Examine the main idea that emerges from Chapter 14 of A People's History of the United States.

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The main idea that comes out of Chapter 14 can be found in its title.  Randolph Bourne's notion of "War is the health of the state" suggests that the government and state, as a whole, benefits when immersed in war.  This is an idea that Zinn brought out in a previous chapter, "Robber Barons and Rebels."  President McKinley declares war on Spain as an act of "patriotic fervor."  Zinn's thesis in this instance and in chapter 14 is that those in the position of power benefit when  war is declared.  Internal disagreements, class distinctions, and the constant antagonistic relationship that modern capitalism creates between those who have economic power and those who lack it can be put aside in war.  The love of country and "wrapping oneself in the flag" become dominant sensibilities that benefit the Status Quo and deny the essence of change and allocation of resources. For Zinn, this becomes one of the primary motivations that underscored the entry of the United States into World War I:

In the United States, not yet in the war, there was worry about the health of the state. Socialism was growing. The IWW seemed to be everywhere. Class conflict was intense.... Senator James Wadsworth of New York suggested compulsory military training for all males to avert the danger that "these people of ours shall be divided into classes." Rather: "We must let our young men know that they owe some responsibility to this country."

Zinn's main idea is that when the nation is able to immerse itself into war, class conflict becomes secondary and thus change is offset.  At the same tie, the consolidation of the nation's centralized power that takes in war helps to create conditions in which submission is absolute.  Zinn supports this idea with the imprisonment of labor leaders like Eugene Debs under the Espionage Act of 1917, as well as the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti.  The health of the state that war enables is one in which individual rights become sacrificed to the "general will."  The state benefits when war is declared because it makes targeting individuals, as seen in the Red Scare, much easier.  Exploring this dynamic becomes the main idea and focus of the chapter.