You can`t be neutral on a moving train…

Nora Connolly 

Image © Jim from Steven Point WI, USA

…In graduate school you get basically the same point of view you get in elementary school, only with footnotes…Howard Zinn

Ed Miliband`s recent endorsement of Professor Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book on Theodore Roosevelt, signals that his policy focus is regulation, regulation, regulation.  The Labour leader’s interest in Teddy Roosevelt appears a continuation of the `One Nation` theme, dressed in the star spangled banner of the Republican Party, albeit with a progressive tint.

Not that Roosevelt`s Square Deal was without progressive merit.  The 1902 coal miners’ strike (a preamble to the Square Deal policy) saw the United Mine Workers pitched in battle with the mine owners, over the issue of trade union recognition.  The UMW amazed when Roosevelt supported their request for arbitration.  This was hardly revolutionary but an improvement on previous treatment, leading to a pay increase and a reduction of the working day.  Ed Miliband might not be happy with this rather left leaning example of TR`s legacy but no doubt other policy illustrations will be available in Professor Kearns Goodwin`s comprehensive analysis, which his staff have apparently been ordered to read.

Indeed, the entire raft of measures forwarded during the Progressive Era are worthy of contemporary study. However the Rough Riders foreign policy (McKinley, President until 1901) – makes progressive support for Roosevelt impossible.  Chapter eleven of TR`s biography is titled, `The Big Stick and the Square Deal` amalgamating foreign and domestic policy rather neatly. There is an uncomfortable (for progressives and liberals) correlation between Imperialist War and the rise of Theodore Roosevelt. Evident before he got into the Whitehouse, his tenure as assistant secretary to the navy is worth reading about, resigning from this post in May 1898. The Spanish-American War and the media portrayal of his involvement at this time, helped secure the Vice Presidency and ultimately the Presidency.

And as Professor Chomsky points out, In his second term as president, Theodore Roosevelt said, “The expansion of the peoples of white, or European, blood during the past four centuries has been fraught with lasting benefit to most of the peoples already dwelling in the lands over which the expansion took place,” despite what Africans, Native Americans, Filipinos and other beneficiaries might mistakenly believe. It was therefore “inevitable and in the highest degree desirable for the good of humanity at large, that the American people should ultimately crowd out the Mexicans” by conquering half of Mexico and, “It was out of the question to expect (Texans) to submit to the mastery of the weaker race.” Using gunboat diplomacy to steal Panama from Colombia to build the canal was also a gift to humanity. All of which is no doubt highlighted in Professor Kearns book. I say this because I haven’t read the text yet, although she recently spoke to Peter Oborne about it.

The short interview was conducted over the phone for the Week in Westminster programme.  Peter Oborne asked what might Ed Miliband`s staff learn from studying her book?  Professor Kearns Goodwin highlighting the familiar territory of the Square Deal and the Trust Busting agenda of Roosevelt; alongside other Progressive measures he supported to ameliorate the conditions of industrial capitalism at the time.  The Professor didn’t focus on foreign policy during her interview but this was because Oborne moved the discussion bizarrely away from Roosevelt.

Professor Kearns Goodwin told Oborne, when asked, that she had never met the current Labour leader but has met a “bunch of English politicians”.  She went on to say that she visited the UK with President Obama`s entourage when the President had dinner with the Queen and that Obama contacted the Professor in 2007 after reading her book on Lincoln (Team of Rivals).

The issue of fine food then tended to dominate the conversation, as Professor Kearns Goodwin explained her organisation of an annual Presidential dinner, for a group historians to meet with President Obama.  Apparently they discuss any relevant problem (it must be a long dinner) and the group of academics provide the President with solutions (these would be worth hearing about – but we don’t).  The historians have an expert understanding of past Presidents such as Truman and Jackson – the latter a rather amazing one to hear cited.  Of course Arthur Schlesinger was closely associated with the Kennedy Presidency, so we should perhaps not be too surprised with this academic presidential link.

Listening to this discussion, my thoughts turned to the late great American historian, Howard Zinn.  I wondered what he would have thought about this annual dinner.  I have a feeling that the event wouldn’t have been as much of a “fun dinner” with the late Dr Zinn among the diners, though Zinn was a man of great wit and humour.   He surely would have drawn some perceptive parallels with President Obama`s foreign policy and Theodore Roosevelt`s agenda.  Zinn might also have pointed out some important points about Andrew Jackson, “responsible for the brutal treatment of the Indians in the South-East driving them across the Mississippi.  Thousands of them dying. Jackson is racist.  Jackson is a slave owner.”  Professor Kearns Goodwin doesn’t name any of the historians who attend her annual dinner but I think it`s safe to assume that Howard Zinn was never a guest – which is a pity.

Howard Zinn began teaching in 1956 when he headed down to the Deep South to work at Spelman College where he made a big impact both politically and academically, a fact verified by critically acclaimed author and former student Alice Walker.  Zinn then came to the attention of the FBI in 1962 when he produced a report about developments in Albany, Georgia and was dismissed from his post at Spelman College. His subsequent book about SNCC lifted that organisation according to Bob Moses, “on to the pages of history”.  From teaching, writing and campaigning for civil rights he became active in the peace movement.  Zinn`s incredible contribution to the anti-Vietnam War movement is outlined by people such as Tom Hayden, Daniel Ellsberg Dan Berrigan and Noam Chomsky. Throughout his life Zinn maintained a huge output of writing, perhaps his most notable text, `A People`s History Of the United States`.  Amongst his many history texts were various plays, one about Emma Goldman and another called `Marx in Soho`. 

In 1968 he went to North Vietnam to bring home some captured American pilots.  He was in Hanoi when it was bombed during his stay.  Zinn a bombardier during the Second World War articulated the sobering impact this had on him. Zinn had participated in the first bombing raid when Napalm was used, on a French town, near the end of the Second World War. Sadly Howard Zinn died two years ago this week, so unfortunately he is not available to attend the next annual dinner organised by Professor Kearns Goodwin.  Perhaps she might instead extend the invitation to Professor Noam Chomsky, whose credential are well known.  He has written a lot about foreign policy and American history and has no doubt also read a great deal of Howard Zinn.


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