David Gergen, editor at large of U.S. News & World Report, engages Alan Brinkley about Big Trouble, by the late Pulitzer-Prize-winning correspondent J. Anthony Lukas. Brinkley is a professor of history at Columbia University.
DAVID GERGEN: Alan, Tony Lukas spent eight years researching and then writing this epic book--sadly took his own life. Tell us, if you will, about the context of the book and why you, along with some of his other friends, have volunteered to step forward.
ALAN BRINKLEY, For Big Trouble by Anthony Lucas: Well, Tony started this book in the aftermath of having published his celebrated book on bussing in Boston Common Ground. And he started it, in part, because he discovered in that book that what he thought was an issue of race was also an issue of class; that in Boston it was working class people, black and white, who bore the brunt of bussing, and that was part of what made the issue so difficult. And so he set out to explore in more detail the history of class in America. And he settled on the story of the early 20th century, which reveals in stunning detail I think one of the most explosive moments in the history of class tension and class warfare, if you will, in the United States. Iím here today, of course, because Tony canít be, and because I and others of his friends who admire this book and think itís important have volunteered to speak for it in a way that the author, of course, cannot. Iím also here because Iím an historian, and I think this is a very important work of history.
DAVID GERGEN: Well, thank you for coming. Letís talk a moment about this book because, as you say, it focuses on this explosive moment and really the most celebrated trial in early 20th century history in America. Tell us a bit about what was going on here, so we all understand it.
ALAN BRINKLEY: Well, in 1905, a former governor of Idaho named Frank Steunenberg was killed when a bomb exploded as he was entering the front gate of his home in Caldwell, Idaho. And it soon became clear that the bomb had been planted by someone from the Western Federation of Miners, a very militant union in the West. And it was planted as retribution for a series of events that had happened at the Coeur DíAlene mines in Idaho some years earlier when Steunenberg had been governor and when troops had been sent in during a very violent strike, and a lot of miners had been incarcerated under retched conditions for some time. And what transpired in the aftermath of this assassination was an effort to find out who had ordered it.
It was clear very quickly that the man who had planted it, a man named Harry Orchard, that was a pseudonym, but was a Western Federation of Miners operative of some sort. And he said that he had been put up to it by Bill Haywood, who was the secretary-treasurer of the union, "Big Bill Haywood," as heís known to history, and by two other officers of the organization--Charles Moyer, who was the president, and George Pettibone. They were arrested. They were abducted, quite literally abducted from Denver by the Pinkerton Detective Agency because there was not enough evidence for legal extradition, carried back to Idaho in an unscheduled night train, and put on trial in Boise. And it was, as you say, a sensational trial of its time--in the media, in politics. It attracted the attention of almost everyone in the United States who had any interest in public events, including Theodore Roosevelt. And itís since been largely forgotten. And one of the achievements of this book is to bring back to us the issues that revolved around this quite sensational trial.
DAVID GERGEN: What struck me was how vicious each side was to the other, the employers, the mine owners, to their employees, and, in turn, the miners with regard to the employers. The class warfare became a very murderous, venomous kind of battle.
ALAN BRINKLEY: And I think thatís--class warfare is the word because both sides in this dispute really did believe they were engaged in a kind of war, almost a holy war. The mine owners and the business community of Idaho and much of the West saw the Western Federation of Miners--a quite militant union--as the devil incarnate, as did Theodore Roosevelt. And they saw this trial as a way of discrediting the union and even destroying it by destroying its leadership. And the miners, on the other hand, militant labor leaders that they were, also saw themselves as engaged in a kind of holy war to defend their interests against what they saw as rapacious, unbridled capitalists who were exploiting workers unconscionably. And so both sides could justify the most extraordinary tactics to achieve their ends.
DAVID GERGEN: You wrote a piece in the New Republic recently in which you said about the book, "It is a fitting legacy for a brilliant writer, who loved to tell stories but who believes that those stories should tell us something important about ourselves." What do you think this told us important about ourselves?
ALAN BRINKLEY: Well, I think what Tony Lukas wanted to say in this book was not--wanted to do in this book was not just to tell the story of an important moment in American history, although he certainly wanted to do that, but also to illuminate the issue of class and inequality in American history at a time when he and most other people are aware that inequality is once again an important issue in our society. The late 19th/early 20th century was a time of rapidly rising inequality in the midst of a great epical change in the nature of the American economy, and so was our time. And this book shows, I think, the dangers to democracy of rapidly increasing inequality that goes unaddressed for too long.
DAVID GERGEN: It also helps to demolish the myth that America has always been a society without class.
ALAN BRINKLEY: Well, thatís a very hardy myth that very few historians have ever believed but that still survives, I think, in our popular culture, that we donít have classes in the United States. But of course, we do. We donít have them in quite the same way that England does, or other older societies do, but we do have class divisions, very severe class divisions in the United States. We always have, and we still do.
DAVID GERGEN: One of the things the book does not address but you as a historian have thought about a great deal is how we went on from this kind of trial, this kind of class warfare, to resolve these differences, so that, in fact, we did not have continuing class warfare in this country, and, indeed, we never had a Socialist Party, a robust Socialist Party of the kind weíve seen in Europe. What happened? How did we resolve it, and what lesson is there in that for today in this growing inequality?
ALAN BRINKLEY: Well, Iím not sure we resolved it so much as learned to manage it in a somewhat less divisive way than it was managed at around the turn of the century and a number of things happened. One was increasing prosperity, which began to raise the working standards--or the living standards of workers. Another was over time--although not really until the 1930--the emergence of a new and more vigorous form of labor movement that represented the aspirations of ordinary workers in the way that the Western Federation of Miners have tried but failed ultimately to do. Partly it was employers beginning to understand that workers were an asset and not simply fodder to be exploited in the way that many employers believed at the turn of the century. So there were a number of changes that, you know, to some degree ameliorated labor-management relations, although never eliminated the tensions between labor and employers entirely.
DAVID GERGEN: But still hold lessons for today.
ALAN BRINKLEY: Yes, they do, and of course, weíre working through another set of labor-management problems today as the economy changes again. I am--weíre seeing once again a resurgence--maybe a modest resurgence--but a sort of resurgence of the labor movement, and we have to hope that weíll be able to manage these changes in our economy at least as well as our ancestors did a century ago.
DAVID GERGEN: Alan Brinkley, thank you for coming and thank you for standing in for your friend and your colleague, Tony Lukas.
ALAN BRINKLEY: Glad to be able to do it.