14. LEARNING FROM THE PAST: THE GREAT TRANSPORTATION
Our national dependency on the automobile has contributed to air pollution,
the national trade imbalance, inflations, the deaths of 50,000 Americans
annually, disabling injuries to millions more, and billions of dollars
annually in lost wages and medical expenses. It also destroyed a mass
transit system that was relatively clean, energy efficient, reliable
Americans long-running love affair with the automobile was not arranged
in heaven. Rather, it was cold-bloodedly arranged in Detroit, Michigan.
It was a massive criminal corporate conspiracy that directed our national
transportation policy away from mass transit and into the automobile.
Some of the biggest corporations in the country conspired from the
mid-1930s through the 1940s. Electrified-rail mass-transit systems,
which carried millions of riders, were bought and junked. Tracks literally
were torn out of the ground, sometimes overnight. Overhead power lines
were dismantled and valuable off-street rights of way were sold. Transit
officials who remember the earlier systems say, if left intact, they
could have formed the nucleus for a modern American transit system.
The conspirators, led by General Motors, included Standard Oil of California,
Phillips Petroleum, Mack Manufacturing, Firestone Tire & Rubber,
and others. In a little-remembered trial in Chicago, in 1949, they were
convicted of criminal antitrust violations for their part in the demise
of mass transit. Guilty corporations were fined up to $5000 each while
individuals paid fines of exactly $1 each.
This extraordinary conspiracy, from which we are still suffering, was
revealed by investigative writer Jonathan Kwitny based on his review
of the original trial transcripts, other evidence from the case, and
The story is dated which possibly explains why the media didn't widely
publicize it. However, the case clearly demonstrates what happens when
important matters of public policy are abandoned by government to the
self-interest of corporations. What was good for General Motors was
not good for the country. Wider exposure of the story might have helped
us learn from the past and be more aware of how current corporate interests
may be manipulating national policy such as in the energy field.
The continuing failure of the media to alert the public to the extraordinary
power of big business qualifies this story for nomination as one of
the "best censored" of 1981.
Harper's Magazine, 2/81, "The Great Transportation Conspiracy
by Jonathan Kwitny.