Somehow, amid all the geopolitical rivalries, tensions, and rising nationalism, nearly three dozen countries—China, India, Japan, South Korea, Switzerland, Russia, the U.S., and all 27 members of the European Union—are joining forces to launch the largest scientific research facility in history.
Known as ITER, the roughly $24 billion megaproject is being built in southern France to demonstrate the scientific and technological feasibility of fusion energy. Current nuclear energy relies on fission, where a heavy chemical element, usually uranium, is split to produce lighter ones, thereby generating energy—but also radioactivity.
Nuclear fusion works the opposite way, combining two light elements to make a heavier one. This process powers stars like our sun and releases vast amounts of energy with very little radioactivity. Since it can work with light and abundant elements like hydrogen, it has the potential to supply humanity with limitless energy for millions of years.
To put it in perspective, through nuclear fusion, a relative handful of hydrogen could produce enough energy to power 2,300 American homes annual (equivalent to about 10,000 tons of coal, the most common fuel in the world and highly polluting). A 2,000 megawatt fusion power plant would supply electricity for two million homes.
Despite 60 year of trying, there has been little progress in making nuclear fusion commercially viable—hopefully until now. By the time ITER is completed in 2025, we may finally come within reachable grasp of this promising energy source. In addition to being the largest research facility, it will also be the largest nuclear fusion experiment and will have the largest system of superconducting magnets.
At the heart of ITER will be Tokamak, a Russian invention that uses a powerful magnetic field to confine a hot plasma to generate fusion. While devised in the 1960s, to this day a Tokamak is the leading candidate for industrial-scale fusion—hence ITER will have one stretching 100 feet and comprised of one million parts.
In announcing the groundbreaking of the project today, France’s President Emmanuel Macron said the effort would unite countries around a common good. “ITER is clearly an act of confidence in the future. The greatest advances in history have always proceeded from daring bets, from journeys fraught with difficulty. At the start it always seems that the obstacles will be greater than the will to create and progress. ITER belongs to this spirit of discovery, of ambition, with the idea that, thanks to science, tomorrow may indeed be better than yesterday.”
Good to see the world still managing to stick together for something this big and consequential. A heartening display of our species’ potential.
On this day in 1940, Japanese diplomat Chiune “Sempo” Sugihara and his Yukio began helping write and issue visas to help Jews flee certain death in the Second World War.
As Japan’s vice consul in Lithuania, Sugihara risked his career and his life to help the hundreds of Jewish refugees that came to his consulate desperately seeking a visa to travel to Japan. Unsurprisingly, the hyper-nationalist Japanese Empire had very strict immigration procedures, requiring applicants to pay large fees and to have a third destination lined up to exit Japan. The dutiful Sugihara contacted the Foreign Ministry three times for instructions, being told each time that he could not issue the visas.
Aware of the mounting danger Jews faced, Sugihara ignored his superiors and issued ten-day visas to Jews. This level of disobedience was highly unusual—and risky—within the stringent culture of the militaristic Japanese government. With the Soviet Union occupying Lithuania—though not yet at war with Japan—he persuaded Soviet officials to allow Jews to travel through the country via the Trans-Siberian Railway, which would take them to the Pacific near Japan.
He reportedly spent 18-20 hours a day handwriting visas, often with Yukio’s help, producing a typical month’s worth of transit documents daily. These were to heads of households, which allowed entire families to leave via a single visa. The exceedingly polite diplomat had the refugees call him “Sempo”, a variation of his name that was easier for them to pronounce.
After a couple of months, Sugihara had to leave his post, as the consulate was to be closed. He was witnessed frantically writing visas while going from his hotel to the train station. As he prepared to depart, he told those around him “Please forgive me, I cannot write anymore. I wish you the best” and bowed deeply. Having run out of paper, he desperately used blank sheets of paper with only a consulate seal and his signature Even as the train was leaving, he flung visas out the window.
There was never any official retaliation to Sugihara’s actions by the Japanese government. In 1984, he was recognized as a Righteous Among Nations for his rescue efforts. In 1985, a year before his death, he was asked why he disobeyed his orders and issued visas until the very end:
“Well. It is the kind of sentiments anyone would have when he actually sees refugees face to face, begging with tears in their eyes. He just cannot help but sympathize with them. Among the refugees were the elderly and women. They were so desperate that they went so far as to kiss my shoes, Yes, I actually witnessed such scenes with my own eyes. Also, I felt at that time, that the Japanese government did not have any uniform opinion in Tokyo. Some Japanese military leaders were just scared because of the pressure from the Nazis; while other officials in the Home Ministry were simply ambivalent.
People in Tokyo were not united. I felt it silly to deal with them. So, I made up my mind not to wait for their reply. I knew that somebody would surely complain about me in the future. But, I myself thought this would be the right thing to do. There is nothing wrong in saving many people’s lives….The spirit of humanity, philanthropy…neighborly friendship…with this spirit, I ventured to do what I did, confronting this most difficult situation—and because of this reason, I went ahead with redoubled courage.”
As the New York Times points out in a wonderful profile of him, Sugihara’s character is par for the course of those “righteous among nations” who went above and beyond to save complete strangers.
Research on those who rescued Jews during the Holocaust shows that many exhibited a streak of independence from an early age. Sugihara was unconventional in a society known for prizing conformity. His father insisted that his son, a top student, become a doctor. But Sugihara wanted to study languages and travel and immerse himself in literature. Forced to sit for the medical exam, he left the entire answer sheet blank. The same willfulness was on display when he entered the diplomatic corps and, as vice minister of the Foreign Affairs Department for Japan in Manchuria in 1934, resigned in protest of the Japanese treatment of the Chinese.
A second characteristic of such heroes and heroines, as the psychologist Philip Zimbardo writes, is “that the very same situations that inflame the hostile imagination in some people, making them villains, can also instill the heroic imagination in other people, prompting them to perform heroic deeds.” While the world around him disregarded the plight of the Jews, Sugihara was unable to ignore their desperation.
Mr. Zimbardo calls the capacity to act differently the “heroic imagination,” a focus on one’s duty to help and protect others. This ability is exceptional, but the people who have it are often understated. Years after the war, Sugihara spoke about his actions as natural: “We had thousands of people hanging around the windows of our residence,” he said in a 1977 interview. “There was no other way.”
As many as 6,000 people were saved by the Sugiharas, and perhaps 100,000 are alive today because of his boundless heroic imagination. The world is all the better and more alive because of it.
Yesterday marked the 67th anniversary of the Korean Armistice Agreement, which officially ended hostilities between North and South Korea and their allies. Up to that point, the three-year conflict had claimed 3-4 million lives, most of them civilians.
Unbeknownst to most Americans, the war was technically fought by the United Nations; the U.N. Security Council authorized the creation of “U.N. Command” that would lead a multinational force to repel the North Korean invasion of the South. To this day, recovered bodies of foreign troops (including from the U.S.) are draped in the U.N. flag. The U.N. Command remains operational, albeit mostly to observe the truce.
Nearly 2 million troops from 21 countries participated in the U.N. operation, with dozens more providing support of some kind. Participants ranged from major powers like the U.S., U.K., and France, to Colombia, Ethiopia, and Turkey. Nevertheless, 90% of foreign combatants were American, and the U.S. doubtless played the leading role, though troops from other countries are known to have performed well and decisively. When one includes financial and material support, two thirds of all U.N. members at the time participated.
South Koreans remain grateful to the nations that came to their aid, as evidenced by yesterday’s U.N. Forces Participation Day, which coincides with the commemoration of the armistice agreement. A Korean honor held the flags of each country that sent combat troops; to this day, they enjoy heightened diplomatic and commercial relations, and their nationals (especially descendants of Korean War veterans) are eligible for a special work and student visa. Korean legislators recently passed the Act on the Dignity and Honor of U.N. Korean War Veterans to further “enhance cooperation and friendly relations” with these nations.
The War Memorial of Korea even revamped its Korean War exhibits to provide a “grander highlight” the role of the U.N. and all 63 countries that assisted the South in some way. A sample uniform of India’s medical corps is displayed with equal prominence to their American and Korean counterparts. Every nation that assisted in some way is given credit.
Having begun in 1950, the Korean War became overshadowed by the Second World War, and just years later by the Vietnam War. There is still no peace treaty between the two sides, as the agreement merely called for a ceasefire “until a final peaceful settlement is achieved”. But as the Wilson Center points out, this “forgotten war” and its uniquely multinational nature has left legacy on the world:
The necessity for reexamining the composition, duration, and the impact of the Korean War UN coalition is more apparent when we consider that it was the first UN peace enforcement operation, the aggressive and muscular counterpart to peacekeeping operations. Its importance lies in its success. As Jiyul Kim stated in his Ashgate chapter, “the perception lingers that the UN coalition was more a political symbol of international solidarity than of a substantive military organization…the UN coalition played a key role in the outcome of crucial battles and campaigns and thus the course of the war…but…the greatest legacy of the UN coalition was its impact in resolving conflicts after the Korean War, for it established the enduring principle that the UN has a key political and military role in resolving conflicts through peace enforcement and peacekeeping operations.
In 2013, Iceland experienced its first and only police involved shooting death. Police responded to reports of shotgun fire in a suburb of Reykjavik. Officers tried to contact the gunman, a 59-year old man, but he was unresponsive and continued shooting. Tear gas was then used to subdue him, but to no effect. Finally, an armed special forces team entered the apartment with shields, still seeking to overpower the gunman. But when two officers were injured by continuing gunfire, they finally returned fire and downed the gunman. He was taken to the hospital, where he died; his motives remain unclear.
The National Police Commissioner called the episode “unprecedented” and expressed deep regret for the death, extending apologies to the perpetrator’s family. An investigation into the incident was launched, the guns involved on all sides were seized, and counseling was offered to the officers involved. The country of 330,000 entered a period of national mourning. While one out of three Icelanders own guns, and many are staunch advocates of that right, shootings, much less with police, are exceptionally rare.
Of course, the immediate counterpoint to the Iceland example—as well as to other countries with few police shootings, like Finland, Germany, or the Netherlands—is that those places are small and more homogeneous, and thus have greater sense of the kinship and relatability that fosters trust.
Yet American cops are as likely—if not more likely—to have fatal encounters in suburban and rural areas that are as small and homogeneous as Iceland, Finland, etc. White Americans are 26 times more likely to die by police gunfire than Germans of all backgrounds, whose country of 88 million is fairly large and diverse. Small, homogeneous states like Montana, West Virginia, and Wyoming—where both perpetrators and victims of deadly force are almost always white—have relatively high rates of police lethality.
There are numerous American cities, counties, and even states with comparable size and demographics to northern Europe that still suffer from more violence and police lethality. The problem clearly runs deeper, and demographics are no excuse.
The United States is one of nearly 200 countries. Americans are less than five percent of the world’s population. Our nation just turned 244 and has been a superpower for only about 80-100 years—a drop in the bucket in humanity’s 250,000-year history. Iran alone is heir to several empires spanning over 2,000 years, including one of the first in history, the Achaemenid. One of them, the Sassanian Empire, was a global superpower for four centuries, rivaled only by the Roman-Byzantine Empire (which it continually fought for 400 years). Egypt was forming into one of the world’s first and most powerful civilizations back when woolly mammoths were still around.
For much of the last 2,000 years, about a third of all humans lived in what is now China, and perhaps another third in what is now India; until just two hundred years ago, they jointly made up half the world’s economy. The bulk of all humans who ever lived—and thus the bulk of human activity, art, invention, ideas, political intrigue—were in two places that are barely a blip to the minds of most Americans. Similarly, there was a time when Islamic civilization was the pinnacle of human progress and power, such that even non-Muslim rivals and combatants conceded its ascendancy.
My overall point is that history is a product of hindsight: Looking back on it—which most people can’t or don’t—makes it easy to forget that we are part of the same continuing processes and narratives. Americans, as in many powerful civilizations before, view ourselves as the center of the world. But that can and will inevitably change, and probably very quickly (at least by historical standards)—just as it did for our dozens of predecessors, many of which were longer lived and more powerful for their time. We would do best to learn not only from history—which is a predictable, if still unheeded lesson—but also from those nations that have a lot more to teach us by virtue of their age and experience.
In between bar exam prep, I just finished an interesting report on China’s leadership strategy that may explain the country’s massive and rapid economic and political rise (aside from sheer ruthlessness and all that).
Under Deng Xiaoping’s rule in the early 1980s, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) began to recruit new members from different social and occupational backgrounds into leadership positions, hoping to adapt to the changing environment by recruiting fresh talent and thereby obtaining new legitimacy. During the past decade, China has in fact been ruled by technocrats—who are mainly engineers-turned-politicians. The three “big bosses” in the so-called third generation leadership—Jiang Zemin, Li Peng, and Zhu Rongji—and three heavyweights in the fourth generation—President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao, and Vice President Zeng Qinghong—are all engineers by training. Among the seven members of the 15th Politburo’s Standing Committee, China’s supreme decision-making body, six were engineers and one was an architect.
This pattern continued throughout the State Council and the ministerial and provincial governments. Even more remarkably, all nine men on the current Politburo’s Standing Committee are engineers by training. The elite transformation that has taken place in China in the post-Mao era is part of a wider and more fundamental political change—a move from revolution to reform in Chinese society. Turning away from the emphasis on class struggle and ideological indoctrination that characterized the previous decades, Deng and his technocratic protégés have stressed fast-paced economic and technological development at home and increased economic integration with the outside world.”
The short version: China has made a deliberate effort to appoint scientists and engineers at all levels of government—especially at the subnational level—and to diversify the experience and expertise of government officials beyond the lawyers (and to a lesser degree businesspeople) that dominate in many other countries.
To be clear, this is not itself indicative of the government’s integrity or efficiency. Corruption and human rights abuses remain rife in China, with the latter especially worsening in recent years under Xi Jinping (who studied chemical engineering). The report notes a growing rift within both the political leadership and broader society between those who went to elite schools and everyone else. (Interesting how universal that issue is.)
While the report does not draw this conclusion outright, I do think it is worth pondering to what degree China’s rise is owed to its relatively high reliance on scientists, engineers, and other non-lawyers. Do they provide a certain degree of pragmatism and problem-solving skills different from the typical legal and business oriented political class? Do they help inform policy through their diverse and unique perspectives (assuming the repressive state system does not dampen them)?
Whatever the case may be, I for one think the U.S. (among other places) can use diversity of profession, background, experience, and the like when it comes to law- and policy-making. It’s especially more imperative in a democracy where politicians should ostensibly be representing their constituents—but in most cases could not be further removed from who they claim to represent experientially, socioeconomically, and even by age. (More on that whole other topic in a future post.)
Last week was the 25th anniversary of one of the worst atrocities in the world, and the first in Europe, since the Second World War. From July 11th through the 22nd, over 8,000 men and boys were rounded up and massacred in and around the town of Srebrenica, in present day Bosnia-Herzegovina. The victims were targeted Serbian paramilitary forces for being Bosniaks, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group that were among the peoples vying for an independent state following the collapse of Yugoslavia.
The crimes in Srebrenica were part of the broader Yugoslav Wars that broke out almost as soon as Yugoslavia began to unravel in the early 1990s. Over the span of a decade, several different conflicts broke out, most characterised by indiscriminate slaughter, the targeting of civilians, war rape, and other crimes against humanity. Many concepts and principles in international law, particularly with respect to criminal and human rights law, were refined or developed in relation to wars; the term “ethnic cleansing” originated as a euphemism among the perpetrators of crimes like Srebrenica.
Having studied genocide and political violence in undergrad, and international criminal and human rights law in law school, Srebrenica is deeply seared into my mind. As my time and willpower are both short in short supply, I’ll focus on the sole bit of justice and redemption for humanity that emerged from this decade-long horror show: the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), established by the United Nations specifically to address crimes like Srebrenica perpetrated during the conflict.
The Yugoslav War had just started when the Tribunal was created, and the massacre at Srebrenica would not occur for another two years. The idea of prosecuting crimes committed, or yet to be committed, in the former Yugoslavia had been proposed by Germany—the last country to be subjected to a war crimes tribunal, at Nuremberg after WWII, up until that point. Remarkably, all fifteen members of the UN Security Council agreed to set up a special court that would try perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity. It is hard to imagine such unanimity today.
Of course, there is something deeply grim about the UN—and even its most powerful members—failing to prevent or stop these horrific crimes, yet setting up a court to address them in the meantime. But as any student of international relations knows, such as the power of state sovereignty, the principle that no country should interfere in the affairs of others accept in the most extreme circumstances (i.e., a world war). Among other reasons, the horrors in the former Yugoslavia were probably just too contained in these small, newly-minted countries for any country to be willing to risk the money and troops (a problem we’re all too familiar with years later, given the continuing bloodletting in Syria).
But, as The Economist and others have pointed out, the ICTY, though too little and too late in its prosecutions, did bring justice to virtually all those who planned, led, aided, or were involved in the atrocities at Srebrenica and elsewhere. It’s difficult to overstate how remarkable it was the such an institution was every established, let alone allowed to do its work, even by the most powerful global interests.
As the Bosnian war ground on and Serb forces besieged Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, foreign powers could not agree how to respond. No one wanted to send troops to separate the parties. But they all approved the prosecution of war criminals, so backed the establishment of the tribunal. At first the court, based in The Hague, had little money. It also had no police of its own to arrest anyone indicted. But over the years its influence increased. It demanded that the Balkan states and others carry out arrests, and also got help from NATO-led peacekeepers in Bosnia. It succeeded in making the handing over of those indicted a political issue, with sanctions slapped on Serbia and Croatia when they dragged their feet.
Some of its achievements were legal and some political. Several of the most evil of the wartime actors were imprisoned. The tribunal gave victims and civilians a voice, and often justice, in a way that would not otherwise have been possible. It created new legal precedents. Sexual violence is now considered a war crime. It established the groundwork for other courts, including those that looked into horrors committed in Rwanda and Sierra Leone, and the International Criminal Court (ICC). Its 2.5m pages of transcripts provide an extraordinary archive. It established that genocide had taken place when some 8,000 Bosniaks (Muslims) were murdered as Srebrenica fell. To weigh against all this there must be the acknowledgment that many believe that justice was not always done. The hopes that many had for the tribunal have at times been disappointed. It did not accelerate the process of reconciliation. Many believe there was interference, from America and elsewhere, in its work. In cases related to Kosovar Albanians, in particular, prosecutors alleged witness-tampering.
According to Eric Gordy, a sociologist at University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies, the court tried to end impunity for war crimes and in this “it was partially successful”. It was founded at a time when there was still some consensus about the need for this. Now, sadly, that is no longer the case. There is no international tribunal indicting anyone for war crimes in Syria. Russia and America are among those countries that have either withdrawn from the jurisdiction of the ICC or never ratified its statute. It remains to be seen whether the Yugoslav tribunal will become a relic from a more hopeful time or a trailblazer in a cause that was always bound to suffer setbacks.
For my part—and I say this as a privileged Westerner who is not even remotely impacted by these events—I believe the ICTY was a success. It indicted 161 individuals, from common soldiers all the way to prime ministers. Ninety defendants were convicted and sentenced, including the main perpetrators of the Srebrenica massacre.
On a broader level, the Tribunal developed international law and justice more substantively than any body since Nuremberg. , until very recently, it was the only court judging crimes committed as part of the Yugoslav conflict. Its lengthy and highly detailed proceedings helped gather and establish extensive facts about the horrors committed. Thousands of victims gained justice and a voice, including a myriad of eye witnesses, survivors, and the loved ones of victims. Several concepts in international criminal and human rights law were fleshed out or adjudicated for the first time. Many of the Tribunal’s decisions and findings would go on to influence national and international courts worldwide, including the tribunal established in the aftermath of the Rwandan Genocide.
Justice delayed is still justice served, for whatever that is worth. The Tribunal has not been without its criticism and shortcomings. It does not make up for the overall indifference and cynicism of the international community, which has hardly improved. And it certainly does not restore the hundreds of thousands of lives destroyed or traumatized in the former Yugoslavia, with survivors still shattered and wounded. But for much of human history, the very concept of a war crime—let alone prosecuting one—was alien. Indiscriminate looting, rape, and slaughter were acceptable against enemies or conquered peoples, broadly construed. The arc of progress, of human morality and fairness, is long, slow, and rarely linear. So many people have suffered and died along the way, and I shudder to think how many more will until crimes like Srebrenica are no more.
Among the grim arsenal of tools used by authoritarians is “disappearing” someone, in which they are secretly abducted or imprisoned by a government or its allies—say, by having unmarked men dragging them into an unmarked vehicle—followed by a refusal to acknowledge the person’s fate and whereabouts. The intent is to place the victim outside the protection of the law and to sow terror, fear, and anxiety among the populace as to the fate of their loved ones or fellow citizens.
One of the first references to forced disappearance is in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, drafted during the French Revolution to protect people from common tools of oppression employed by the monarchy. The French called for any government actions against citizens to be public, as doing something secret disguises bad intentions and is clearly intended to strike fear into citizens.
However, term’s origins and most infamous use are from Argentina’s “Dirty War” (1976-1983), in which the U.S.-backed military junta used both government forces and allied right-wing death squads to hunt down or “disappear” anyone suspected of being leftist, communist, or otherwise opposed to the government. (The Dirty War was part of the larger Operation Condor, an American-led campaign that supplied training and intelligence to right-wing military dictatorships throughout South America to suppress dissidents.)
Up to 30,000 people disappeared over several years, from suspected guerrilla fighters to students and journalists. Some were even dragged out of classrooms, workplaces, and buses. Most were kept in clandestine detention centers, where they were questioned, tortured, and sometimes killed. Argentina’s de facto dictator announced that such people “are neither dead nor alive, they are desaparecidos (missing)”—which is arguably more chilling, as intended.
It was later revealed that many captives met their end in so-called “death flights”, in which they were heavily drugged, loaded onto aircraft, and tossed into the Atlantic Ocean so as to leave no trace of their death. Without any dead bodies, the government could easily deny any knowledge of their whereabouts and any accusations that they had been killed.
Unfortunately for the junta, the mothers of the disappeared formed an activist group, Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, that demanded accountability. Not only was their courage and persistence a factor in the regime’s downfall, but they and other Argentines helped led the global movement against forced disappearances, including devising the legal principles and international criminal statutes.
Among the most fascinating but largely forgotten aspects of the American Revolution are the Hessians, German soldiers who fought for the British. Numbering around 30,000, Hessians made up a quarter of all British troops. They took part in virtually every military engagement, from the very first battle (Long Island) to the last (Yorktown). Hessians played a decisive role in most British victories, and it is believed the war would have ended sooner without them.
Ironically, their presence ended up being an unexpected boost to the American war effort. The Patriots believed King George III had crossed a line by involving “foreign mercenaries”; propaganda campaigns painted the Hessians as brutal and rapacious thug that proved the British were cruel and uncaring towards the colonists. The Declaration of Independence, written roughly a year after hostilities broke out, explicitly cited the use of Hessians as one of the driving forces for independence.
Washington’s famed crossing of the Delaware River in December 1776 was aimed at a sneak attack against Hessian forces in Trenton, New Jersey. The subsequent capture of over 1,000 Hessians was decisive: the POWs were paraded through Philadelphia to boost morale and recruitment among the beleaguered Americans, and prove the British were going too far by hiring barbaric foreigners. Previously neutral or loyalist Americans were said to have changed sides or even enlisted. The Patriots also tried to entice Hessians to switch sides in exchange for land; in fact, several thousand of them stayed in the U.S. after the war, joining an already large German community.
Contrary to popular belief, the Hessians were not mercenaries, but auxiliaries; whereas mercenaries hire themselves out as individuals, auxiliaries were sent by their government to serve a foreign power. They basically served whoever their government told them to, and remained part of their national armed forces; they even fought in their own uniforms and under their own flag (as in the American Revolutionary War).
Germany at the time was not a unified country, but a broad label that included hundreds of independent German states; most of them, like Hesse-Karel, were small and poor. Since ancient times, the Germans had a reputation for martial prowess and fierceness. Hesse, which provided most of Britain’s German troops—hence the broad label “Hessian” for all German soldiers in the war—was the most militarized state in Europe. One out of four households had someone in the military, and males had to be registered for service at age seven. From age sixteen, virtually all men underwent weeks of drills every year, serving for life or until they were too old.
As a small, resource-poor country, Hesse’s only source of wealth were its troops, who were known for their skill, iron discipline, and high morale. The Hessian army was also among the few that was strictly meritocratic, and its officers were well educated. Europe’s constant wars meant Hesse, as well as other small German states, made plenty of money renting their soldiers; the British alone paid thirteen years’ worth of tax revenue for Hessian troops, allowing the little country to ease taxes on citizens and build impressive monuments and public works. Hessians sometimes even fought on opposite sides of the same conflict, though Hesse itself was never a combatant—it was just doing business leasing its armed forces.
For their part, Hessian soldiers were paid relatively well, while their families enjoyed tax breaks and other state benefits. Their discipline and sense of duty meant they usually fought well even in wars they otherwise had no stake in; Americans learned this lesson painfully on the battles of Long Island, White Plains, and Fort Washington. In fact, Long Island was not only the first battle of the war, but remained the biggest and most decisive, costing the U.S. control of New York.
Despite all this, Hessians remain largely forgotten in American history. Their sole enduring presence, albeit sometimes is forgotten, is The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, whose iconic Headless Horseman was a Hessian.
Thanks to the popularity of the musical Hamilton, more Americans are aware of one of the greatest heroes of American history, the French noble Marquis de Lafayette. His legacy on both sides of the Atlantic earned him the moniker of “The Hero of Two Worlds“.
When he was only 18, Lafayette professed that his “heart was dedicated” to the American cause. Just two years later, he paid his own way to cross the Atlantic and offer his services to the Patriots—for free. In fact, the Continental Congress was overwhelmed with French volunteers; while many were motivated by the chance to fight against their hated British rivals, there was genuine support for the American Revolution and its ideals. Lafayette stood out in many ways: he learned English within a year of his arrival (unlike most French volunteers), had won over Benjamin Franklin, and bonded well with George Washington, to whom he was a close advisor. He also had military experience, which the ragtag colonials desperately needed. Perhaps just as importantly, he truly believed in what the Americans were fighting for: while France had over a thousand years of resolute monarchism, it was also a hotbed for the sorts of ideas and discussions that were now being played out for the first time in the Thirteen Colonies.
During the Battle of Brandywine against a superior British force, Lafayette was wounded in action but still managed to organize an orderly retreat, for which Washington commended him and recommended he be given command of American troops. He served with distinction in several more battles in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Rhode Island—of which some sites still bear his name—before sailing back home in 1779 to lobby for more French support for the Americans.The following year, Lafayette returned to a hero’s welcome in Boston, having secured thousands of French troops as well as naval forces and supplies. He was given senior positions in the Continental Army and was so popular among Americans that Washington and Hamilton had him write letters to state officials urging them to send troops. Lafayette was a unifying figure and American icon to the fragmented U.S. states: he was foreign, did not live in the U.S., fought across all theaters of the war, and was motivated by ideology rather than money—all of which made him universally trusted by the bickering, often distrusting states.
In 1781, Lafayette played a pivotal role in the decisive Siege of Yorktown, where troops under his command held off British forces until other American and French forces could position themselves to strike. This victory at Yorktown—which involved almost as many French troops as Americans—helped end the war and secure U.S. independence. (Credit is also due to Frenchmen Comte de Rochambeau and Comte de Grasse, who also coordinated with Washington to secure victory.)
After the war, Lafayette remained committed to the cause of liberty for the rest of his life. He played a pivotal role in the French Revolution, and with Jefferson’s input helped draft the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, one of the earliest and most groundbreaking expressions of republicanism and civil rights. His commitment to human rights was also consistent: he was staunchly opposed to slavery, and joined the French Society of the Friends of the Blacks, which advocated the end of the slave trade and equal rights for blacks. He urged the emancipation of slaves and their establishment as tenant farmers in a 1783 letter to Washington, who was a slave owner (and who declined). A year after his correspondence with Washington, Lafayette helped abolish slavery in his homeland.
Lafayette opposed the later excesses of the French Revolution, and the subsequent rise of Napoleon as emperor; after seizing power, Napoleon offered to make him minister to the United States, but Lafayette firmly refused, as he would have nothing to do with an authoritarian regime. In 1802, he was one of the few to vote against making Napoleon ruler for life. When Napoleon again dangled an enticing opportunity—an appointment to the Senate as well as the Legion of Honor—Lafayette not only declined, but added that he would gladly have accepted the honors from a democratic government. When Jefferson offered him an opportunity to govern the newly purchased Louisiana Territory, he turned it down, wishing to focus on restoring French liberty.
In 1824, Lafayette was invited by James Monroe to visit all 24 states of the Union, in part to celebrate America’s upcoming 50th anniversary. He remained deeply popular, receiving widespread praise and love everywhere he went. He took gifts with him, as well as American soil to be placed on his grave. At President Monroe’s request, Congress voted to give him $200,000 in gratitude for his services to the country, along with a large tract of public lands in Florida. He returned to France aboard a ship renamed the USS Brandywine in honor of the battle where he shed his blood for the United States.As France slipped into absolute monarchy starting in 1830, Lafayette, by then in his seventies, remained consistent in speaking out against anyone who opposed liberty. He even broke with his king, following the latter’s violent suppression of a protest. When he died in 1834 aged 76, he was buried under soil from Bunker Hill, which his son Georges Washington sprinkled upon him.
In the U.S. Lafayette received the same memorial honors that had been bestowed on Washington. Both Houses of Congress were draped in black bunting for 30 days, and members wore mourning badges. Congress even urged Americans to follow similar mourning practices. Later that year, former president John Quincy Adams gave a eulogy of Lafayette that lasted three hours, calling him “high on the list of the pure and disinterested benefactors of mankind”.
Writing in 2011, historian Marc Leepson concluded about Lafayette’s life:
The Marquis de Lafayette was far from perfect. He was sometimes vain, naive, immature, and egocentric. But he consistently stuck to his ideals, even when doing so endangered his life and fortune. Those ideals proved to be the founding principles of two of the world’s most enduring nations, the United States and France. That is a legacy that few military leaders, politicians, or statesmen can match.”
We should consider ourselves lucky to have had a French nobleman embody our cause and values better than even many of our Founding Fathers.