Big Trouble: A Murder in a Small Western Town Sets Off a Struggle for the Soul of America.

Author:Noah, Timothy

The term "glass warfare" has a quaint ring today; when used at all, it's only in the figurative sense -- more often than not by wealthy folks accusing someone of trying to take away their tax breaks. But "class warfare" was a deadly serious term at the beginning of this century, when it was frequently invoked by labor leaders to describe their struggles against capitalist bosses. It's the conceit of the late J. Anthony Lukas's final book that class warfare came close to crossing over from rhetoric to actuality in the Prolonged, bitter, and bloody confrontation" between capital and labor that led to the assassination of former Idaho Gov. Frank Steunenberg and the subsequent murder trial of the radical labor leader "Big Bill" Haywood.

It makes eminent sense that what was arguably the high-water mark of American socialism occurred in the ruggedly self-reliant West. As Lukas explains it, the West drew settlers seeking to escape civilization's shackles abroad and in more easterly parts of the U.S. Whereas today's self-reliant extremists tend to see government as the oppressor, their predecessors during the late 19th and early 20th century, the age of the great trusts, were more apt to see industrial capitalism as such; there were 37,000 strikes between 1881 and 1905. Whatever resentment of government existed mainly reflected the view that its strings were being pulled by capitalist titans.

The trouble was, for many, moving west proved a poor way to escape the brutal effects of the industrial revolution. Haywood, for one, spent a year of his youth as a cowboy and found it lonely, dreary work that "bore precious little resemblance to the myth cultivated by pulp magazines, dime novels, and Wild West shows." Then he tried homesteading, only to go belly-up in the Panic of 1893. After the federal government assigned Haywood's homestead to an Indian reservation, he went into the mines and joined the ongoing battle between miners, on one side, and the mine operators, railroads, and banks on the other.

Among the worst battlegrounds was the Coeur d'Alene region in Idaho, where labor unrest in 1899 led to noting and President William McKinley's dispatch of black troops to keep the peace, a gesture that in that time and place only heightened" class tensions. (In one of the best of the book's many lengthy asides, Lukas tells how the same 24th Infantry seized Cuba's San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War, only to have the credit given to Teddy...

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