Does America owe its success to exploitation, genocide and slavery?

Warren Buffett’s annual shareholder letters are scrutinized by investors and enthusiasts hoping to glean insight from one of the most influential and successful people in business and finance, about his insight and projections–not just about Berkshire Hathaway, but about US and global economy as a whole.

On Hacker News, Buffett’s 2016 letter generated significant debate, specifically over whether America’s economic prosperity was created ex nihilo or on a legacy of ‘exploitation, genocide and slavery’:

The empirical evidence suggests otherwise, for three reasons:

1. The South, which utilized slave labor, was economically inferior to the North. Despite slave labor, the economy of the South failed to evolve beyond farming and was surpassed by the North. To this day, the disparity remains, with northern states still being wealthier than southern ones.

From the article No, slavery didn’t build America:

If we are to judge who or what “built” America, we must honestly look at the legacy and the strength of each. The reality is that the slave-holding South lost the Civil War. Why? Why, if slavery built America, was it not able to provide the strength needed to the South to be able to crush the North? And what did the North have that made it so great without the aid of slavery?

“But in a longer struggle the North’s advantages were substantial. With a population of 20 million, the Northern states obviously possessed a much larger military manpower base, but their industrial capacity was far greater as well. In 1860 the North had over 110,000 manufacturing establishments, the South just 18,000. The North produced 94 percent of the country’s iron, 97 percent of is coal and – not incidentally – 97 percent of its firearms. It contained 22,000 miles of railroad to the South’s 8,500. The North outperformed the South agriculturally as well. Northerners held 75 percent of the country’s farm acreage, produced 60 percent of its livestock, 67 percent of its corn, and 81 percent of its wheat. All in all, they held 75 percent of the nation’s total wealth.”

Although slavery may have initially given the South a head start, it later proved detrimental as the South became complacent and failed to industrialize, dependent on cotton and tobacco exports for growth while also heavily dependent on imports from the North. Although the North had a larger population, thanks to industrialization, a worker from the North produced significantly more economic value on a per capita basis than the South. Slavery was legal in the North, but it was deemed not economical.

2. Until only recently, the history of civilization was built on conquest:

Had the British not settled, some other empire would have have fought for control of the east coast of North America–maybe the Spaniards, who were much more ruthless. Or the French, who controlled Louisiana until Napoleon sold it to the United States. Also, indigenous tribes fought against each other too.

3. But what about small pox and biological warfare? As it turns out, the evidence suggests most of the native population died of disease before the Pilgrims arrived, not after:

It begins in the immediate aftermath of a full-blown apocalypse. In the decades between Columbus’ discovery of America and the Mayflower landing at Plymouth Rock, the most devastating plague in human history raced up the East Coast of America. Just two years before the pilgrims started the tape recorder on New England’s written history, the plague wiped out about 96 percent of the Indians in Massachusetts.

Historians estimate that before the plague, America’s population was anywhere between 20 and 100 million (Europe’s at the time was 70 million). The plague would eventually sweep West, killing at least 90 percent of the native population. For comparison’s sake, the Black Plague killed off between 30 and 60 percent of Europe’s population.

Spanish conquest, not British colonization, caused most of the disease-related deaths.

These are the ‘germs’ Jarred Diamond alludes to in Gums, Germs, and Steel, but such infection was accidental, in contrast to genocide, which is intentional. The intentional distribution of blankets laden with small pox is also a myth:

But Chardon’s journal manifestly does not suggest that the U.S. Army distributed infected blankets, instead blaming the epidemic on the inadvertent spread of disease by a ship’s passenger. And as for the”100,000 fatalities,” not only does Thornton fail to allege such obviously absurd numbers, but he too points to infected passengers on the steamboat St. Peter’s as the cause. Another scholar, drawing on newly discovered source material, has also refuted the idea of a conspiracy to harm the Indians.

Similarly at odds with any such idea is the effort of the United States government at this time to vaccinate the native population. Smallpox vaccination, a procedure developed by the English country doctor Edward Jenner in 1796, was first ordered in 1801 by President Jefferson; the program continued in force for three decades, though its implementation was slowed both by the resistance of the Indians, who suspected a trick, and by lack of interest on the part of some officials. Still, as Thornton writes:”Vaccination of American Indians did eventually succeed in reducing mortality from smallpox.”

To sum up, European settlers came to the New World for a variety of reasons, but the thought of infecting the Indians with deadly pathogens was not one of them. As for the charge that the U.S. government should itself be held responsible for the demographic disaster that overtook the American-Indian population, it is unsupported by evidence or legitimate argument. The United States did not wage biological warfare against the Indians; neither can the large number of deaths as a result of disease be considered the result of a genocidal design.