In response to:
Bananas from the October 14, 1976 issue
To the Editors:
I can point to the exact sentence in John Kenneth Galbraith’s review (NYR, October 14) of my book, An American Company: The Tragedy of United Fruit, that bothers me most; it is the second sentence: “The writing,” Mr. Galbraith says, “is grammatical but vacuous—’free enterprise simple [sic] Simon’ I believe the style is called.” I don’t mind admitting, it spoiled the rest of the review for me. At first I thought Mr. Galbraith was working up to a claim of copyright infringement (which is about the only kind of legal action I didn’t anticipate). But from reading the rest of the review, it became apparent that he was attacking me at the outset for having written some other kind of book than he evidently had in mind should be written about United Fruit Company. An American Company is about things I saw, and did, and learned; it is not an academic treatise or a political dissertation. It doesn’t contain any abstractions or theories. It only reports on matters of fact. Perhaps facts make Mr. Galbraith uncomfortable. But that doesn’t excuse the manner in which he has faulted my book for not meeting his preconceptions. It is a fault which persists throughout the review. Moreover, his carelessness with the facts, while it may support Mr. Galbraith’s reputation, seriously undermines my own.
For a convenient example, let us turn back to the first sentence of the review, which begins, “the author of this book was for twenty years a senior official of United Fruit….” Here are the facts (as clearly stated in the book). I was a senior official of United Fruit for two years, and I resigned, while still the company’s youngest vice president in 1971, in my middle thirties. In order to accommodate Mr. Galbraith’s fantasy, I would have had to be a senior official at the age of sixteen; I’m willing to keep that notion in mind for the time we do the book as a musical comedy, but it just isn’t in the version Mr. Galbraith was paid to read. (Someone suggested to me that Mr. Galbraith might have gotten this misimpression by a careless reading of the promotional blurb on the dust jacket, but I dismissed this out of hand. “Guys like Mr. Galbraith,” I said loyally, “are too big to write their reviews off of dust jackets.” It made me feel good to say it; I’ve always held that the underdog isn’t the only one that needs a good word now and then.)
Just so I won’t be accused in Mr. Galbraith’s rebuttal of quoting him out of context, here’s the rest of his opening sentence: “and one fact must be put down at the outset: it is about as bad as a book can be and still get printed, which is now very bad.” Again, Mr. Galbraith’s “fact” is merely his opinion and I might add that in the opinion of several other reviewers, that statement, too, is false. But I feel less comfortable challenging Mr. Galbraith in an area of publishing where he clearly feels himself to be something of an expert, so let us move along to his next big misstatement of the facts, which begins in paragraph three.
“The author holds that there was a revival [in United Fruit’s fortunes] for a brief time in the Thirties when Samuel Zemurray took over.” Then later, Mr. Galbraith says, “Mr. McCann gets the story of the company wrong in three major respects. It is my strong impression that the record of the Boston management is one of virtually uninterrupted decline for the last half-century.”
Again, here are the facts, as amply documented in the book. The price of the company’s stock was at an all-time low and earnings had dropped to the $5 million level (down from $20 million) when “Sam the Banana Man” took over in the Thirties. Under Zemurray’s leadership earnings rose for the next two full decades—and in fact, reached an all-time high in profitability of $66 million (after taxes) in 1950—two years before I joined the company as a messenger on the docks of New York. By not tying in my arrival on the scene with the declining fortunes of United Fruit, Mr. Galbraith missed a fine opportunity to imply why the company was never the same since, but he seems more concerned with reviewing his completely erroneous “impressions” without reference to the facts and without even bothering to let us know where those impressions come from.
Here’s another example. “As one heard the story in Boston in those days, Zemurray became troubled by the way the company was going during the bad years and wrote offering help. The management, being anti-Semitic as well as incompetent, naturally did not stoop to reply. So Zemurray came himself to the next annual meeting with proxies and voted himself in.”
How Mr. Galbraith claims one heard it in Boston in those days is inconsistent with the facts as reported in Fortune shortly after the actual event and inconsistent as well with the recollection of participants who told me what actually happened. Mr. Zemurray came to Boston with his advice, rather than “offering help” in a letter. He was rebuffed by the patrician Daniel Gould Wing, who said, “Unfortunately, Mr. Zemurray, I can’t understand a word you say,” referring to Mr. Zemurray’s Romanian accent. And he took control of the company at a special meeting of the board of directors, not at the annual meeting of the shareholders. Again, those facts are given clearly in the book. And again, Mr. Galbraith not only ignores those facts but also neglects to specify the source of his misinformation, so one might infer that his mistakes are really mine.
What Mr. Galbraith does with the facts, while perhaps harmless enough when taken alone, gains an altogether different dimension when he begins to build his conclusions on those false premises.
Here, for example, is what he says about why I quit working for United Fruit.
A year after Black’s suicide the author of this book, Mr. McCann, having previously left the company to set up his own public relations firm, resigned the United Brands account. This was not wholly an act of conscience. He had been highly successful in misleading the press, but he was coming to accept that there were tasks that strained his competence as well as his principles.
If I had waited until a year after Black’s death to resign the account, Mr. Galbraith might have had a point. But in fact I resigned the account a full year before Eli Black died and two full years before Mr. Galbraith says I did. And I never met or spoke to Eli Black again after I quit. I don’t suggest Mr. Galbraith made up his facts about me; I just think he did a very sloppy job in reporting on the actual facts.
Another of Mr. Galbraith’s conclusions which proceeds from a questionable premise concerns Eli Black’s character.
Perhaps [Black] was a person of some sensitivity, for he made a point of negotiating with Cesar Chavez and was at least attracted by the thought of other acts of social responsibility. And, more specifically, on the gray morning of February 3, 1975, he was led to fill a briefcase full of heavy books, proceed to his office in the Pan Am Building, bash out a window with the case, and throw himself onto the Park Avenue ramp forty-four floors below. That was because it was about to become known that he had recently offered a large bribe to General Oswaldo Lopez Arellano, the Honduran chief of state, to reduce the recently enacted banana export tax and that the company had packed up an appalling loss in 1974—$71.3 million on continuing operations, on top of poor performance in the years before.
Mr. Galbraith may have a private source, but the fact is that I never stated Eli Black’s motives in those terms in the book. Neither Mr. Galbraith nor I have any reason to believe that the bribe was about to be revealed at the time of Mr. Black’s death. The grand jury now sitting in New York would be interested in knowing, I am certain, how Mr. Galbraith discovered that the bribe was offered to General Lopez…because the company has not named Lopez as the recipient of the payment nor has any court in this country or in Honduras heard any evidence that that is what happened. Lopez himself denies any involvement and was removed from office on the allegation, and not on any proof.
Eli Black negotiated with Cesar Chavez because, as I stated in the book, Chavez “had fired one across our bow and now had the same cannon pressed firmly amidships.” Cesar’s weapon was the threat of a nationwide consumer boycott of Chiquita bananas and several other products of the company. What’s “sensitive” about that?
One other point: the “appalling loss” was already well known in the financial community when Black died, not about to become known as Galbraith misstates.
More serious to me as the author of the book, however, is the impact on the readers of his review of Mr. Galbraith’s numerous—and, I feel, damning—misstatements of my own attitude toward the adventures and misdeeds I record. He states, for example, that I believe “failure, error, or imbecility are not things to be corrected but problems in PR.” If I really believed that, I wouldn’t be answering his review and attempting to set the record straight but would instead have written off Mr. Galbraith as a piece of bad luck. On the contrary, that is precisely the attitude I feel is wrong with the way America, and the multinational companies, do business, and it is one of the major points I make in the book.
Even where Mr. Galbraith quotes the book, as in the long passage about my conversation with Eli Black over the merits of the story in Time, the portion he quotes refutes his own conclusions. Any reader could see I was challenging Eli because I was angry, outraged, and at the end of my rope. Mr. Galbraith would have it that we were conspiring to cover-up.
As much as Mr. Galbraith’s errors, sloppiness, and baseless presumptions may short-change his readers, however, I believe the most serious fault is how his review misses entirely what the book is really about. For example, here is how he deals with what he perceives to be the book’s second major failure (I haven’t yet found the promised third failure, but I’m still looking):
More forgivably, perhaps, for many share the failure, the author does not see the relationship of the modern corporation to the state—to government. This is of the greatest intimacy—the government is the source of the orders and auxiliary services that allow business to be done, the authorizations and constraints that determine the way it is done.
On the contrary, not only do I see the relationship of the modern corporation to government but I have reported on that relationship at length and with specific examples in my book. If Mr. Galbraith wishes to contest my facts, I deserve to be corrected with other facts, not with abstractions. Let’s consider some of the elements of “greatest intimacy” on which the book reports in the relationship between business and government, and which Mr. Galbraith simply ignores:
I saw United Fruit taken over in a series of maneuvers, some of which were probably illegal, which were widely reported, but which were never investigated by the government.
I saw all kinds of evidence of the company’s intimate relationship with the Central Intelligence Agency, with senators, congressmen, White House staffers—under the administration of Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. But Mr. Galbraith doesn’t say a word about any of it.
I even revealed, for the first time, that the Fruit Company supplied two of its ships for use in carrying troops and arms as a part of America’s sponsorship of the invasion of the Bay of Pigs, and that the logs of those ships were sealed in wax and buried in a company vault. Again, no comment from Mr. Galbraith.
Because I knew in beginning this book that I would be reporting on what Mr. Galbraith calls “misfeasance,” I knew I owed it to the others named in the book—some who were my friends, and some who weren’t—to report on my own misfeasance as well. Yet Mr. Galbraith never lets go of the misapprehension he apparently brought to his task at the outset: that I was and am an apologist for the company, for my former colleagues, and for myself. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Because Mr. Galbraith’s review deteriorates to a polemic within the first paragraph, and so loses sight of the original subject that he closes with a review of someone else’s work, one might easily be led to the conclusion that my own writing is an equally rambling and abstract manifesto. But it’s not. It’s an adventure story.
John Kenneth Galbraith replies:
Above a certain level of incoherence, writing can be described factually as bad. Mr. McCann’s qualifies easily. The jacket copy that I received says “Now Thomas McCann, after nearly twenty years as a United Fruit executive, has decided to reveal the whole sordid story….” Chutzpah, I would say, for McCann to complain that the reviewer, not the author, should have corrected that error. The rest of his protest is, perhaps, on softer ground. He is incensed at my saying that he cooperated with Eli Black in bamboozling the financial press and public. What I did, simply, was to quote from the book a lengthy conversation of his with Black in which he praises himself for doing just that. I am an old hand with authors for whom truth is likely to be unpalatable and take such precautions. Zemurray told Henry S. Dennison and Felix Frankfurter of his rejection by the Brahmins, his trip up to Boston to take over, his subsequent reluctance to throw out the incompetents. I did say these were my sources. That the takeover was at a special board meeting, not an annual meeting, is immaterial. That a company made money in the war and postwar boom proves nothing whatever as to its management. Zemurray’s effort to replace himself with a Cabot (as told by McCann), the meat-headed diversification program, and the incompetent response to Black’s takeover, all affirm my case for a continuing managerial decline. That a bribe was paid in Honduras on the banana export tax and that the chief of state was deleted in consequence seem not in doubt. I accept that there is question as to whether the right man was punished. That Black committed suicide because of worry over prospective publicity on the bribe and the poor financial performance is a reasonable hypothesis. The suicide certainly did advertise the terrible condition of the company—a point that I had checked and that, in fact, Mr. McCann states himself. He also has Black praising himself for heading the first big company to recognize Cesar Chavez. McCann perhaps understandably seems not recently to have looked at his own book. I’m sorry I got the date wrong when Mr. McCann gave up the United Fruit public relations account but all who try to disentangle his chronology will forgive me. He said, moreover, that “Although I severed the business association, I still retained close ties with the remnants of United Fruit.” I never suggested that the author was anything but energetic in trying to put a good face on a bad deal and I do not think he has stopped trying. I somehow did not react to his telling about the United Fruit boats at the Bay of Pigs. Perhaps I should have.