Monday, September 25, 2017

The unintended message of Ken Burns so-called documentary on the war against Vietnam

The Vietnam War

A film directed by
Ken Burns &
Lynn Novick

A review

The Burns—Novick documentary titled The Vietnam War has many problems. When we begin to view this film, the very title, The Vietnam War, appears to be a problem.

The nation known as the United States of America became a nation because of a revolutionary war for independence. The Declaration of Independence outlined the reasons for the revolution. I will paraphrase that document.

When there is a long train of abuses that results in despotism, the people not only have a right, but a duty to throw off that power and establish a new one to provide for the security of the people.

Looking at the totality of this film, we see how there was indeed a “long train of abuses” established by puppet governments that were supported by the French and United States governments. So, a more accurate title of this so-called documentary would have been, The Vietnamese Revolution. However, that title would have undermined the theme of the film.

This is just one of many examples of how the theme of this film contradicts the story that the film portrays. So, first I will look at the theme of the film, and then I’m going to look at the story portrayed by the film.

First, we can say that most of this film is portrayed from the perspective of the United States. Yes, there are extensive interviews with the Vietnamese where we see a bit of their perspective. However, a basic theme of this film is about how the United States government made a series of horrendous mistakes that led to it’s defeat in Vietnam. 

For me, the theme of this film was best portrayed in the funeral of Pascal Cleatus Poolaw Sr. who was a United States soldier who lost his life in Vietnam. Poolaw was a decorated soldier in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. His three sons were also soldiers who served in Vietnam. He was also a Native American of the Kiowa nation.

At his funeral, his wife Irene had this to say:

“He has followed the trail of the great chiefs.

His people hold him in honor and highest esteem.

He has given his life for the people and country he loved so much.”

So, we see a clear and unequivocal message in this funeral. A highly respected member of the Kiowa nation gave his life because he loved the United States as well as all the people who live here.

This documentary failed to mention the history of the Kiowa people. The Kiowa are one of hundreds of Native American nations who actively fought against a genocidal war of the United States government for over 100 years. Their leaders were murdered and sent to prison. The government signed treaties with the Kiowa that allowed them to live on reservations. The U.S. government has acknowledged that it violated hundreds of these treaties with Native Americans.

So, while I respect Pascal Poolaw’s decision to support the war against Vietnam, I do not agree that this war supported the interests of the people of this country.  

What are the facts this film uncovers that in no way support the theme presented by Burns and Novick?

We can start with the number of people of Southeast Asia who were murdered because of the war. The film gives a number of five-million deaths during about eight years of the war against Vietnam. This number is equivalent to about half of the population of the cities of New York or Los Angeles.

We can also look at this horrendous number of five-million deaths from the point of view of the My Lai Massacre. On March 16, 1968 soldiers from Charlie Company under the command of Lieutenant William Calley murdered about 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians. These murders only stopped when Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson landed his helicopter between the murdered Vietnamese and Charlie Company. Thompson said that his crew would fire on Charlie Company if they continued to murder the Vietnamese.

Several members of Charlie Company went on trial for these murders. Only Lieutenant William Calley served time for this horrendous crime. Calley served three years under house arrest.

The Burns–Novick documentary failed to do the basic arithmetic that places the My Lai Massacre in perspective. The war against Vietnam lasted about eight years. Burns and Novick estimated that about five-million people lost their lives because of the war. Most, if not all these deaths were because of the United States invasion of the region.

So, if we divide five-million by 365 days of a year, and then divide that number by the eight years of the war, we get a number of 1,712 deaths for every day of the war. This means that there were the equivalent of more than three My Lai Massacres for every day of the eight years of the war against Vietnam.

We can also see from the facts presented by Burns and Novick that this massive number of deaths was no accident of war. The documentary shows how the U.S. government had a goal of reaching a “crossover point.” This crossover point was a goal to murder so many Vietnamese that the liberation forces would be unable to continue the war.

The administration of Lyndon Johnson reached this crossover point and believed that they were winning the war in 1967. Then, the Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive and attacked the over 500,000 U.S. soldiers at every location where they were stationed.

This horrendous number of deaths needs to be contrasted to the claims by the United States government that this war was about giving aid to Vietnam. Clearly there were many U.S. soldiers in Vietnam like Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson who honestly wanted to aid the Vietnamese. As we have seen, Thompson threatened Charlie Company if they continued the My Lai Massacre.

The U.S. forces also constructed infrastructure projects that helped modernize the country. President Johnson argued that the Mekong River could be used to generate massive amounts of electricity.

However, Johnson’s hypocrisy was exposed in a private conversation he had with the CEO of the CBS broadcasting company. One of CBS’s reporters, Maurice Shaffer, reported on a story of how U.S. soldiers were burning the homes of Vietnamese civilians.

After this story went on the air, President Johnson made a phone call to the CEO of CBS. Johnson asked this CEO, “Are you trying to f­­––– me?" Johnson then demanded that CBS fire Shaffer because he reported this story. The Johnson administration then labeled CBS as the “Communist Broadcast Service.”

What was the horrendous crime Maurice Shaffer committed? He reported the truth about what was happening in Vietnam. Given President Johnson’s response to this story, we see how reporting the truth was completely unacceptable to the United States government.

We can also think about a statement by President Eisenhower. The United Nations had mandated Vietnam to have an election while Eisenhower was president. The U.S. government prevented this election from taking place. Eisenhower argued that if these elections had been allowed, the leader of the liberation forces, Ho Chi Minh, would have won about 90% of the vote.

The liberation of Vietnam

A legitimate question to be asked is: How did the Vietnamese people manage to decisively defeat the most powerful armed force in the history of the world?

First, we can say that the U.S. government did manage to use their influence and military might to overturn several democratically elected governments in the world. Some of those governments include: Arbenz in Guatemala, Lumumba in the Congo, Mosaddegh in Iran, and Allende in Chile.

However, the Vietnamese people had experienced literally centuries of foreign rule by the Chinese, Japanese, French, and the United States. Yes, we can find many problems with the leadership of the National Liberation Front in Vietnam. However, their leadership combined with the will of the Vietnamese people to resist further foreign domination proved to be a force a United States was unable to defeat.

In this film, a U.S. officer was asked about the fighting capabilities of the Vietnamese liberation soldiers. He responded that they were the best soldiers he had ever seen and wished that he could have 200 soldiers with their abilities and determination.

We should also mention the challenges the NLF soldiers faced. The U.S. had an immense advantage in the fact that it dominated the air war. When U.S. soldiers were trapped they could make a call to headquarters and order a bombing raid of the Vietnamese positions.

Oftentimes the U.S. air force dropped napalm on these targets. One U.S. airman observed Vietnamese soldiers firing at his aircraft moments before napalm bombs burned them to death.

In the book The Tunnels of Cu Chi by John Penycate and Tom Mangold we see how the Vietnamese built an extensive tunnel system. They used these tunnels to ambush their enemies and then retreat without ever being discovered. Some Vietnamese soldiers lived in these tunnels for years. These tunnels were also equipped with machine shops and hospitals.   

Because of the U.S. advantage in the air, Vietnamese forces developed a strategy of engaging with their enemy in close quarters. This strategy neutralized the advantage of the air because air raids would kill U.S. soldiers as well as the Vietnamese.

We also see how the Vietnamese mobilized to rebuild the north after massive U.S. bombing raids. The U.S. government thought that these raids would neutralize the NLF. Washington would learn that it was the U.S. armed forces that would be forced to leave Vietnam.

The international anti-war movement

Initially the overwhelming majority of the population in the United States supported the war. As the war continued, growing numbers of people were won to the demand of total, complete, and immediate withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Vietnam.

While the U.S. government increased the number of soldiers they sent to Vietnam, people viewed televised reports of the gruesome realities of the war. Under these circumstances, it was only natural that large numbers of people joined in demonstrations opposed to the war. Towards the end, about eighty percent of the U.S. population opposed the war and supported the demand of bringing the troops home.

Many veterans of the war joined in the anti-war demonstrations and became leaders of the movement. There were reports that returning veterans were spit on by those who opposed the war. Apparently these reports were a complete lie designed to slander the anti-war movement. As far as I know, there was not a single incident where a soldier was spit on by someone who opposed the war.

To the contrary, anti-war protesters were murdered by the U.S. armed forces at Kent State, Jackson State, and in Los Angeles, California. These murders demonstrated that the government was more interested in stopping the anti-war demonstrations than they were interested in defending the constitutional right of freedom of speech.

The best source of information on the anti-war movement in the United States is by a leader of the movement, Fred Halstead, titled Out Now: A participant’s account of the movement in the United States against the Vietnam War.

Rebellions erupt in cities across the United States

We might also mention that at the same time as the Vietnamese were fighting for their liberation, Black people engaged in literally hundreds of rebellions in cities across this country.

We can start by recalling the Montgomery Bus Boycott. On December 1, 1955 Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to sit in the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The ensuing Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted 385 days and Black workers of that city walked for miles to work rather than sit on segregated buses.

We might also think about the fact that on May 7, 1954 the French military forces stationed at Dien Bien Phu surrendered to the Vietnamese. This French defeat was the beginning of the end of the French occupation of Vietnam.

By 1965 the civil rights movement had so much influence that the government was effectively forced to adopt the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. These laws effectively overturned the segregationist Jim Crow laws that had denied Black people citizenship rights.

However, discrimination continued to exist throughout the United States. Black people were fed up with discrimination in housing, employment, and education. It was the issue of police brutality sparked open rebellions.

The recent film Detroit documented how police officers of that city kidnapped and then murdered unarmed residents in the year 1967. These officers were never convicted of those murders. Over 50 people lost their lives in the Detroit rebellions largely because of the National Guard invasion of that city.

In this same year a rebellion broke out in my hometown of Newark, New Jersey. I was fourteen years old at the time. At the time the National Guard had tanks running up and down the streets of Newark. Out of more than twenty people who were murdered during the rebellions, three were children.

If I had a different skin color and lived a short distance from our residence, I might have been one of the children murdered by the National Guard. Yet, when I graduated from high school a few years later, the government required me to register for the draft to fight in the war against Vietnam.         

We might also consider that while the U.S. government was ordering federal troops into the cities of this country, this same government ordered the Air Force to carry out Operation Rolling-Thunder in Vietnam. This was a bombing campaign aimed a crippling the economy of North Vietnam. As the rebellions in this country continued the Vietnamese forces of the NLF carried out their Tet Offensive where they attacked every U.S. military base in their homeland.

One Black soldier who was interviewed in the film said that he lost his fear in Vietnam. While he was stationed there, he felt that death was almost a certainty.

When this soldier returned to this country, he was ordered to join the National Guard troops that were occupying the Black community. He refused to obey this order.

The example of this soldier was not isolated. I knew someone who was a soldier in the National Guard in Newark in 1967. He happened to be Black. He also refused to join the military forces occupying his community and resigned from the National Guard.

Martin Luther King gave a speech in 1967 where he opposed the war. In this speech King argued that given the immense damage the U.S. had done to their country, the people of Vietnam must have thought that the U.S. armed forces were “strange liberators.”

Malcolm X talked about the Vietnamese freedom fighters in the following passage:

“You think you can win in South Vietnam? The French were deeply entrenched. They had the best weapons of warfare, a highly mechanized army, everything that you would need. And the guerrillas come out of the rice paddies with nothing but sneakers on and a rifle and a bowl of rice. And you know what they did in Dien Bien Phu. They ran the French out of there. And if the French were deeply entrenched and couldn’t stay there, then how do you think someone else is going to stay there who isn’t even there yet?” 

Why did the United States government go to war against Vietnam?

This question was answered in a pamphlet written by Vladimir Illyich Lenin in the year 1917 decades before the war against Vietnam erupted. The title of this pamphlet is Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism.

Lenin was raised in tsarist Russia and learned first hand about the effects of imperialist exploitation. At that time the French working class had made gains and French capitalists responded to these gains by building factories in Russia.

The working conditions in these factories were so horrendous it is difficult to even imagine. We are talking about sixteen hour working days where women received wages that were half of what men were paid. Women worked through their pregnancies and oftentimes delivered their children in the factory. Children routinely staved to death because their mothers were malnourished.

Lenin understood that these conditions didn’t exist because individual capitalists made mistakes where they weren’t sensitive to the needs of workers. No, he argued that these conditions existed because the capitalist system is driven to cut costs and to obsessively work towards world domination.

Lenin also saw how the First World War erupted as a direct consequence of this need by capitalists of competing nations to dominate the world. With the decline of the British empire, Germany and the United States went to war in order to decide which nation would dominate the world.

When we look at the war against Vietnam from this perspective, we can see how government officials in the United States were driven to win the war in spite of their clear hesitations about their capability of achieving this goal. Imperialism doesn’t happen because of bad government decisions, but because it is necessary to the capitalist system.

Remembering the days of the war against Vietnam, there was one fact that stood out to me. The United States spent about 350 billion dollars on the war. Had even one tenth of that amount been used in unconditional aid to Vietnam, the war not only would have been avoided, but we would be living in a much better world. However, I can’t even remember one media outlet that made this argument.

As Lenin once said: If capitalism were to have a genuine interest in feeding hungry people, it wouldn’t be capitalism. 


The U.S. government argued that the reason for the war was to “stop the spread of communism.” Since I’ve been a communist for the past 45 years, I believe I can offer some insight to this question.

I have been lucky that I’ve never served time in prison. This is becoming increasingly difficult for more and more workers in this country. However, the socialist Eugene Debs did serve three years in prison for giving a speech against U.S. participation in the First World War. Eighteen members of the Socialist Workers Party served time in prison because of their position in opposition to U.S. participation in the Second World War.

We might think about the fact that the idea of freedom of speech is supposed to be guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution.

Today the nation of Cuba follows a Marxist point of view. Cuba has more doctors and teachers per capita than any other nation in the world. Education and health care are rights that every Cuban is entitled to. Yet Cuba is a relatively underdeveloped nation.

Not only does Cuba have more doctors and teachers, but that nation has trained thousands of doctors from all over the world. The only payment Cuba expects from these doctors is that they give medical care to communities that lack these services.

I happened to be in Cuba this year and was a member of 2017 May Day Brigade where people from all over the world came to learn about the Cuban reality. On May Day, I witnessed over one million Cubans giving their enthusiastic support to the government.

The recent hurricane Irma did a tremendous amount of damage to Cuba. However, Cuba sent it’s doctors to the other Caribbean islands to aid in their recovery.  

The United States had a different policy with respect to it’s colony in Puerto Rico. Recently the Puerto Rican government instituted massive cutbacks in order to pay off an astronomical debt of the island. Then, a hurricane hit Puerto Rico that eliminated all electrical power and most cell phone service. Residents now collect rainwater so they might be able to flush their toilets.

The United States government has responded to this crisis by sending 3,000 troops to Afghanistan. The war against Afghanistan is already the longest war in U.S. history.

When we look at this history there is one inescapable conclusion. Communism in no way is a threat to working people in this country. In my opinion, what we need in the United States is a government that makes human needs and not profits the top priority.


Today many people in this country have big problems with the seemingly mindless chatter coming out of the Donald Trump administration. When we think about these seemingly idiotic statements, we might also think about the reality of what the government of this country did to Vietnam.

Thinking about that reality, I believe that we can say clearly that the administration of Donald Trump isn’t the only problem facing working people in this country and around the world.

I believe that we need a government that will never go to war against poor people ever again. What we need is a government that makes it their top priority to eliminate poverty throughout the world.

I will end this blog with one of my favorite quotations from the novelist and social critic, James Baldwin.

“Power, then, which can have no morality itself, is yet dependent on human energy, on the wills and desires of human beings.  When power translates itself into tyranny, it means that the principles on which that power depended, and which were its justification, are bankrupt.  When this happens, and it is happening now, power can only be defended by thugs and mediocrities––and seas of blood.  The representatives of the status quo are sickened and divided, and dread looking into the eyes of their young; while the excluded begin to realize, having endured everything, that they can endure everything.  They do not know the precise shape of the future, but they know that the future belongs to them.  They realize this––paradoxically––by the failure of the moral energy of their oppressors and begin, almost instinctively, to forge a new morality, to create the principals on which a new world will be built.”

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Fire and Fury?

A commentary by Steve Halpern

This past week I’ve read comments by President Donald Trump that have been on the front pages of newspapers all across the nation. First, Trump threatened North Korea with, “Fire and fury.” Trump followed up this statement with the words: “Maybe that statement wasn’t tough enough.” He clarified these words stating that, “North Korea better get their act together, or they are going to be in trouble like few nations have ever been in trouble.” For Trump, these statements weren’t enough. Speaking from his private golf club, while he is reportedly, “working on his vacation,” a banner headline from the Philadelphia Inquirer read, “Trump: U.S. military ‘locked and loaded.’”

To the best of my knowledge President Trump hasn’t specifically threatened North Korea with nuclear warfare. However, the above statements clearly imply, that is exactly what he is doing.

Listening to these statements many have concluded that Trump is different from other presidents. However, when we look at the history of this country, we might argue that while Trump might be more blunt than other Presidents, the content of his words have been a matter of routine policy in this country for decades. This is the history the pro-capitalist press rarely, if ever, reports on. So, this blog is an outline of the history of mass murder, as well as the resistance to U.S. policy, since the Second World War.


Most people know about the fact that the United States dropped nuclear weapons on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What most people don’t know is that the United States carried out a fire bombing campaign against Japan for six months before the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The late E. Bartlett Kerr wrote a book documenting this history in his Flames over Tokyo – The U.S. Army Air Forces’ Incendiary Campaign Against Japan 1944 – 1945. Kerr reported that the U.S. military invented specialized phosphorous (fire) bombs to be used specifically against civilian areas of Japan. The military decided to use these bombs because most Japanese housing was made of wood that would easily burn. Experiments were carried out to ensure that these bombs were effective. Close attention was paid to the direction of the wind to ensure that there would be maximum destruction.

At the end of Kerr’s book he gave a list of sixty-seven Japanese cities that were firebombed. The largest city in Japan is Tokyo. Kerr claimed that 50.8% of that city was destroyed with these phosphorous bombs. Kerr also listed cities in the United States that had similar population as the 67 Japanese cities that experienced firebombing. New York City had a similar population as Tokyo at that time.

We might recall the horror of the three thousand deaths at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. It is unimaginable to think about what it would have meant if half of the city of New York was burned to the ground. However, that is exactly what happened to Tokyo before the end of the Second World War.

E. Bartlett Kerr makes the seemingly insane argument that these bombings were necessary in order to force Japan to surrender. In fact, the United States went to war against Japan because both nations wanted to dominate Asia. The U.S. government was in a hurry to end the war because they knew that the Soviet Union was mobilizing their armed forces to go to war against Japan.

At that time, Japan was effectively defeated and posed no threat to the United States. As we will see, the U.S. wanted to be in a strong position to reverse the revolutions that were erupting in China, Korea, and Vietnam.


After the war, the Chinese Revolution erupted. China had been dominated by foreign powers since the Opium Wars of the nineteenth century. As a result, tens of millions of Chinese died of starvation.

This problem of massive starvation was new to China. The Chinese built their Grand Canal that stretched for about 1,500 miles. So, in the past when one section of China experienced food shortages, relief supplies were shipped on the Grand Canal.

The foreign powers, dominated by Britain, had no interest in maintaining this canal. These powers were only interested in the profits they could amass from China. So, when there were food shortages tens of millions of people starved to death.        

After the Second World War, China had a tremendous debt mostly due to their purchase of armaments. We might keep in mind that the Chinese government of those days was not only at war with the occupying Japanese army, but also with the Chinese forces under the command of Mao Zedong.

In order to attempt to pay this massive debt, the pro-capitalist Chinese government put in place a system of massive inflation. This policy literally destroyed the Chinese capitalist economy. So, the forces commanded by Mao Zedong took political control of the nation in a relatively bloodless revolution.

The political officials in the United States were enraged by the Chinese Revolution. They actually argued that they, “lost China.” So at the end of the Second World War, the U.S. government attempted to keep the armed forces mobilized in the Pacific. The reason for this continued mobilization was to attempt to bring down the new Chinese revolutionary government.

The problem was that the soldiers stationed in the Pacific wanted to go home. They experienced the horrors of war, and didn’t see any reason to continue fighting a war against China. So members of the U.S. military organized a movement to bring the GIs home. This movement forced the U.S. government to temporarily abandon their plans to place a puppet regime in China.   


Just as in Vietnam and China, there was an insurrectionary movement in Korea to free itself from Japanese occupation. After the war, those who fought against the Japanese took control over the entire nation. However, just a few days after Japan’s surrender, the U.S. armed forced invaded Korea and divided the nation into the northern and southern sections.

The U.S. government placed Syngman Rhee in charge of South Korea. Rhee lived in the United States for decades and had university degrees from George Washington, Harvard, and Princeton. He was also one of the few Korean supporters of the U.S. who was fluent in English.

While the press in this country has been highly critical of the repressive policies of North Korea, we read very little about the long history of repression in South Korea. These repressive policies began with Syngman Rhee. Rhee wanted to take control of the entire Korean peninsula and deliberately provoked the North to invade the South.

Because of his repressive policies, few in the South defended Rhee and the Northern Korea forces took control of the South in a short period of time. The only reason why there is a nation of South Korea today was because of a massive U.S. invasion.

General Douglas MacArthur felt that the U.S. armed forces would overwhelm the Koreans. He also believed that these armed forces could proceed to invade China and take control of that nation.

Well, the Koreans and Chinese allowed the U.S. forces to move north all the way to the Chinese border on the Yalu River. Then, the Chinese and Koreans counterattacked and trapped an entire battalion of U.S. soldiers.

As a part of the U.S. war against Korea General Curtis LeMay claimed that U.S. bombers destroyed about 20% of North Korea. The Air Force dropped about 32,000 tons of napalm bombs. These bombs literally burned Koreans. The Air Force also dropped 630,000 tons of explosive bombs on the country. Many of these bombs were dropped on the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. The residents of this city didn’t leave their homes for days because many of these bombs were time-delayed and the residents had no idea when they would explode.

It was General Curtis LeMay who was the Air Force Commander during the wars against Japan, Korea, as well as Vietnam. In Vietnam, LeMay argued that, “We should bomb Vietnam back into the stone age.” In the war against Korea and Vietnam, literally millions of people were killed by the U.S. forces. In other words, U.S. politicians gave the Air Force permission to carry out LeMay’s horrendous vision.

However, Vietnamese resistance, as well as the anti-war movement that erupted around the world, forced the United States to leave Vietnam. That anti-war sentiment continues to this day.


This blog gives just some of the facts that demonstrate how the current statements threatening war against Korea by President Trump are nothing new. In fact, most of the U.S. wars of the twentieth century took place when there was a Democratic Party President.

Today, South Korea is the only nation that I know of that changed from being underdeveloped to a highly developed nation. We should also keep in mind that, as in all capitalist nations, there is large-scale poverty in South Korea. People around the world know of the corporations Samsung, LG, and Hyundai. I believe that we can say that South Korea isn’t just a developed nation, but it has taken on imperialist characteristics. All of this happened because of massive capitalist investment in the nation.

We might keep in mind that the cause of the First and Second World Wars was the competition of the world powers for which one would dominate the world. Clearly, the United States capitalists have an interest in restricting South Korean global interests.

Clearly the Korean people don’t want another U.S. war against their country. Clearly, China doesn’t want that war either.

Yet, today there are about 80,000 U.S. soldiers stationed on Korean soil. While U.S. politicians portray the North Korean government as crazy, history tells another story. We don’t need to embrace the government of Kim Jon-un to understand that the United States has been the aggressor in Asia for quite a long time.

President Donald Trump isn’t a worker. He has no idea what it means to work for a boss in order to support his family. All wealth comes from working people who provide all the goods and services we all need and want. Donald Trump has no idea of what it means to be a garment worker, or a farm worker, or what it means to work in a factory or a meat processing plant. He was born into wealth, and probably didn’t need to work a day in his life.

Understanding this I believe that Donald Trumps threats to Korea underscore the idea that he has no idea what the word courage means. No, in my opinion Trump and his democratic and republican co-thinkers are motivated by another emotion: fear.

Trump ran for President because he sees the instability in the world. He clearly doesn’t like to think about the fact that this instability can lead to the loss of all the obscene amounts of wealth he owns. Trump believes in the impossible dream that his policies of, “America First,” will create some kind of stability in the world. He is learning that this idea has no more chance of success, than an elephant attempting to dance and the head of a pin.

I believe that there are enough nuclear weapons in the world to destroy this planet five times over. We who live here have literally every reason to oppose all U.S. moves towards war.       

Thursday, August 3, 2017

A Place Called Freedom

By Ken Follett
Published by Random House 1995

A review

Ken Follett’s 1995 novel A Place Called Freedom gives us a glimmer of what life was like during the 1700s. This novel traces the life of Follett’s character Malachi McAsh from his time working as a coal miner in a small town in Wales, to his job unloading ships of coal in London, to his life as a slave in Virginia. We also see the contrast between the life of McAsh and the lives of people who had wealth and power during those years.

We would expect that the technology of those years was quite different from what we see today. However, when we see the social relations of those years, we can also see striking differences that most people are unaware of. Then again, when we look at the differences between the social relations of those years and today, we also see many similarities.

When the character of McAsh was born into the world, he became a slave to a Welsh lord. At the age of seven McAsh started working in a coalmine hauling seventy-five pound bags of coal up the stairs that led out of the mine. Adult women carried 150-pound bags of coal for fifteen hours per day.

Most of the coal miners were illiterate, but McAsh’s mother could read. His mother sent a letter to a radical lawyer who informed her that miners had the right to escape slavery for one day on their twenty-first birthday.

This was stunning news to the miners. One miner had attempted to escape, but was apprehended. He was then forced to wear an iron collar to remind everyone of the penalties for disobedience.

McAsh desperately wanted to escape his fate as a slave. He decided to speak at a church service where he would read the letter of the lawyer. McAsh understood that doing this could be viewed as a crime punishable by death. We should keep in mind that the lord who had the power to sentence McAsh to death attended this church service.

After McAsh made his speech in the church many of the miners appreciated what he had to say. However, the royal families were enraged. McAsh was confronted by the character Lizzie Hallin who argued that McAsh should be grateful for the opportunity of making a living by working in the mine. McAsh responded that if she had ever worked in a coal pit, she wouldn’t think this this was something to be grateful for.

Lizzie was an independent minded woman, and thought of McAsh’s statement as a challenge. She persuaded a son of the lord to escort her into the mine and this is how readers learn of some of the realities of mine workers in the 1700’s.

Ultimately the lord found McAsh’s statement as well as his example to be intolerable. He ordered McAsh to be tied to a horse and forced to run backwards all day long as an extreme method of torture. Then the lord decided that letting McAsh escape might be his best alternative and McAsh winds up in London.

Here McAsh discovers that it is very difficult to find gainful employment, but eventually he gets a job unloading ships loaded with coal. Then McAsh learns that his wages are only a small percentage of the wages he was promised. He also learns that this kind of treatment was routine.

Eventually McAsh organizes a strike of the coal heavers. Then the people who had power in those days organized to frame up McAsh. A mob attacked and began to try and brutalize the coal haulers. An official called this attack a riot and ordered everyone to disperse. However, the mob continued to attack the striking workers who had no choice but to defend themselves.

The armed forces had been mobilized because they were well aware of the frame-up. These armed forces intervened murdering several coal haulers and they arrested McAsh. The charge was violation of the riot act.

At his so-called trial McAsh’s lawyer was not allowed to speak on his behalf. This was a normal feature of these so-called trials. However, McAsh gave an effective defense and called several witnesses who testified that the coal haulers had no choice but to defend themselves against a mob. He also established that this incident was clearly a frame-up.

However, in the so-called justice system of the 1700s none of this mattered. Since someone from a royal family testified against McAsh, this was all that was needed to find him guilty and sentence him to death by hanging.

McAsh’s life was spared only because a deal was made and his arresting officer pleaded to have his life spared. His sentence was transportation. This meant being loaded onto a slave-ship to be transported to Virginia. In Virginia McAsh was sentenced to be a slave for seven years.

In some of the histories I’ve read that many of the original settlers to the British thirteen colonies were criminals. Looking at the reality of the so-called justice system of Britain in the 1700’s we get a different picture entirely. The so-called criminals were oftentimes workers who became desperate in their desire to merely survive. The real criminals were the ruling powers who profited from a system of unimaginable horrors.

In Virginia we see what life was like for McAsh as a slave on a tobacco plantation. We learn that the Black and Caucasian slaves lived in separate buildings. However, escaping from slavery was a common practice. Follett reported that slaves routinely gave those who escaped shelter and food, while never betraying them to an owner.  

Eventually McAsh escaped from slavery with Lizzie Hallin who once chastised him for being critical of a lord. There is an attempt to apprehend or murder McAsh and Lizzie, in their attempt to travel to the west beyond the Allegheny Mountains in what Follett referred to as, A Place Called Freedom.

While I found this book compelling and worth a read, my biggest problem with it is the title. The British colonies and the United States were never “a place called freedom.” I’m talking about hundreds of years of genocide against Native Americans as well as hundreds of years of chattel slavery. While Follett’s characters escape many of their hardships, the United States continued to have this horrendous history.

How have things changed?

Clearly the standard of living has improved for many workers since the 1700’s. We usually live longer. There are many technological innovations that make our lives easier. Our working conditions are usually better than those of the slaves of the 1700’s. We are supposed to have the right to be charged with a crime before we are arrested. We are supposed to have a right to a jury trial. We are supposed to have the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

However, we might also ask the question: What are the facts?

Today, the cell phones we use might be built by Chinese workers who are paid ten dollars for a work day that might be fourteen hours. Some of the clothes we wear might be produced by workers in Bangladesh who might receive one dollar in wages per day. The beans used to make the coffee we drink might be picked by workers who are paid two dollars per day. In fact, about half of the world’s population lives on two dollars per day or less.

Workers who toil under these conditions have similar motivations to escape as Follett’s character McAsh had in this novel. Yet both democratic and republican party presidents have made it their top priority to deport millions of immigrant workers from this country.

We might also think about the fact that the Department of Agriculture estimates that one out of every six people in this country doesn’t have enough food to eat. President Obama cut the food stamps program by $8.7 billion.

Clearly citizens in this country have a right to a trial when we are accused of a crime. However over 90% of those who live in jail never had a trial. These people accepted a plea agreement where they were coerced to plead guilty rather than run the risk of an extremely long prison sentence. This practice is known as plea-bargaining.

So, while we can argue that profound changes have been made over the years, in many ways there are distinct similarities to our past. The main reason why there have been improvements, flow from the fact there working people engaged in tenacious struggles. However, only on the island of Cuba have working people taken power and managed to defend this conquest for over half a century.

When we look at this history, there is one inescapable conclusion. As long as there is an affluent class dedicated to exploiting workers, the human race will never be liberated. The determination of working people to advance our cause gives us hope that we have the capacity to free ourselves from the rule of the affluent who have controlled the governments throughout the world for hundreds of years.