Howard Zinn: Error, Ignorance, and Cost
Published on April 25, 2017 by Paul Ciano
Halfway through the twentieth century, the historian Richard Hofstadter, in his book The American Political Tradition, examined our important national leaders, from Jefferson and Jackson to Herbert Hoover and the two Roosevelts — Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. Hofstadter concluded that “the range of vision embraced by the primary contestants in the major parties has always been bounded by the horizons of property and enterprise… They have accepted the economic virtues of capitalist culture as necessary qualities of man… That culture has been intensely nationalistic…”
Coming to the end of the century, observing its last twenty-five years, we have seen exactly that limited vision Hofstadter talked about — a capitalistic encouragement of enormous fortunes alongside desperate poverty, a nationalistic acceptance of war and preparations for war. Governmental power swung from Republicans to Democrats and back again, but neither party showed itself capable of going beyond that vision.
Carter did initiate more sophisticated policies toward governments that oppressed their own people. He used United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young to build up good will for the United States among the black African nations, and urged that South Africa liberalize its policies toward blacks. A peaceful settlement in South Africa was necessary for strategic reasons; South Africa was used for radar tracking systems. Also, it had important U.S. corporate investments and was a critical source of needed raw materials (diamonds, especially). Therefore, what the United States needed was a stable government in South Africa; the continued oppression of blacks might create civil war.
The same approach was used in other countries — combining practical strategic needs with the advancement of civil rights. But because the chief motivation was practicality, not humanity, there was a tendency toward token changes…
Carter had presented himself as a friend of the movement against the war, but when Nixon mined Haiphong harbor and resumed bombing of North Vietnam in the spring of 1973, Carter urged that “we give President Nixon our backing and support - whether or not we agree with specific decisions.” Once elected, Carter declined to give aid to Vietnam for reconstruction, despite the fact that the land had been devastated by American bombing. Asked about this at a press conference, Carter replied that there was no special obligation on the United States to do this because “the destruction was mutual.”
Considering that the United States had crossed half the globe with an enormous fleet of bombers and 2 million soldiers, and after eight years left a tiny nation with over a million dead and its land in ruins, this was an astounding statement.
One Establishment intention, perhaps, was that future generations see the war not as it appeared in the Defense Department’s own Pentagon Papers — as a ruthless attack on civilian populations for strategic military and economic interests — but as an unfortunate error. Noam Chomsky, one of the leading antiwar intellectuals during the Vietnam period, looked in mid-1978 at how the history of the war was being presented in the major media and wrote that they were “destroying the historical record and supplanting it with a more comfortable story… reducing ‘lessons’ of the war to the socially neutral categories of error, ignorance, and cost.”
The renegotiation of the Panama Canal treaty with the tiny Central American republic of Panama was an example. The canal saved American companies $1.5 billion a year in delivery costs, and the United States collected $150 million a year in tolls, out of which it paid the Panama government $2.3 million dollars, while maintaining fourteen military bases in the area.
Back in 1903 the United States had engineered a revolution against Colombia, set up the new tiny republic of Panama in Central America, and dictated a treaty giving the United States military bases, control of the Panama Canal, and sovereignty “in perpetuity.” The Carter administration in 1977, responding to anti-American protests in Panama, decided to renegotiate the treaty. The New York Times was candid about the Canal: “We stole it, and removed the incriminating evidence from our history books.”
Whatever Carter’s sophistication in foreign policy, certain fundamentals operated in the late sixties and the seventies. American corporations were active all over the world on a scale never seen before. There were, by the early seventies, about three hundred U.S. corporations, including the seven largest banks, which earned 40 percent of their net profits outside the United States. They were called “multinationals,” but actually 98 percent of their top executives were Americans. As a group, they now constituted the third-largest economy in the world, next to the United States and the Soviet Union.
The relationship of these global corporations with the poorer countries had long been an exploiting one, it was clear from U.S. Department of Commerce figures. Whereas U.S. corporations in Europe between 1950 and 1965 invested $8.1 billion and made $5.5 billion in profits, in Latin America they invested $3.8 billion and made $11.2 billion in profits, and in Africa they invested $5.2 billion and made $14.3 billion in profits.
It was the classical imperial situation, where the places with natural wealth became victims of more powerful nations whose power came from that seized wealth.
It soon became clear that blacks in the United States, the group most in support of Carter for President, were bitterly disappointed with his policies. He opposed federal aid to poor people who needed abortions, and when it was pointed out to him that this was unfair, because rich women could get abortions with ease, he replied: “Well, as you know, there are many things in life that are not fair, that wealthy people can afford and poor people cannot.”
Shortly after Bush took office, a government scientist prepared testimony for a Congressional committee on the dangerous effects of industrial uses of coal and other fossil fuels in contributing to “global warming,” a depletion of the earth’s protective ozone layer. The White House changed the testimony, over the scientist’s objections, to minimize the danger. Again, business worries about regulation seemed to override the safety of the public.
The ecological crisis in the world had become so obviously serious that Pope John Paul II felt the need to rebuke the wealthy classes of the industrialized nations for creating that crisis: “Today, the dramatic threat of ecological breakdown is teaching us the extent to which greed and selfishness, both individual and collective, are contrary to the order of creation.”
In June 1992 more than a hundred countries participated in the Earth Summit environmental conference in Brazil. Statistics showed that the armed forces of the world were responsible for two-thirds of the gases that depleted the ozone layer. But when it was suggested that the Earth Summit consider the effects of the military on environmental degradation, the United States delegation objected and the suggestion was defeated.
Indeed, the preservation of a huge military establishment and the retention of profit levels of oil corporations appeared to be twin objectives of the Reagan-Bush administrations. Shortly after Ronald Reagan took office, twenty-three oil industry executives contributed $270,000 to redecorate the White House living quarters. According to the Associated Press: The solicitation drive came four weeks after the President decontrolled oil prices, a decision worth $2 billion to the oil industry. Jack Hodges of Oklahoma City, owner of Core Oil and Gas Company, said: “The top man of this country ought to live in one of the top places. Mr. Reagan has helped the energy business.”
While he built up the military (allocations of over a trillion dollars in his first four years in office), Reagan tried to pay for this with cuts in benefits for the poor. There would be $140 billion of cuts in social programs through 1984 and an increase of $181 billion for “defense” in the same period. He also proposed tax cuts of $190 billion (most of this going to the wealthy).
Kevin Phillips, a Republican analyst of national politics, wrote in 1990 that the Democratic Party was “history’s second-most enthusiastic capitalist party.”
Phillips pointed out that the greatest beneficiaries of government policy during the Republican presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George Bush were the superrich: “It was the truly wealthy, more than anyone else, who flourished under Reagan. The 1980s were the triumph of upper America…the political ascendancy of the rich, and a glorification of capitalism, free markets, and finance.”
When government policy enriched the already rich, it was not called welfare. This was not as obvious as the monthly checks to the poor; it most often took the form of generous changes in the tax system.
Who controls the present now?