The History of Progressives and Slavery

Progressives condemn Americans for their alleged role in slavery, but their own past is not as innocent as they believe, and they have some explaining to do about the present.

President Trump's recent visit to Mount Rushmore has given progressives another opportunity to condemn the President and to trumpet their own virtues.  MSNBC’s Tiffany Cross described Mount Rushmore as the "most grandiose symbol of U.S. imperialism."  She claimed, "Mount Rushmore isn’t exactly the innocent ode to our Founding Fathers as described in our textbooks."  MSNBC’s Lawrence O'Donnell claimed, "The place Donald Trump is going to is stolen land."  Their Mike Barnicle announced, "He will inevitably and predictably talk about our heritage.  In other words, he will talk about he's the protector of White America."  Princeton University Eddie Glaude Jr. was invited on to explain, "In some ways Donald Trump is a reflection of the rot that has been at the heart of our fragile experiment since its beginning."  CNN's Leyla Santiago declared, "President Trump will be at Mt. Rushmore where he'll be standing in front of a monument of two slave owners and on land wrestled away from Native Americans."  "Imperialism," "stolen land," "protector of White America," "the rot," "slave owners." That is quite an indictment.  Progressives are so much better than that.  Or are they?

Perhaps the outrage is dependent on who is being enslaved.  Historically, progressives have had a favorable view of slavery under the right master and right name.  Journalist Ann Louise Strong claimed Soviet

"…labor camps have won high reputation throughout the Soviet Union as places where tens of thousands of men have been reclaimed.  So well-known and effective is the Soviet method of remaking human beings that criminals occasionally now apply to be admitted.” 

FDR's Vice President Henry Wallace visited the port city of Magadan in Siberia in 1944 and described it as "combination TVA and Hudson's Bay Company."  China expert Owen Lattimore who accompanied Wallace came to the same conclusion.  Author George Bernard Shaw explained, "In England a delinquent enters the jail as an ordinary man and comes out as a 'criminal type,' whereas in Russia he enters… as a crimianl type and would come out an ordinary man but for the difficulty of inducing him to come out at all."  Progressives may have admired the Soviet slave labor system, but they were not responsible for enslaving people.  Or were they?

Prisoners work at Belbaltlag, a Gulag camp for building the White Sea-Baltic Sea Canal (source)

Slavery is prohibited by the U.S. Constitution.  The Thirteenth Amendment reads, "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."  In October 1944 President Roosevelt announced, "The German people are not going to be enslaved - because the United Nations do not traffic in human slavery."  Yet the Treasury's Morgenthau Plan and the Yalta Agreement initialed by FDR contain provisions for slave labor.  Journalist Dorothy Thompson wrote, "That country [France], with our consent and connivance, and in defiance of the Geneva Convention, has been employing [prisoners] as slave labor under the same definition of slave labor as that used against Herr Sauckel in Nuremberg."  General George Patton wrote in his diary, "I am also opposed to sending PW's to work as slaves in foreign lands [in particular, to France] where many will be starved to death."  He also stated, "It is amusing to recall that we fought the Revolution in defense of the rights of man and the Civil War to abolish slavery and have now gone back on both principles."

This system remained for several years.  In 1947 Secretary of State Byrnes recorded that although this policy had been dropped, "I regret to say that Germans and Japanese still are being held in Allied hands for the use of labor." "…it is a deplorable fact that thousands of Germans and Japanese are still being held as enforced laborers in violation of solemn international pledges."  At the time Byrnes made this statement the number of prisoners engaged in slave labor amounted to several million.  According to Eugene Davidson, the number was 4 million in March 1947.  The figure did not include a sizable number of Japanese captured by the Soviets.  Some of these former slaves still survive.  Should they receive reparations?  Surviving German POWs  sought compensation and were informed "Compensation for work done by former German POWs can no longer be claimed." This form of legal recourse had been barred by the statute of limitation since September 29, 1978.

Of course, this is all history.  Conservatives argue that present day people cannot be held accountable for the actions of previous generations.  Times have changed.  Progressives could not possibly condone a slavery system.  Or could they?  According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute

"The Chinese government has facilitated the mass transfer of Uyghur and other ethnic minority citizens from the far west region of Xinjiang to factories across the country. Under conditions that strongly suggest forced labour, Uyghurs are working in factories that are in the supply chains of at least 83 well-known global brands in the technology, clothing and automotive sectors, including Apple, BMW, Gap, Huawei, Nike, Samsung, Sony and Volkswagen."  

The Chinese Communist government's use of slave labor has not been a secret for some time.  All the CEOs and Black athletes protesting about injustice need to take a look in the mirror.

John Dietrich is a freelance writer and the author of The Morgenthau Plan: Soviet Influence on American Postwar Policy (Algora Publishing).  He has a Master of Arts Degree in International Relations from St. Mary’s University.  He is retired from the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Department of Homeland Security.  He is featured on the BBC's program  "Things We Forgot to Remember:" Morgenthau Plan and Post-War Germany.

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