World War I: The Democrats’ War for Imperialism
The economic expansion happening within the U.S. was also taking place in the economies of Europe. The European capitalist states were engaged in a world-scale competition for resources and markets. Each country expanded its military forces to protect its domain and increase its influence. Eventually the competition for control resulted into an open military conflict, World War I. Germany clashed with France and England as it made attempts to get into the markets of China and to acquire the raw materials of Africa. Germany and its allies went to war against France and Britain and their ally Russia. Before long much of Europe was in flames.
The American capitalists in 1912 preferred for the moment to stay out of the conflict in Europe. They were content to sell goods to both sides and watch their European competitors rip each other apart. The ruling class was anti-war because it could profit from “neutrality”. The Republicans took a more pro-war stance and the seemingly anti-war stance of the Democrats resonated with the population which did not want to be dragged into the war. Most Americans saw World War I as a purely European affair – nothing Americans should be a part of. Democratic Party candidate for President Woodrow Wilson spoke against the entrance of the United States into World War I. He won a majority of the vote and was elected.
Wilson began his Presidency with the support of an anti-war public opinion and substantial portions of the capitalist class who didn’t want to risk entering a war. By 1917, however, even the most cautious American capitalists had seen that the war in Europe would decide the future control of the world’s resources. The United States had also entered yet another economic crisis, with industry overproducing and markets over-saturated with goods. Spending tax-dollars on war production offered a way out of the economic crisis. Wilson and other politicians began making the case that the U.S. would enter the war to “make the world safe for democracy”. The Democratic Party shifted its policy. In 1918, even though Wilson was elected on an anti-war platform, he took the United States into World War I.
Millions of Americans actively opposed the war and mass demonstrations were held in the major cities. The revolutionaries had anticipated this change would occur and were at the center of organizing against the war. The Wilson administration met the anti-war movement with severe repression. The repression was directed at all dissent, making it a crime to criticize the war. Anyone involved in the revolutionary movement or associated with it was persecuted. Anti-war activists, Socialists, and anarchists were jailed. Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene Debs ran for office from jail opposing the War. More than two hundred revolutionaries were deported to Russia.
The repression struck major blows against the workers movement. In 1917, however, a new element was added to world politics. There was a workers’ revolution in Russia. American workers involved in the Socialist Party and the IWW looked to the example of Russia for a way to fight on a political level with the goal of finally overthrowing the capitalists, their political parties and their state. Despite the intense repression, the most militant socialists and IWW activists started to group themselves together and by 1919 the U.S. Communist Party was formed. This party gathered some of the best organizers from the workers’ movement. It represented a political voice which had the potential to finally break the hold that the Democrats had on the working class and the poor of the United States.
50,000 Americans Dead in World War I
World War I raged across Europe until Germany and its allies were finally defeated in 1918. The United States came out of World War I with an advantage over Europe – the war had not taken place on its territory. However, 50,000 Americans had died and a whole generation had experienced the horrors of war.
Economically the war had improved the economy for the capitalists. They had profited from selling weapons and resources to both sides during the war, and had benefited from wartime spending. The value of stockholders’ investments increased by 16.4 percent. Workers conditions remained poor in comparison. Wages in manufacturing only went up 1.4 percent. Deaths on the job averaged 25,000 per year and 100,000 were permanently disabled by accidents. During this time, workers, many of them demobilized soldiers, organized major strikes from Seattle to the Carolinas. The newly formed Communist Party was actively organizing workers, especially in the South which the labor movement hadn’t reached before.
The Great Depression: Roosevelt and the Democrats Save Capitalism
The year 1929 saw the onset of a major crisis in the economy, the Great Depression. The capitalist system, based on accelerating production again reached a barrier as markets overflowed with products. The economy crashed and millions were thrown out of work. People faced unemployment and hunger amidst enormous wealth. The breakdown of the system led to a great revolt by U.S. workers in the 1930s and 1940s. The political representatives of the capitalists, both Democrats and Republicans were confronted with the challenge of both restarting the economy and keeping the population from challenging the capitalist system.
On the world scale, another threat to the system was looming in the form of another World War. Germany was re-arming and rebuilding its industry. German capitalism, with Adolph Hitler and the Nazis in control, threatened to make another grab for territory and challenge Europe and the U.S. for a place in the world market. Likewise the Japanese capitalists were rapidly developing industry and military ambition, threatening to become a regional power in Asia. The lines were being drawn between capitalist countries for another worldwide conflict over the world’s resources. To secure a place for U.S. capitalism, the capitalists in the U.S. would need to mobilize the population of the U.S. to fight to secure a place for U.S. imperialism in the world.
The Great Depression hit with the Republicans still in office. The situation called for drastic measures and the Democrats were ideally placed to criticize the Republicans for their non-intervention in the U.S. economy and in the world. The Democrats ran Franklin D. Roosevelt as their candidate in 1932. Roosevelt was a wealthy Senator from New York who had served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Roosevelt was recast as a man of the people, ready to save the nation from greed and corruption. He campaigned under the slogan, “the New Deal”, promising a change from previous administrations. The New Deal signaled a major change in the way the Democratic Party presented itself. It proposed major government spending in order to restart the economy, and instead of resisting the growing workers’ movement, it proposed some reforms to pull workers out of severe poverty and unemployment. People responded to Roosevelt’s appeal with overwhelming support in the elections.
People weren’t just sitting and waiting for a savior to come rescue them. Workers started organizing and acting to meet their needs directly. People seized food from stores and warehouses to feed the hungry. Unemployed councils were organized all over the country with membership in the tens of thousands under the leadership of the Communist Party. Unemployed councils would block evictions, pressure authorities to keep workers gas and water turned on when they were late on the bills, and they fought discrimination against African Americans and immigrants. In Seattle fishermen caught fish and traded for firewood cut from the forests. Doctors, nurses, barbers, and seamstresses traded their skills for goods, and essentially showed that the only thing that wasn’t working was the economy based on profit making.
In 1934, the working class launched a series of strikes involving a million and a half workers in San Francisco, California; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Toledo, Ohio. The three big strikes inspired workers all over the country. The workers’ struggles forced Roosevelt and the Democrats to write legislation that appeared to respond to the demands of the movement. Roosevelt passed the Wagner Act of 1935 that set up the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Under the Wagner Act workers had the right to form unions and enter into collective bargaining through the NLRB. The bosses didn’t want to have to deal with the unions, but preferred to have the government mediate if the unions couldn’t be stopped outright. The NLRB was easier to control than striking workers feeling their power.
In 1936, a new sort of strike swept the country – the “sit-down” strike. The sit-downs were started by workers in Akron rubber plants who went on strike, but rather than leaving the factory, sat down at their machines and refused to leave. The workers essentially could hold the factory hostage in a sit-down making it impossible for the bosses to restart production with replacement workers (known as scabs). The largest sit-down strike took place from 1936-1937 at the GM plant in Flint Michigan. For 44 days the workers of Flint occupied the plants, shutting down the GM empire. After Flint, strikes flared across the country in record numbers. The strikes were so enormous that the Democratic Party and Roosevelt stepped in and set up mediation with the unions in order to get the workers to call off their strikes.
The strike waves weren’t only a revolt against the bosses and their Great Depression. The workers were also revolting against the old structure of craft unions. Skilled workers had been organized since 1886 in the American Federation of Labor. The AFL avoided strikes and relied on the highly marketable skills of its membership to bargain for wages and rights. But the AFL saw the power of the strike wave and put together an industrial organizing committee headed by John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers to organize new industrial unions. Lewis took this committee and formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations. It embraced all workers regardless of their level of skill or their race. This was the new union structure, industrial unionism, which the thousands of newly organized and militant workers claimed as their own. Organizers from the Communist Party played an important role in building the new CIO unions. Everywhere workers were winning contracts, building unions, and joining the CIO.
The CIO was built by the militancy of the workers, but it soon became a structure that could also contain them. The CIO began to tighten control of its membership, discouraging strikes and militancy. Lewis issued a statement to the bosses saying, “A CIO contract is adequate protection against sit-downs, lie-downs, or any other kind of strike.”
There was no mass organization that could give the workers a different perspective. The Communist Party might have been able to organize a real opposition to the policies of Lewis and the CIO. It was by far the most important political organization in the working class. However, it had been dramatically affected by events in Russia. The Russian Revolution was a workers’ revolution, but it had taken place in a poor underdeveloped country. The revolutionaries had assumed that the Russian example would spark other revolutions in the industrialized countries of Europe. Workers all over Europe made a number of revolutionary attempts but none succeeded. The exhausted Russian working class received no help and fell away from power. A layer of bureaucrats, led by Joseph Stalin, was left holding power. This grouping used its power to defend the narrow national interests of Russia as opposed to extending the revolution, and it began to increasingly take privileges of power and wealth for itself. Everywhere in the world, Stalin and his forces transformed the Communist Parties into tools of Russian foreign policy.
In the U.S., as in many countries, the bureaucracy took control of the Communist Party and transformed it from a party of workers’ revolution to a tool of the bureaucracy. In 1935, the Communist Party came out in full support of the Democrats and Roosevelt because it hoped to make an alliance with the U.S. against the growing threat of Germany. The Communist Party had led many of the key fights of the workers from the beginning of the strike wave. However, the Communist Party’s policy of support for Lewis, Roosevelt and the Democrats during the period of the 1930s meant that there was no organized opposition to the Democrats’ policies of co-opting the workers’ struggle.
In 1939, World War II began when Germany sent its armies into neighboring Poland. France and Britain responded by declaring war. The Democrats under Roosevelt took up where Woodrow Wilson had left off and argued for using U.S. military might to secure influence in the world and protect American imperialism. The U.S. capitalists were already concerned about the rise of Japan and its invasion of China in 1937. Roosevelt pushed for a direct military intervention in Europe against Germany, and in Asia against Japan. In 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The direct attack on U.S. territory gave Roosevelt the means to rally the population for war.
In Europe, the entry of the U.S. along with the resistance of the Russian population to the German invasion defeated the German forces. After the war, the representatives of the victors, Stalin for Russia, Roosevelt for the U.S, and Winston Churchill for Britain, met at Yalta in the Ukraine to carve up the world markets. Russia was allowed to impose its control over Eastern Europe and the eastern part of Germany. The U.S. and Britain made agreements to divide the resource-rich areas in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. The territories that Britain had dominated came under the control of the U.S. For example, Saudi Arabia received aid from the U.S. and in return, the ARAMCO oil corporation received the right to exploit the oil of the region. This began the U.S. support for the Saudi regime, a brutal religious monarchy that wouldn’t last a week if the U.S. weren’t supplying it with money, weapons, and the occasional military intervention.
Roosevelt also used World War II to pull the U.S. economy out of its tailspin. Roosevelt ordered a wage freeze for workers while U.S. industry expanded rapidly to meet the needs of the war. Union bureaucrats agreed to accept a “No-Strike” pledge supposedly to aid in the war effort. Where the workers refused to abide by the pledge, police and National Guard forces were called out. Before troops ever landed in Japan or Europe, Roosevelt ordered federal troops to crush strikes by workers in the U.S. The Taft-Hartley Act was passed allowing the government to forbid strikes.
Overall American capitalism boomed with the opening of enormous military markets and guaranteed profits bought and paid for by the state. At the height of wartime production, military contracts represented 34 percent of the GDP. The war economy set up in World War II has been maintained ever since, with an average of $278 billion spent on the military per year since World War II. It is by maintaining a “permanent war economy” that capitalism in the U.S. has maintained a level of guaranteed profits without which it would be equally stuck in the same cycle of crises that caused the Great Depression.
The middle of the 20th century saw a major change in the social structure of the country. The racism that kept African Americans as second-class citizens was being shaken from the top and from below. A reform of the racist system was becoming necessary for the capitalists themselves. The industrial boom of the 1940s opened up new opportunities for African Americans to escape the racist South. During World War II, many African Americans moved out of the South to the industrial centers of the North and West to work in the war economy. The U.S. was criticized for its racism on the world scale, especially by the Soviet Union. The U.S. tried to appear as a beacon of freedom and democracy in the world, especially where it attempted to extend its influence in Africa and Asia. The terrorized and disenfranchised Southern African American population was an embarrassment. Under Roosevelt, local Democratic Party politicians in the South maintained their racist order, but nationally the Party began promising reforms. The Democrats’ promises and the new opportunities opening up resonated with African American’s hopes, and, where African Americans could vote, they began to vote for the Democrats. Meanwhile, racism directed at Japanese Americans, however, reached brutal proportions. During the war, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 forcing 100,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps.
In addition, with these new hopes for change came the beginnings of resistance. In 1941, the Sleeping-Car Porters Union, led by A. Philip Randolph, threatened a massive march of African Americans on Washington to address this racism. In 1943, Harlem exploded in riots protesting substandard housing and job discrimination. This response to racism was hardly what the Democrats had in mind when they aimed to reform the system of segregation in the South.
Roosevelt died in 1945 while still in office. The presidency passed to his Vice President Harry S. Truman. The Democrats after Roosevelt were faced with a new set of challenges. They needed to maintain the wartime economic boom and secure the post-war world for exploitation by American corporations and also contain the rising tide of the Civil Rights Movement.
The New Deal and Roosevelt are talked about today in glowing terms. Roosevelt is remembered as a savior of the working class. But it was the working class who fought for and won some concessions. Politicians and pundits will say that what we need is another Roosevelt and another New Deal. Roosevelt’s goal however was to save the system and secure the U.S. a leading role in the world against the other major capitalist powers.
Harry S. Truman, the First Cold War President
President Truman maintained the imperialist policies established under Roosevelt. He also oversaw the end of World War II and began the Cold War, a struggle against the Soviet Union but also against domestic opposition and independence movements in the rest of the world.
During the final stages of World War II, Truman ordered atomic bombs to be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. The most horrible weapons known to humanity instantly killed 200,000 civilians. It was well known prior to the bombings that the Japanese were going to surrender, but Truman wanted to use the bomb to show the rest of the world that the U.S. was willing to use devastating force to keep control of the world’s resources.
After World War II, Europe was weakened and the Soviet Union and the U.S. were left as the two major powers in the world. Even though the Soviet Union had degenerated, it still represented a force which stood outside of the bounds of capitalism. In spite of the betrayal of the working class by the Stalinist bureaucracy, the Soviet Union was at the very least a check against imperialism. The 40 years after World War II were marked by the struggle between the U.S. and the Soviet Union known as the Cold War. After World War II, nationalist movements erupted in the former colonial countries of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, aimed at achieving national independence from the old colonial regimes. The Soviet Union supported them, hoping to weaken the imperialist countries by depriving them of access to markets and raw materials. The U.S. supported the old European colonial powers or intervened directly in countries like Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan to control the population but also to fight the Soviet Union.
Domestically the Cold War was used as a means to attack the unions and the workers. The Communist Party was painted as a grave internal threat, even though the working class and its organizations had supported Roosevelt and the War, and done everything they could to shackle the workers to the Democratic Party with the help of the union bureaucracy. In 1949 over 140 leaders of the Communist Party were jailed under the Smith Act. The leading figure in these Cold War witch-hunts was Wisconsin Senator, Joseph McCarthy. Under McCarthy, the unions were purged of anyone who had ever been linked to the Communists or radical politics. Communists and radicals of all stripes were forced out of the same unions that they had played a major role in building. Thousands of workers were put on blacklists circulated amongst employers, which made it impossible for them to find work.
By 1949, the foreign policies of the Democratic Party and the Republican Party were almost identical. The difference between the parties was a matter of presentation and the illusions that the parties could draw on to get people’s support. The Roosevelt era, however, left the Democrats with a pro-worker image (even though some Southern Democrats remained thoroughly committed to racist segregation). The Republicans appeared to be tougher on Communism.
The Cold War gave the Republicans a means to win the election of 1949 and reclaim the presidency. Dwight Eisenhower, the Republican candidate, used Cold War rhetoric to criticize the Democratic Party for being weak in defending Americans against the Soviet Union.
John F. Kennedy: A False Hope For Change
John F. Kennedy was the next Democratic Party president after Truman. The Democrats under Kennedy argued that Eisenhower had let the United States fall behind the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Kennedy shared the same politics as his predecessors. During the 1950s, he had been one of the most rabid Cold War anti-communists, urging the government to push out and prosecute Communists as a domestic threat. Kennedy proposed that his foreign policy would be tougher on Communism than Eisenhower’s. In 1961, Kennedy presided over the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by a Cuban exile army armed and organized by the U.S. He was also directly responsible for increasing U.S. involvement in Vietnam. His administration however was faced with a major movement of the African American population for civil rights.
Vietnam, once a French Colony, was one of many places in the world where people were rising up and attempting to throw off the domination of the imperialist countries. Every success by the oppressed gave inspiration to the people fighting elsewhere in the world. The U.S. had supported the French since 1954 because they feared the consequences of a victory for the Vietnamese. The U.S. military maintained a string of military bases in China, the Philippines, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. If Vietnam successfully kicked out the French it could spur these other countries to do the same to the U.S. military.
While the Democrats were fighting the Cold War, a major social movement was beginning to take hold of the African American population. African American veterans had seen a world in Europe where white people were not raised to be racist. They had seen the bigger picture and discovered that racism is not natural, and that societies could be different. The migration of African Americans to the cities, employment in industry, and the experience of the war had broadened African American’s experience. They were going to make the changes they wanted themselves. The impact of these pressures were reflected in the 1954, “Brown vs. Board of Education” decision, in which the Supreme Court struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine that had been the legal basis of segregation since the 1890s. The Supreme Court did not set any sort of plan to desegregate the South, but African Americans themselves did. Protests and boycotts were launched which forced local governments and employers to address the problems of racism.
In 1960, students in North Carolina decided to sit-in and integrate the local lunch counter at Woolworth’s. This form of direct action spread in a matter of weeks to fifteen cities in five Southern states. Over 3,600 of the participants were jailed for some time, but by sheer force of numbers they forced the lunch counters to accept integration. According to the Department of Justice, there were 1,412 demonstrations in only three months of 1963. That year civil rights organizers planned a march on Washington, in which 200,000 demonstrators came to the capital on the day. President Kennedy and other national leaders moved fast to welcome the Civil Rights Movement and pretend to be on the side of the demonstrators, despite their inaction while people were being beaten and murdered throughout the South.
Lyndon Johnson – The Vietnam War President
Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. His Vice President, Lyndon Johnson took over. Johnson continued with Kennedy’s foreign and domestic policies. His most important role was escalating the U.S. military presence in Vietnam to a full-scale war. Domestically he was confronted with the growing upsurge of the Civil Rights movement and the growth of a major anti-war movement.
In 1964, the Johnson Administration manufactured an excuse for a large-scale invasion by manipulating news of events happening in Vietnam. The Johnson administration claimed that U.S. ships had been attacked while patrolling the Gulf of Tonkin. Johnson portrayed this as an unprovoked attack on U.S. personnel. In fact those ships had been deep in North Vietnamese waters and the attack was a fabrication – it never happened. Johnson had wanted a reason to go to war and with the help of the news media, he sold the Gulf of Tonkin events to the American people as another Pearl Harbor. Congress almost unanimously passed a resolution to go to war on the basis of this lie. A draft was instituted to fill the ranks of the army and fight the war. In 1964, the U.S. sent 200,000 troops to Vietnam, 200,000 more in 1966, and by 1968 there were 500,000 U.S. troops fighting in Vietnam. The U.S. military policy was to terrorize the population into submission.
As the war on Vietnam escalated, the struggle of African Americans against racism intensified. In 1964 Civil Rights organizations called for massive demonstrations in Mississippi, the heart of the segregated South. During that summer, groups of young people went to Mississippi and faced extreme violence from local racists. Activists hoped that by throwing their bodies on the line they would bring attention to the crimes happening in the South. Three organizers were killed in cold blood with the help of the Philadelphia, Mississippi Police Department. As under Kennedy, no action on the part of Johnson to defend civil rights organizers was forthcoming.
The Federal government was trying to channel the movement into the legal system. In 1965, the Johnson Administration signed the Federal Voting Rights Act which ensured access to the ballot box, dismantling local laws designed to block African Americans from voting. If they could get people to believe that the Democrats represented what they wanted, they could keep them from acting for themselves.
Even while the Johnson administration was trying to placate the Civil Rights Movement by passing legislation, the ghettos were exploding with anger. In 1964, a demonstration in Harlem erupted in a riot that lasted for three days. In 1965, the Los Angeles ghetto of Watts exploded in an enormous rebellion for five days. In the summer of 1967, a wave of riots took place, the largest in Detroit and Newark. A Congressional inquiry reported eight major uprisings that summer as well as 33 riots and 123 “minor” disorders. African Americans had undergone a shift in consciousness through their struggle for their basic rights. The slogan changed from “Civil Rights” to “Black Power”. It was a new spirit – what the elite were not willing to give peacefully, people were ready to demand by force.
Many people in the United States were drawing connections between the Civil Rights struggle and the Vietnam War. In 1966, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, one of the most important Civil Rights organizations, issued a statement against the war and called for the troops to come home. In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the chief spokesman of the Civil Rights Movement came out against the Vietnam War, calling the U.S. “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” The connection between, war, racism, capitalism, and U.S. foreign policy was becoming more and more obvious.
The most important resistance took place in the military. Many soldiers had been involved in the Civil Rights struggle and had been politicized. Why should they fight the Vietnamese when the people who were oppressing them were back in the United States? Soldiers circulated underground newspapers throughout the front. They began refusing to fight. Angry soldiers rolled grenades into the tents of their commanding officers. Thousands deserted the army. In 1967 alone, 47,000 soldiers were reported “missing in action”. Young men who had been drafted began refusing to enlist. In 1966, there were 380 people prosecuted for avoiding the draft. By the end of the sixties, the number of young men refusing to serve was 33,960. Between 50,000 and 100,000 draftees fled to Canada or Europe to escape being sent to Vietnam.
1968 – A Year of Struggles
The year 1968 presented a crisis for the ruling class and the Democratic Party. The North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive on January 30th, the Vietnamese New Year. Vietnamese forces struck at the U.S. army in over a hundred cities and launched a major assault on the capital of Saigon. At the height of the attack the National Liberation Front flag flew over the U.S. embassy in Saigon. The attack was a deep shock to the American public who were growing increasingly opposed to the war. The politicians were telling them that it was nearly over and the U.S. was nearing victory. The Tet Offensive showed that this was a lie.
Then Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April. Immediately the inner cities of the United States erupted with anger. Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, Newark, Washington, D.C. and many other cities were in flames as people took out their anger. By the end of the summer, 125 different American cities had seen urban rebellions. The local police forces could not be relied upon to contain the rebellions and National Guard troops were flown in from the South and the Midwest.
The Democrats struggled to react to these major challenges to their authority. A section of the party began to see the war as too costly to maintain. Major newspapers and TV networks began to reflect their corporate owners’ questioning of the war, becoming critical of the government policy. The Civil Rights movement, Black Power, and the urban rebellions made capitalists understand they could no longer rely on the population to fight a war abroad and they also faced a growing resistance at home. Still, a good deal was invested in the war and sections of the capitalist class refused to accept defeat in Vietnam and were unwilling to make concessions to the Black Movement.
The year 1968 was an also election year. The Democratic primaries became an electoral contest for those who wanted to change policy, and those who wanted to stay the course. There were two candidates who came out against the war: the little-known Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, and the much more famous Senator Robert F. Kennedy (JFK’s brother) of New York. Both Kennedy and McCarthy had served long terms in various governmental positions. McCarthy was a Senator on the fringes of the Democratic Party. He had been a consistent critic of the Vietnam War. As the election of 1968 drew closer, he gained popularity, reflected in the New Hampshire Primary, where he received 42 percent of the vote, as opposed to Johnson’s 49 percent. His candidacy challenged the Democratic Party to reconsider its attitude towards the Anti-War Movement.
Kennedy on the other hand was part of the wealthy Kennedy family, had served as Attorney General during his brother’s administration, and later as a Senator from New York. He had not uttered a word of opposition to the Vietnam War until after the New Hampshire primary. After the New Hampshire primary, Kennedy came out against the war. The usual arguments were made to excuse his late-coming anti-war convictions, that he was being “pragmatic” and was only trying to stay “electable” before 1968.
The introduction of anti-war candidates split the Democratic Party. Some politicians were impressed with McCarthy and Kennedy’s popular stance on the war and wanted a shift in policy but a substantial portion of the Party apparatus, especially its local city and state government officials, supported Johnson and continuing the war. Many Southern Democratic politicians broke away and supported third party candidate George Wallace, the militantly racist governor of Alabama. With the party split three ways, and his popularity falling in opinion polls, Lyndon Johnson finally appeared on television and announced that he would not run in the election.
This election was a major focus, even a distraction for some of the people who had been engaged in the social movements in the 1960s. On the one hand they were excited to see their views reflected by establishment politicians, McCarthy and Kennedy. It was amazing for people in the movement to see Lyndon Johnson decline to run because of the pressure against him and the war. People felt that they were truly changing things because the politicians were changing their tune. They failed to see that the emergence of anti-war candidates was yet another attempt by the Democrats to co-opt people’s energies. People were being fooled yet again by the same old promise of politicians who are “really” on their side. Then, in May, Robert F. Kennedy who had won the California primary over Eugene McCarthy was shot and killed. For many people this was very demoralizing because of the amount of energy and hope that had been invested in Kennedy.
The pro-war section of the Democratic Party dominated the Chicago Democratic National Convention in August. Anti-war protests outside of the convention drew thousands of protesters. Chicago’s Democratic Party Mayor Daley ordered police to meet the protesters with force. The convention was surrounded by thousands of police, National Guard, and barbed wire fences. Despite police violence the protests raged outside the convention for eight days. Inside the convention, the pro-war candidate, Lyndon Johnson’s Vice President Hubert Humphrey, won almost three times as many votes as the anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy. Much like today, the Democratic Party candidate was not selected by popular vote alone. Democratic Party bosses were able to cast deciding votes. The real decision makers in the Democratic Party – the corporate donors and professional politicians – had decided that without Kennedy they would not even try to appeal to the anti-war sentiment. The pro-war Hubert Humphrey became the candidate of the Democratic Party.
The election of 1968 saw two pro-war candidates running against each other – Hubert Humphrey and Republican Richard Nixon. Humphrey alienated people who were against the war and did nothing to significantly distinguish himself from his opponent. He was identified in the public mind with Lyndon Johnson. Nixon played into the fear of many Americans who did not understand the urban rebellions in the inner cities and the U.S. losses in Vietnam. Nixon won with a campaign appealing to this “Silent Majority” for a return to normalcy and order. Nixon also suggested that he had a plan to end the Vietnam War.
After 1968: The Democrats in Disarray
The Democrats were in complete retreat with the Party split internally. In 1972, the Kennedy and McCarthy supporters won the nomination for the Democratic Party ticket supporting a South Dakota Senator, George McGovern. McGovern promised an immediate withdrawal of troops from Vietnam as well as a decrease in war spending. Meanwhile, the rest of the Democratic Party establishment not only opposed McGovern, they actively campaigned against him after he was nominated. The result was a schizophrenic campaign in which leading Democrats campaigned against the Democratic Party candidate.
People were presented with no clear alternative in the election of 1972. The Democrats were split and in chaos. For many people they no longer seemed like an alternative. Voter turnout in the election was only 55.2 percent of the electorate despite the charged political atmosphere. Nixon was elected again by a wide majority, but only of those who bothered to vote.
People did not stop resisting. In fact people became more desperate to find ways to oppose the war machine which seemed to carry on regardless of protests. This opposition took on many forms, both collective and individual. Veterans formed the group Vietnam Veterans Against the War and held protests of returned soldiers in front of the White House. Daniel Ellsberg, a top-level employee of the Pentagon, leaked secret documents known as the Pentagon Papers to the press. Women, many who had been active in the Civil Rights and anti-war movements, began to organize to address women’s issues. This movement, the Feminist Movement, fought for a change in the way women were treated in the culture. The movement demanded equal pay for equal work, equal opportunities in education, and free childcare.
The Carter Administration
Jimmy Carter became president when there was a deep mistrust of the government and the entire electoral system. Many people felt that the government was part of the problem and had no concern for ordinary people. The population had just been through two major social movements (the Civil Rights and the Anti-War Movement), a rebellion within the army, followed by movements for women’s rights, gay rights, prisoner’s rights, American Indian and environmental movements. In the previous decade, many people proved to themselves that if they wanted things to change, they had to rely on their own actions, not the politicians. Coupled with this newly established self-confidence was a complete mistrust in the entire government, born from lies about Vietnam, assassinations and imprisonment of political activists, and the Watergate scandal with President Nixon, which led to his resignation. In the 1976 election, only 53 percent of eligible voters even bothered to vote. Carter was elected by only 50 percent of those that voted – that totals only 25 percent of the eligible voting population. He was hardly seen as a solution.
In his campaign for president, Carter tried to regain the trust of the disillusioned public through pretending to share their political views. Even though Carter had supported the Vietnam War until it ended, he tried to convince people he had been against the war. He promised to cut the military budget, provide health care for the poor, and diminish the inequities of wealth between the African American and white populations. He attempted to gain people’s respect through appearing as an ordinary, hardworking farmer from the South. In reality, Carter was a millionaire peanut grower who inherited the land from his father. When he was elected, Carter even made a few token appointments within his administration to keep the charade going. He appointed an African American woman, Patricia Harris, as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement, Andrew Young, as ambassador to the United Nations, and a former anti-war activist to head up a new department in charge of the Peace Corps.
But his other appointees were a continuation of the past. His National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and his Secreatary of Defense, Harold Brown, were strong supporters of the Vietnam War, and his Secretary of Energy, James Schlesinger, was Secretary of Defense under Nixon, and supported a continued increase in the military budget. The majority of Carter’s other appointees had strong connections to the corporate elite, including the Trilateral Commission, an international grouping of major capitalists, like David Rockefeller, and foreign policy experts, like Brzezinski. The main purpose of this group was to improve international military and economic strategies of emerging U.S. multinational companies. This group chose to support Carter in the election because they believed that, following the Watergate scandal with Nixon, a Republican would not be elected.
Carter’s Foreign Policy
Carter has been portrayed in the media as an international humanitarian activist. He even won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. When we look at the actual foreign policy record of Carter’s presidency, however, we see the exact opposite of humanitarianism. We see Carter’s unflinching support of U.S. corporate interests, a consistent support of brutal dictators, and the policy of crushing popular movements.
In his State of the Union address of 1980, Carter gave the following warning:
Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.
The Carter Doctrine was a warning to the rest of the world that the U.S. would not hesitate to defend its oil interests in the Middle East with military force. The Carter Doctrine simply summed up what had been carried out by U.S. imperialism for about 100 years, and modeled the kind of foreign policy that was maintained throughout the Carter administration:
Suharto Dictatorship Just before President Carter took office, the Indonesian military, under the dictator General Suharto, invaded the small island of East Timor, and within the next few years, slaughtered 200,000 people, about one third of the population. The Carter administration gave uncritical support to Suharto, and even increased military aid to his government by 80 percent, amounting to several hundreds of millions of dollars. Without U.S. aid, Suharto’s military may have run out of weapons and been defeated by the East Timorese resistance. The U.S. did not want this to happen because Suharto’s government was extremely obedient to U.S. economic interests. During the presidency of Richard Nixon, encouraged by the Ford Foundation, the U.S. supported the rise to power of General Suharto through a military coup against a nationalist movement in Indonesia. As soon as Suharto was in power, he practically handed over the Indonesian economy and resources (primarily oil, ore and timber) to U.S. corporations. The Carter administration did not hesitate to come to the military aid of this brutal tyrant.
Support for Mobutu In the central African country of Zaire, through a coup in 1965, President Mobutu Sese Seko came to power. His regime was as brutal as they come. He built a personal fortune while the country was sinking further into economic debt and collapse. He carried out public hangings and torture of suspected opponents. Mobutu would sometimes sentence members of the government to death, have them tortured, and then he would pardon their sentence and reappoint them to a position in the government, but this time with the confidence they wouldn’t dare betray him. This was his method of assuring loyalty.
Publicly, the Carter administration tried to distance itself from Mobutu’s government, but actually it was a major supporter. The majority of aid to sub-Saharan Africa under Carter, went to Mobutu. And in 1977, an uprising against Mobutu broke out in the southern province of Shaba. The Carter administration, as well as France and Belgium, responded immediately with two million dollars in military supplies. The U.S. gave permission to Moroccan soldiers, armed with U.S. weaponry, to fly into Zaire and aid Mobutu in crushing the uprising. And soon afterwards, newspapers reported that behind the scenes, the CIA was recruiting mercenaries to send to Zaire to support Mobutu’s weak military.
Dictatorships Around the World Carter’s administration aided military death squads in El Salvador responsible for the murder of thousands of people who resisted the land reforms in the country which kicked thousands of peasants off their land and handed it over to U.S. agricultural companies. It gave continued support to the Somoza regime in Nicaragua, responsible for the rape, torture and murder of thousands of Nicaraguans. And in order to maintain U.S. military bases and economic investment in the Philippines, the Carter administration continued the U.S. military aid of the previous decade to the brutal dictator of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos. Under the Carter administration, the U.S. continuously vetoed U.N. resolutions to impose sanctions on the apartheid government of South Africa. The Carter administration also gave consistent military support to the brutal Shah of Iran, who guaranteed U.S. companies access to Iranian oil. Under the Shah, SAVAK, Iran’s police force trained by the CIA, tortured and murdered thousands of Iranians. Their brutality included torture by electric shock, whipping, beating, inserting broken glass and pouring boiling water into the rectum, tying weights to testicles, and ripping out teeth. In short, Carter’s administration represents an undeniable continuation of the military dominance and brutality of previous administrations.
The Camp David Lies
Another part of Carter’s false legacy is the supposed Pro-Palestine agenda he tried to push during the Camp David Accords of 1978. The Camp David Accords of 1978, signed between Israel and Egypt, has been presented as a major concession by Israel to the people living in the occupied territories of Palestine. The agreement has been represented as providing the Palestinian people with their own state. For signing the treaty, Egypt received billions of dollars in military aid from the U.S. But the so-called Palestinian state was nothing more than small, isolated plots of land connected through Israeli military checkpoints. In effect, the Camp David Accords supported the expansion of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, and it conceded nothing to Palestinians except further occupation.
The Carter Economy: Handouts to Corporations and Attacks on Workers and the Poor
During his administration, a snapshot of the economy accurately reflects the interests Carter supported. The top one percent of the country had more than 33 percent of the wealth. The top ten percent of the population had more than 30 times the bottom ten percent of the population. And 83 percent of all corporate stock was owned by only five percent of the population. While, for example, Exxon Mobil’s profits were increasing over 56 percent per year, to over four billion dollars, and their CEO was making over $830,000 per year. Over ten million children had no health care. Eighteen million children had never been able to see a dentist. The prices of food and necessities were rising faster than workers’ wages, with an inflation rate of 18 percent by 1980. Official levels of unemployment were between six and eight percent, but for African Americans it was between 20-30 percent.
Carter was elected promising to cut the U.S. military budget and decrease arms sales around the world. But during his term in office, he did neither. The U.S. remained the leading arms dealer throughout the world, maintaining the export of around nine and a half billion dollars per year in arms. And in his first budget proposal to Congress, Carter increased the military budget by ten billion dollars, spending one trillion dollars on the military for the next five years. He also denied $25 million earmarked for poor schoolchildren. Carter also supported attacks on women’s access to abortion. In 1976, he signed the Hyde Amendment into law. This prohibited the use of federal funding (through Medicaid) for poor women to have abortions. When criticized for the blatant unfairness of the law, he said: “Well, as you know, there are many things in life that are not fair, that wealthy people can afford and poor people cannot.” He also passed tax legislation that increased the taxes on the poorest 50 percent of the population and gave about 18 billion dollars in reductions to corporations and extremely wealthy individuals. And Carter began the deregulation of key industries in the U.S., trucking, shipping, and airlines. Deregulation meant the lifting of government regulations that could set price limits for consumers and regulate the formation of monopolies. Carter eliminated these regulations and paved the way for the rapid formation of larger monopolies in these industries, with more of the profits going to fewer corporations.
Throughout his presidency, Carter supported attacks on workers in defense of corporations. Between 1977 and 1978, over 165,000 coal miners went on strike across the Appalachian Mountains. Coal companies were trying to force a new contract on workers that would make them pay for health benefits, and would impose massive layoffs, which would result in even more dangerous conditions with fewer workers operating the mines. The company was also trying to force workers to give up their right to strike over many issues, and allow the company to fire workers who were known organizers of wildcat strikes, which had been growing as workers defended themselves against increasingly unsafe conditions. Towards the end of the strike, Carter threatened the striking workers with the Taft-Hartley Act. This authorized the government to send in federal troops to break the strike. Ten days after Carter’s threat to send in federal troops, the coal miners’ union, the UMW, pushed the striking miners to accept the harsh contract, which was a major setback, not just for the miners but for the whole U.S. working class.
Carter also laid the foundation for the crushing of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), the union of about 17,000 air traffic controllers. Throughout the 70’s, these workers faced concessions, like understaffing, forced overtime, and pay cuts, but they were a well-organized workforce that was able to resist these cuts going further. The government wanted to break the union and impose massive paycuts. This was finally achieved in 1981 when President Reagan ordered the firing of over 11,000 of 17,000 workers and the elimination of the PATCO union. But it was Carter who paved the way. One year before the contract was up, Carter ordered the formation of what was called a “Management Strike Contingency Force.” Its goal was to train replacement workers (scabs), and put pressure on the most militant workers in the union before any strike broke out. So, when Reagan acted in 1981 to break the union, the scabs were already trained and on-hand, ready to take over the jobs of the 17,000 workers. So when we think about Reagan and the crushing of PATCO, we should really be thinking about Carter too.
Jimmy Carter was a true representative of the Democratic Party – an avid defender of the ruling elite of this country and a staunch opponent of working and poor people.