Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
- How President Woodrow Wilson tried to end all wars once and for all ... ›
- Thousands of Nazis held big rallies in America less than 100 years ago - Big Think ›
"Deepfakes" and "cheap fakes" are becoming strikingly convincing — even ones generated on freely available apps.
- A writer named Magdalene Visaggio recently used FaceApp and Airbrush to generate convincing portraits of early U.S. presidents.
- "Deepfake" technology has improved drastically in recent years, and some countries are already experiencing how it can weaponized for political purposes.
- It's currently unknown whether it'll be possible to develop technology that can quickly and accurately determine whether a given video is real or fake.
After former U.S. President William Henry Harrison delivered his inaugural speech on March 4, 1841, he posed for a daguerreotype, the first widely available photographic technology. It became the first photo taken of a sitting American president.
As for the eight presidents before Harrison, history can see them only through artistic renderings. (The exception is a handful of surviving daguerreotypes of John Quincy Adams, taken after he left office. In his diary, Adams described them as "hideous" and "too true to the original.")
But a recent project offers a glimpse of what early presidents might've looked like if photographed through modern cameras. Using FaceApp and Airbrush, Magdalene Visaggio, author of books such as "Eternity Girl" and "Kim & Kim," generated a collection of convincing portraits of the nation's first presidents, from George Washington to Ulysses S. Grant.
Modern Presidents George Washington https://t.co/CURJQB0kap— Magdalene Visaggio (@Magdalene Visaggio)1611952243.0
What might be surprising is that Visaggio was able to generate the images without a background in graphic design, using freely available tools. She wrote on Twitter:
"A lot of people think I'm a digital artist or whatever, so let me clarify how I work. Everything you see here is done in Faceapp+Airbrush on my phone. On the outside, each takes between 15-30 mins. Washington was a pretty simple one-and-done replacement."
Ulysses S Grant https://t.co/L1IGXLI3Vl— Magdalene Visaggio (@Magdalene Visaggio)1611959480.0
"Other than that? I am not a visual artist in any sense, just a hobbyist using AI tools see what she can make. I'm actually a professional comics writer."
Did another pass at Lincoln. https://t.co/PdT4QVpMbn— Magdalene Visaggio (@Magdalene Visaggio)1611973947.0
Of course, Visaggio isn't the first person to create deepfakes (or "cheap fakes") of politicians.
In 2017, many people got their first glimpse of the technology through a video depicting former President Barack Obama warning: "We're entering an era in which our enemies can make it look like anyone is saying anything at any point in time." The video quickly reveals itself to be fake, with comedian Jordan Peele speaking for the computer-generated Obama.
While deepfakes haven't yet caused significant chaos in the U.S., incidents in other nations may offer clues of what's to come.
The future of deepfakes
In 2018, Gabon's president Ali Bongo had been out of the country for months receiving medical treatment. After Bongo hadn't been seen in public for months, rumors began swirling about his condition. Some suggested Bongo might even be dead. In response, Bongo's administration released a video that seemed to show the president addressing the nation.
But the video is strange, appearing choppy and blurry in parts. After political opponents declared the video to be a deepfake, Gabon's military attempted an unsuccessful coup. What's striking about the story is that, to this day, experts in the field of deepfakes can't conclusively verify whether the video was real.
The uncertainty and confusion generated by deepfakes poses a "global problem," according to a 2020 report from The Brookings Institution. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Defense released some of the first tools able to successfully detect deepfake videos. The problem, however, is that deepfake technology keeps improving, meaning forensic approaches may forever be one step behind the most sophisticated forms of deepfakes.
As the 2020 report noted, even if the private sector or governments create technology to identify deepfakes, they will:
"...operate more slowly than the generation of these fakes, allowing false representations to dominate the media landscape for days or even weeks. "A lie can go halfway around the world before the truth can get its shoes on," warns David Doermann, the director of the Artificial Intelligence Institute at the University of Buffalo. And if defensive methods yield results short of certainty, as many will, technology companies will be hesitant to label the likely misrepresentations as fakes."
The author of 'How We Read' Now explains.
During the pandemic, many college professors abandoned assignments from printed textbooks and turned instead to digital texts or multimedia coursework.
As a professor of linguistics, I have been studying how electronic communication compares to traditional print when it comes to learning. Is comprehension the same whether a person reads a text onscreen or on paper? And are listening and viewing content as effective as reading the written word when covering the same material?
The answers to both questions are often “no," as I discuss in my book “How We Read Now," released in March 2021. The reasons relate to a variety of factors, including diminished concentration, an entertainment mindset and a tendency to multitask while consuming digital content.
Print versus digital reading
The benefits of print particularly shine through when experimenters move from posing simple tasks – like identifying the main idea in a reading passage – to ones that require mental abstraction – such as drawing inferences from a text. Print reading also improves the likelihood of recalling details – like “What was the color of the actor's hair?" – and remembering where in a story events occurred – “Did the accident happen before or after the political coup?"
Studies show that both grade school students and college students assume they'll get higher scores on a comprehension test if they have done the reading digitally. And yet, they actually score higher when they have read the material in print before being tested.
Educators need to be aware that the method used for standardized testing can affect results. Studies of Norwegian tenth graders and U.S. third through eighth graders report higher scores when standardized tests were administered using paper. In the U.S. study, the negative effects of digital testing were strongest among students with low reading achievement scores, English language learners and special education students.
My own research and that of colleagues approached the question differently. Rather than having students read and take a test, we asked how they perceived their overall learning when they used print or digital reading materials. Both high school and college students overwhelmingly judged reading on paper as better for concentration, learning and remembering than reading digitally.
The discrepancies between print and digital results are partly related to paper's physical properties. With paper, there is a literal laying on of hands, along with the visual geography of distinct pages. People often link their memory of what they've read to how far into the book it was or where it was on the page.
But equally important is mental perspective, and what reading researchers call a “shallowing hypothesis." According to this theory, people approach digital texts with a mindset suited to casual social media, and devote less mental effort than when they are reading print.
Podcasts and online video
Given increased use of flipped classrooms – where students listen to or view lecture content before coming to class – along with more publicly available podcasts and online video content, many school assignments that previously entailed reading have been replaced with listening or viewing. These substitutions have accelerated during the pandemic and move to virtual learning.
Surveying U.S. and Norwegian university faculty in 2019, University of Stavanger Professor Anne Mangen and I found that 32% of U.S. faculty were now replacing texts with video materials, and 15% reported doing so with audio. The numbers were somewhat lower in Norway. But in both countries, 40% of respondents who had changed their course requirements over the past five to 10 years reported assigning less reading today.
A primary reason for the shift to audio and video is students refusing to do assigned reading. While the problem is hardly new, a 2015 study of more than 18,000 college seniors found only 21% usually completed all their assigned course reading.
Maximizing mental focus
Researchers found similar results with university students reading an article versus listening to a podcast of the text. A related study confirms that students do more mind-wandering when listening to audio than when reading.
Results with younger students are similar, but with a twist. A study in Cyprus concluded that the relationship between listening and reading skills flips as children become more fluent readers. While second graders had better comprehension with listening, eighth graders showed better comprehension when reading.
Research on learning from video versus text echoes what we see with audio. For example, researchers in Spain found that fourth through sixth graders who read texts showed far more mental integration of the material than those watching videos. The authors suspect that students “read" the videos more superficially because they associate video with entertainment, not learning.
The collective research shows that digital media have common features and user practices that can constrain learning. These include diminished concentration, an entertainment mindset, a propensity to multitask, lack of a fixed physical reference point, reduced use of annotation and less frequent reviewing of what has been read, heard or viewed.
Digital texts, audio and video all have educational roles, especially when providing resources not available in print. However, for maximizing learning where mental focus and reflection are called for, educators – and parents – shouldn't assume all media are the same, even when they contain identical words.
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.