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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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Scientists discovered footprints made by some of the largest creatures ever to walk the Earth.
- Paleontologists published a paper on the discovery of dinosaur footprints on the roof of a French cave.
- The prints are deep underground and were made during the Middle Jurassic period.
- The footprints belonged to titanosaurs, the largest land animals ever.
French scientists found gigantic dinosaur footprints on the roof of the Castelbouc cave the Lozère region of southern France. A new paper outlines the discovery approximately 1640 feet under ground by the paleontologist Jean-David Moreau from the University of Burgundy–Franche-Comté and his colleagues.
The footprints likely belonged to an unknown species of titanosaur and were made 166 to 168 million years ago, in the Middle Jurassic Period. Titanosaurs, a group of long-necked, lizard-like sauropods, could be found all over the world in present day Africa, the Americas, Europe, and Australia. Among titanosaurs were the largest land animals to have ever existed, like the Patagotitan, which stretched 121 feet long and weighed 138,000 pounds.
The titanosaur Alamosaurus.
Credit: Bogdanov, 2006. Creative Commons.
Some of the 38 tracks found in France were as large as 4 feet long. They were likely made by three dinosaurs at the time when the area was on the surface, making up a muddy shoreline along which the giant creatures traveled. Over time, the site was buried by geological processes, with the tracks becoming moldings in the roof of a cave that's half a kilometer underground.
They were spotted as part of a caving expedition in December 2015 by the paper's authors. To find them, the scientists had to go down a narrow labyrinth of crawl spaces that often get flooded. The tracks were in a space about 260 feet long, 66 feet wide and 33 feet high.
Dinosaur tracks in the ceiling of Castelbouc Cave in France.
Credit: Jean-David Moreau et al./J. Vertebr. Paleontol.
Speaking to the French science magazine Sciences et Avenir, Jean-David Moreau explained that a caver "who was ahead of me turned to me and with the lamp of his helmet projected a grazing lighting on the ceiling which allowed to bring out the marks."
You can read the paper "Middle Jurassic tracks of sauropod dinosaurs in a deep karst cave in France," published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
Humans may have evolved to be tribalistic. Is that a bad thing?
- From politics to every day life, humans have a tendency to form social groups that are defined in part by how they differ from other groups.
- Neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky, author Dan Shapiro, and others explore the ways that tribalism functions in society, and discuss how—as social creatures—humans have evolved for bias.
- But bias is not inherently bad. The key to seeing things differently, according to Beau Lotto, is to "embody the fact" that everything is grounded in assumptions, to identify those assumptions, and then to question them.
Ancient corridors below the French capital have served as its ossuary, playground, brewery, and perhaps soon, air conditioning.
- People have been digging up limestone and gypsum from below Paris since Roman times.
- They left behind a vast network of corridors and galleries, since reused for many purposes — most famously, the Catacombs.
- Soon, the ancient labyrinth may find a new lease of life, providing a sustainable form of air conditioning.
Ancient mining areas below Paris for limestone (red) and gypsum (green).Credit: Émile Gérards (1859–1920) / Public domain
"If you're brave enough to try, you might be able to catch a train from UnLondon to Parisn't, or No York, or Helsunki, or Lost Angeles, or Sans Francisco, or Hong Gone, or Romeless."
China Miéville's fantasy novel Un Lun Dun is set in an eerie mirror version of London. In it, he hints that other cities have similar doubles. On the list that he offhandedly rattles off, Paris stands out. Because the City of Light really does have a twisted sister. Below Paris Overground is Paris Underground, the City of Darkness.
Most people will have heard of the Catacombs of Paris: subterranean charnel houses for the bones of around six million dead Parisians. They are one of the French capital's most famous tourist attractions – and undoubtedly its grisliest.
But they constitute only a small fragment of what the locals themselves call les carrières de Paris ("the mines of Paris"), a collection of tunnels and galleries up to 300 km (185 miles) long, most of which are off-limits to the public, yet eagerly explored by so-called cataphiles.
The Grand Réseau Sud ("Great Southern Network") takes up around 200 km beneath the 5th, 6th, 14th, and 15th arrondissements (administrative districts), all south of the river Seine. Smaller networks run beneath the 12th, 13th, and 16th arrondissements. How did they get there?
Paris stone and plaster of Paris
It all starts with geology. Sediments left behind by ancient seas created large deposits of limestone in the south of the city, mostly south of the Seine; and gypsum in the north, particularly in the hills of Montmartre and Ménilmontant. Highly sought after as building materials, both have been mined since Roman times.
The limestone is also known as Lutetian limestone (Lutetia is the Latin name for ancient Paris) or simply "Paris stone." It has been used for many famous Paris landmarks, including the Louvre and the grand buildings erected during Georges-Eugène Haussmann's large-scale remodelling of the city in the mid-19th century. The stone's warm, yellowish color provides visual unity and a bright elegance to the city.
The fine-powdered gypsum of northern Paris, used for making quick-setting plaster, was so famed for its quality that "plaster of Paris" is still used as a term of distinction. However, as gypsum is very soluble in water, the underground cavities left by its extraction were extremely vulnerable to collapse.
Like living on top of a rotting tooth: subsidence starts far below the surface, but it can destroy your house.Credit : Delavanne Avocats
In previous centuries, a road would occasionally open up to swallow a chariot, or even a whole house would disappear down a sinkhole. In 1778, a catastrophic subsidence in Ménilmontant killed seven. That's why the Montmartre gypsum quarries were dynamited rather than just left as they were. The remaining gypsum caves were to be filled up with concrete.
The official body governing Paris down below is the Inspection Générale des Carrières (IGC), founded in the late 1770s by King Louis XVI. The IGC was tasked with mapping and, where needed, propping up the current and ancient (and sometimes forgotten) mining corridors and galleries hiding beneath Paris.
A delightful hiding place
Also around that time, the dead of Paris were getting in the way of the living. At the end of the 18th century, their final destination consisted of about 200 small cemeteries, scattered throughout the city — all bursting at the seams, so to speak. There was no room to bury the newly dead, and the previously departed were fouling up both the water and air around their respective churchyards.
Something radical had to happen. And it did. From 1785 until 1814, the smaller cemeteries were emptied of their bones, which were transported with full funerary pomp to their final resting place in the ancient limestone quarries at Tombe-Issoire. Three large and modern cemeteries were opened to receive the remains of subsequent generations of Parisians: Montparnasse, Père-Lachaise, and Passy.
The six million dead Parisians in the Catacombs, from all corners of the capital and across many centuries, together form the world's largest necropolis — their now anonymized skulls and bones methodically stacked, occasionally into whimsical patterns. The Catacombs are fashioned into a memorial to the brevity of life. The message above the entrance reads: Arrête! C'est ici l'empire de la Mort. ("Halt! This is the empire of Death.")
That has not stopped the Catacombs, accessible via a side door to a classicist building on the Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, making just about every Top 20 list of things to see in Paris.
An underground economy
However, while the Catacombs certainly are the most famous part of the centuries-old network beneath Paris, and in non-pandemic times draw thousands of tourists each day, they constitute just 1.7 km (1 mile) of the 300-km (185-mile) tunneling total.
Subterranean Paris wasn't just used for mining and storing dead people. In the 17th century, Carthusian monks converted the ancient quarries under their monastery into distilleries for the green or yellow liqueur that still carries their name, chartreuse.
Because the mines generally keep a constant cool temperature of around 15° C (60° F), they were also ideal for brewing beer, as happened on a large scale from the end of the 17th century until well into the 20th century. Several caves were dug especially for establishing breweries, and not just because of the ambient temperature: going underground allowed brewers to remain close to their customers without having to pay a premium for real estate up top.
Overview of the Paris Catacombs.Credit: Inspection Générale des Carrières, 1857 / Public domain.
At the end of the 19th century, the underground breweries of the 14th arrondissement alone produced more than a million hectoliters (22 million gallons) per year. One of the most famous of Paris' underground breweries, Dumesnil, stayed in operation until the late 1960s.
In that decade, the network of corridors and galleries south of the Seine, long since abandoned by miners, became the unofficial playground for the young people of Paris. They explored the fantastical world beneath their feet, in some cases via entry points located in their very schools. Fascinated, these cataphiles ("catacomb lovers") read up on old books, explored the subterranean labyrinth, and drew up schematics that were passed around among fellow initiates as reverently as treasure maps.
As Robert Macfarlane writes in Underland, Paris-beneath-their-feet became "a place where people might slip into different identities, assume new ways of being and relating, become fluid and wild in ways that are constrained on the surface."
Some larger caves turned into notorious party zones: a 7-meter-tall gallery below the Val-de-Grâce hospital is widely known as "Salle Z." Over the last few decades, various other locations in subterranean Paris have hosted jazz and rock concerts and rave parties — like no other city, Paris really has an "underground music scene."
Hokusai's Great Wave as the backdrop to the "beach" under Paris.Credit: Reddit
Cataphiles vs. cataphobes
With popularity came increased reports of nuisance and crime — the tunnels provided easy access to telephone cables, which were stolen for the resale value of their copper.
The general public's "discovery" of the underground network led the city of Paris to officially interdict all access by non-authorized persons. That decree dates back to 1955, but the "underground police" have an understanding with seasoned cataphiles. Their main targets are so-called tourists, who by their lack of knowledge expose themselves to risk of injuries or worse, and degrade their surroundings, often leaving loads of litter in their wake.
The understanding does not extend to the IGC. Unlike in the 19th century, when weak cavities were shored up by purpose-built pillars, the policy now is to inject concrete to fill up endangered spaces — thus progressively blocking off parts of the network. That procedure has also been used to separate the Catacombs to prevent "infiltration" of the site by cataphiles.
Many subterranean streets have their own names, signs and all. This is the Rue des Bourguignons (Street of the Burgundians) below the Champs des Capucins (Capuchin Field), neither of which exists on the surface.Credit: Jean-François Gornet via Wikimedia and licensed under
The cataphiles, however, are fighting back. In a game of cat and mouse with the authorities, they are reopening blocked passages and creating chatières ("cat flaps") through which they can squeeze into chambers no longer accessible via other underground corridors.
Catacomb climate control
Alone against the unstoppable tide of concrete, the amateurs of Underground Paris would be helpless. But the fight against climate change may turn the subterranean labyrinths from a liability into an asset — and the City of Paris into an ally.
The UN's 2015 Climate Plan — concluded in Paris, by the way — requires the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent by 2050. And Paris itself wants to be Europe's greenest city by 2030. More sustainable climate control of our living spaces would be a great help toward both targets. A lot of energy is spent heating houses in winter and cooling them in summer.
This is where the constant temperature of the Parisian tunnels comes in. It's not just good for brewing beer; it's a source of geothermal energy, says Fieldwork, an architectural firm based in Paris. It can be used to temper temperatures, helping to cool houses in summer and warming them in winter.
One catch for the cataphiles: it also works when the underground cavities are filled up with concrete. So perhaps one day, Paris Underground, fully filled up with concrete, will completely fall off the map, reducing the city's formerly real doppelgänger into an air conditioning unit.
Cool in summer, warm in winter: Paris Underground could become Paris A/C.Credit: Fieldwork
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