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How did a 100-year-old vision of global politics shape our future?
In 1919, Woodrow Wilson attempted to rally the U.S. behind the League of Nations. His failure suggested the way forward.
- America in 1919 was as divided as America in 2019. When President Woodrow Wilson introduced his vision for the League of Nations following World War I, he was met with criticism.
- With his reluctance to negotiate the functions of the League, Wilson failed to rally enough support.
- Whatever Wilson and the League's flaws, he revealed a path to new possibilities in global cooperation.
One hundred years ago, at the end of a 10,000-mile speaking tour to promote the League of Nations, President Woodrow Wilson delivered an emotional appeal that left his audience weeping. Wilson's address in Pueblo, Colorado, would be the last speech of his voluble political career.
Wilson envisioned the tour as an extended graduate seminar. He would explain, in his professorial way, the logic and intricacies of the Paris Peace Treaty ending World War I. Frustrated by weeks of fruitless talks in Washington, where the Republican Senate majority was uniting to defeat the treaty, Wilson hoped his rhetorical marathon would create a new national consensus—and force reluctant senators to support Wilson's vision of the League of Nations.
"What of our pledges to the men that lie dead in France?" Wilson asked, quivering as he addressed the Pueblo throng. "We said that they went over there, not to prove the prowess of America or her readiness for another war, but to see to it that there never was such a war again."
Speaking of the mothers of the war dead, Wilson said: "They believe, and they rightly believe, that their sons saved the liberty of the world. They believe that wrapped up with the liberty of the world is the continuous protection of that liberty by the concerted powers of all civilized people."
Moving on from World War I
The grueling September tour took Wilson from the Midwest (Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, Minnesota), then to the Upper West (the Dakotas, Montana, Idaho), the Pacific (Washington, Oregon, California), and inland again (Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado).
Wilson failed. Even as he aroused great crowds, including 50,000 people at a San Diego stadium, the treaty opposition got stronger along the way. Majority Leader Henry Cabot Lodge and his Republican allies raised serious questions about American sovereignty, Japan's takeover of a Chinese province, the prospect of a new arms race, and the failure to address the Irish question and human rights.
Americans supported the treaty, but not enthusiastically. Surveys of newspaper editors, party leaders, and civic organizations showed a willingness to try Wilson's experiment, as long as American interests were protected. Mostly, Americans wanted to get on with their lives.
"I can predict with absolute certainty that within another generation there will be another world war if the nations of the world do not concert the method by which to prevent it." - Woodrow Wilson
The end of the Western Tour
America in 1919 was as divided as America in 2019. In that fateful year, workers staged more than 2,000 strikes. Race riots and lynchings ripped apart cities and towns across the country. Nativism soared, with politicians attacking "hyphenated Americans" and vowing to restrict future immigration. Civil liberties were under attack. Hundreds of war opponents, including Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs and major labor leaders, were jailed under the Espionage Act for speaking against the war. Wilson's postmaster general shut down even mildly critical newspapers and magazines by denying them access to the mail. Some 2,000 German-Americans were held in internment camps while German newspapers, schools, churches, and fraternal organizations were shut down. Ordinary Americans struggled to make ends meet with flat wages and spiraling prices.
The Western Tour ended early when Wilson suffered a physical breakdown after giving his speech in Pueblo. That would be the last time Wilson ever spoke in public. Days after returning to the White House, he suffered a major stroke that left him incapacitated for the last year and a half of his presidency. As his wife Edith managed the flow of visitors and information in the White House, Wilson was invisible. But he told Democrats to vote against alterations that would have soothed the concerns of many critics—and could have won the two-thirds Senate majority needed to ratify the Paris Peace Treaty.
Ever since then, historians have wondered: Could the League of Nations have prevented the rise of the Nazis and the Second World War?
Woodrow & Edith Wilson. Photo by Stock Montage / Getty Images.
In promoting the League, Wilson claimed that the new global body would prevent "98 percent" of future wars. Had it existed back in 1914, Wilson argued, the League would have prevented the spiral to global war after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The League, he promised, would prevent an even more destructive second world war.
But even if the League had created a new vehicle for promoting peace, it lacked sophisticated incentive structures that are necessary to shape behavior on the global stage.
The League was seen as a unitary world body. Like national governments, the League would include both executive (the executive council) and legislative (the general assembly) actors. Like a judicial body, the League would settle disputes between member states. Wilson usually rejected the idea that the League would be a "supergovernment," but that's just how most people envisioned it.
In reality, the League of Nations could have been anything. In supporting the League, Senator J.C.W. Beckham of Kentucky noted that the U.S. Constitution offered just a guide to the leaders of the new American republic. Only when people of good faith acted—starting with the Bill of Rights, Hamilton's determination to pay the war debt, and landmark cases like Marbury v. Madison and McCullough v. Maryland—did that document gain real authority.
"I have loved but one flag and I can not share that devotion and give affection to the mongrel banner invented for a league." - Henry Cabot Lodge
Even the greatest skeptics—at the Paris Peace Conference and in the U.S. Senate—supported creating some kind of global authority to set basic rules for behavior and then enforce those rules. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and Theodore Roosevelt, the treaty's biggest foes, had long argued for such an arrangement. Once begun, that version of the league could have evolved.
At the very least, the U.S. and other nations might have continued the work of Presidents McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft and expanded the network of arbitration treaties. Those treaties obviously did not prevent the Great War, but they helped prevent war from breaking out in previous conflicts. The challenge was coordinating those treaties, making sure they did not create perverse commitments. The Great War had started, after all, when Austria-Hungary and Serbia called on their allies to back them in the conflict over the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Because of a series of mutual-protection pacts, Germany, Russia, France, and Great Britain; later, Italy, Japan, and the Ottoman Empire joined the conflagration.
Even a weakened League of Nations could have led to something like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Beyond that core group of Western nations, it could have spun off a larger body to represent all of the world's nations, like the United Nations, to address issues like colonialism, the environment, trade, and natural resources. Perhaps another body could set international standards for trade and finance, like the World Trade Organization.
Wilson's fatal flaw was his unwillingness to see his vision as an experiment. Prideful and reluctant to negotiate, he considered the League a complete solution to global problems. But what if Wilson had been willing to accept a flawed League? What if he had been willing to bargain and compromise? What if he saw the League as an opportunity to experiment with different tools to prevent war and promote global cooperation?
Wilson's stubbornness not only doomed his vision for a League of Nations. It also short-circuited the public debate about the most effective ways to foster global peace and cooperation.
Political cartoon of President Woodrow Wilson published by Bronstrup in The San Francisco Chronicle, circa 1919. Photo by Fotosearch / Getty Images.
But Wilson held fast to his singular vision of the League, which was originally drawn up by Jan Smuts, the soon-to-be prime minister of South Africa. The Smuts plan fit with Wilson's Progressive mindset, in which technocrats manage conflict by asserting top-down control over public affairs. As the Smuts plan gained the assent of the Paris conferees, Wilson refused to consider alterations or alternatives.
However, there could have been a more nuanced approach to conflict resolution.
Lord Robert Cecil, for example, proposed an annual meeting of the heads of state of great powers. Every four years, the world's nations would meet to adopt plans for preventing war and maintaining peace. This alliance could evolve, test which practices worked and which ones didn't. Maybe, Cecil suggested, the League of Nations did not have to emerge whole, like Athena from the head of Zeus. Maybe the League could have tried different arrangements and incentives to see what worked best.
On the Western Tour, Wilson acknowledged that the League would evolve—usually to parry criticism about the League. Whatever the problem, Wilson promised that the League would rise to the occasion and address it. But in the thick of battle, Wilson stood firm by the covenant he brought home from Paris.
Overcoming the free rider problem
The challenge to any collaboration, of course, is the "free rider." In any group, members seek to reap collective benefits while allowing others to make the sacrifices and pay the bills. The bigger the group, the easier it is for one or more free riders to evade their responsibilities.
Whether or not the U.S. joined, the free-rider problem would undermine the League of Nations. The League was organized along the familiar, old-fashioned ideas about sovereignty and power. Stated simply, both proponents and opponents of the League believed that authority is exercised from the top down, with sanctions to punish whoever defies the rules. Like most institutions in that day, discipline and punishment were the primary means of enforcing standards.
Consider the primary mission of the League: To prevent war. Under Article X, potential belligerents must agree to a 90-day "cooling off" period to hash out their differences. If one nation should invade another, the League would impose an economic boycott and then, as a last resort, take military action against that nation. Under Article XI, member nations were told to bring issues of aggression to the League of Nations—a version of "if you see something, say something."
Over time, the League could have added other tools to its repertoire—not just sanctions (sticks) but also benefits (carrots)—to counter military aggression. With this broader repertoire, the League could develop more effective approaches to promoting public goals like peace, financial stability, free trade and oceans, fair labor standards, environmental protection, health, colonial development, and infrastructure.
Meeting certain basic standards for key priorities could have been the "price of admission" for engaging League of Nations members.
To combat the arms race, for example, the League could have taxed military spending that exceeded 1 or 1.5 percent of the nation's Gross Domestic Product. Excessive levels of military spending could be taxed and the funds returned for investment in public goods. (In 2014, NATO members agreed to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense spending by 2025. The U.S. now spends 3.6 percent, the United Kingdom 2.1 percent, France 1.8 percent, and Germany 1.2 percent.)
That "club" approach, later championed by Yale Nobel laureate William Nordhaus, could have provided a strategy for engaging nations on war and peace—and, decades later, a strategy for addressing the existential threat of global warming. Nations that joined the "club" of reducing carbon emissions would enjoy free trade and other benefits, while countries that did not would face tariffs and other barriers. Would-be free riders would have both positive and negative incentives to contribute to a solution.
If the League had developed a critical mass—with such incentives that even rogue states would desire to enter into its orbit—it might have gained the capacity to entice and coordinate global action on important issues.
As it was, the League's champions and foes understood the power of sanctions like boycotts and military action—but not subtler enticements and incentives. Their vision, alas, lacked the insights of today's "behavioral economics," developed by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman of Princeton, the late Herbert Simon, and others. Policy wonks in Wilson's day also did not understand the "evolution of cooperation" and complexity theory championed by the University of Michigan's Robert Axelrod.
The League's top-down, sanction-oriented approach doomed it, no matter who joined and who stayed out. The League began operations in 1920, without the U.S., and had some minor successes. It collapsed after the 1935 Abyssinian crisis, when the League failed to get Italy to arbitrate its conflict with Ethiopia (then known as Abyssinia). The next year, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini created the Italian East Africa by merging Eritrea, Somalia and Ethiopia. His alliance with Hitler was not far off.
Why did Wilson fail?
The Council of the League of Nations holds its first session on 16th January 1920 in the clock room of the Ministery of Foreign Affairs chaired by Leon Bourgeois. Photo by Photo 12 / Universal Images Group via Getty Images.
Wilson's Western Tour failed to rally enough support to force the Senate's hand. Early in the tour, North Carolina's Democratic senators, Furnifold Simmons and Lee Overman, announced they would not support the treaty without changes. Other senators followed suit. Throughout the tour, skeptics and supporters alike grew more dubious of Wilson's master plan, especially when the president dismissed criticism as ignorant or unpatriotic.
"The future is what President Wilson must look to for his vindication," Senator Henry Ashurst of Arizona said in the tour's early days. "It may that 25 years from now, we will be saying, 'Would to God we could have one moment of Woodrow Wilson.' … But that is not true now and it will not be true by 1920, I'm afraid."
The League failed, mostly because of Wilson's inability to see that a more flexible approach could win supporters and also expand the League's vision and authority. But whatever his and the League's flaws, Woodrow Wilson pointed the way to new possibilities of global cooperation on matters of life and death.
Charles Euchner, who teaches writing at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, is the author of Nobody Turn Me Around: A People's History of the 1963 March on Washington (2010) and a forthcoming book on Woodrow Wilson's campaign for the League of Nations. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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So much for rest in peace.
- Australian scientists found that bodies kept moving for 17 months after being pronounced dead.
- Researchers used photography capture technology in 30-minute intervals every day to capture the movement.
- This study could help better identify time of death.
We're learning more new things about death everyday. Much has been said and theorized about the great divide between life and the Great Beyond. While everyone and every culture has their own philosophies and unique ideas on the subject, we're beginning to learn a lot of new scientific facts about the deceased corporeal form.
An Australian scientist has found that human bodies move for more than a year after being pronounced dead. These findings could have implications for fields as diverse as pathology to criminology.
Dead bodies keep moving
Researcher Alyson Wilson studied and photographed the movements of corpses over a 17 month timeframe. She recently told Agence France Presse about the shocking details of her discovery.
Reportedly, she and her team focused a camera for 17 months at the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER), taking images of a corpse every 30 minutes during the day. For the entire 17 month duration, the corpse continually moved.
"What we found was that the arms were significantly moving, so that arms that started off down beside the body ended up out to the side of the body," Wilson said.
The researchers mostly expected some kind of movement during the very early stages of decomposition, but Wilson further explained that their continual movement completely surprised the team:
"We think the movements relate to the process of decomposition, as the body mummifies and the ligaments dry out."
During one of the studies, arms that had been next to the body eventually ended up akimbo on their side.
The team's subject was one of the bodies stored at the "body farm," which sits on the outskirts of Sydney. (Wilson took a flight every month to check in on the cadaver.)Her findings were recently published in the journal, Forensic Science International: Synergy.
Implications of the study
The researchers believe that understanding these after death movements and decomposition rate could help better estimate the time of death. Police for example could benefit from this as they'd be able to give a timeframe to missing persons and link that up with an unidentified corpse. According to the team:
"Understanding decomposition rates for a human donor in the Australian environment is important for police, forensic anthropologists, and pathologists for the estimation of PMI to assist with the identification of unknown victims, as well as the investigation of criminal activity."
While scientists haven't found any evidence of necromancy. . . the discovery remains a curious new understanding about what happens with the body after we die.
The distances between the stars are so vast that they can make your brain melt. Take for example the Voyager 1 probe, which has been traveling at 35,000 miles per hour for more than 40 years and was the first human object to cross into interstellar space. That sounds wonderful except, at its current speed, it will still take another 40,000 years to cross the typical distance between stars.
Worse still, if you are thinking about interstellar travel, nature provides a hard limit on acceleration and speed. As Einstein showed, it's impossible to accelerate any massive object beyond the speed of light. Since the galaxy is more than 100,000 light-years across, if you are traveling at less than light speed, then most interstellar distances would take more than a human lifetime to cross. If the known laws of physics hold, then it seems a galaxy-spanning human civilization is impossible.
Unless of course you can build a warp drive.
Ah, the warp drive, that darling of science fiction plot devices. So, what about a warp drive? Is that even a really a thing?
Let's start with the "warping" part of a warp drive. Without doubt, Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity ("GR") represents space and time as a 4-dimensional "fabric" that can be stretched and bent and folded. Gravity waves, representing ripples in the fabric of spacetime, have now been directly observed. So, yes spacetime can be warped. The warping part of a warp drive usually means distorting the shape of spacetime so that two distant locations can be brought close together — and you somehow "jump" between them.
This was a basic idea in science fiction long before Star Trek popularized the name "warp drive." But until 1994, it had remained science fiction, meaning there was no science behind it. That year, Miguel Alcubierre wrote down a solution to the basic equations of GR that represented a region that compressed spacetime ahead of it and expanded spacetime behind to create a kind of traveling warp bubble. This was really good news for warp drive fans.
The problems with a warp drive
There were some problems though. Most important was that this "Alcubierre drive" required lots of "exotic matter" or "negative energy" to work. Unfortunately, there's no such thing. These are things theorists dreamed up to stick into the GR equations in order to do cool things like make stable open wormholes or functioning warp drives.
It's also noteworthy that researchers have raised other concerns about an Alcubierre drive — like how it would violate quantum mechanics or how when you arrived at your destination it would destroy everything in front of the ship in an apocalyptic flash of radiation.
Warp drives: A new hope
Credit: Primada / 420366373 via Adobe Stock
Recently, however, there seemed to be good news on the warp drive front with the publication this April of a new paper by Alexey Bobrick and Gianni Martre entitled "Introducing Physical Warp Drives." The good thing about the Bobrick and Martre paper was it was extremely clear about the meaning of a warp drive.
Understanding the equations of GR means understanding what's on either side of the equals sign. On one side, there is the shape of spacetime, and on the other, there is the configuration of matter-energy. The traditional route with these equations is to start with a configuration of matter-energy and see what shape of spacetime it produces. But you can also go the other way around and assume the shape of spacetime you want (like a warp bubble) and determine what kind of configuration of matter-energy you will need (even if that matter-energy is the dream stuff of negative energy).
Warp drives are simpler and much less mysterious objects than the broader literature has suggested.
What Bobrick and Martre did was step back and look at the problem more generally. They showed how all warp drives were composed of three regions: an interior spacetime called the passenger space; a shell of material, with either positive or negative energy, called the warping region; and an outside that, far enough away, looks like normal unwarped spacetime. In this way they could see exactly what was and was not possible for any kind of warp drive. (Watch this lovely explainer by Sabine Hossenfelder for more details). They even showed that you could use good old normal matter to create a warp drive that, while it moved slower than light speed, produced a passenger area where time flowed at a different rate than in the outside spacetime. So even though it was a sub-light speed device, it was still an actual warp drive that could use normal matter.
That was the good news.
The bad news was this clear vision also showed them a real problem with the "drive" part of the Alcubierre drive. First of all, it still needed negative energy to work, so that bummer remains. But worse, Bobrick and Martre reaffirmed a basic understanding of relativity and saw that there was no way to accelerate an Alcubierre drive past light speed. Sure, you could just assume that you started with something moving faster than light, and the Alcubierre drive with its negative energy shell would make sense. But crossing the speed of light barrier was still prohibited.
So, in the end, the Star Trek version of the warp drive is still not a thing. I know this may bum you out if you were hoping to build that version of the Enterprise sometime soon (as I was). But don't be too despondent. The Bobrick and Martre paper really did make headway. As the authors put it in the end:
"One of the main conclusions of our study is that warp drives are simpler and much less mysterious objects than the broader literature has suggested"
That really is progress.
The Black Death wasn't the only plague in the 1300s.
- In a unique study, researchers have determined how many people in medieval England had bunions
- A fashion trend towards pointed toe shoes made the affliction common.
- Even monks got in on the trend, much to their discomfort later in life.
Late Medieval England had its share of problems. The Wars of Roses raged, the Black Death killed off large parts of the population, and passing ruffians could say "Ni" at will to old ladies.
To make matters worse, a first of its kind study published in the International Journal of Paleopathology has demonstrated that much of the population suffered from another plague — a plague of bunions likely caused by a ridiculous medieval fashion trend.
If the shoe fits, it won't cause bunions
The outlines of a leather shoe from the King's Ditch, Cambridge. It is easy to see how these shoes might be constricting. Copyright Cambridge Archaeological Unit.
The bunion, known to medicine as "hallux valgus," is a deformity of the joint connecting the big toe to the rest of the foot. It is painful and can cause other issues including poor balance. The condition is associated with having worn constrictive shoes for a long period of time as well as genetic factors. Today, it is often caused by wearing high heeled shoes.
The medieval English didn't care for high heeled shoes as much as modern fashionistas, but there was a major fashion trend toward shoes with long, pointed toes called "poulaines" or "crakows" for their supposed place of origin, Krakow, Poland.
This trend, already silly-looking to a modern observer, got out of hand in a hurry. According to some records, the points on nobleman's shoes could be so long as to require tying them to the leg with string so the wearer could walk. At one point, King Edward IV had to ban commoners from wearing points longer than two inches. A couple years later, he saw fit to ban the shoes altogether.
But, just knowing that people back in the day made poor fashion choices doesn't prove they suffered for it. That is where digging up old skeletons to look at their feet comes in.
Beauty is pain: the price of high medieval fashion
To learn how bad the bunion epidemic was, the researchers looked to four burial sites in and around Cambridge. One was a rural cemetery where poor peasants were buried. Another was the All Saints by the Castle parish, which had a mixed collection of people that tended toward poverty. The Hospital of St. John's burial ground contained both the poor charges of a charity hospital and wealthy benefactors. Lastly, they considered the cemetery of a local Augustinian friary, home to monks and well-to-do philanthropists.
The team considered 177 adult skeletons that were at least a quarter complete and still had enough of their feet to make studying them possible. The remains were classified by age and sex by observation and DNA testing. Each was examined for evidence of bunions and signs of complications from the condition, such as falling.
Those buried in the monastery's graveyard were the most affected. Nearly half, 43 percent, of the remains found there had bunions. This includes five of the eleven members of the clergy they found. Twenty-three percent of those laid to rest at the Hospital of St. John had bunions, though only 10 percent of those at the All Saints by the Castle parish graveyard did.
The rural cemetery had a much lower rate of instances, only three percent, suggesting that these peasants were able to avoid at least one plague.
Overall, eighteen percent of the individuals examined had bunions, with men more likely to have them than women. Those at cemeteries known for exclusivity were more likely to have them as well, though it is clear that the condition also affected members of other classes. This makes sense, as it is known that these shoes had mass appeal.
The authors note that the rural cemetery having fewer cases is partly because that cemetery "went out of use prior to the wide adoption of pointed shoes, and it is likely that those residing in the parish predominately wore soft leather shoes, or possibly went barefoot."
Those skeletons with evidence of bunions were more likely to have fractures indicative of a fall. This was more common on those estimated or recorded as having lived past age 45.
In our much more enlightened times, 23 percent of the population currently endures having bunions, most of them women, and one of the leading culprits behind this is the high heeled shoe.
Some things never change.