Unmasking the History of the United States
We might ask a basic question: Why do we study history? Clearly, as much as we would like to, we are simply unable to change history. What happened in the past will never change.
The best history books give us an insight into various periods of the past. However, few of these books demonstrate how this history is relevant to understanding the problems we face today. We are living in the midst of an economic depression, war, and the growing destruction of the environment. Few historians have anything to say about what kind of political orientation is needed to resolve these monumental problems. So I repeat the question: Why do we study history?
I have studied and written about history because the facts of the past can give us insight into the problems we face in the world today. While the study of history will not enable anyone to predict the future, a rational study of the past can give us clues about the possible trends we will face in the coming years.
A common error most historians of the United States make is that they portray the government as having supreme power. While governments claim that they advance the interests of the majority of the population, this has not been the case in any nation that has capitalist economic relations. From the time of the Revolution to end British rule, the US government has done everything in its power to support capitalist interests. The results of these policies have been that today one percent of the population owns about 42 percent of the wealth and indirectly controls about 80 percent. We might reflect on the fact that while this one percent lives in opulence, about 40 million people do not have enough food to eat, and about 46 million have no health insurance.
Since governments are supposed to have supreme power, the US government can make a decision that tomorrow everyone will have enough food to eat and everyone will have all of their medical expenses paid for. This will not happen because the US government is, in effect, a support committee for the most affluent people in the world. When people experience layoffs, the government is in part responsible. When prices appear to be astronomically high, the government is in part responsible. When this country goes to war against some of the poorest people in the world, the government is clearly responsible.
These facts tend to contradict the words in the Pledge of Allegiance which state that the United States is a nation “with liberty and justice for all.” However, when we look at the 234 year history of this country we can make another more accurate statement. The people who have economic and political power in the United States have carried out policies that were, and continue to be, the most destructive in human history. This statement is fairly easy to substantiate.
Today the United States is the world’s super-power and about 40% of the world’s population lives on two dollars per day or less. About one billion people in the world do not have enough food to eat. Banks located in the United States, in effect, control the economies of the nations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. While all of this is happening, the resources have been available to end poverty for over 100 years.
In 1958 Nelson Mandela, the former President of South Africa, gave a speech where he agreed with this perspective. Mandela argued that, “It is American imperialism, which must be fought and decisively beaten down if the people of Asia and Africa are to preserve the vital gains they have won in their struggle against subjugation.”
While other governments in the history of the world have been more repressive than the one in the United States, today a strong case can be made that this country is among the most repressive in the world. Anyone living in the United States has a better chance of going to prison than citizens in any other nation. Over eighty percent of those who serve time in prison are there because of “plea bargain” agreements where they were coerced to confess to a crime. Over half of those in prison are serving time for drug related offences that, in most cases, harm only the user of drugs. To the best of my knowledge, no other nation has prisons like the super-max prisons in the US where the entire prison population lives in solitary confinement. In all the major cities in the US hundreds of thousands of people are stopped and frisked every year.
We might also make the argument that the entire legal system of the United States is merely a bunch of rationalizations that support corporate interests. All the rights people have in this country were won through struggle. Laws change with the changing needs of capital. Here is a short list of some examples.
The US government acknowledged that it violated 371 treaties with Native Americans. A treaty is not a law and the violation of a treaty is not supposed to be adjudicated in a civil court. The violation of a treaty is an act of war. Leonard Peltier is a Native American who has been in prison for over two decades. He was convicted of murdering two FBI agents even though there is considerable evidence that he is innocent. However, these FBI agents were on the Pine Ridge reservation when they lost their lives. According to the treaty Native Americans are supposed to have jurisdiction over that land for as long as the grass grows.
After the Civil War the government ratified the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. These amendments were supposed to outlaw slavery, give every citizen Constitutional rights, as well as the right to vote for all men. The federal government sent federal troops to the former confederate states to enforce these new measures. By 1877 those troops were withdrawn and a system of Jim Crow, legalized discrimination became the law. The Supreme Court endorsed legalized discrimination in its decision Plessey vs. Fergusson. The Supreme Court isn’t supposed to have the power to reverse amendments to the Constitution, but they did it anyway and the rest of the government went along.
In the 1960’s the civil rights movement effectively forced the government to do away with the Jim Crow laws. However, these laws were always a violation of the Constitution. Today discrimination continues against African Americans with respect to wages, education, health care, housing, and the enforcement of the law.
The United States is a nation of immigrants and of Black people who’s ancestors were forced here to become slaves. Native Americans are the indigenous population and they are the least affluent nationality in the United States.
The Declaration of Independence states clearly that one of the reasons for the revolution was the fact that the King of England limited immigration. In the early years of the twentieth century immigration from Europe was relatively easy. During this same period immigration from China was much more difficult. Today the United States has built a wall to keep Mexican people from entering this country and over 400 people died in 2009 attempting to cross the border.
The repressive and destructive nature of the government of the United States is only one part of this history. The United States was born as a result of a revolution and another revolution erupted to end slavery. Native Americans engaged in armed warfare for over 100 years to defend their rights. Black people have been fighting for their frights throughout US history. The labor movement engaged in titanic battles so working people might be able to escape from abject poverty. Millions of people lost their lives battling against US aggression all over the world. Today immigrant workers are continuing this struggle for human dignity.
Malcolm X once said that, “The greatest mistake of the movement has been trying to organize a sleeping people around specific goals. You have to wake the people up first, then you’ll get action.”
“Wake them up to their exploitation?” an interviewer asked.
“No, to their humanity, to their own worth, and to their heritage,” Malcolm responded.
The goal of this series of essays is to show how working people in this country have the potential to transform the world. While it is clearly possible for the future to be profoundly worse than the present, there is another possibility for the future. Working people have the potential to make this a world where poverty and discrimination are no longer a part of the human condition. If the resources of this planet were properly utilized, people could have a profoundly better standard of living while working fewer hours. If we study history in a rational way we can see how this kind of future world can become a reality.