When the King Can Do No Wrong


I feel like I’m sitting on a keg of dynamite—and I have no idea what to do about it.” So said Bill Roach days before he was killed in the nation’s worst industrial accident. The disaster began on the morning of April 16, 1947, when a ship filled with ammonium nitrate fertilizer exploded in Texas City. The story of the radical priest who railed against the primitive and sordid conditions that plagued the Gulf Coast port is one of a dozen or so narratives brilliantly woven together in City on Fire: The Forgotten Disaster That Devastated a Town and Ignited a Landmark Legal Battle. Author Bill Minutaglio has drawn a complex portrait of an industrial city and the powers that created and controlled it—Monsanto, Union Carbide, Humble Oil, Amoco, the railroad, and the U.S. government. It’s a story about race, class, ethnicity; about the convergence of ordinary lives and the military-industrial complex. It is also a story of loss of innocence. As Minutaglio explains, “the patriotic residents of the small city found themselves” forced to confront the idea that “the blood of American citizens could be found on the hands of their leaders.” The ships carrying the highly explosive fertilizer were part of the early phase of the Marshall program. The same companies and industries that had produced and shipped weapons were now producing and shipping fertilizer to Europe to boost the production of food. No one bothered to tell anyone in Texas City about the dangers of the cargo that was being shipped in massive quantities from its crowded, polluted port. The outline of this story is well known to a generation of Texans. Less familiar is the legal battle that followed. When the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, the victims of the disaster were met with a crushing defeat: The majority opinion was written with as much compassion and intellectual foresight as could fit on the head of a pin. But there was also an insightful dissent, written by Justice Robert Jackson. Jackson, we are reminded, was known for his role as a prosecutor in Nuremberg, where he theorized that planning and waging wars of aggression was a crime against mankind. As to Texas City, he wrote that the disaster “was caused by forces set in motion by the Government, completely controlled or controllable by it.” The victims “were not only incapable of contributing to it, could not even take shelter or flight from it.” To hold otherwise would be to revive “the ancient and discredited doctrine that the King can do no wrong.” Which brings us up to the present. City on Fire will stand on its own as one of the finest books ever written about Texas. But books about Texas have a way of becoming—like the state itself—larger than life. They can take on a national, sometimes mythical dimension. As we go to press, the United States has begun a war that is not only unnecessary, it contradicts the very principles that Justice Jackson and others sought to establish in Nuremberg. In a frighteningly short period of time we have come full circle. The rule of law—particularly international law—has been discredited by this administration. We are living in an era when the King can do no wrong. And it’s hard not to sense the spirit of Father Bill Roach hovering above us all: I feel like I’m sitting on a keg of dynamite—and I have no idea what to do about it. —B.B.