Americans are in a fever about possible "Arab control" of mainland ports along both coasts of the United States. The battle has followed entirely predictable lines: on the one hand, those favoring the Dubai Ports purchase point out that this is all part and parcel of being part of the international world economy, and there's no evidence that the transaction and the new owners might in any way compromise the internal security of the U.S. mainland. On the other hand, foes of the deal shout that the Arabs will be tightening their grip on the nation's windpipe and legions of terrorists and terror weapons might be stowed in the containers that land in America each day by the hundreds of thousand.
Back in the early 1970s, at the time of the oil embargo, there was even greater thundering here about the Arab grip on the American economy. Never a day went by but that the newspaper cartoons would show burnous-clad sheikhs chuckling fiendishly as they choked off America's gas pumps. Today's row over the ports is tepid by comparison.
The whole storm is ludicrous. When it comes to America's national security and penetration of the mainland by foreign capital, there are bigger worries. This very week, the week of the Chicago Auto Show, the widely read magazine Consumer Reports lists the ten safest cars sold in America this year. They are all Japanese, mostly Hondas, and mostly made in U.S.-based plants put up after Japanese and other foreign automakers were welcomed in by the U.S.A. thirty years ago, partly as a way of undercutting the Union of Autoworkers. This same month the headlines here have been full of stories about the collapse of the top two U.S. automakers--General Motors and Ford--in the face of foreign competition. Well over 100,000 American workers are to lose their jobs, thus vastly increasing U.S. insecurity. Hundreds of thousands more U.S. workers have already lost their jobs to India, China, Mexico, and other low-wage nations because that is the way American business, backed by the U.S. government, wants it.
After all, "national security" means Americans' physical security and ability to enjoy liberty and pursue happiness. Since both Democrats and Republicans in government have claimed wrongly that this security will be enhanced by exporting jobs, they should be in the dock for increasing national insecurity. The fact that the fruits of these exported jobs come back in the form of commodities reimported to the U.S.A. in containers that might or might not be handled by foreign-owned stevedoring and port management companies is a miniscule issue by comparison, far less serious even than the illnesses caused to Americans living near the ports who have to endure the pollution caused by the diesel fumes from thousands of large 18-wheel trucks lined up each day to haul the containers away.
Worries about port security back in the 50s and 60s were not aimed at Arabs, but at Communists and labor unions. Elia Kazan's famous movie, On The Waterfront, starring Marlon Brando, had the dock-control wars between unions and mobsters as a major theme.
Back in the Second World War, the U.S. Navy had port security as an obvious major concern. This was a time when special cargoes of war matériel for the planned invasion of Europe were being dispatched to Great Britain and to North Africa. The Navy was worried not only about sabotage, but also about work stoppages and strikes--particularly the efforts of Harry Bridges, the Australian-born union organizer with close ties to the Communist Party, who had led the 1934 general strike on the docks in San Francisco.
The Justice Department was busy trying to deport Bridges when he showed up on the East Coast in 1942, traveling between Boston and New York, encouraging the dockworkers to abandon the mob-infested International Longshoremen's Association and join his International Longshoremen and Warehousemen's Union.
The Navy men fixed up meetings with top gangsters Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano to plot out the logistics of what the Navy was so eager to get--namely, a Mob order to dockland to cooperate with the anti-sabotage (which was also code for union organizing) effort. Luciano told Lansky to contact Johnny "Cockeyed" Dunn, the boss of the Hudson River docks and Luciano's strongman in the International Longshoremen's Association; the Camarda brothers, overlords of the Brooklyn waterfront; Mikey Lascari, Luciano's boyhood pal who handled the New Jersey operations; Frank "the Hands" Costello, Luciano's political henchman; and Albert Anastasia, the CEO of Murder, Inc., who would take care of anyone who got out of line. "You go up," Luciano told Lansky, "and mention my name and in the meantime I will have the word out and you won't have no difficulties."
Not for the last time there was a confluence of interest between criminal and intelligence organizations to crush radical unions. We will see the same story repeated in Shanghai and in postwar Italy and France. In abetting crime/drug cartels and crushing independent political movements or unions, the CIA and its forebears never hesitated for a moment to make common cause with criminals.
Bridges' planned strike was duly broken by Mob goons under the supervision of Lanza and Albert Anastasia, a man Luciano described as being "willing to kill anybody who came to mind that he got mad about." When Bridges showed up at an organizing rally in New York City a few weeks later, Lanza handled matters personally. "I had a fight with him," recalled Joey Lanza. "I belted him, and that was that." Between 1942 and 1946, there were twenty-six unsolved murders of labor organizers and dockworkers, presumed murdered and dumped in the river by the Mafia, working in collusion with Naval Intelligence.
On the larger issue of control of the docks and national security, if one had to draw a balance sheet on who benefited the most from the Naval Intelligence/Mob partnership, the answer would surely be the gangsters. In the first place, the partnership proved fatal to honest labor organizing and left union locals on the Eastern seaboard, along with the ILA, ravaged by gangsterism and corruption. And the alliance with the gangsters established by Naval Intelligence led the way to the postwar alliance between the CIA and the Mob. Luciano was enlisted to persuade the Italian and French mafias to attack the powerful dockland Communists in those two countries. The payoff for the Mob was freedom to import cocaine and heroin into the U.S.A. In the short and the long run, that contributed to national insecurity in a very, very big way. There's no blaming the Arabs for that one. The trouble was homegrown.
Footnote: the saga of the US Navy's involvement with the Mob, and the deal between the OSS--later CIA--and Luciano is laid out in detail in Whiteout:The CIA, Drugs and the Press, a very fine book by Cockburn and St Clair, which recently hit the charts as the number 5 bestseller in Italy under the title Il Libro Nero Della Polvere Bianac (Nuovi Mondi).