A Maddening Story

The Great Coalfield War

by George S. McGovern and Leonard F. Guttridge
Houghton Mifflin, 383 pp., $8.95

John D. Rockefeller
John D. Rockefeller; drawing by David Levine

An election for governor is underway in West Virginia this year and a young and rich man named John D. Rockefeller IV is running as a Democrat, and as a champion of coal miners and the poor. He wants to save the state from the ravages inflicted on land and people by mining companies and a corrupt and lawless United Mine Workers of America. Union leaders and mining executives loathe him, and a growing multitude of welfare recipients, war resisters, miners, students, environmentalists, and other reformers see him as the Mountain State’s last hope to escape the misery of poverty, exploitation, and hopelessness. It is a measure of how much things have changed that this heir to the fabulous Rockefeller fortune is the grandson of the principal owner of Colorado Fuel and Iron Corporation, that corporate dinosaur whose minions and allies killed miners and their wives and children in Colorado six decades ago with a cold-bloodedness once reserved for Indians and rebellious slaves.

Yet the forces arrayed against him and the fact that he should have to come down from New York to fight a battle for a dying state illustrates the extent to which the old injustices and cruelties have survived, how very little has in fact been swept away, and the extent to which the rich and the powerful are prisoners of the very world they own and rule.

The Great Coalfield War should be read for a number of important reasons. For one, Americans should know of the grim and brutal lives men have lived—and live—in the remote canyons and valleys of the American hinterland where coal is mined. They need to comprehend the degradation, suffering, and death that accompany the digging of those black carbon lumps that heat our homes in winter, cool them in summer, light them the year around, spawn our plastics and synthetic fibres, and ease our pains in aspirin and a hundred other medicines. They should know that their human price is immense today and has been even greater in earlier years—that coal is a national scandal, a scourge that presidents and congressmen have feared to cope with.

This book should also be read because one of the authors may someday be President of the United States, and the book reveals, to some considerable degree, the careful, orderly, incisive, and sympathetic way in which he thinks and so the kind of President he might be. The book is a rewritten and enlarged version of Senator Mc-Govern’s doctoral thesis and deals with complex men and issues in a remarkably fair and dispassionate way.

In those long ago days in the second decade of the century most of Colorado’s coal production came from the hills and canyons of the “Trinidad Field” in Huerfano and Las Animas counties. The communities bore hard, graceless names of the kind coal men have fastened on coal communities…

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