Why Foreign Elections Matter to Americans

It’s strange for a lot of us insular Americans to realize, let alone accept, that our fates are determined by politicians, voters, and institutions beyond our borders. (Hell, we barely have enough influence over our own political and economic circumstances, but that’s a different story.)

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an obvious example: Now the specter of nuclear war haunts the world again, to say nothing of the impact on everything from gas to food prices (more so in other countries than in the U.S.). COVID-19 is another dramatic example, and it also reflects the equally difficult issue of being at the mercy of natural forces we often barely think about, let alone prepare for.

A lesser known but consequential example is Brazil, whose 210 million people influence (in the broadest terms) the fate of the Amazon rainforest—which is not only innately valuable for its unique nature but is one of the key ecological regions whose collapse could accelerate climate change and be calamitous for the rest of humanity.

Tomorrow, Brazilian voters will head to the polls to cast ballots in the first round of the country’s highly anticipated presidential election. (In Brazil, federal elections are held the first Sunday of October to maximize accessibility, and a presidential candidate must receive more than half the popular vote to win; otherwise, the top two recipients of votes go on to a second round on the last Sunday of October.)

The two frontrunners are left-wing former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whose administration was clouded by allegations of corruption, and right-wing incumbent Jair Bolsonaro, who has threatened to reject the outcome of the election if it does not go his way. Not unlike the United States, Brazil is a big, diverse, complex, and federalized republic that ranks as one of the world’s largest democracies, with over 156 million registered voters.

Likewise, Brazilians are increasingly polarized and yearn for a leader who will put the country on the right path—with many remaining cynical about whether either candidate has the vision, discipline, or even political influence to get that done.

Of course, Brazil is far from the only example: There’s a good reason why the rest of the world takes such an interest in our domestic politics, compared to the other way around. Who we elect, what policies we support, how we manage our massively influential economy, etc., have tremendous implications for the rest of humanity (not least because we can literally invade or nuke another nation). We may not like it, but the world is too big and complicated for even one powerful country to make a difference, and there’s a lot that’s beyond our control.

The Great Liberator of D.C.

More belated photos of D.C.’s international character: A memorial to Venezuelan revolutionary Simon Bolivar, located near the National Mall just behind the headquarters of the Organization of American States (OAS), an international organization comprised of most of the Western Hemisphere. It is reportedly the world’s largest equestrian statue of Bolivar and was gifted to the U.S. by Venezuela in 1955.

Considered one of history’s most consequential figures, Bolivar is known as “The Liberator” for his lightning-fast campaign to free much of Latin America from Spanish rule in the early 19th century. He is considered the founder of at least five South American countries—including his native Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Panama—of which all but Bolivia were initially one nation called the Republic of Colombia, or Gran Colombia, which he founded and ruled as its first president.

The creation of Gran Colombia, which John Quincy Adams described as one of the world’s most powerful countries, inspired revolutions elsewhere in Latin America. Having established some of history’s first (official) republics—including abolishing slavery in deference to his Haitian allies—Bolivar is seen as a natural contemporary of America’s Founders, with whom he shared a similar influence from Enlightenment ideals like individual liberty and popular sovereignty (and whose revolution, along with that of France, he admired). But Bolivar was just as flawed as his fellow revolutionaries and was especially cynical about whether democracy could take hold in Latin America; he believed the legacy of Spanish authoritarianism, as opposed to the more liberal constitutional monarchy of Britain, left far less fertile soil for American- or French-style republicanism. Yet as in those countries, Bolivar’s ideals and aspirations would outlive him and the short-lived republican governments he helped create.

The history of the statue is almost as interesting as the man himself: In 1955, the Senate authorized the acceptance and placement of a gift from the Venezuelan government. The eight-ton was designed by Felix W. de Weldon, who sculpted the famous statue depicting the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima.  The original dedication ceremony was scheduled for May 22, 1958, with Vice President Nixon scheduled to preside, but a coup in Venezuela earlier that year delayed the ceremony.

Finally on February 27, 1959, President Eisenhower dedicated the 36-foot bronze statue as a symbol of the U.S. and Venezuela striving “to live and work together.” The dedication came two weeks after Romulo Betancourt was elected President on February 13, 1959, ending a decade of dictatorship in Venezuela. (Betancourt would be known as the founder of Venezuelan democracy, making him an appropriate figure to preside over a ceremony dedicated to the country’s less-than-democratic founder.)

The Old City of Sana’a

Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, has been continuously inhabited for over 2,500 years, with its densely populated old city characterized by unique architecture bearing geometric patterns. It has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1986, due not only to its aesthetic beauty, but the resourceful use of local materials and clever urban planning: The multistory buildings reflect efforts to house a large community within a tightly defended fortress without compromising space, hygiene, and recreation. The city abounds with green spaces, public baths, and markets; despite Yemen’s grinding poverty, homeownership is fairly high.

Like much of northern Yemen, Sanna has faced thousands of air strikes from a Saudi-led coalition that intervened in the country’s civil war in 2015 after the Iran-aligned Houthi group ousted the internationally recognised government the previous year; the war has killed tens of thousands and brought Yemen to the brink of famine.

This past April, the United Nations brokered a ceasefire that has suspended air, sea, and land attacks, allowed desperately needed imports into Houthi-controlled seaports, and has reopened Sanaa airport. The truce is the first comprehensive agreement in the war and has actually held up fairly well — allowing citizens to rebuild their exceptional cultural and historical legacy.

Reuters reported on local efforts to fix their broken and dispirited city:

 The Fresco of Terentius Neo

Wikimedia Commons

At the Naples National Archaeological Museum in Italy is a Roman fresco of Terentius Neo and a woman presumed to be his wife, discovered in their home in Pompeii. Considered one of the finest pieces of art from the area of Vesuvius, it is also amazing for several reasons beyond its technical quality.

The portrait is unusual in depicting husband and wife as equals, members of a confident and fashionable middle class that was rising across Rome through sheer grit. Neo was a successful baker, as the house had been modified to include a bakery, and he wears a toga, indicating he was a Roman citizen (a highly coveted status that conferred several legal rights). He holds a rotulus, a kind of scroll that suggests involvement in local politics or public affairs; there is even an inscription on the outside of the house that endorses a local politician, not unlike the yard signs of today (though a lot more permanent)

Though we do not know her name, Neo’s wife is far from secondary: She is in the foreground and at the same height as her husband. She holds a stylus and wax tablet, further emphasizing her equal status, as well as the fact that she was educated and literate (a rare thing for men and women alike at the time). It is very likely she helped manage her husband’s business and political affairs and was far from the servient homemaker.

Finally, the portrait shows realistic imperfections or peculiarities in the faces—rather than the chiseled and God-like features we’re most familiar with—which is rare in similar frescoes and brings these folks to life. One could easily imagine well-to-do couples like them in today’s society. 

How a Girl from Small-Town Maine Struck a Rapport with an Ex-KGB Soviet Leader

This past July 6th marked an unusual anniversary in international relations: On that day in 1983, Samantha Smith, an 11-year-old from small-town Maine, visited the Soviet Union at the personal invitation of its leader, Yuri Andropov, after the two exchanged letters.

When Andropov took power in November 1982, he was subject to numerous front-page photographs and articles—most of them overwhelmingly negative and skeptical. Widely seen as a hardliner who would threaten Western stability, Andropov had been the Soviet Ambassador to Hungary during the brutally suppressed 1956 Hungarian Revolution and led the KGB for 15 years, during which dissidents were harassed and jailed. Unsurprisingly, he began his tenure as Soviet leader by strengthening the KGB and reigning in internal dissent.

U.S.-Soviet relations was at its lowest point in decades, with the two superpowers intensifying their Cold War rivalry and building up their nuclear arsenals both numerically and technologically. The national mood was of fear and apprehension.

As Smith recalled in her book, Journey to the Soviet Union:

“I asked my mother who would start a war and why.  She showed me a news magazine with a story about America and Russia, one that had a picture of the new Russian leader, Yuri Andropov, on the cover.  We read it together.  It seemed that the people in both Russia and America were worried that the other country would start a nuclear war.  It all seemed so dumb to me.  I had learned about the awful things that had happened during World War II, so I thought that nobody would ever want to have another war.  I told Mom that she should write to Mr. Andropov to find out who was causing all the trouble.  She said, ‘Why don’t you write to him?’ So I did.”

Addressing the envelope, “Mr. Yuri Andropov, the Kremlin, Moscow, USSR,” she mailed the following:

Dear Mr. Andropov,

My name is Samantha Smith. I am 10 years old. Congratulations on your new job. I have been worrying about Russia and the United States getting into a nuclear war. Are you going to vote to have a war or not? If you aren’t please tell me how you are going to help to not have a war. This question you do not have to answer, but I would like it if you would. Why do you want to conquer the world or at least our country? God made the world for us to share and take care of. Not to fight over or have one group of people own it all. Please lets do what he wanted and have everybody be happy too.

Samantha Smith

Her letter was published in the Soviet newspaper Pravda, perhaps because Soviet officials found it so unusual and amusing.  Smith was happy to discover that her letter had been published but dissatisfied that she did not get a response. So, she sent a letter to the Soviet ambassador to the U.S. asking if Andropov would respond—which he did just months later:

Dear Samantha,

I received your letter, which is like many others that have reached me recently from your country and from other countries around the world.

It seems to me – I can tell by your letter – that you are a courageous and honest girl, resembling Becky, the friend of Tom Sawyer in the famous book of your compatriot Mark Twain. This book is well known and loved in our country by all boys and girls.

You write that you are anxious about whether there will be a nuclear war between our two countries. And you ask are we doing anything so that war will not break out.

Your question is the most important of those that every thinking man can pose. I will reply to you seriously and honestly.

Yes, Samantha, we in the Soviet Union are trying to do everything so that there will not be war on Earth. This is what every Soviet man wants. This is what the great founder of our state, Vladimir Lenin, taught us.

Soviet people well know what a terrible thing war is. Forty-two years ago, Nazi Germany, which strove for supremacy over the whole world, attacked our country, burned and destroyed many thousands of our towns and villages, killed millions of Soviet men, women and children.

In that war, which ended with our victory, we were in alliance with the United States: together we fought for the liberation of many people from the Nazi invaders. I hope that you know about this from your history lessons in school. And today we want very much to live in peace, to trade and cooperate with all our neighbors on this earth—with those far away and those near by. And certainly with such a great country as the United States of America.

In America and in our country there are nuclear weapons—terrible weapons that can kill millions of people in an instant. But we do not want them to be ever used. That’s precisely why the Soviet Union solemnly declared throughout the entire world that never will it use nuclear weapons first against any country. In general we propose to discontinue further production of them and to proceed to the abolition of all the stockpiles on Earth.

It seems to me that this is a sufficient answer to your second question: ‘Why do you want to wage war against the whole world or at least the United States?’ We want nothing of the kind. No one in our country–neither workers, peasants, writers nor doctors, neither grown-ups nor children, nor members of the government–want either a big or ‘little’ war.

We want peace—there is something that we are occupied with: growing wheat, building and inventing, writing books and flying into space. We want peace for ourselves and for all peoples of the planet. For our children and for you, Samantha.

I invite you, if your parents will let you, to come to our country, the best time being this summer. You will find out about our country, meet with your contemporaries, visit an international children’s camp – Artek – on the sea. And see for yourself: in the Soviet Union, everyone is for peace and friendship among peoples.

Thank you for your letter. I wish you all the best in your young life.

Y. Andropov

As Mikhail Gorbachev recalls: “It was the sincerity of Samantha’s letter that garnered attention. We understood at the time that people on both sides of the ocean were very worried, and they wanted to make sure that their concern was felt by the leaders of USSR and USA. An American girl was able to express that in her letter.” 

Samantha and her family departed for their two-week trip to the USSR, visiting Moscow, Leningrad, and a “pioneer” camp for children on Crimea. Media crews from all over the world filmed her swimming with the Soviet kids at camp and touring Red Square. The cheerful and articulate young girl was unlike the “armed to the teeth Americans” that often appeared in Soviet political cartoons; Soviet citizens were glued to the TV screens following her every move. For many, Samantha and her family put a human face on the U.S., while many Americans got a rare glimpse of the USSR.

When Samantha and her father were killed in a plane crash in 1985, the heads of the two most powerful nations on earth sent condolences to her mother, Jane. She was featured on Soviet commemorative stamps and memorials and had everything from a mountain to an asteroid being named after her.

Source: www.samanthasmith.info

An Ancient Greek Yearbook

You’re looking at an ancient Greek yearbook, which was rediscovered earlier this month after over 130 years in storage at a Scottish museum.

It lists the names of 31 graduates from the ephebate, a year of military and civic training undertaken around age 18 to prepare for life as adults. It ends with “of Caesar”, referring to emperor Claudius, the fourth ruler of the Roman Empire (41-54), indicating they graduated during his reign. (Greece had been under Roman rule for over a century, though its traditions—like the ephebate—remained largely unchanged.)

Among the names clearly visible on the marble are Atlas, Dionysos, Theogas, Elis, Zopyros Tryphon, Antypas, and Apollonios; many have never been seen before, and some are nicknames, such as Theogas for Theogenes and Dionysas for Dionysodoros. Using shortened names was unusual, and likely indicates that the graduates had a sense of camaraderie; the full class was probably about 100 men, and the use of nicknames—along with terms like “co-ephebes”, or “co-cadets”—indicates that this inscription was made by classmates who had become friends and wanted to remember each other.

According to Dr. Peter Liddel, professor of Greek history and epigraphy at the University of Manchester, who managed the discovery, this is also the earliest evidence of noncitizens taking part in the ephebate in this period—suggesting a greater level of social and cultural integration in the empire than previously thought.

“This is a really interesting inscription”, says Dr. Liddel, “partly because it’s new but also because it gives us new names and a bit of insight into the sort of access or accessibility of this institution which is often associated with elite citizens.”

It is unknown where the list was displayed, but it could have been somewhere public, such as a community space or gymnasium where the young men trained.

Dr. Liddel said: “It was made to create a sense of camaraderie and comradeship among this group of people who had been through a rigorous training program together and felt like they were part of a cohort.”

“It’s the ancient equivalent of a graduate school yearbook,” he reveals, “although this is one which is created by a number of individuals who wanted to feel like they had come together as friends.”

“It’s the ancient equivalent of a graduate school yearbook,” he reveals, “although this is one which is created by a number of individuals who wanted to feel like they had come together as friends.”

Another example of ancient peoples being more familiar and relatable than we would think!

Sources: Greek Reporter, NPR

The Hero of the Two Worlds

At last, we come to the namesake of Lafayette Square, the Marquis de Lafayette. His contributions to the American Revolution prompted widespread praise and admiration across both sides of the Atlantic, earning him a public square in front of the White House, honorary U.S. citizenship (shared by only seven others), and the moniker, “Hero of the Two Worlds”.

Born into a wealthy French family, Lafayette came from a long line of distinguished soldiers and military leaders; he followed in their footsteps and became an officer at age 13. Despite his noble birth, he truly believed in the Enlightenment ideals of liberty, human rights, and civic virtue, and was inspired by the American Revolution—enough to purchase a ship and sail across the Atlantic to volunteer for the cause.

Lafayette’s energy and enthusiasm impressed those around him, as did his well-needed military experience; Benjamin Franklin vouched for him, while George Washington bonded with him almost immediately (and the feeling was mutual). The young Frenchman was made a major general at age 19 and made part of Washington’s staff; he followed the American commander everywhere, enduring the same hardships and many of the famous (and often arduous battles). Lafayette was wounded during the Battle of Brandywine—the second-longest one-day battle, at 11 hours—but managed to rally an organized retreat that saved numerous lives; Washington cited him for bravery and asked Congress to give him command of American troops. He went on to serve with distinction in several battles, even beating numerically superior forces.

Lafayette’s biggest contribution came in the middle of the war, when he sailed home to lobby for more French support; his efforts resulted in decisive aid to the revolution, from thousands of troops to most of our ammunition. He returned to America in 1780 and was given senior positions in the Continental Army. In 1781, he delayed British forces so American and French forces could position themselves for the decisive siege of Yorktown—the battle that ended the war.

Lafayette returned to France and sought to bring the same changes and freedoms he helped usher in America. After forming the National Constituent Assembly—roughly equivalent to the U.S. Continental Congress—he helped to write the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen with the help of Thomas Jefferson. Inspired by the Declaration of Independence, it is one of history’s oldest and still-current civil rights documents, establishing basic principles of democracy. Lafayette even advocated an end to slavery, something that was still beyond the pale to most fellow revolutionaries. He spent the rest of his life trying to chart a middle course between the radicals of both sides of the revolution.

In 1824, President James Monroe invited the now-elderly Lafayette to the United States as the nation’s guest; he visited all 24 states at the time and was met with large crowds and applause everywhere he went. His integrity never wavered, and during France’s July Revolution of 1830, he declined an offer to become the French dictator.

The Hungarian Father of U.S. Cavalry

The first thing to greet me at the Hungarian Embassy in Washington, D.C., is this very dramatic statue of a horseman waving an American flag.

As it turns out, this colonel Michael Kovats was a Hungarian nobleman who is considered one of the “Founding Fathers of U.S. cavalry”—and who gave his life for the cause of American independence.

Like many of the foreigners who fought in the American Revolution, Kovats was a highly experienced soldier motivated by both adventurism and a genuine belief in the universal cause of liberty. As soon as learned of the war, he ventured to meet the U.S. ambassador in France, Benjamin Franklin, and offered him his sword along with a letter written in Latin:

Most Illustrious Sir:

Golden freedom cannot be purchased with yellow gold.

I, who have the honor to present this letter to your Excellency, am also following the call of the Fathers of the Land, as the pioneers of freedom always did. I am a free man and a Hungarian. As to my military status I was trained in the Royal Prussian Army and raised from the lowest rank to the dignity of a Captain of the Hussars, not so much by luck and the mercy of chance than by most diligent self discipline and the virtue of my arms. The dangers and the bloodshed of a great many campaigns taught me how to mold a soldier, and, when made, how to arm him and let him defend the dearest of the lands with his best ability under any conditions and developments of the war.

I now am here of my own free will, having taken all the horrible hardships and bothers of this journey, and I am willing to sacrifice myself wholly and faithfully as it is expected of an honest soldier facing the hazards and great dangers of the war … I beg your Excellency, to grant me a passport and a letter of recommendation to the most benevolent Congress. I am expecting companions who have not yet reached here …

At last, awaiting your gracious answer, I have no wish greater than to leave forthwith, to be where I am needed most, to serve and die in everlasting obedience to Your Excellency and the Congress.

Most faithful unto death,

Bordeaux, January 13th, 1777. Michael Kovats de Fabricy

P.S.: As yet I am unable to write fluently in French or English and had only the choice of writing either in German or Latin; for this I apologize to your Excellency.

Talk about a class act! (And he sure as hell looked the part too).

Kovats’ commitment was a huge win for the colonists: The hussars he trained and commanded were some of the finest light calvary in Europe, if not the world; calvary were the elite units of the day, capable of great mobility, shock tactics, and even psychological warfare.

Along with Polish general Casimir Pulaski—who is likewise considered the father of the U.S. cavalry—Kovats reformed American horsemen along the lines of the elite hussars. The resulting “Pulaski’s Legion” was one of the few calvary units in the Continental Army.

Unfortunately, both the legion and its two founders would be short-lived: Like most wars at the time, diseases decimated the troops as much as actual warfare. Following a long march to the south, where the British were shifting their focus, the legion was weakened by smallpox; it arrived as the decisive British siege of Charleston, South Carolina was underway.

Given the desperation of the situation, the legion engaged the attackers in an effort to lift the worsening siege but were promptly cut down—this was the era when calvary were starting to become obsolete in face of ever-improving firearms. Kovats and Pulaski were killed leading the charge to inspire their men; one British major described the force as “the best calvary the rebels ever had”.

True to his word, the Hungarian nobleman—who did not have a dog in the fight—nonetheless remained faithful to the American cause until the very end, though he is little remembered today. (Pulaski, at the very least, was made an honorary U.S. citizen, one of only eight with such an honor).

Fittingly, the Citadel Military College in Charleston has part of its campus named after him.

The Spanish Noble Who Became an Honorary U.S. Citizen

Only eight people have ever been granted honorary U.S. citizenship, which is reserved only for those of exceptional merit; this statue in Washington, D.C. that I stumbled upon is dedicated to one of those privileged few: Bernardo de Galvez, a Spanish military leader and colonial governor who provided decisive aid to the American Revolution.

A career soldier since age 16, Gálvez was a veteran of several wars across Europe, the Americas, and North Africa. While governor of Spanish Louisiana—a vast territory spanning much of the Midwest—he supported the Patriots and their French allies by facilitating crucial supply lines and interfering with British operations in the Gulf Coast. Gálvez achieved half-a-dozen victories on the battlefield, most notably retaking West Florida from the British. His efforts eliminated the British naval presence in the Gulf and prevented American rebels in the south from being encircled; subsequently, Galvez had a hand in drafting the Treaty of Paris that ended the war and granted American independence.

Gálvez’s actions aided the American war effort and made him a hero to both Spain and the newly independent United States. Congress immediately planned to hang his portrait in the Capitol, albeit only doing so in 2014; that year, he was conferred honorary citizenship for being a “hero of the Revolutionary War who risked his life for the freedom of the United States people and provided supplies, intelligence, and strong military support to the war effort.”

While largely forgotten in the United States, Gálvez remains in high esteem among many Americans, particularly in southern and western states; several places bear his name, including Galveston, Texas and Galvez, Louisiana, and Galvez Day is a holiday in parts of Pensacola (formerly West Florida).

The (French) Hero of Yorktown

A (poor) selfie with my bro, Rochambeau (sorry).

It might seem odd that the capital of the world’s first modern republic would have a prominent statue to a French nobleman facing the White House. But we probably owe the very existence of the United States to Frenchmen like Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau.

In fact, the statue is located on Lafayette Square, named after another French hero of the American Revolution (whom I’ll get to later)!

To understand Rochambeau’s significance, you need only go down the street to the U.S. Capitol. Among the four paintings prominently displayed in the Rotunda is the Surrender of Lord Cornwallis by John Trumbull (known as the “Painter of the Revolution” for his many iconic depictions of the war and period; you’ll recognize many of them if you look him up).

The painting shows the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781, which marks the decisive end of the American Revolution. Flanked on one side of the defeated general are Americans carrying the Stars and Stripes, while the other side depicts French soldiers beneath the banner of France’s monarchy. These troops were commanded by Washington and Rochambeau, respectively, and are portrayed with equal prominence and dignity.

Trumbull’s decision to depict French and U.S. forces as equal combatants reflected widespread acknowledgement that the U.S. owed its independence to the Kingdom of France. (Ironically, the world’s first modern republic owes its existence to one of history’s oldest and most absolute monarchies—more so than that of Great Britain!)

Having cut his teeth in several battles in Europe, Rochambeau was selected to lead the French Expeditionary Forces sent to aid the Americans in the revolution—the only time an allied military force served on U.S. soil for an extended period of time. Almost as many French troops took part in the final battle as Americans, and one of the two military columns that secured victory was entirely French.

Meanwhile, the French Navy had kept British ships from coming to Cornwallis’ aid, prompting him to surrender—and the British to sue for peace.

Little wonder why you see so many French names in D.C. (more on that later).