Jeff Biggers: President Obama and the Unlearned Lessons of 1924: Oil Spills, Coal Disasters and Immigration Hysteria





[Jeff Biggers is the American Book Award-winning author of The United States of Appalachia, and In the Sierra Madre. His next book, Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland, is forthcoming in January 2010 (The Nation/Basic Books).]

Here are the news headlines in 1924: Oil spills, coal mining disasters and immigration hysteria.

On the orders of President Obama, the 1,200 National Guard troops en route to the US-Mexico border will arrive just in time for the May 28th anniversary of the official establishment of the Border Patrol in 1924.

As this seemingly ridiculous photo from a 1928 Popular Mechanics article on the Border Patrol points out, President Obama's stop-gap measures simply repeat a reactionary historical cycle that have as much chance at inflaming the militarization of the borderlands amid Mexico's drug war, and our own $1 trillion dollar "War on Drugs" failure, as any hope to block the forever porous borders, despite the nearly $6.7 billion "virtual" wall[.]

Incidentally, the Border Patrol was established in 1924, as part of the wider Immigration Act of 1924, to mainly patrol the Mexican and Canadian borders for bootleggers and "undesirable" Europeans and Asians, not Mexican immigrants.

The heated immigration debate of the time would have warmed the hearts of the carpetbaggers in Arizona and their new draconian immigration law. Senator Ellison DuRant Smith of South Carolina called on the nation to "to shut the door and to breed up a pure, unadulterated American citizenship."

Meanwhile, in a haunting parallel to the Upper Big Branch coal mining disaster last month in West Virginia, 119 coal miners in Benwood, West Virginia lost their lives to an explosion on April 28, 1924.

The Benwood disaster, like Upper Big Branch, was a reminder of the continual state of violations and oversights for workplace safety in the coal industry.

On the eastern seaboard that year, communities were also up in arms over the reckless dumping of oil into offshore waters. Two years prior, the New Jersey State League of Municipalities had written the Army Corps of Engineers: "Oil pollution is one of the gravest economic questions confronting the Atlantic Coast navigable waterways." At the National Coast Anti-Pollution League conference, a representative of the U.S. Bureau of the Biological Survey concluded: "Millions of birds winter along the coast from Long Island to Florida, but now many million drift ashore dead. It has been found that oil soaks their feathers and irritates their skin, leaving bare spots on their breasts and causing them to die of pneumonia. If something is not done to stop the increased pollution, a very heavy percentage will perish."

The response from Congress was tepid, overwhelmed by the Big Oil lobby....in the 1920s! A watered-down bill, the Oil Pollution Act of 1924, outlawed the dumping of fuel oil into American coastal waters, but failed to penalize ships for any accidental spills, and provided little funds for enforcement.

Sound familiar?

Soon to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925, playwright George Bernard Shaw's declaration that "Hegel was right when he said that we learn from history that man can never learn anything from history," has never seemed so true.


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