Chapter 16 – World War II
Zinn begins this chapter by posing a series of questions. Was World War II a people’s war as it had been claimed at the time? Why did the US really enter the war? How much did the imperialist powers of the day differ from Nazi Germany in terms of racism?
Zinn’s views are extremely interesting, considering that even today, these are issues people hardly ever discuss or even learn. We learn at school that the American intervention was caused by Hitler’s atrocities and the extreme loss of human lives in Pearl Harbor, but never about the real motives of the government and the search for worldwide economic dominance. Raising those issues and analyzing politics during such difficult times sheds light to unknown parts of our history.
Chapter 16- Cold War
The end of the Second World War left two super powers in the world: the United States and the Soviet Union both of which struggled to become the dominant power. In the first decade after the war, as Zinn says, American policy focused on forming a strong, unanimous anti-communist policy both outside and inside the country. The left had to be isolated inside the United States and the work of McCarthy was only the beginning. There ensued in the US an unprecedented propaganda against Communism along with a series of prosecutions, most notable of which was the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who were eventually executed on testimonies that could not be considered reliable. Communism was obviously associated with the communist Soviet Union, the new enemy. By presenting the Soviet Union as the enemy and by constantly increasing its military force, the system ensured its stability, Zinn argues. At the same time, the US tried to control other countries, either by aiding them economically, or by trying to enforce its power with other means. Zinn even argues that the crisis in the Bay of Pigs was orchestrated by the US in an attempt to interfere in Cuba’s regime.
When people talk about the Cold War, they seem to simply narrate events, or discuss how great a president J.F. Kennedy was, as he managed to avoid a confrontation with the Soviet Union at the time of the Bay of the Pigs crisis. Hardly anyone will go on a deeper analysis of what actually happened inside the US during that time and what prompted the anti-communist propaganda. Zinn touches the subject of the military machinery that made some rich and gave others jobs. He also discusses the prosecutions of people who might not have been guilty of anything, the censorship imposed on the press and the collaboration of liberals and conservatives in a war that was taking place both outside and inside the country. These are issues few dare to discuss. They are nevertheless important if we want to understand the history of this troubled period and the role historic figures played in it.
Chapter 19-Women’s Movement
This last remark is probably the most interesting. It implies that women were often preoccupied with these issues but never dared to express them openly. And in this respect, the women’s movement can be seen as successful. Women today are certainly more liberated in discussing their sexuality, their menstrual cycles or abortion. Other issues however still remain problematic. Women are still often treated as inferior in the workplace, rising in higher positions less often than men. Those in high offices of government are still few, although their number has increased after the 1960’s. Moreover, they are often still victims of sexual harassment and rape, and their cases rarely reach courts. It is obvious that a lot of things still need to be done, before equality between both sexes is achieved.
Chapter 19- American Indian Movement
As the civil rights and women’s movements grew, so did the American Indian movement. Although almost eradicated by the white Americans, the population of Indian Americans started rising again and by 1960 their number has reached 800,000. Indians came forward reminding white Americans of the over 400 treaties they had violated and asking for their rights to be recognized and respected. In 1969, a group of Indians representing 50 tribes landed on the Alcatraz Island and occupied it, turning attention to their cause. In their proclamation, they said they were willing to buy the island paying with glass beads and cloth, like whites had done when they bought Manhattan Island from the Indians three centuries earlier. Although federal forces removed them a year and a half later, they had managed to make their message heard like never before. The Indians also attacked the education system for excluding their culture and history from history books. Their protests reached wider audiences and interest in Indian culture increased with more books published on the subject, while teachers started using new material to teach Indian history. In 1973 however, the occupation of the village of Wounded Knee by approximately 300 hundred Indians ended with the death of two people, the arrest of many others and a series of vague promises by the government which were soon abandoned.
The discussion of the American Indian movement by Zinn is crucial in reminding the reader of the many atrocities committed during the creation of the United States of America. The indigenous population of the land was massacred, exploited and marginalized. To a certain extent this continues till today. Although the American Indian movement managed to raise awareness to the Indian cause, I doubt that many things have actually changed. No major constitutional amendment has been passed to accommodate the Indian requests and the government still largely ignores them.
Chapter 21- Carter
Jimmy Carter became president right after the Watergate scandal. Adopting a “populist” policy he tried to appeal to the various groups inside the American society, including blacks, lawyers, farmers and those against the Vietnam War, to name just a few. According to Zinn, Carter served faithfully the usual doctrines of American policy, supporting major corporate organizations, expanding the military machine of the country and intervening in the political scene of various other countries, always according to what the American interests dictated each time. Although the Carter administration adopted a pro-human rights rhetoric, its actions and support of brutal regimes throughout the world, showed that the government had other plans. The protection of the American economic and political interests abroad was of primary importance. These included the protection of the American corporations that had expanded throughout the world and the training of military leaders in various countries. But Carter failed to address successfully the economic problems that the millions of ordinary Americans faced. On the contrary, he was eager to pass laws that would favor big corporations.
Zinn places Carter’s administration in a wider context of American policy which remains virtually unchanged no matter who was in office, the Democrats or the Republicans. At the same time, however, the author’s repeated references to the constant inconsistencies of the President’s words and actions, is a direct criticism to Carter himself. It is interesting to note that while the military machinery of the country and the big corporations continued to expand enriching further a small elite, the ordinary people continued to face the same problems that Carter had promised to eradicate. The person that emerges from Zinn’s description of events, is an opportunist who deceived the American people before elections. It is an interesting picture of a president who is still quite popular today.
For Zinn, Carter’s presidency might not have fulfilled its promises, but Reagan’s presidency was even worse. The placement of right wing justices in the Supreme Court, had as a result the introduction of policies that had a negative impact on the lives of poor citizens, women, blacks and prisoners. Big corporations were greatly benefited by favorable tax laws, the military was further expanded, while the poor faced severe cuts in the benefits or welfare they received. Capitalism and those who were already extremely rich became stronger, while at the same time unemployment rose, many lost their medical insurance and free meals at schools were eliminated. As a result over 12 million children were reported living in poverty, during the time Reagan was president and the gap between rich and poor grew dramatically. Another result of these policies was a rise in crime and violence throughout the United States. According to Zinn, the Reagan administration was often aided by the Democrats when passing these laws in Congress. Reagan’s foreign policy followed earlier patterns of intervention when this was deemed important for American interests. Reagan however went a step further by ignoring Congress and finding ways to intervene in Nicaragua (in what has been termed the Iran-contra affair) and by lying to the people when the scandal became public.
Zinn depicts Reagan’s presidency as catastrophic for the lower classes and the minorities. His arguments are compelling and to a great extent shocking. What is most interesting is that Zinn claims that although the government violated the laws of the country, those in the higher offices –notably President Reagan and Vice-president Bush- were never indicted for the scandal. Instead, they were able to manipulate the press, deceive the public and put the blame on minor officials that were probably following their orders. The picture of the 1980’s and the Reagan administration emerging from this discussion, is that of a highly corrupt government that was only interested in promoting the interests of the few ultra rich and largely ignored the rights of the lower classes. Corruption was not limited to the Republican ruling party, but was extended to the Democrats, making the American political system of the 1980’s a conspiring oligarchy.