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This Week in People’s History, June 18–24

CIA Carries United Fruit’s Water (1954), “Radical Plot” Gets Saber-Rattling Response (1919), A Deadly Managua Roadblock (1979), Murders Most Foul (1964), DC Metro Cover-Up (2009), Mournful Gallery of Loss (1969), Cruel Enslaver Robert E. Lee (1859)

Mural by Diego Rivera depicting the CIA's 1954 overthrow of Guatemala's government

CIA Imposes Regime Change on Guatemala

70 YEARS AGO, on June 18, 1954, 480 men trained, funded and armed by the CIA, invaded Guatemala and began a 10-day battle that ended in the overthrow of the country's democratically elected government. It was the CIA's third successful effort to replace a popular, democratic, regime with a violent, despotic one (Syria had been the first victim in 1949, followed by Iran in 1953).

Syria’s elected government got the boot from the CIA in 1949 when it tangled with the American-Arabian Oil Company; then in 1953, the CIA ousted the Iranian government for having legally nationalized the property of the same oil extraction operator. The next year it was Guatemala’s turn when United Fruit didn’t want to follow the law. The Zinn Education Project has much more information in this link, plus a detailed caption of the Diego Rivera mural at the top of this post.

“Radical Plot” gets Saber-Rattling Response

105 YEARS AGO, on June 19, 1919, police and military officials throughout the U.S. were warning that a national anti-government plot was under way. The identity of the alleged plotters was not known, but every well-publicized official denunciation characterized them as Reds, or radicals or anarchists or supporters of the Industrial Workers of the World.

The alleged plot’s existence had been revealed on June 2, when package bombs exploded simultaneously in nine locations, including Manhattan, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh and Cleveland. The bombs did substantial damage to the homes of Attorney General A.M. Palmer, three federal judges, a federal immigration officer, a mayor and others. 

Three of the people who set the bombs were killed by them, but none of their targets had been injured. Federal and local officials had no suspects, other than the three bombers who had died, but they questioned hundreds of radicals in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Cleveland. The head of Army Military Intelligence told the U.S. Senate’s Military Affairs Committee that the Army had prepared maps of Manhattan and Brooklyn that “charted the haunts of Bolshevists, anarchists, and other extreme radicals.”

In the midst of the ongoing furor, on this day the New York State National Guard conducted what it called a “routine” exercise in Manhattan and Brooklyn that was, in fact, far from being routine. 

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Every National Guard unit in the two boroughs was mobilized to practice the suppression of a civil uprising. Members of the Guard were ordered on short notice to assemble at the Guard’s many fortified armories, and from there take up defensive positions around nearby public buildings, bridges, tunnels, reservoirs, railroad stations and power and lighting plants. According to the New York Times report of the event, "Every important place on Manhattan Island was guarded by the troopers within one hour after the various units left their armories.” 

The investigation of the June 2 bombings produced no suspects or arrests, but it left a lasting legacy. As part of the investigation, the Justice Department established a Division of Intelligence, and appointed J. Edgar Hoover to lead it.…

A Deadly Managua Roadblock

45 YEARS AGO, on June 20, 1979, ABC News journalist Bill Stewart was executed in Managua at a government roadblock. The shooter was a Nicaraguan soldier manning the roadblock. Stewart was in Managua to cover the civil war between the U.S.-supported Somoza regime and the Sandinista revolutionaries. 

Stewart, who had, with his interpreter, approached the roadblock on foot to present his press credentials, was ordered to lie face down on the pavement and was almost immediately murdered. A video of the entire interaction between Stewart and the soldiers, including his execution, was recorded by a member of Stewart’s crew, who had stayed behind in the press van. Stewart’s interpreter Juan Francisco Espinoza was executed at the same time, but off-camera.

ABC News smuggled the video out of the country, and it was aired on all three major networks, giving rise to widespread condemnation, including from President Jimmy Carter, who called it “an act of barbarism.” Less than a month after Stewart had been killed, the popular Sandinista revolution prevailed, forcing Somoza and his henchmen to leave the country. This link is a brief, and graphic, report of the events at the roadblock.

Murders Most Foul

60 YEARS AGO, on June 21, 1964, a trio of Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) volunteers – James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner – were kidnapped and murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in east-central Mississippi. The infamously brutal killings were intended by the Klan to terrorize all the participants in Mississippi Freedom Summer, a state-wide effort by CORE and three other major civil rights organizations.

The three victims were among more than two thousand volunteers who were blanketing the state for three months to challenge Jim Crow by helping disfranchised Mississippians register to vote, while providing a broad spectrum of sorely needed social and educational services and directly challenging the Klan’s terrorism.

The murders led to many criminal investigations and judicial proceedings, but very little justice. Seven men, including a Klan “Imperial Wizard,” were convicted in 1967 on federal civil rights charges; none served more than six years. In 2005 an 80-year old Mississippi preacher was indicted on three state murder charges. He was convicted of manslaughter, not murder, on June 21, 2005, 41 years to the day he had been one of the large gang of killers who never paid for their crimes.,_Goodman,_and_Schwerner

Deadly Negligence on DC's Red Line

15 YEARS AGO, on June 22, 2009, a Washington, D.C., subway train rear-ended another train at high speed while operating above ground in broad daylight, killing the train operator and eight passengers, and seriously injuring more than 70. It was by far the deadliest mishap ever to have occurred in the 33 years of Washington Area Metropolitan Transit rail operations. As bad as the collision was, the pre-wreck negligence of transit managers and the managers' conscious decision to scapegoat the deceased train operator were even worse.

As soon as the trains collided, WMATA managers began to worry that the cause of the wreck might have been a failure in an electrical circuit that was designed to detect train traffic and automatically prevent collisions. For more than a year, the circuit on that stretch of track had been failing intermittently for no apparent reason. All efforts to identify the source of the problem had failed, and the intermittent failures continued.

Without knowing if the bad track-circuit had been at fault, after the wreck WMATA officials raised the possibility that the collision had been caused by the dead train operator’s having been distracted by her cell phone. Despite having no indication that the operator had been distracted, three weeks after the wreck WMATA management announced they were establishing a zero-tolerance ban on texting by train operators.

Weeks after the managers’ speculation about distracted driving and imposition of the zero-tolerance policy, accident investigators made several discoveries showing the managers' responsibility and the train operator's innocence.

As the investigation showed, the train-detection circuit had not been functioning at the time of the crash, management had been aware of the intermittent failures for 18 months, but had failed to find a way to prevent them. Also, management had vetoed a proposal to temporarily restrict the speed of trains in the area of the faulty circuit, and the deceased operator's cell phone was discovered in her purse, where she had no access to it at the time of the wreck.

A Mournful Gallery of Loss

55 YEARS AGO, on June 23, 1969, Life – one of the world’s most widely circulated magazines – ran an 11-page photo spread that quickly became a watershed of distressed public opinion. Under the headline, “One Week’s Dead,” Life published photos of 217 U.S. military personnel who had been killed in Vietnam during the week ending June 3, along with their names, ages, ranks, and hometowns. In addition it published the same information about 25 others who had been killed but whose photos Life could not obtain.

"When the nation continues week after week to be numbed by a three-digit statistic which is translated to direct anguish in hundreds of homes all over the country, we must pause to look into the faces,” wrote a Life journalist. “The faces of one week's dead, unknown but to families and friends, are suddenly recognized by all in this gallery of young American eyes."…

Robert E. Lee the Cruel Enslaver

165 YEARS AGO, on June 24, 1859, more than a year before Robert E. Lee became famous as the commander of the Confederate Army, he was a little-known Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army. On this day, the New York Daily Tribune, which was the biggest U.S. newspaper at the time, published an anonymous letter stating that Lt. Col. Lee had personally inflicted extremely cruel punishment on an enslaved woman who worked on the Virginia plantation that Lee owned. The letter was newsworthy as a reflection on the cruelty of a relatively unknown Army officer, and not on the Confederate Army, which was established in 1861.

According to the letter, three enslaved people had self-emancipated themselves from Lee’s plantation and fled north, but were captured and returned to him. Lee ordered that the three should receive 39 lashes and then be jailed. According to the letter, the three were "taken into a barn, stripped, and the [two] men received thirty and nine lashes each from the hands of the slave-whipper. When he refused to whip the girl, Mr. Lee himself administered the thirty and nine lashes to her. They were then sent to Richmond jail, where they are now lodged." 

Lee was aware of the letter’s publication, and wrote to his son about it: "The N. Y. Tribune has attacked me for my treatment of your grandfather's slaves, but I shall not reply.” The enslaved people were in fact Lee’s, who had owned them since his father-in-law’s death in October 1857. If the report in the letter had been false, Lee could have sued the Tribune’s publisher – the famous abolitionist Horace Greeley – for libel, but he chose to do nothing.…