. A conjugal visit was a nonstarter, but there was precedent for allowing an inmate to provide sperm for artificial insemination. Eventually, Rieser secured approval and the Cubans flew Pérez to a fertility clinic in Panama.

Meanwhile, Rieser was pressing the Cubans to improve the conditions for Gross: «I wanted to make clear to them that we cared about the treatment of their people, just as we expected them to care about the treatment of ours.» The Cubans reciprocated, permitting Gross to be examined by his own doctors, giving him a computer and printer, and allowing him more outdoor exercise.

As Pérez’s pregnancy became obvious, the State Department asked the Cubans to keep her out of the public eye, lest her condition stir speculation that a US-Cuban rapprochement was in the works. «We had given our word to keep the pregnancy and all of the process around it a secret in order not to prejudice the greater objective, which was our freedom,» Hernández later explained. When he landed in Cuba, state television showed him being greeted by Raúl Castro and, to the astonishment of his countrymen, a nine-months-pregnant wife. Three weeks later, on January 6, 2015, their baby girl, Gema Hernández Pérez, was born.

Although Leahy’s «stork diplomacy» contributed to the success of the Cuba-US negotiations, even he was unaware of the secret talks underway. Meanwhile, he served as the unofficial leader of a group of senators and representatives who pressed Obama and his aides for change at every opportunity. «All of us had been pushing the president when we saw him at ceremonial functions for a few seconds—telling him, ‘You’ve got to do something on Cuba,'» recalls Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.).

Leahy decided that to get the attention of the president, a former legal scholar, he’d have to flesh out the legal basis to release the Cuban spies. The senator’s staff collaborated with former White House counsel Greg Craig to draft a 10-page memo of options «to secure Mr. Gross’ release, and in so doing break the logjam and change the course of U.S. policy towards Cuba, which would be widely acclaimed as a major legacy achievement.» The document, dated February 7, laid out a course of action that would prove to be a close match with the final accord. «It was a damn good memo,» Craig says.

Still, it took until May 1 before Leahy, along with Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Reps. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and McGovern, finally met in the Oval Office with Obama, Biden, and Susan Rice. They urged Obama to press for Gross’ release and replace the policy of hostility with one of engagement. «You said you were going to do this,» McGovern reminded the president. «Let’s just do it!»

«We’re working on it,» Obama told them, but he gave no hint of the back-channel diplomacy then well underway.

«There was a bit of tension with the president. We’re pushing him, and he’s pushing back,» McGovern recalls. «We were pretty aggressive.» At the meeting’s end, the members were not very optimistic. «We were not reassured that this was going to happen.»


Three days earlier, a series of billboards appeared in the Washington Metro stations nearest to the White House and State Department. «Mr. President, it’s time to take action on Cuba policy,» read one. Another declared, «The American people are our best ambassadors. It’s time to allow all persons to travel freely to Cuba.» The ads, which generated significant media buzz, were sponsored by a new advocacy group, #CubaNow, which positioned itself as the voice of the younger, more moderate Cuban American community in Miami.

#CubaNow was the brainchild of the Trimpa Group, an unusual organization that matched deep-pocketed donors seeking to change policy with a political strategy and advocacy campaign. In 2003, for example, founder Ted Trimpa developed a lobbying strategy to mount a marriage-equality movement across the country financed by multimillionaire businessman Tim Gill.

Nine years later, in October 2012, Gill traveled to Cuba on a US-licensed tour with a wealthy friend, Patty Ebrahimi, who was born and raised in Cuba but left with her family a year after Fidel Castro seized power. Ebrahimi chafed under the restrictions of the tour imposed by US Treasury regulations. She couldn’t go off on her own to visit the neighborhoods of her youth, track down family friends, or see her old schools. «The idea that I could go anywhere else in the world, including Vietnam, North Korea, or Iran, without special permission from the US government but couldn’t go to Cuba without a license angered me,» she recalled. As she vented her frustrations to Gill in the lounge of the Saratoga Hotel in Havana, he offered a suggestion: «You should use your money to change the policy.» A few months later, he introduced Ebrahimi to Trimpa.

Gerardo Hernandez with his wife Adriana Perez after the birth of their daughter.

Gerardo Hernández with his wife Adriana Pérez after the birth of their daughter. Estudios Revolucion

After conducting a three-month survey of the political landscape, the Trimpa Group reported that «the highest level of decision makers within the Obama administration» wanted change—they just needed political reinforcement to push for it. After consulting with her husband, Fred, the former CEO and owner of Quark Software Inc., Patty gave the lobby shop $1 million to finance a campaign to embolden the White House.

«My decision to take up this work was an emotional one,» she later said. «We did it because we wanted to help,» Fred Ebrahimi noted. «We did it because we thought we could be effective.»

The Trimpa Group pulled out all the stops. It counseled Ebrahimi to make donations to key political figures such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Durbin—donations intended to gain access and «be in the room,» according to Trimpa’s strategic plan. The lobby shop hired Luis Miranda, who had recently left his position as Obama’s director of Hispanic media, and sought the blessing of Jim Messina, Obama’s deputy chief of staff, to launch a public campaign promoting a change in Cuba policy. The Trimpa team also met with key foreign policy officials. To all the players, the Trimpa Group insisted that there would be no political blowback for Democrats in Florida if Obama changed Cuba policy. To bolster that argument, they financed a series of opinion polls. One, conducted by an Obama pollster, John Anzalone, found that Cuban Americans in Florida—especially the younger generation—favored engagement. And the Atlantic Council conducted a national poll sponsored by Trimpa that found, as a New York Times headline would put it, that a «Majority of Americans Favor Ties With Cuba.»

The polls were intended to «show broad support for change,» «create a new normal,» and «give voice to the silent majority,» says James Williams, the political operative who oversaw the Trimpa Group’s efforts.

Williams also had the support of groups key to the Cuba debate, ranging from funding powerhouses (like Atlantic Philanthropies, the Ford Foundation, and the Christopher Reynolds Foundation) to policy shops (the Washington Office on Latin America, the Center for Democracy in the Americas, and the Latin America Working Group) to elite think tanks (Brookings and the Council of the Americas).

On May 19, 2014, this coalition released an open letter to Obama signed by 46 luminaries of the policy and business world, urging the president to engage with Cuba. The signatories included former diplomats and retired military officers—among them former UN Ambassador Thomas Pickering—and Cuban American business leaders like Andres Fanjul, co-owner of a Florida-based multinational sugar company. But the name that attracted the most attention was John Negroponte, George W. Bush’s director of national intelligence.

The same day, not coincidentally, the conservative US Chamber of Commerce announced that its president, Tom Donohue, would lead a delegation to Cuba to «develop a better understanding of the country’s current economic environment and the state of its private sector.»

Soon after that, the New York Times launched a two-month editorial series slugged «Cuba: A New Start.» The weekly editorials were the work of Ernesto Londoño, who talked to administration officials, Leahy’s office, and the Trimpa Group. «There was really no collusion or formal cooperation in what they were doing and what we were doing,» he told Terry Gross on Fresh Air. The Times simply saw an opportunity to push the policy it advocated forward. «We figured it was worthwhile to give it a shot.»

All these forces, in other words, were marshaled to push Obama through a door whose threshold he had already crossed.


And let’s not forget the pope.

Even as the secret negotiations continued, members of Congress kept looking for allies to press Obama on Cuba, and provide him cover from attacks from the right. In a September 2013 meeting at Rice’s office, Durbin floated a new idea: What about getting the new pope involved? As the first pontiff from Latin America, Francis knew Cuba well. After accompanying Pope John Paul II on his 1998 visit to the island, Francis—then the assistant archbishop of Buenos Aires—had written a short book about the trip, Dialogues Between John Paul II and Fidel Castro. And the Vatican had credibility with Havana because of its consistent opposition to the embargo.

Raul Castro talks with Pope Francis

Pope Francis talks with Cuban President Raúl Castro during a private audience at the Vatican May 10, 2015. Gregorio Borgia/Pool/Reuters

All parties saw the wisdom of divine intervention. Leahy sent a confidential message to Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega, asking him to encourage the pope to help resolve the prisoner issue. Drawing on the close ties between Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, the White House also «got word to the Vatican that the president was eager to discuss this» at an upcoming meeting in March with the pope in Rome, according to Craig. And at a strategy meeting of the Cuba advocacy groups, Tim Phillips of the peace group Beyond Conflict suggested approaching Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston. «We knew that O’Malley was very close to the pope,» recalled Craig, who had ties to the Catholic Church hierarchy in Boston from his days as a foreign policy aide to Sen. Ted Kennedy. «O’Malley had spent time in Latin America, spoke Spanish fluently, had known the pope before he became pope, and had a relationship with the pope that was unusual, certainly much, much better than McCarrick’s.»

In early March 2014, a small group of Cuba policy advocates, including representatives of the Trimpa Group, Phillips, and Craig, met with Cardinal O’Malley in the rectory of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston. «We explained the recent trends, the conversations with POTUS and others in the administration and Congress,» Phillips recalls, «and indicated this was a historic moment, and a message from the pope to POTUS would be significant in moving the process forward.» Craig brought a letter from Leahy urging the cardinal to focus the pope’s attention on the «humanitarian issue» of the prisoner exchange. Leahy personally delivered a similar message to Cardinal McCarrick, and arranged for yet another to be sent to Cardinal Ortega in Havana. There now were three cardinals urging the pope—as yet unaware of the secret dialogue between Washington and Havana—to put Cuba on the agenda with Obama.

Three weeks later, Obama met the pope in his private library, a marble-floored chamber overlooking St. Peter’s Square. There, they spoke for an hour under a frieze of Renaissance frescoes. Obama «told the pope that we had something going with Cuba and said it would be useful if he could play a role,» according to a White House official familiar with the meeting. A few days later, Francis summoned Ortega to enlist his help.

Over the summer, the pope wrote forceful, confidential letters to Obama and Raúl Castro, imploring the two leaders «to resolve humanitarian questions of common interest, including the situation of certain prisoners, in order to initiate a new phase in relations.» To safeguard his communications, the pope sent both letters via papal courier to Havana—with instructions to Cardinal Ortega to personally deliver the message into the president’s hands. Ortega then sent his top aide to Washington to advance his clandestine diplomatic mission. But arranging a secret face-to-face meeting with the president of the United States was easier said than done. Alerted to the problem, Cardinal McCarrick conferred with White House officials, who enlisted his help as a secret back-channel go-between. In early August, McCarrick traveled to Cuba carrying a note from Obama that asked Ortega to entrust McCarrick with delivering the pope’s letter to the White House. But Ortega’s papal instructions were to deliver the message himself. McCarrick left Cuba empty-handed.

To make sure the meeting did not leak, US officials kept Cardinal Ortega’s name off of the White House visitor logs. Meeting with the president on the patio adjacent to the Rose Garden, Ortega delivered the pope’s letter in which Francis offered to «help in any way.»

Back in Washington, McCarrick worked with McDonough to arrange a secret meeting for Ortega with the president. On the morning of August 18, Ortega gave a talk at Georgetown University—providing a cover story for his presence in Washington—and then quietly went to the White House. (To make sure the meeting did not leak, US officials kept Ortega’s name off the White House visitor logs.) Meeting with the president on the patio adjacent to the Rose Garden, Ortega finally completed his mission of delivering the pope’s sensitive communication, in which he offered to «help in any way.»

It was a convoluted process, but an unprecedented gesture. «We haven’t received communications like this from the pope that I’m aware of other than this instance,» a senior US official recalls. «And that gave, I think, greater impetus and momentum for us to move forward.»


By late October, the pope had invited the negotiators to Rome. «It was less a matter of breaking some substantive logjam but more the confidence of having an external party we could rely on,» says a senior US official.

It was at the Vatican that the two sides hammered out their final agreement on the prisoner exchange and restoring diplomatic relations. Rhodes and Zuniga also noted Obama’s intention to ease regulations on travel and trade, and to allow US telecom companies to help Cuban state enterprises expand internet access. They acknowledged these initiatives were aimed at fostering greater openness in Cuba, though they delivered this message respectfully. Cuban officials said that while they had no intention of changing their political system to suit the United States, they had reviewed the Americans’ list of prisoners jailed for political activities and would release 53 of them as a goodwill gesture. The pope agreed to act as guarantor of the final accord.

Obama’s National Security Council met on November 6 to sign off on the details. Later that month, the negotiating teams convened one last time in Canada to arrange the logistics of the prisoner exchange.

On December 12, Zuniga called Alan Gross’ wife, Judy, to the Executive Office Building to tell her the good news. Four days later, on the eve of Hanukkah, Scott Gilbert called his client to tell him he’d soon be a free man. «I’ll believe it when I see it,» Gross replied.

He didn’t have to wait long: Early the next morning Gross was taken from his prison cell in Havana to a small military airport, where he was met by his wife, his attorney, and members of Congress who had worked to win his release. The prisoner exchange was choreographed so carefully that the blue and white presidential plane sent to bring Gross home was not cleared to depart Havana until the plane carrying the three Cuban spies touched down on a nearby runway.

Once in the air, Gross was given some of his favorite foods—popcorn and corned beef on rye—and took a call from Obama. After clearing Cuban airspace, he called his daughters to tell them simply, «I’m free.»

Obama called on Congress to rescind the embargo—a policy, as he said, «long past its expiration date.» But with Republican majorities in both houses and a presidential election in the offing, getting Congress to end the sanctions looks to be a lot harder than reaching an agreement with Havana. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who has led the Republican tirades against the deal, says thepresident gave the Cuban government «everything it asked for» and got nothing in return. «I am committed to unravel as many of these changes as possible,» he added.

While Rubio and the rest of the old-guard anti-Cuba lobby fume, the process of normalization is moving forward. Obama officially removed Cuba from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, and US and Cuban flags fly over the newly reestablished embassies in Havana and Washington.

But maybe the most symbolic moment came at the Seventh Summit of the Americas in April, when Obama and Castro met privately in person for the first time and reaffirmed their commitment to normalize relations. Although Castro prefaced his speech before the assembly with a 50-minute litany of US transgressions against Cuba, at the end his tone changed to conciliation and even warmth. «I have told President Obama that I get very emotional talking about the revolution. I apologize to him because President Obama had no responsibility for this,» Castro said, noting that nine other US presidents could have reached out to Cuba and didn’t. «In my opinion, President Obama is an honest man. I have read his autobiographies and I admire him and his life and think his behavior comes from his humble background. There, I said it.»

Obama chose not to revisit old bitterness: «America never makes a claim about being perfect. We do make a claim about being open to change. The United States will not be imprisoned by the past. We’re looking to the future.»

This article is adapted from the new, updated edition of the authors’ book, Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana, to be published in October, ©2015 University of North Carolina Press.

It was a touchy subject, but one we learned had already been broached following the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which led to unprecedented US-Cuban cooperation on disaster relief. Over the next two years, two top State Department officials—Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Julissa Reynoso—secretly negotiated with Cuban officials in Creole restaurants in Port-au-Prince, subterranean bars on Manhattan’s East Side, and a hotel lounge in Santo Domingo. US officials focused on freeing Gross, while the Cubans requested that the wives of Cuban spies Hernández and René González be allowed to visit their husbands in jail. (These women’s visas had previously been denied because they too were suspected of being covert agents.) The Cuban position «started with ‘Treat our guys better,'» says a US official with knowledge of the talks, and evolved into «‘We want them all home.'» By September 2011, the Cubans had explicitly proposed swapping the Cuban Five for Alan Gross.«JUST DO IT!»At noon, Obama announced the deal with Cuba to the nation: «We will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests. Neither the American nor Cuban people are well served by a rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.» Raúl Castro was more restrained, focusing on the return of the three Cuban «heroes.» Normalization of diplomatic relations received just a single sentence, followed immediately by a reminder that the embargo —»the heart of the matter»—remained in place.


Director, Cuba Documentation Project

Peter Kornbluh directs the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive in Washington, DC. He is co-author of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana.


Professor of Government

William LeoGrande is a professor of government and a specialist in Latin American politics and US foreign policy toward Latin America. He has written five books, including Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America, 1977-1992. Most recently, he is coauthor of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana.

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The U.S. Occupation of Haiti: A Bibliography

U.S. Marines in occupied Haiti

U.S. Marines in occupied Haiti

July 28, 2015 marked the one-hundred year anniversary of the landing of U.S. Marines on Haitian soil. A number of organizations marked the occasion and, to conclude my own series on the U.S. occupation of Haiti, I would now like to present a bibliography of important works on that event. This list highlights not only books, dissertations, and articles that pertain to political relations between the United States and Haiti during that era but also to those that address the black intellectual response to U.S. imperialism in Haiti. It is by no means exhaustive, though. I welcome further suggestions for readings in the comments and also encourage readers to consult The Public Archive, Haiti: Then and Now, and The Haitian History Blog for additional resources about the occupation. Finally, scholars in a range of disciplines should look forward to a special issue of The Journal of Haitian Studies dedicated to the centennial of the U.S. occupation of Haiti. That issue is slated for a Fall 2015 publication.

Alexis, Yveline. “Nationalism & The Politics of Historical Memory: Charlemagne Peralte’s Rebellion Against U.S. Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1986.” Ph.D. dissertation., The University of Massachusetts Amherst, 2011.

Bellegarde-Smith, Patrick. In the Shadow of Powers: Dantés Bellegarde in Haitian Social Thought. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1985.

Blancpain, François. Haïti et les États-Unis: 1915-1934: Histoire d’une occupation. Paris, L’Harmattan, 1999.

Brissman, D’Arcy Morgan. “Interpreting American Hegemony: Civil Military Relations during the United States Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934.” Ph.D. dissertation: Duke University, 2001.

Corbould, Clare. “At the Feet of Dessalines: Performing Haiti’s Revolution during the New Negro Renaissance.” In Beyond Blackface: African Americans and the Creation of American Popular Culture, 1890-1930, edited by W. Fitzhugh Brundage, 259-288. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011.

Dalleo, Raphael. “’The Independence So Hardly Won Has Been Maintained:’ C.L.R. James and the U.S. Occupation of Haiti.” Cultural Critique 87 (Spring 2014): 38-59.

Davidson, Matthew. “Empire and its Practitioners: Health, Development, and the U.S. Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934.” M.A. thesis: Trent University, 2014.

Dubois, Laurent. “Occupation.” In Haiti: The Aftershocks of History. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2012.

Gaillard, Roger. Charlemagne Péralte le caco. Port-au-Prince: R. Gaillard, 1982.

Ménard, Nadève. “The Occupied Novel: The Representation of Foreigners in Haitian Novels Written During the United States Occupation, 1915-1934.” Ph.D. dissertation., University of Pennsylvania, 2002.

Millet, Kethly. Les paysans haïtiens et l’occupation américaine d’Haïti, 1915-1930. La Salle,        Québec: Colectif Paroles, 1978.

Pamphile, Leon D. The NAACP and the American Occupation of Haiti. Phylon 47, no. 1 (1st Qtr., 1986): 91-100.

Polyné, Millery. “‘To Combine the Training of the Head and the Hands’: The 1930 Robert R. Moton Commission in Haiti.” In From Douglass to Duvalier: U.S. African Americans, Haiti, and Pan Americanism, 1870-1964. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2010.

Plummer, Brenda Gayle. “The Afro-American Response to the Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934.”Phylon 43, no. 2 (2nd Qtr., 1982): 125-143.

Renda, Mary. Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism, 1915-1940. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Schmidt, Hans. The United States Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934.2nd ed. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

Shannon, Magdaline W. Jean Price-Mars, the Haitian Elite and the American Occupation, 1915-1935. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.

Suggs, Henry Lewis. “The Response of the African American Press to the United States Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934.” The Journal of African American History 87 (Winter 2002): 70-82.

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