I took advantage of circumstances and technology last night to indulge in a TV series marathon consisting of watching the entire season of the 2012 History Channel series titled The Men Who Built America. Though originally aired in 19 episodes, Netflix is showing series as four 80-90 minute segments.
Watched all at once, it is a bit repetitive, since each show includes scenes from previous shows to help the audience catch up. However, it is an experience worth your time if you have an evening by yourself or with a patient loved one.
The series focuses on four of the most influential and ruthless capitalists in American history – Cornelius Vanderbuilt (shipping and railroads), John D. Rockefeller (oil), Andrew Carnegie (steel), and J. Pierpont Morgan (finance). Narration and commentary is provided by both business historians and modern capitalists like Jack Welch, Carly Fiorina, Donald Trump, and Mark Cuban. John D. Rockefeller IV provides several insights into his great-grandfather’s business practices.
Minor characters in the drama include Tom Scott, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, George Westinghouse, and Henry Frick. Here is a trailer focusing on Rockefeller.
One of the reasons I recommend watching this series is that it provides some context supporting one of the major themes of Atomic Insights – businessmen who are motivated to accumulate wealth and power as a way to keep score and compete against their rivals may build powerful and important enterprises, but they can also be terribly destructive influences on vast numbers of human beings.
There are stories about the Homestake steel mill strike massacre, the Johnstown PA flood (caused by the collapse of a dam owned by a private club of capitalists who couldn’t be bothered to strengthen it), a shocking death rate of 1 out of 11 workers per year in steel mills, and several depressions instigated by petty rivalry-based business decisions.
One segment that resonates with similarities to current business/political issue is Rockefeller’s decision to build a network of carefully located pipelines as a way to break the influence of railroads on oil transportation. The railroads try hard to stop the pipeline construction because of the impact they know it will have on their freight volumes.
Despite denials, competition with rail over freight transportation is a major underlying part of the controversy over Keystone XL. Burlington Northern and the Canadian National Railway have no desire to give up their profitable cargos to the pipeline companies. Trace the funding sources for the groups publicly engaged in the loud political battle and you will find some interesting relationships to rail titans. IMO, the controversy has little to do with real concerns about climate change.
The Men Who Built America series provides numerous examples of the purposeful use of FUD — fear, uncertainty and doubt — to scare people away from purchasing competitive products.
- Rockefeller markets Standard Oil kerosene as a safer, more consistent product than the volatile stuff available from rivals.
- Rockefeller plants stories of home infernos to create fear of electricity because he recognizes that it threatens his kerosene lighting monopoly.
- Edison supplies New York with an A. C. powered electric chair in a failed attempt to spread fear about a competitive electricity standard to his D. C.
- Carnegie tells his associates that no one will purchase Rockefeller’s Mesabi Range iron ore because it is too powdery and will gum up blast furnaces.
One of the most eye-opening things about the series is the near gushing admiration provided by modern capitalists about “how the game was played” back then. There are few, if any words of concern for the fact that the titans built their empires on the backs on poorly-paid, poorly-treated, hard-working human beings. There is also little to no recognition of the fact that men did not build America without the crucial assistance of millions of women.
The final episode talks about the efforts by Carnegie and Rockefeller at the end of their lives to give away a small portion of their accumulated wealth in highly publicized, monument-building endeavors designed to leave a better impression of their life’s impact. That also stimulated haunting thoughts about modern American businessmen.
Once you’ve watched the series, especially the first few segments, you might have a better understanding of why I continue to believe that the real strength underneath the vocal antinuclear movement comes from the established enterprises that see abundant power from the superfuels of uranium, plutonium and thorium as major threats to their wealth and power.