Tuesday, August 4, 2020
August 4, 2020: Military Massacres: The Pullman Strike
[August 6th marks the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that fraught moment and four other histories of U.S. military massacres.]
On how 1890s anti-labor violence parallels Wounded Knee, and a key difference.
I wrote about the 1894 Pullman Strike as part of this post on contexts for an indivisible yet deeply divided United States in the era of the Pledge of Allegiance, and in lieu of a full first paragraph here would ask you to check that one out for a good bit of what I’d say about this national labor activism and the violent federal, military response to it. Thanks!
And welcome back! President Grover Cleveland’s use of the military—well more than 10,000 soldiers, not only in the strike’s Chicago epicenter but in a number of other cities as well—to quell the strike could be compellingly linked to yesterday’s subject, the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre. In both cases, the military was used to put down prominent and influential protest movements, attacking unarmed American communities in the process; the casualty numbers in 1894 (in Chicago alone, 30 strikers killed and dozens more wounded) were not nearly as large as at Wounded Knee, but both similarly reflect the military’s willingness to use fatal force in these settings of domestic unrest. There’s been a great deal of discussion in recent years (such as in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina) of the legality of military forces being used in domestic situations, but in truth these 1890s events (and much older ones, like the 1791 Whiskey Rebellion) highlight that such practices have always been a fraught but undeniable part of our landscape and histories.
It’s important to acknowledge the through-line across those different historical moments, but it’s just as important to recognize and engage with differences between them. Perhaps the most overt such distinction between the Pullman Strike and Wounded Knee would be the ways in which many prominent political and media voices sided with the Pullman Strikers and against Cleveland and the military—that list included Chicago Mayor John Hopkins, Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld, and at least in part the New York Times, which editorialized that the strike represented “a struggle between the greatest and most important labor organization and the entire railroad capital.” These figures and voices were able to publicly express that perspective, I would argue, because the strike was generally perceived as a conflict between various American communities (although xenophobic fears of foreign activists did make their way into the opposition to the strike). Far too much of the time, in contrast, Native American communities such as the Lakota were not seen as part of the United States (but rather as an obstacle to the nation’s continued expansion), making public, political or media support for them (even in response to brutalities like Wounded Knee) far less common.
Next massacre tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other histories you’d highlight?