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This Week in People’s History, Mar 5–11

If This Be Treason (in 1774), War Is Such an Ugly Word (1919), U.S. Thumbs Nose at International Law (1984), International Women's Day! (1914), Joe McCarthy's Dam Cracks (1954), Whose Streets? Our Streets! (1969), Big Win for Miners' Health (1969)

Engraved image of the 1770 Boston Massacre

If This Be Treason, Make the Most of It

250 YEARS AGO, on March 5, 1774, 37-year-old John Hancock stood in Boston and delivered an incendiary speech about the Boston Massacre, which had taken place nearby exactly four years earlier. A decade earlier, hardly anyone in Britain's North American colonies harbored revolutionary thoughts, but in in the space of less than six years the colonists' antagonism toward the mother country had become intense, in part because of the ham-handed oppressive violence of the occupying Redcoats and in part due to fiery speeches, such as those of Hancock and Sam Adams. Hancock spared no effort to rile the crowd up, telling them that "the troops of George the Third have crossed the wide Atlantic, not to engage an enemy, but to assist a band of TRAITORS in trampling on the rights and liberties of his most loyal subjects in America . . . . to conquer and enslave his subjects in America." His speech stopped short of being a call to arms, but only just. In just 13 months the shooting war that ended in Britain's defeat had begun.

War Is Such an Ugly Word

105 YEARS AGO, on March 6, 1919, Germany started a linguistic trend that would make George Orwell -- the inventor of "doublethink" -- proud. Up until 1919, every nation's military apparatus was called by a name that made clear its function, which was to make war. Germany had Deutches Heer ("German Army") which was under the command of the Minister of War. Virtually every other nation called its army what it was, and called the relevant ministry the ministry (or department) of War. But under the Treaty of Versailles, defeated Germany was not allowed to have a military force with the ability to start a war, so on this day it rebranded the army as the Reichswehr ("Reich Defense") which was under the direction of the Ministry of Armed Forces. In 1947 both the United States and France replaced the war department with the defense department; in 1964 the process was complete when the United Kingdom did the same.  Orwell did even better in "1984"; wars were conducted by the Ministry of Peace.…

U.S Thumbs Nose at International Law

40 YEARS AGO, on March 7, 1984, agents of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in a CIA-owned helicopter fired machine guns in an attempt to kill Nicaraguan soldiers who were protecting the port of San Juan del Sur from an attack by Contra speedboats. Firefights between Contra terrorists and Nicaraguan troops were an almost daily occurrence in the Reagan administration's 11-year-long attempt to overthrow the elected, left-wing Nicaraguan government, but shots fired at Nicaraguan troops by U.S. government personnel were relatively unusual. For the most part, the war against the Sandinista government was paid for by U.S. taxpayers, but almost all of the actual shooting was done by U.S.-supplied and -trained foreign mercenaries.

The March 7 attack, because it was conducted by U.S. personnel, was one of the violations of international law identified by the International Court of Justice in its final 1986 decision that the U.S. owed Nicaragua millions of dollars for damages for which the U.S. was directly responsible. The court's ruling that the U.S. was a violator of international law because it had used force against Nicaragua when the two countries were at peace could not be overturned, but it could be, and was, ignored by the U.S., which used its veto power on the UN Security Council in October 1986 to prevent the UN from requiring it to pay Nicaragua for the damage its illegal activities had caused.

March 8 is International Women's Day!

110 YEARS AGO, on March 8, 1914, for the first time International Women's Day was celebrated on this date. IWD is an official holiday in at least 28 countries, almost all of which are in eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.  The only nation in Western Europe or in the Western Hemisphere that marks it officially is Cuba. Not only is IWD not an official national holiday in the U.S., the U.S., which has three national holidays honoring individual men (four if you count Christmas), it has none honoring a woman.…

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The Beginning of the End for Joe McCarthy 

70 YEARS AGO, on March 9, 1954, legendary newscaster Edward R. Murrow's weekly television program, "See It Now" was a highly critical, 30-minute dissection of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's ongoing 4-year career as an anti-communist witch-hunter. Murrow closed the show with this cutting monologue. 

"No one familiar with the history of this country can deny that congressional committees are useful. It is necessary to investigate before legislating, but the line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one, and the junior Senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly. His primary achievement has been in confusing the public mind, as between the internal and the external threats of Communism. 

"We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear of one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason. If we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men—not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular. 

"This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy's methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home. 

"The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn't create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it—and rather successfully. Cassius was right: 'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.'"

Murrow's detailed critique was like the first crack in a dam. Less than 10 months later, the Senate voted to "condemn" McCarthy for actions reflecting badly on the dignity and integrity of the Senate. For the entire fascinating episode of See It Now:

Whose Streets? Our Streets!

55 YEARS AGO, on March 10, 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment requires government officials to allow demonstrations in city streets and other public places without regard to the subject of the protest. The ruling in Shuttlesworth v. City of Birmingham (Alabama), said that government officials had the right to set conditions for demonstrations based on the requirements of necessary traffic flow, etc., but conditions had to be uniform, without regard to the reason for the demonstration. As the court put it, “Even when the use of its public streets and sidewalks is involved . . . a municipality may not empower its licensing officials to roam essentially at will, dispensing or withholding permission to speak, assemble, picket, or parade, according to their own opinions regarding the potential effect of the activity in question on the ‘welfare,’ ‘decency,’ or ‘morals’ of the community.”…  

A Big Win for West Virginia Miners 

55 YEARS AGO, on March 11, 1969, thousands of West Virginia coal miners won a hard-fought battle to receive medical care and financial compensation for an epidemic of occupational disease caused by the coal dust. On this day, West Virginia's governor signed legislation that added the coal miners' most common occupational disease, known as black lung, to the list of conditions covered by the state's workers' compensation law. With black lung as a covered condition, for the first time West Virginia coal miners would be eligible for the medical care that black lung victims required, and they would also be eligible to receive compensation for time lost because of black lung-related disability. The victory was entirely due to a 9-day strike by forty thousand miners, which culminated in a march on the state capital by two thousand striking miners.