Anyone who has led a discussion on the economy or trade or globalization in this country has faced the question, Should I buy American? Sounds simple enough. But this turns out to be a tough question to answer, even if you are squarely set on helping US workers live in dignity. First, from toys to televisions, many products are no longer even assembled here. Furthermore, a lot of the goods made here are produced under abysmal working conditions. Some imported goods are made by workers whose rights are respected. You might ask the audience: Is a car made in Ohio by a Japanese company better than a bicycle made in Taiwan by a US company?

Yet buying American, as University of California historian Dana Frank’s illuminating history reveals, has been a rallying cry for millions in this country ever since Paul Revere and his cohorts, faces blackened, boarded the ships of the East India Company monopoly and clogged Boston Harbor with 90,000 pounds of imported tea. Frank shows how, in the decades and centuries that followed the famous tea party, the movement has always had a fascinating cross-class composition: Wealthy entrepreneurs joined with workers to wrap themselves in the American flag of consumption. One result of this multiclass alliance from 1773 to the present, as Frank points out, is that “as often as not, their visions of the just economy” are “in conflict with each other.”

This book is a monumental effort of archival work and extensive interviews that is as insightful on race as it is on class. Frank’s early history is particularly fascinating and fun. Few who read American history books know that “a Buy American campaign gave birth to the United States of America”: As early as 1764, groups began pledging to give up imported clothes, cheese, jewelry, furniture, mustard and candy, not to mention tea (local herb tea sales jumped).

Students at Yale swore off foreign liquor. Indeed, by the early 1770s, all colonies save New Hampshire (“Live Free or Die” has deep roots) had passed resolutions to cease purchases of imported clothing. Patriotic rituals like well-attended public spinning bees were the rage across the colonies. Sales of all sorts of foreign goods plummeted. The struggle for economic independence laid the groundwork for the war for political independence.

Yet as Frank reveals, the very US entrepreneurs who led the boycotts went on to set up the first large-scale factories, paying starvation wages, to replace imported clothing. The other population forced to produce the domestic clothing was literally in slavery, including slaves owned by George Washington.

Frank’s most important contribution is to expose, at each historic stage of the Buy American movement, who gained and who lost, and what economic interests might have motivated participants. Thomas Paine and Paul Revere, great patriots for sure, were skilled craftsmen who could hardly compete with mass-produced goods emerging from the Industrial Revolution in England. Nonimportation has always produced profits for merchants turned hoarders, price gougers or smugglers. And, indeed, boycott leaders George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Hancock on occasion quietly imported boycotted goods. The Constitution, which abolished interstate tariffs and created a giant free-trade zone out of the United States, helped these merchant interests and served as a launching pad for imperial expansion to the south and west.

For all the populist rhetoric that surrounds protectionism, Frank makes a strong case that its most ardent supporters in American history have been domestic entrepreneurs who often have been among the worst exploiters of workers. On the other hand, she shows that a part of the free-trade movement has consisted of progressive trustbusters who opposed protection for large-scale domestic monopolies. Her point is to show that there have always been big business interests on both sides of the debate; a corporation’s position depends on whether it needs protected markets, cheap imports or access to export markets. In 1892 steel magnate Andrew Carnegie demonstrated vividly how protectionism doesn’t necessarily translate into benefits for workers. That year, he lowered wages at his big Pennsylvania steel plant in the wake of the raising of steel tariffs. When workers balked, Carnegie’s manager shut down the plant and hired 300 Pinkerton detectives to bust up the workers’ union.

The twentieth-century heyday of the Buy American movement was the early years of the Great Depression. With William Randolph Hearst Jr. blaring Buy American stories across the front pages of his twenty-seven newspapers, the movement took off, culminating in 1933 in Herbert Hoover’s signing of a Buy American Act (requiring the federal government to buy only American-made products) on his last day in office. The main backers: companies with large domestic markets. The predominantly white American Federation of Labor (AFL) supported the act too. Much of the campaign was laced with racism aimed at Chinese, Japanese and other immigrant workers. (Hearst himself was explicitly anti-immigrant.)

A number of African-American newspapers and groups responded with a Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work campaign that targeted the blatant discrimination in many US firms that were then catering to the US market. Nor did the trade union movement respond with one voice. A number of progressive union leaders split from the AFL to create the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which openly reached out to immigrant labor. (In February 1933, The Nation published an article critical of the Buy American movement. Yet, in an interesting twist four years later, the magazine joined Chinese-American organizations in successfully pressing for a boycott of Japanese-made goods to protest Japanese atrocities in China.)

Franklin Roosevelt entered the presidency in 1933 and reset government priorities toward working people through jobs programs and federal protections for workers. Roosevelt was also in favor of freer trade, however, and he initiated a series of tariff-reducing trade agreements. Again, the big backers were corporations. This time it was International Harvester, Zenith and United Fruit, which wanted foreign markets and protection for their foreign investments.

Frank guides us through free trade’s reign in the early post-World War II decades. AFL-CIO president George Meany discouraged a Des Moines union’s Buy American campaign by stressing that US workers were dependent on overseas markets and that Buy American would force other countries into the embrace of the Soviet Union and its “satellites.” As is well known, at this time the AFL-CIO joined actively in cold war foreign policy to fight communism, in part by fostering pro-US unions overseas.

Then in the seventies the tide began to turn, as American companies shifted increasing amounts of investment overseas, causing a hemorrhage of good US manufacturing jobs, especially in the steel, auto and apparel industries. Frank offers detailed insights into the Buy American campaigns led by the apparel and auto unions in the seventies and eighties, campaigns that again, at times, took on racist overtones. She insightfully criticizes these initiatives for wrongly viewing imports as the enemy rather than the corporate policies of relocating production overseas (and exporting goods back to the United States). Once again, major enterprises–Wal-Mart, New Balance, Milliken & Co. and others–chimed in with Buy American campaigns of their own.

The dynamic of the trade debate changed dramatically toward the end of the nineties in two respects. First, while Frank has rightly pointed out that corporate interests were the main force behind both the free trade and Buy American movements of the nation’s first two centuries, the “fair trade” movement of the nineties was decidedly different. Yes, firms oriented toward the domestic market, backed by politicians like Pat Buchanan, did play an important role in opposing free trade. Far more important, however, was the emergence of a popular movement that was cross-sectoral and cross-border in its effort to block new free-trade agreements for North America (NAFTA) and the world (GATT). In addition to the well-known figures of Ralph Nader and Jesse Jackson, the leaders were from trade unions, the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth, as well as farm groups and others.

While NAFTA and GATT did pass Congress in 1993 and 1994, the AFL-CIO and its allies were central to Congress’s rejection of new presidential trade negotiation authority in 1997 and 1998. Equally significant is the network of citizen groups in the United States, Canada, France and elsewhere that came together in 1997 and 1998 to defeat a proposal to extend corporate rights called the Multilateral Agreement on Investment. These same organizations, plus dozens of new ones, are planning the free-trade protest of the decade in late November in Seattle when world leaders gather at a meeting of the World Trade Organization.

Second, the movements of the nineties were able to break the trade debate out of its narrow historical dichotomy of protectionism (Buy American) versus free trade. Indeed, new alternatives are being carved out in the space between free trade and protectionism in the wake of the NAFTA and GATT/WTO battles, and if Frank is to be chided, it is for skimping on space devoted to these. In a too-brief final chapter, Frank points to trips by hundreds of US workers to the Mexican side of the border during the NAFTA fight that radically changed perceptions. Mexican workers became “real.” The enemy became Ford, General Motors and the other firms that were playing workers off against one another. The United Electrical workers and Teamsters started cross-border projects. Groups like the International Labor Rights Fund and the National Labor Committee in Support of Worker Human Rights in Central America helped pull nonunion groups into the struggle for workers’ rights.

These groups are building a new approach to trade and to the world. Hundreds of unions and other organizations in the United States and across the Western Hemisphere, for example, joined together to elaborate Alternatives for the Americas, which spells out rules for integration that put workers, the environment and basic human rights at the core of the development process. Instead of opposing trade and investment, these alternatives focus on insuring that the benefits are spread more equitably. They call for new economic agreements that provide for stricter enforcement of labor and environmental protections, incentives to shift finance from speculation to long-term investment and debt reduction for poorer nations.

Frank makes the case that the 1760s American sailors and dockworkers, who were the largest working sector in colonial ports and who opposed the nonimportation movement, were the precursors of the internationalists of today. The AFL-CIO and its member unions contain some of the contradictions of labor organizations of decades past, but they have taken several important steps toward a coherent internationalist position. SEIU, UNITE and other unions have reached out to new immigrants through organizing drives of Latino and Asian workers. AFL-CIO president John Sweeney’s standard speech now hails the “new internationalism,” in which efforts to uplift workers everywhere become central to US labor’s agenda. From an institution that collaborated with the CIA during the cold war to undermine democratic trade unions in other countries, the AFL-CIO has, since the mid-nineties, brought in a dynamic new leadership that is actively rebuilding international ties. UNITE, the main textile/apparel union, has shifted from the protectionist campaigns of the past to a major effort to end sweatshops at home and abroad at the end of the nineties.

Frank characterizes the nineteenth century in this country as the century of protectionism and the twentieth century as the century of free trade. The transition reflected in large part US companies’ shift from domestic to overseas markets. The emergence of popular movements into the center of the debates on trade and globalization opens up the possibility of a twenty-first century in which trade and investment can serve the needs of dignified work, healthy communities and a clean environment.

In this new century, millions of Americans striving to support community and to express solidarity with US workers will Buy American. These are noble and positive sentiments. Yet, as Frank reminds us, they are most likely to promote dignified work if they are connected to the expanding efforts to rein in global corporations and promote workers’ and other human rights in all corners of the earth.