Book Excerpt: 'A Crime So Monstrous'

The following excerpt of E. Benjamin Skinner's book was provided to ABC News by the publisher, Free Press (a division of Simon and Schuster).

Imagine that Robert E. Lee's staff officer had not lost his three cigars in 1862. Imagine that the general's Antietam battle plans, which were wrapped around those cigars, hadn't wound up in Union hands. Alternatively, imagine that George McClellan hadn't finally used the providential intelligence to stop the rebels in the bloodiest battle in American history. Imagine that a thus disempowered Lincoln was unable to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Imagine that the South had won and spread slavery to the Western Territories.

Imagine that, eighty years later, Japan limited its racist empire to Asia, rather than attacking Pearl Harbor. Imagine that Hitler, unchecked by the Confederate States of America, rolled back the steady advance of freedom since England abolished the slave trade in 1807.

Imagine, in other words, a world where the ideologies that endorsed slavery still stood.

None of these scenarios happened. And yet: There are more slaves today than at any point in human history.

In his book Disposable People (1999), an unassuming scholar named Kevin Bales claimed that there were then 27 million slaves — whom he defined as human beings forced to work, under threat of violence, for no pay — worldwide. His figure was staggering, even when measured against other terrible epochs. At its height under Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Gulag held 5 million slaves. The Nazis enslaved 12 million in total, but culled them so rapidly that far fewer were alive at any given time.

The year 1861 was the only one when the total slave population rivaled today. That year, there were 3.8 million slaves in the United States — a greater number than in the rest of the world combined. In Russia at the time, though most of Europe had abolished slavery, there may have been 23 million serfs. That estimate, from a Bolshevik writer justifying the excesses of the Communist revolution, is deceptive. A serf was a subject, albeit diminished, under law, and often owned property; a slave was himself mere property under law. Human bondage is today illegal everywhere. But if we accept that one slave exists in a world that has abolished legal slavery, then, if we look closely, we soon must accept that millions of slaves exist. Bales acknowledges that his figure is far from exact. John Miller, America's antislavery czar, told me, "These victims don't stand in line, Ben, and wait for a census to count them." Bales pleaded for criticism, hoping to be proved wrong. Subsequent regional studies have only buttressed his claim. A detailed, 2005 International Labour Organization report found 10 million forced laborers in Asia alone. Whatever the total number, it was big. And, to me, meaningless.

"The death of one man is a tragedy," Stalin, who knew something about the subject, supposedly maintained. "The death of a million men is a statistic." Hence the first reason for this book. I could not prove the definite number of slaves, and I would not try. But I might show what their slavery meant.

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