Introduction (2006) to Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin

Berkeley, University of California Press, 1999

The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the U.S. Air Force F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. And these fighting forces are paid for by American taxpayer dollars. — Thomas Friedman. The Lexus and the Olive Tree1

Hollywood had long entertained us with special effects blockbusters featuring the destruction of great cities, but the real thing failed to amuse or distract.

I shared the shock felt by countless others as I watched on television the towers burn and drop in the island metropolis. Images of blinded and choking wraiths wandering through the suddenly ashen canyons of lower Manhattan looked eerily like nightmares I’d had of a nuclear aftermath, and the fear I harbored for a city that I’ve come to love. They looked, in fact, like illustrations to a magazine article that appeared just four months after atomic bombs demonstrated their effectiveness on two Japanese cities. “The 36 Hour War” ­ visualized for readers of Life how New York City would look after rocket-borne A-bombs penetrated a less than perfect missile shield meant to protect the U.S. from unspecified enemies.2

The towers fell two weeks after I’d crossed the plaza at their base on my way to visit the New York Mercantile Exchange. I was working on a sequel to Imperial San Francisco, to be called Imperial Manhattan, and I wanted to see for myself the frantic ritual by which traders convert the organic world into ciphers for reinvestment in innumerable other ventures, including the precious urban real estate over which I walked.

I’d used San Francisco as a case study of how imperial cities parasitize their hinterlands for the benefit of those who own their land and much else besides — especially the channels of information that shape perceived reality and certitude for unwitting millions. That city’s magnates hoped to make it the new Rome or New York of the Pacific, but San Francisco of itself and for all its charm was a failed star, an also-ran in the firmament of truly imperial cities. New York City remained the genuine article, pulsing with the imperial energy that pulls multitudes to its wealth, jobs, and lights. One of those was William Randolph Hearst who, before moving to Manhattan from San Francisco to launch his publishing empire, advised his father to invest their mining millions in real estate, for — as Hearst wrote in 1885 — “Every atom of humanity added to the struggling mass means another figure to [the landlord’s] bank account.”3 I planned to write about the role Western mining fortunes such as Hearst’s had played in making New York the world city, and of how mining technology erected the earliest skyscrapers whose clustered successors came to distinguish Manhattan’s skyline. Ours is — like the empires that preceded it — fundamentally a mining culture after all. But the attack and war intervened.

Recent archaeological evidence has supported Lewis Mumford’s contention that war and the city were born together At the Syrian site of Tell Hamoukar near the Iraq border, archaeologists have uncovered an ancient town destroyed when the Mesopotamian city of Uruk sought to remove a rival and take what it had. “This was ‘shock and awe’ in the 4th millennium BC,” said a University of Chicago archaeologist excavating the charred ruins.4

Mumford’s claim of twin birth, and a winter sojourn in Venice, inspired the writing of Imperial San Francisco as a detailed and cautionary examination of what he meant. There I read in Jan Morris’s book The Venetian Empire how a Byzantine scholar in Istanbul still detests the Venetians for detouring the Fourth Crusade from the Holy Land long enough to sack Constantinople, the seat of Eastern Christianity. They did so in 1204 to take for themselves what Rome’s heir on the Bosporus had inherited, made, or taken from others. With much of Constantinople’s colonial territories and what booty it could salvage from the burning and smashing, Venice donned the mantle of empire that its merchants, artists, and warriors embroidered for centuries.

The competitive edge given to Venice by its high-tech Arsenal had passed and trade routes bypassed it long before 1797 when Napoleon put an end to its independence. A threat to no one by then, Venice was spared the constantly improved bombardments lavished on more potent cities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By the time I stayed there, it was a spent beauty picked over by tourists and sinking fast into the wreck of its polluted lagoon, the price paid for the modern oil ports of Mestre and Marghera whose refineries are essential for the functioning of today’s metropoli.

Genuine imperial cities, I proposed in my book, represent intense concentrations of energy acquired by the expenditure of energy to take yet more. The resources and labor of the national hinterlands those cities presently dominate were insufficient to conjure up the opulent architectural piles of Rome, Constantinople, Madrid, Paris, London, Vienna, Brussels, Amsterdam, and New York. Such grandeur requires remote control force, the not so hidden fist of armies, navies, and the marketplace that Thomas Friedman celebrated in his 1999 paean to global corporatization, The Lexus and the Olive Tree.

Friedman’s triumphalist bestseller came out in the giddy runup to the new millennium as the stock market bubble neared maximum inflation and model corporations such as Enron and WorldCom swaggered drunkenly towards spectacular failure. Friedman told those who mattered what they wanted to hear about the beneficence of empire and about the wealth-producing wonders wrought by new technology and trade unfettered. But the same facility for quips that made him one of the nation’s hottest pundits drove Friedman to voice with rare candor the predatory coercion experienced by those on the losing end of empire. In doing so, the New York Times columnist implied a corollary as old as that which the historian Tacitus permitted a vanquished chief to say of the Romans: “They make a desolation and call it peace”

Friedman was eager for desolation before it came to New York. In a January, 1998 column, Friedman recommended “bombing Iraq over and over and over again.”5 His mantra “Give war a chance” proved good for repeated encores in print and for chuckles in interviews, as long — he said of Afghanistan — as “It’s far away.”6

Agreeably remote bombing began again in earnest on March 19, 2003. A ceiling-mounted TV permitted students taking a study break in the University of California’s Free Speech Movement Café7 to witness the gaudy spectacle of advanced aerial bombardment over the ancient city of Baghdad. Watching them watch it, I caught a faint echo of the University’s first president, Daniel Coit Gilman assuring students and faculty after the Spanish-American War that “Warfare has been changed and [locally-made armaments] have shown that it is possible to win great victories overseas, and over enemies, without the sacrifice of the victor’s blood.” Gilman advised the University to do its duty to develop yet better means of remote control.8 Its governing Regents needed no urging.

The New York Stock Exchange waxed euphoric even before the Iraq bombing began. In the brief interlude given the U.N. weapons inspectors to get out so the missiles could go in, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Business Section carried the headline: “Wall Street Surges On Move Toward War.” A young broker in an Associated Press photograph grinned bullishly as, the caption said, he “enjoys a satisfying day.”9

War got its chance, but — as wars will — went quickly off plan. A week later the Business Section announced that “Bad News from Iraq Ends Rally.”10 Within twelve days, a front page headline told readers that “War Turns to Terror: Deadly Suicide Attack Heralds Ominous New Iraqi Tactic,”11 A week after that, over a color photo of a terrified mother shielding her bloodied children in a ditch, a front page headline announced “Troops in the Heart of Baghdad.”12 The terror was now theirs.

I had organized my book around a central section called “The Thought Shapers.” In its trio of chapters, I analyzed the little-known interests of three dynasties that once owned the West’s major newspapers. Doing so permitted the publishers and the pundits they employed to reinforce for those on the winning team the stark and comforting dualism of Civilization vs. Barbarism. Their thought-shaping power made the proprietors wealthy through diverse holdings in city and rural land, armaments, and petroleum — not to mention membership in exclusive men’s clubs, lucrative and titled marriages for their progeny, and access to the politicians who needed their support. Furthermore, the extensive connections and influence of local arms manufacturers Henry and Irving Scott illustrated how the preparation for and fighting of war bolstered the city’s economy, provided hostilities were conducted at a healthy remove.

Hostilities on Newspaper Row were more neighborly. From their adjacent skyscrapers, San Francisco’s feuding media barons aimed verbal — and sometimes lead — volleys at their rivals. In doing so, they enlightened the public about their enemies’ vested interests, personal peccadilloes, and political clout. The publishers well knew that with less competition they could spike unflattering stories about themselves and better shape the news as they saw fit. On August 15, 1913, Michael deYoung and William Randolph Hearst bought the Spreckels’ Call which soon joined the growing Hearst chain of yellow journals. By doing so, Hearst and deYoung damped what readers knew about how the city and state were run, and for whom.

Eighty-six years later, on August 6, 1999, the deYoung family cashed out on the property it had owned for 134 years, and San Francisco — like so many other cities — effectively became a one-newspaper town. The headline on the Chronicle the following day announced “Chronicle Sold to Hearst” above a photograph of CEO John Sias announcing to a visibly glum newsroom staff that they would henceforth be working for the competition. Another feature encapsulated the colorful history of the Chronicle under a misleading headline announcing “An Independent Voice for the Western U.S.” for the Hearst Corporation would add the Chronicle to its stable and run it out of The Chief’s old headquarters in midtown Manhattan.

In the years following the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Chronicle Business Section examined the extent to which hostilities abroad benefited the local economy that the newspaper served and represented, and found it very good indeed. The series collectively called “Bay to Baghdad” said that despite the Bay Area’s anti-war image, “We discovered billions of dollars pouring into the Bay Area economy every year from the Defense Department, and it wasn’t just going to Silicon Valley.”13 War was, quite literally, the health of the metropolis and the State, for whether they knew it or not, innumerable workers owed their livelihoods to federal weapons contracts. In “Military Inc.” a Chronicle staff writer noted that “As it has for years, Silicon Valley continues to be the Pentagon’s laboratory for weapons of the future.”14 The Valley’s high-tech armaments served U.S. cities as the Arsenal once had Venice.

Few also knew of the University of California’s long participation in that incestuous liaison. University scientists had, as I’d written, seen the Manhattan Project to fiery fruition, while its competing weapons campuses in California and New Mexico thereafter designed and promoted successive generations of doomsday machines requiring the most intimate triangulation with arms merchants and the funding government. When infrequently pressed, the University’s presidents and spokespersons insisted that the work was done in the public interest. Three days before Christmas of 2005, the Chronicle announced that the Department of Energy had renewed the University’s contract to jointly run with Bechtel Corporation the Los Alamos laboratories “more like a business whose product is nuclear weapons.”15 The following day, its lead editorial cheered for the home team: “The new seven-year contract is worth up to $512 million, but its greater importance to UC is the scientific prestige.”

So Friedman, it appeared, had mangled his quip, for the taxpayer-financed fist that kept the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technology was as much that technology itself as the military that used it. But even that parsing missed the mark, for safety proved elusive for all concerned. Full-spectrum dominance — whether expressed in Friedman’s sound bites or in the Department of Defense’s Joint Vision 2020 — was sure to provoke resistance from those meant to submit to such wonders of remote control, and from the wounded earth itself.

Imperial San Francisco ended with foreboding two years before the towers fell, and before other cities were blasted and shattered in a relentless cycle of revenge. It came out before uranium-armored weaponry forever poisoned the birthplace of civilization, before troops and looters irremediably wrecked invaluable archaeological sites and set fire to libraries and universities in the fight against barbarism. I wrote the book before the weather itself grew noticeably crazy, threatening the existence of ever-growing cities whose waste products drove it to extremes, before the fouled and vacant oceans rose against the world’s ports and coastal farmlands.

Throughout history, empire’s fist had produced concentrated magnificence, but retribution followed upon their capitals’ self-regarding hubris. The new millennium proved no different except for the scale of carnage now possible as growing poverty and ignorance festered abroad and at home, banking the dry tinder of resentment around and in all major cities.

I was gratified by the popular response to Imperial San Francisco, but stymied as well by the horrific worldwide events that followed its publication and seemed to bear out my thesis. Seeking a way out of my own paralysis, I began to investigate the accomplishments of the New Deal, and the vision of a man quite literally paralyzed early in a promising political career.

In the midst of the last world war, Franklin Delano Roosevelt pondered the forces that had turned so many cities to ashen wastelands. Could the productive capacity of modern technology be used to abort the ancient cycle? In his State of the Union address delivered on January 11, 1944, Roosevelt reminded the nation that “Unquestioned military control over disturbers of the peace was as necessary among Nations as it is among citizens in a community.”

But future security required a new course — positive actions never before tried on anything like the scale he proposed — for “an equally basic essential to peace is a decent standard of living for all individual men and women and children in all Nations. Freedom from fear is eternally linked with freedom from want.”

FDR went on to enumerate an eight-point plan of greatly expanded social security. His “Second Bill of Rights” included the right to medical care, to a good education, to a decent home, and “the right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation.” It meant purposeful movement away from an immemorial ethos of mining. Without an international effort to raise living standards, he might have added, violence could only be imperfectly suppressed with “unquestioned military control” in peacetime indistinguishable from eternal war.16

At a time of the gravest peril, an ailing leader pointed a novel way out of the mayhem born with imperial cities. When all else has failed, that route remains to be tried.

Gray Brechin
Inverness, February 6, 2006


1Friedman, Thomas L. The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization, New York (Farrar Strauss Giroux), 1999. 373

2Life, “The 36 Hour War,” November 19, 1945.

3Imperial San Francisco, p. 68.

4Maugh, Thomas H. II, “A Cradle of Civilization Rocked By War,” Los Angeles Times, December 16, 2005.

5 New York Times, January 31, 1998

6New York Times, November 2, 2001.

7Alumnus Stephen M. Silberstein endowed the popular on-campus café to remind current students of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley whose challenge to authority in 1964 heralded the worldwide student protest movement.

8Imperial San Francisco, p. 291.

9 San Francisco Chronicle, March 18, 2003.

10 San Francisco Chronicle, March 25, 2003.

11 San Francisco Chronicle, March 30, 2003

12 San Francisco Chronicle, April 7, 2003.

13 San Francisco Chronicle, March 18, 2004

14 San Francisco Chronicle, March 20, 2005

15 San Francisco Chronicle, December 22, 2005.

16 Sunstein, Cass R. The Second Bill of Rights: FDR’s Unfinished Revolution and Why We Need It More Than Ever, New York (Basic Books). 2004.

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