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Quite the World, Isn't It?

On labor rights, civil liberties, and violence

Part of the interesting and engaged crowd at the La Veta Public Library. Photo by Margaret Mercier-Martelle.
I’m midway through a week of speaking engagements in Colorado, and as is usual with such things, I’m probably getting more out of the audiences than they are getting from me.

In two talks so far (one at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, the other at the La Veta Public Library) we wandered down a new avenue: What was the role of the easy availability of weapons in the escalation of the violence here in southern Colorado 100 years ago? Was the ability of the striking coal miners to amass rifles and use them against the corrupted National Guard an example for the pro-gun lobby’s argument that the Second Amendment enables citizens to defend themselves against a tyrannical government? Or was easy access to the weapons the reason so many people – at least 75 – died in the conflict?

I think the second is the answer. For those not familiar, in September 1913 thousands of southern Colorado coal miners walked out on strike after coal operators refused to negotiate over a list of workers’ demands, topped by recognizing the United Mine Workers as the miners’ union. In that era, the coal operators wielded incredible political and economic power in the state, and as the strike evolved the coal operators and the government seemed, from the perspective of the strikers, to have merged into one force arrayed against them (the local courts were corrupt; constitutional protections against search and seizure and other basic liberties were usurped; state laws governing mine safety and wages were ignored, etc.).

So the miners walked out, a strike that began in an atmosphere of violence (one union organizer was killed before the strike even began) that surged and ebbed until the April 20, 1914, Ludlow Massacre, in which eleven children and two mothers died in a fire that swept through the Ludlow tent colony. Those deaths launched ten days of revenge by rampaging union supporters who attained control of most of the Front Range from the New Mexico border to near Denver. The miners and their supporters didn’t stand down until President Woodrow Wilson sent in the U.S. army as a peacekeeping force, and the irredeemably compromised National Guard retreated from the field.

In my view (which I argue in my book, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West), the miners were freedom fighters standing up against the corrupt political and economic system. But as we've been discussing this week, in the end the violence achieved no tangible gains. Life in the mines continued, and the strike concluded with a whimper in December without achieving the main goal: Union recognition. Ultimately, the state court ended the corruption in Huerfano County, one of two centers of the worst of the strike violence, and voters ousted the incompetent governor who had lost control of the National Guard and the state, in an election that shifted the base of political power away from the coal operators.

So it was democracy, not the availability of guns, that ultimately prevailed.

And that was only one slice of the discussions we’ve been having. The Colorado Springs Independent posted/published a Q&A with me about Ludlow, which also lists the rest of the week’s talks. If you’re in Colorado, come join us. Read More 
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Detroit: A Biography out in paperback with a new Afterword

So I arrived home yesterday after the long slog on the train from Los Angeles and found a box delivered to the house. Part of the contents is pictured at left.

Yes, that’s the paperback edition of Detroit: A Biography, shipping now and available in stores (I hope; if your local is a smaller shop you might need to have them owner order it). It looks very nice – they kept the design from the hardcover, which is that great metallic-sheen finish over the 1929 photo of Detroit from Windsor, across the river.

The book also has a new Afterword, my attempt to wrap my arms around all the developments since I finished writing Detroit: A Biography in late 2011 (it was published in April 2012, nearly two years ago). I’ve pasted the first few paragraphs of the new Afterword below to give you a sense of it.

Overall, for all of Detroit’s troubles, strong flickers of life remain there that deserve nurturing, and hundreds of thousands of Detroiters need help from their fellow citizens.

As for the bankruptcy, I find myself in a lot of discussions about that. One recurring point: Pensioners and investors should not be on equal footing. The workers did their jobs for wages and promises of future support, and the city – bankrupt or not – has a moral obligation to them. The bondholders invested knowing – it’s the nature of investing – that there was risk, and many bond buyers received inflated interest rates reflecting Detroit’s shaky financial underpinnings. I have problems at a fundamental level with much of capitalism, but if people are going to play to play the investment game knowing they are putting assets at risk, they don’t have much room to cry for special consideration when they lose the gamble. Keep the pensions whole; let the gamblers ruminate on their losses.


October 2013

Seats on the second tier of Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers professional baseball team, offer an impressive view of the downtown Detroit skyline. Tall buildings shoulder their way skyward beyond the center field fence. Some have the clean lines of modern architecture, but most are much older, dating back to the 1920s, and have been dirtied by time, with a patina of gray covering ornate cornices and other architectural details that exude a sense of history. And despite a surge in purchases in recent years, many remain shuttered and empty.

This is the cradle for the potential rebirth of Detroit, which ...  Read More 
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On John Hay's peculiar history, and a book review

In writing The Admiral and the Ambassador: One Man's Obsessive Search for the Body of John Paul Jones, I got to spend some research time on the life of John Hay, who was the U.S. secretary of state when Ambassador Horace Porter, the main focus of the book, finally recovered the naval hero's body. I was already familiar with Hay, and was glad to learn more about his remarkable life, which included friendships with Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley, three of our four assasssinated presidents.

So I jumped at the chance to review Joshua Zeitz's fine new book, Lincoln's Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln's Image, a review that just went live on the Los Angeles Times website and should be in the print edition this Sunday. From the review:
Sometimes political careers are born of chance.

John Nicolay and John Hay were two young men working in Springfield, Ill., when they became involved with the political life of Abraham Lincoln before his 1860 U.S. presidential campaign. Tireless and smart, the friends, still in their 20s, proved themselves indispensable to Lincoln, who brought them along with him to the White House as his personal secretaries — in effect, the president's gatekeepers.

In his new book, "Lincoln's Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln's Image," author Joshua Zeitz skillfully recounts what were heady days for Nicolay and Hay, even as they were tragic days for the nation. The friends lived in the White House and wielded considerable power as advisors and conduits of Lincoln's orders. Over the four years of the Lincoln presidency, they had as good a view of the unfolding Civil War battles — both military and political — as Lincoln himself.

And after the assassination, the friends tasked themselves with chronicling Lincoln's life, leading to publication of the 10-volume"Lincoln: A History." The series and the related "Abraham Lincoln: Complete Works" co-edited by the two men remain part of the foundation for how modern Americans view the nation's 16th president. Or, as Zeitz phrases it, the creation of the "Lincoln Memorial Lincoln."
It's a fascinating work, a hybrid of traditional biography and historical storytelling. And with the sesquicentennial of Lincoln's death coming up in 2015, there will be a lot more books on that era popping up in bookstores.

Including one by me. But I don't want to get ahead of myself. First let's get The Admiral and the Ambassador launched in May ... Read More 
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A review, and a new gig

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This weekend's Los Angeles Times carries my review of Greg Grandin's very good new book, The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World, which builds off the story of a single repressed slave revolt into a thoughtful revisitation to the spread of slavery in South America. The review runs in the Sunday paper (already available online here).

The timing is coincidental, but it's fun that the review appears in the newspaper the day before I start my new job as an editorial writer for the LA Times, returning to the paper and full-time work for the first time since 2008. More about that momentarily.

Grandin's book, I note in the review, is more than a simple history:
He also uses it as a spark for rumination on paradox: an antislavery ship's captain re-enslaving Africans; an "age of liberty" coinciding with "the Age of Slavery"; and the transition of an economic system based on chattel slavery to one of wages, a different kind of bondage. As Herman Melville's Ishmael asked in the beginning of "Moby-Dick," "Who ain't a slave?"


At one point, Grandin compares Melville's Ahab from "Moby-Dick" with Delano. Where Ahab has become "synonymous with ruin" in the pursuit of obsession, Delano "represents a more common form of modern authority." As the captain of a seal ship that can find no seals (they'd been hunted to near-extinction), Delano struggles in a rapidly changing market under pressure from creditors and financiers to turn a profit. Abandoned by its captain, the Tryal is a prize to capture and sell — ship, stock and slave cargo included.

"Caught in the pincers of supply and demand and trapped in the vortex of ecological exhaustion, with his own crew on the brink of mutiny because there are no seals left to kill and no money to be made, Delano rallies men to the chase, not of a white whale but of black rebels. Their slide into barbarism … happens not because he is dissenting from the laws of commerce and capital but because he faithfully and routinely administers them."

The review is the last I've done as a freelance writer, though I expect to continue reviewing after I start back at the LA Times, a move that I'm looking forward to. As much as I enjoy the freelance life - particularly the control over my own time and projects - I'm drawn to this fresh challenge of writing editorials. It is one of the few things in newspapers I haven't tried yet, and after working in near-solitude for so long it will be an interesting change of pace to become part of an editorial board, and join in the give-and-take of coming to a consensus on some of the key issues of the day.

And I also expect to keep writing books, though at a slower pace. My The Admiral and the Ambassador: One Man's Obsessive Search for the Body of John Paul Jones comes out in May, and I'm coming up on the midway point of another book I'm keeping under wraps for the moment, which will come out in 2015. When it does, that will make five books of history published in a span of eight years. So expect a gap after the fifth book comes out.

Meanwhile, I hope to announce in a few weeks book tour plans for Th Admiral and the Ambassador come May, a story I'm very excited to have written about. Read More 
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On Doris Kearns Goodwin and The Bully Pulpit

The Los Angeles Times this weekend carries my review of Doris Kearns Goodwin's new history, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism It's Goodwin's usual solid job of richly detailed lives at crossroads that had significant effects on the nation. My only quibble with it is the length - 750 pages before the notes and index. As I wrote in the review:
[T]hat's because this really is three overlapping books stitched together. There's a bio of Roosevelt (president from 1901-09), a bio of Taft (president, 1909-13), and a history of the muckraker era, with shorter bios of such seminal figures as Samuel L. McClure and the stable of writers (including Ida M. Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker and Lincoln Steffens) he brought together at his eponymous magazine.

The strength and the weakness of Goodwin's work here rest in the details. Roosevelt and Taft have been the subjects of many biographies, and for good reason. Both are outsized figures (for Taft, in the literal sense), and each was touched by personal tragedy (Roosevelt's first wife died shortly after giving birth; Taft's wife suffered a debilitating stroke two months after he became president). Roosevelt became president with the assassination of William McKinley and survived an assassination attempt himself during the 1912 presidential campaign. Taft went on to serve as chief justice of the United States, the only president to have done so.

While each is a fascinating figure in his own right, there's too much space devoted to their formative years here — they don't meet until Page 135. Similarly, there is too much minutiae about legislative battles that might have been significant in the moment but are not so significant against the historical backdrop. This is where the work, for all of Goodwin's strength as a writer, bogs down.
I took particular interest in the work because it overlaps in time and in some characters with my forthcoming The Admiral and the Ambassador: One Man's Obsessive Search for the Body of John Paul Jones, due out in the Spring. Jones's body was recovered by Horace Porter, ambassador to France under President McKinley and then Roosevelt, during Roosevelt's first term, so I was already attuned to the era. And Goodwin gets it right. Read More 
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Remembering the war some of them never fought

There's an odd phenomenon here in America - and it could be happening elsewhere - in which people who never served in the military still claim the service, lying on their resumes to be seen as the patriots they never really were. It often blows up on them, and there are organizations that have made it their mission to cast a bright light on the fraudulent claims.

But in the aftermath of the Civil War, an era in which the poor had no safety net, pretenders to glory seemed to be everywhere - often to get a pension. Richard A. Serrano, a Los Angeles Times staff writer (we overlapped but I don't recall ever meeting him), has written about this odd slice of Americana in his new Last of the Blue and Gray: Old Men, Stolen Glory, and the Mystery that Outlived the Civil War, which I reviewed this week for the Los Angeles Times. From the review:
Serrano, a staff writer in the Los Angeles Times' Washington, D.C., bureau, starts with two main characters: former Union soldier Albert Woolson and onetime rebel soldier Walter Washington Williams. Each man forms a compelling story of becoming caught up in the nation's bloodiest war and its aftermath. By the late 1950s, as the United States neared the centennial of the start of the war, each was feted as the oldest living veteran of his respective army.

But one was a fraud, a scam that would have gone undetected had he not outlived all of his fellow Confederate veterans.

There's not a lot of suspense here. It becomes clear pretty quickly which was the real deal and which a fraud. But suspense isn't the point. Serrano uses the men as a window into the long-playing reverberations of the Civil War, from the reunions to the reenactments to the wounds covered with, in retrospect, tissue paper.
It's a good quick read (if redundant in places), and worth the time. On a personal level, I was intrigued by the overlaps with my own projects. One of the main figures in The Admiral and the Ambassadoris Horace Porter, who rose to prominence as an aide to general and, eventually, president Ulysses S. Grant. Porter's support for honoring fellow veterans was a main catalyst in his decision as ambassador to France to find and recover the body of John Paul Jones (the book is due out in the spring).

And I've just begun a new project, which I'm keeping under wraps for the time being, which touches even more deeply on the Civil War. In fact, this very morning I'm revisiting a key battle in western Virginia. I should keep an eye out for some of the names in Serrano's book. Read More 
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100 years ago today, the first death in the Colorado coal war

Gerald Lippiatt, with mustache, in undated family photo, courtesy of Gerald Lippiatt, a descendant.
Forgive yourselves for not having this day marked down on your calendars. But it was the beginning of unprecedented violence here in the U.S., as Gerald Lippiatt, an organizer for the United Mine Workers, was shot and killed in a confrontation in Trinidad, Colorado. His death was the first in at least 75 killings over the next seven months or so, including the 11 children and two mothers who died in the Ludlow Massacre.

These events were the focus of my first book, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West. It remains a significant event in American history - not just labor history - as a strike in Colorado's coal mines escalated into open guerrilla war between union supporters and the mine owners, with the Colorado National Guard aligned with the corporations.

I thought I'd mark the day by posting the a few paragraphs from my book about Lippiatt and his final hours. And, of course, encourage you to buy a copy through your favorite or local independent bookstore, or through the link above.



Trinidad, Colorado
August 16, 1913

Gerald Lippiatt , a stocky man with a bushy mustache, worked his way up North Commercial Street, his feet scuffing puffs of dust from the dirt roadway as he climbed the slight rise between the bridge over the Purgatoire River and downtown Trinidad. A full moon bathed the prairie-edge city in gentle light and a dry evening breeze wafted easterly from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to swirl among Trinidad’s two and three-story wood and red-brick buildings. The Saturday night crowd thickened as Lippiatt neared the city center, passing the Colorado Supply Co., the Isis Theater, the Trinidad Hotel, the Sherman-Cosner grocery store, the Quilitch Brothers’ grain and farm-implements businesses. Ahead, just before the busy intersection with Main Street, a Salvation Army minister exhorted sinners to repent, his message stopping at the doors of busy first-floor saloons, pawnshops and narrow gambling halls. Trolleys rumbled along brick-lined tracks, blue flashes from overhead wires adding to the festive energy of a crowd shaking off the exacting drudgery of a week on the ranch, or of mining coal deep below ground.

Lippiatt, an organizer for the United Mine Workers of America, had been working in Trinidad for more than a week, and was helping prepare for a state Federation of Labor convention two days later at Trinidad’s new Toltec Hotel, a three-story brick building just down North Commercial Street from the city’s established gem, the  Read More 
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On Kristallnacht, and the teenage gunman who precipitated it

It's a bicoastal weekend of book reviewing for me. As the Los Angeles Times prints my review of Brenda Wineapple's Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877, the Washington Post carries my review of Jonathan Kirsch's The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris.

Both are fascinating reads for different reasons (I explore the Wineapple book here). I was vaguely familiar with the Grynszpan case, but not to the detail that Kirsch provides. Fascinating slice of history:
On the morning of Nov. 7, 1938, a troubled teenager walked into an embassy in Paris, lied his way past some rather nonchalant guards, was granted a private meeting with an attache and then shot the man dead. The boy was Jewish, the victim was a low-level Nazi diplomat, and the killing was quickly seized upon by Hitler and his agents of darkness to accelerate their campaign to drive Jews from Germany. Within hours of the attache’s death, Hitler unleashed the infamous Kristallnacht, or “night of broken glass,” a rather poetic name for a savage orgy of murder, rape, arson and vandalism in which more than 200 Jews were killed, 1,300 synagogues were burned and 7,500 Jewish-owned shops were attacked.
The history surrounding those events has been scoured for decades and subjected to wide-ranging debates over how much of Kristallnacht was planned and how much was spontaneous. Kirsch seems to split the difference. He believes that plans for a broad pogrom were in the works and that Grynszpan’s assassination of Ernst vom Rath gave the Nazis the pretext to unleash what propagandist Joseph Goebbels called “the justified and understandable outrage of the German people.”

As Kirsch points out, Grynszpan was one of the first Jews to strike a violent blow against the regime that would work with such savage efficiency to exterminate the Jewish race. Yet Jewish history and culture have not been kind to Grynszpan, in large part viewing him as a deranged, immature youth who put his lust for personal revenge ahead of the safety of his people. That’s a fair assessment in Kirsch’s eye, though he thinks it’s time to reconsider Grynszpan and the two bullets he fired in that Parisian office 75 years ago. To blame Grynszpan for the violent racism of the Nazis, he writes, “is not merely unsupported by the facts of history, but is also morally bankrupt.” Rather, Kirsch argues, Grynszpan, like others once described as “premature antifascists,” read the Nazis for what they were and “seemed to perceive the existential threat that Nazi Germany posed to the Jewish people” at a time when most of the world, including Jews, sought to appease Hitler or wait him out.
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On a troubled century that defined the nation

And you think we're a politically fractured nation now?

The Los Angeles Times has posted my review of Brenda Wineapple's fine new history, Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877, which explores the national mood in the years before, during, and after the Civil War. You could fill a library with the volumes that have been written about those turbulent and violent days, but Wineapple's book stands out as a broad cultural history. It's light on battle details - incorporating the major, pivotal moments while eliding the incremental skirmishes - and deep on politics and cultural collisions.

I've argued in the past that one of the propellants of our current cultural frictions is a failure to acknowledge that different races, cultures, and economic strata have different views of our national history. That has infused the debate around Detroit and its economic collapse. But it crops up elsewhere, too, as we saw with Paula Deen and a recent survey in which Georgia Republicans thought more highly of her than Martin Luther King Jr. Same country, different views. Same as it ever was.
It's hard in an era of voter suppression efforts in minority neighborhoods, with a Supreme Court that devalues the Civil Rights Act, and when an armed Florida vigilante can spark a confrontation and then claim self-defense, to not measure past against present. Especially given the argument streaming through conservative America that this is a post-racial society in which blacks no longer need special protections from the legal system.

Whites and blacks have a different history in these same United States, and it behooves us to recognize that. And to sense — in the present — the weight of the past. Wineapple's Ecstatic Nation does a laudable job of bringing to life not just the Civil War but the society in which it occurred — and has evolved into the present.
It's a good book. It can take patience in places, with a wide cast of characters and quotes that can make for burdensome reading. But it's well worth the effort. Read More 
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Colorado, and a looming centennial

In late July 1913 – 100 years ago today – union organizers in Colorado were laying plans to extend an ineffective three-year-old strike in the northern coal fields to the southern district, hoping that in broadening the strike they could force the coal operators to the negotiating table. Leaders of 20 different unions rallied in Trinidad 100 years ago this weekend to demand the coal operators fire the brutal Baldwin-Felts detective agency they had hired to infiltrate the union, and to keep organizers out of the mines. The coal operators, not surprisingly, ignored the demand.

Everyone expected violence, but none could have seen the future: Beginning in late September, seven months of gunfire, arson, beatings and deprivations in which at least 75 people were killed, and in which at its peak the striking coal miners held military control of the Front Range from just south of Denver to the New Mexico border.

It was guerrilla warfare between the miners and the Colorado National Guard, which had been taken over by the coal operators’ private guards. The miners were winning the insurrection, which didn't end until President Wilson sent in the U.S. Army as a peacekeeping force. Yet few history books include much in the way of details on what was likely the nation’s bloodiest labor struggle (several showdowns that began as labor actions morphed into white-on-black race riots, with, in some estimates, higher death tolls). The central moment of the Colorado strike was the Ludlow Massacre when, after a daylong gun battle between strikers and the militia, a strikers' tent colony was torched by the soldiers. Eleven children and two mother suffocated in their hiding spot beneath a tent. Their deaths became a rallying cause for union sympathizers, and launched ten days of brutal reprisals. It was class war, and the subject of my first book, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West.

You’ll be seeing more posts from me over the coming months about these events, as that long-ago strike reaches its 100th birthday. I know there are commemorations being planned in Colorado, and I'm hoping the centennial will bring fresh - and national - attention to this forgotten moment in American history.

Well, forgotten by some.

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