The Fascinating History Behind Cinco de Mayo

Contrary to popular belief, Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s Independence Day—which is celebrated September 16—and is not even an official or major holiday there.

It actually originates in the United States—most likely among Mexicans communities in 1860s California—and is more popular here than anywhere else in the world. Not unlike St. Patrick’s Day—which also took off mostly due to Irish immigrants in America—Cinco de Mayo has become both an opportunity to drink and party, and a testament to the widespread appeal of Mexican cuisine, music, art, and culture generally.

In fact, there are now major celebrations in places as distinct as Australia, Canada, France, the United Kingdom, Japan, Nigeria, and South Africa. As a reflection of the holiday’s U.S. roots, many foreign celebrations often invoke American or Mexican American culture specifically.

Nevertheless, Cinco de Mayo does have a major connection to Mexico itself, as the anniversary of the country’s shocking defeat of invading French forces in the Battle of Puebla in 1862.

Mexico had just emerged from a three-year civil war known as the Reform War, which was triggered in part by the passage of one of the world’s most progressive constitutions; it had enshrined freedoms of speech, conscience, the press, and assembly, and even the right to bear arms. It also reaffirmed the abolition of slavery—which Mexico was one of the first countries to ban, back in 1824—and of debtor prison, cruel and unusual punishment, and the death penalty.

Mural depicting the Franco-Mexican War (source unknown)

The pro-constitution faction, known as the “Liberals”, ultimately won against the “Conservatives”, who had opposed the subsequent weakening of the church, army, and landed elite. Led by Beninto Juarez (pictured on the right)—a poor orphan who was Mexico’s first indigenous leader—a battered Mexico had become heavily indebted to foreign nations namely France, Spain, and Great Britain. After declaring a pause on loan payments for two years, the European powers sent naval forces to pressure reimbursement; while Juarez was able to reach a settlement with the British and Spanish, France used the opportunity to take over the country and declare a new Mexican Empire under its control.

The entire enterprise was really designed to fulfill the imperial ambitions of French Emperor Napoleon III, the nephew and heir of Napoleon Bonaparte, who envisioned creating a massive “Latin” empire across the Western Hemisphere. The defeated Conservatives, many of whom were monarchists and nobility, collaborated for their own benefit, giving the French another edge. To top it all off, France was one of the preeminent powers of the time—and at one point had the backing of the U.K., Austria, and Spain—so the fact that Mexico was able to mount such a resounding victory became a cause for celebration.

Mexican forces at Pueblo, as elsewhere, were under-equipped and outnumbered, in this case by two to one. But under the leadership of General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín—who resigned as Mexico’s secretary of war just to lead the army—they surprised the world with their superior tactics, inflicting the first major defeat of a French army in fifty years.

As explained in the Washington Post, the Mexicans made the most of their homefield advantage in an era where armies were just figuring out how to use guns en masse?:

A young Mexican general, Ignacio Zaragoza, placed a small, tough force at Puebla and scoured the countryside for volunteers to bolster the defense. A long trench was added to the city’s existing fortifications. Some 4,500 men occupied this position on May 5, when 6,000 French troops under Major General Charles de Lorencez came up the valley.

The overconfident French nobleman ordered an immediate attack. Zaragoza’s riflemen found easy targets as de Lorencez’s soldiers charged the trenches. Those Frenchmen who survived the climb met savage hand-to-hand fighting at the Mexican trenches.

A second charge also failed. As Union and Confederate generals would soon learn on battlefields from Corinth, Miss., to Gettysburg, a ferocious foe in an entrenched position had a tremendous advantage. The bloody field filled with French bodies.

When a third charge also failed, Zaragoza unleashed his cavalry on both flanks of the retreating French. The battle became a rout, and de Lorencez fell back all the way to Veracruz, where he counted his losses (as many as 500 killed and wounded) and waited to be reinforced from back home.

Unfortunately for Mexico, it would be a short-lived, if still impressive, victor.y Zaragoza died of typhoid fever shortly after his victory, and the loss of such a brilliant young general helped pave the way for France to ultimately win the war and install an “emperor” beholden to their interests (and related to Napoleon III). But Mexican liberals and republicans, still led by Juarez, continued the fight against this imposed monarchy through guerilla warfare and resistance. They garnered enough popular support at home and abroad (including from the U.S.) to prevail against French forces and secure their independence in 1867.

Though they lost initial war, Mexicans had won the larger conflict, and remained proud that they were able to hold their own and eventually win their freedom. Hence the battle is still a point of pride for the small town of Pueblo—the only place that probably celebrates it as enthusiastically as Americans—and an ideal basis for a holiday celebrating Mexican culture.

But the U.S. connection does not end there; as some historians argue, the Mexican victory—which the embattled Americans had a vested interest in—may have changed the course of U.S. and world history:

The United States likely benefited more from the battle than did Mexico: the French were so occupied with Mexico that they were not able to significantly fund or assist the Confederacy during our own Civil War, despite the best of intentions. The Union, of course, was funded through a series of government taxes, including the Internal Revenue Act of 1862, the precursor to our modern tax system. Since the French were sympathetic to the Confederacy, had the French easily taken Puebla in 1862, freeing up military and other resources, the entire course of history might have been changed.

A similar take from the same WaPo article at the top:

Had a triumphant French army been raising the flag in Mexico City that summer, it might have made all the difference. The wavering Napoleon might have been emboldened to recognize the Confederacy, pulling the British along with him. Instead, the French army was licking its wounds, mangled by a smaller force of Mexican irregulars, and the emperor was momentarily chastened.  Though France managed to topple the Mexican government the following year, its brief reign there came too late to help the South. The North had regained its momentum, and Lincoln was on his way to saving the Union.

Of course, such “what-ifs” are, by definition, difficult to put much stock in. But these events, like Cinco de Mayo itself, speak to just how intertwined our nations, cultures, communities, and histories are. For all the tumult and conflict—the Mexican-American War and our annexation of half of Mexico; hostilities centered on the Southern Border and immigration; and now “cultural anxiety” about the large Mexican/Hispanic communities generally—the two societies, for better or worse, share a mutual love for one another that transcends these things.

“They didn’t jump the border—it jumped them” Source: The Economist

Mexico is America’s second largest trading partner after Canada—third if you count the EU as a country—while America is Mexico’s top trading partner. Mexico is one of the top destinations for American travelers, as well as retirees; more Americans live there than anywhere outside the country (about 1.5 million). For its part, America has the largest Mexican community outside Mexico, at nearly 50 million; they make up over 11% of all Americans, more than half of all Latins, and a quarter of all foreign-born people. But the vast majority (71%) were born in the U.S., and most live in the American Southwest—which was formerly Mexican territory.

And as trite as it may seem, the mainstream appeal of Cinco de Mayo—and of Mexican culture generally—as well as the fact that most of the world seems to view it as a Mexican-American fusion, is just another example of the indelible connections between our nations.

The Joys of Bottled Borscht in Space

Across different times, cultures, and places, food has always been a unifier. This is especially salient in space, where the tough environment and complete detachment from Earth makes a good meal both comforting and psychologically affirming.

Some endearing examples: pictured below are American astronauts holding what appear to be tubes of Russian vodka given to them by Russian cosmonauts in a gesture of goodwill. This followed the famous “handshake in space” of 1975, when the two political and scientific rivals docked one another’s flagship space vessels in an unlikely display of cooperation and mutual respect (notwithstanding continued rivalry in and out space). The “vodka” was actually Russian borscht, a sour but hearty beet soup.

Supercluster

Flashforward to this photo of a typical dinner night aboard the International Space Station, which by some measures is the largest and most expensive scientific project in history. Not much has changed otherwise.

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Once again, the U.S. and Russia have come together in space exploration, despite their very real political differences, this time joined by Japan, Canada, and over eleven European nations. This makes the creature comforts of space all the more enjoyable, as Smithsonian Magazine notes:

One big perk of international cooperation on the station is the advancement of the space food frontier. Astronauts and cosmonauts regularly gather on both sides of the station to share meals and barter food items. Roscosmos’ contribution to the food rations is the unique assortment of canned delicacies from traditional Russian cuisine. Perlovka (pearl barley porridge) and tushonka (meat stew), dishes familiar to the Russian military veterans since World War II, found new popularity among the residents of the station. Cosmonaut Aleksandr Samokutyaev says his American counterparts were big fans of Russian cottage cheese.

The cosmonauts, meanwhile, have few complaints about sharing meals with a country that flies up real frozen ice cream (not the freeze-dried stuff made for gift shops), as the U.S. did in 2012. Ryazansky has also spoken fondly of the great variety of American pastries. “We should say,” he clarified, “our food is better than the Americans’…. Despite the variety, everything is already spiced. But in ours, if you wish you can make it spicy; if you want, you can make it sour. American rations have great desserts and veggies; however, they lack fish. Our Russian food has great fish dishes.” The cosmonauts’ cuisine benefits when European and Japanese crew arrive. Both agencies brought unique flavors from their culinary heritages—including the one thing the cosmonauts really wanted. “Japanese rations have great fish,” Ryazansky wrote.

Every new cargo ship comes with fresh produce, filling the stale air on the station with the aroma of apples and oranges. Deprived of strong flavors in their packaged food, cosmonauts often craved the most traditional Russian condiment: fresh garlic. Mission control took the request seriously. “They sent us so much that even if you eat one for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, we still had plenty left to oil ourselves all over our bodies for a nice sleep,” Suraev joked on his blog.

There’s something endearing and downright adorable about astronauts perhaps the world’s toughest and gruffest folks, one would think — excitedly exchanging meals with one another like kids trading candy on the playground. It almost makes you forget all the petty and vicious squabbles back on Earth. (As I understand it, scientists, space explorers, and visionaries of these nations tend to operate on a different level than their politicians.)

International Day of Human Space Flight

Gagarin’s Breakfast (2011), a whimsical take on the first man in space by Alexey Akindinov.

I was so busy reeling from the results of my cursed Bar Exam that I forgot April 12 was also a much happier occasion: International Day of Human Space Flight, which commemorates the 1961 flight of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin—the first man to enter outer space and the first to orbit the Earth. He spent 108 minutes aboard the Vostok 1, which was basically one big cannonball with rudimentary, if resourceful, technology.

Gagarin subsequently became the most visible and iconic Russian in the world, a far cry from dour and disreputable figures that were more familiar to outsiders. His natural charm and friendliness—both personally and in every media spotlight—earned him the moniker “the Smiling Soviet“, as it contradicted the popular image of Russians as gruff and sullen.

Gagarin’s childhood home in the tiny town of Klushino.

How does one become the first human in space, especially as the son of peasants in a country as seemingly blighted as Soviet Russia? After personally enduring the grief and hardship of the Second World War—including having his home occupied by a German officer, and serving in the resistance—Gagarin returned to normal life; he loved math and science in school, and was fascinated with planes, building model aircraft and eventually a local flying club. Unsurprisingly, he joined the Soviet Air Force, where his confidence and knack for flying were matched only by his astute technical knowledge; as a youth, he worked in a steel factory and later went to vocational school, learning about industrial work and tractors.

As the Soviet space program went into high gear in the 1960s, Gagarin and other talented pilots were being screened for their fitness and aptitude as “cosmonauts”—something no one had ever been before. (There was only so much we could know about the effect of space travel on a human.)

When it came down to him and 19 other candidates, an Air Force doctor made the following evaluation of him:

Modest; embarrasses when his humor gets a little too racy; high degree of intellectual development evident in Yuri; fantastic memory; distinguishes himself from his colleagues by his sharp and far-ranging sense of attention to his surroundings; a well-developed imagination; quick reactions; persevering, prepares himself painstakingly for his activities and training exercises, handles celestial mechanics and mathematical formulae with ease as well as excels in higher mathematics; does not feel constrained when he has to defend his point of view if he considers himself right; appears that he understands life better than a lot of his friends.

Gagarin was also heavily favored by his peers—even those otherwise competing with him for the glory of first man in space.  When the 20 candidates were asked to anonymously vote for which other candidate they would like to see as the first to fly, all but three chose him

Another favorable factor was, of all things, his short stature (at least partly a product of his rough and impoverished childhood). At just 5’2″, Gagarin could easily fit in the small, rudimentary cockpit of the Vostok 1. (Being the first into space is scary enough—imagine in something that cramped.)

As Valentina Malmy wrote beautifully in the book Star Peace:

He was like a sound amplified by a mountain echo. The traveler is small, but the mountains are great, and suddenly they merge into a single whole. Such was Yuri Gagarin. To accomplish a heroic exploit means to step beyond one’s own sense of self-preservation, to have the courage to dare what today seems unthinkable for the majority. And to be ready to pay for it. For the hero himself, his feat is the limit of all possibilities. If he leaves something “in reserve”, then the most courageous deed thereby moves into the category of work: hard, worthy of all glorification, but — work. An act of heroism is always a breakthrough into the Great Unknown. Even given most accurate preliminary calculations, man enters into that enterprise as if blindfold, full of inner tension.

I can’t wrap my head around being the first person to venture into something as unknown and terrifying as space—to be able put your thumb up in front of you and our big planet as small as your fingernail.

Little wonder why Gagarin became such a worldwide celebrity, touring dozens of countries in the years following his fateful flight. The geopolitical implications melted away in the face of this impressive feat, and the man’s genuine charm and affability—this was something all humankind could celebrate.

Of course, this was still the Cold War: As a living symbol of Soviet triumph, Gagarin could not be risked on another spaceflight, given their inherent danger even today, let alone fifty years ago. Ironically, he died unexpectedly just a few years later during a routine training flight, an event subject to much secrecy and rumor (one conspiracy theory is that newly installed Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev ordered his death due to being overshadowed by the gregarious cosmonaut at public events).

For his part, the “Smiling Soviet” seemed above such politics, notwithstanding his (likely symbolic) stint as a member of the Soviet legislature. As to be expected, being the first man in space really changes you and puts things in perspective; you’re literally looking down on everything you, and all your fellow humans, have ever known. I wonder if it was surreal or even lonely being the only person with that sort of view.

Despite being banned from the U.S. by the Kennedy Administration—perhaps because his popularity among average Americans undermined the competitive spirit of the Space Race—Gagarin was honored by the Apollo 11 crew (ironically the same mission that ended the race in America’s favor). Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left a memorial on the surface of the moon commemorating him and fellow cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, the first human to venture into Outer Space, and the first to die there. (Another memorial was left by Apollo 15 in 1971 to commemorate the Americans and Russians who died in space.)

Though untimely and cruelly ironic—an expert pilot dying from a routine flight rather than the first space mission—Gagarin is survived by one hell of a legacy: The almost banal regularity of human spaceflight in the 21st century is a testament to his courageous and spirited embrace of the ultimate unknown.

A Short and Hasty Guide on the Suez Canal Saga

I know I’m quite a bit late to the party (though I definitely indulged in all the glorious memes), but I think any time is a good time to learn about the otherwise overlooked bit of our global infrastructure that suddenly became a global phenomenon.

The Father of Modern Bank Robbery

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Despite his fame, this is the only photo of him (Wikimedia)

On this day in 1930, German-American bank robber Herman “The Baron” Lamm— the so-called “father of modern bank robbery”—committed suicide when he was cornered by over 200 cops and armed citizens in Sidell, Illinois, following a botched heist.

Formerly a soldier in the Prussian Army—considered one of the finest military forces in history—Lamm immigrated to the United States following expulsion from his regiment after getting caught cheating with cards. Lamm applied his stellar military training to his crimes: He believed a heist required all the planning of a military operation. With his meticulous planning system, known as the “Lamm Technique”, he pioneered the concepts of “casing” a bank and strategizing escape routes before conducting the robbery. At the time, bank robberies were almost always improvised and thus largely a matter of luck.

Not so for Lamm. He developed a system involving carefully studying a target bank for many hours before the robbery, developing a detailed floor plan, noting the location of safes, taking meticulous notes and establishing escape routes. Sometimes he had an accomplice pose as a journalist to better understand the inner workings of the bank. Lamm assigned each gang member a specific job, along with a specific zone of the bank they were charged with surveying and a strict timetable to complete their stage of the robbery. He also assigned positions of lookout, getaway driver, lobby man and vault man—all of which are a given today. He also put his men through a series of rehearsals, some of which involved using a full-scale mock-up of the interior of the bank. Lamm stressed the importance of timing during these practice runs and used stopwatches to ensure the proper results were achieved. He only allowed his gang members to stay in a bank for a specific period of time, regardless of how much money they could steal.

As a result of this uniquely methodical approach, Lamm and his gang executed dozens of successful bank robberies between 1918 and 1930. But luck ran out after a robbery in Clinton, Indiana, when his getaway driver got spooked by an armed civilian approaching the vehicle (many towns had formed vigilante or citizen militias in response to the spate of bank robberies in the area). A series of misfortunes—including two different hijacked cars not working well—led to him being cornered in Sidell, which prompted his suicide over getting captured (which would have resulted in a life sentence).

Lamm’s legacy has lived on to this day. Considered one of the best bank robberies to ever live, his techniques were studied and imitated by other bank robbers across the country, including the more famous John Dillinger.

The Seeds of the International Order

Posted @withregram • @ungeneva

Geneva, capital of the world, was crowded to capacity today when representatives of nearly half a hundred nations from every corner of the globe gathered to attend the first meeting of the assembly of the League of Nations.

One hundred years ago this week, the first session of the assembly of the newly established League of Nations was held in the Reformation Hall in Geneva. The meeting brought together representatives of 42 countries representing more than half of the world’s population at the time.

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Archive photo/League of Nations

Though the League of Nations is better known for its abject failure to prevent World War II—which led to its replacement by the United Nations in 1945—it is difficult to understate its bold and audacious vision: For the first time in our bloody and divided history, there was a sense of cooperation and community among our fractured civilizations. The League set in motion the growing global consciousness and interconnectedness we see to this day (however tenuously). It also brought attention to issues that were long overlooked or dismissed by most societies: poverty, slavery, refugees, epidemics, and more. It thus laid the groundwork for organizations that aid tens of millions of people worldwide.

Ironically, despite its failure to stop the bloodiest war in history, the League’s successor, the UN, has been credited with preventing any large interstate conflicts to this day—in part because it created a League-induced forum for countries to duke it out at the table rather than the battlefield (to paraphrase Eisenhower). We got a hell of a ways to go, but we have to start somewhere, and this 100-year experiment with internationalism and pan-humanism pales to thousands of years of constant war and repression.

Thank you for your time!

A World of Knowledge

It is odd that Americans are so reluctant, if not hostile, to looking abroad for ideas about how to do things, such as education, voting methods, healthcare, etc. The principles and ideas that underpinned this nation’s founding did not emerge from nowhere: They were inspired by, or even directly drawn from, Enlightenment thinkers from across Europe; certain elements of British law and government (ironically), such as the Magna Carta and English Bill of Rights; and of course the Greeks and Romans, from whom we borrowed specific methods, institutions, terminology, and even architecture. (The U.S. Senate is explicitly inspired by the original Roman Senate, with senatus being Latin for council of elders.)

Americans make up less than five percent of humanity. The U.S. is one of nearly 200 countries. Its history as a nation, let alone as a superpower, is a relative blink in time; as a point of reference, the Roman-Persian wars lasted over 600 years, nearly three times America’s lifespan. Conversely, many countries are much younger, including most of the world’s democracies, providing fresher or bolder perspectives on certain issues not addressed or contemplated by our more conservative system.

Given all that, it stands to reason that someone, somewhere out there, has done something that we have not thought of or figured out, something worth studying or implementing. It is statistically unlikely that we are the only people or nation to know everything, giving our narrow slice of time, humans, and experience. The fact that so many innovators, inventors, and other contributes this country have come from all over the world proves the U.S. has always tacitly accepted the idea that the rest of the world has something to offer.

In fact, this would be in accordance with the vision of most of the nation’s founders, who were far from nationalistic. Their debates, speeches, and correspondences reveal them to have been fairly worldly folks who were open to foreign ideas and perspectives and sought to integrate the country into the international system. From Jefferson’s cherished copy of the Muslim Koran, to Franklin’s open Francophilia and Madison’s insistence that we respect global public opinion and norms, the supposed dichotomy between patriotism and internationalism is a false one at odds with one’s service to the nation.

It is all the more ironic because one of the few schools of philosophy to originate in the United States was pragmatism, which emerged in the 1870s and postulated, among other things, that people promote ideas based on their practical effect and benefit (i.e., regardless of their national or foreign origin). It should not matter where our solutions to certain problems come from it matters that they are solutions, and thus beneficial to our community, in the first place.

Happy UN Day

Today is UN Day, which commemorates the 75th birthday of the United Nations, a deeply flawed and troubled organization that is nonetheless more indispensable than ever—and has accomplished a lot more than most people think.

It was on this day 75 years ago, just months after the end of humanity’s bloodiest war, that the UN Charter came into force after being ratified by fifty countries. The Charter established the organization along with the framework of the international system. An audacious and idealistic document, it articulated a commitment to uphold the human rights and wellbeing of all citizens, addressing “economic, social, health, and related problems,” and “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”. The organization now counts nearly four times as many members, at 193.

Signing of the United Nations Charter
The signing of a document like no other in human history.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, far from a bleeding-heart globalist, once said that the UN “represents man’s best organized hope to substitute the conference table for the battlefield”.

If nothing else, the organization has served as an outlet for frustrations and rivalries that would otherwise manifest on the battlefield. The constant grandstanding between the U.S. and Russia may be frustrating—and has often led to devastating deadlock during crises—but imagine the alternative course of action without an international platform? Many countries on the verge of open conflict have opted instead to take diplomatic shots at each other at the UN—an often sordid display, to be sure, but obviously better than the alternative.

Of course, we Americans know full well how hard it is to get even our one country to work together—imagine close to 200 countries spanning eight billion people and a multitude of languages, religions, cultures, types of governments, and levels of development. The UN is only as effective as its members allow it to be, and its failures and limitations are a reflection of our own as a species.

Moreover, it is worth considering the context of its emergence: A war that had killed over 60 million people (three percent of all humans at the time), following a millennia of endless conflict where violence was the norm and enslavement, rape, looting, and other things we now call war crimes (courtesy of the UN) were just the way of things. For most of our quarter of a million years of existence, we rarely knew about, much less cared, for anyone outside our immediate tribe or band. Human rights and civil liberties were alien concepts that would not have made sense to anyone. The vast majority of people lived in grinding poverty, oppression, fear, and ignorance.

From the ashes of the worst conflict in history emerges an organization trying to cultivate peace, progress, and unity among our species—not just out of idealism, but also based on the sober realism that some problems are too big for any one nation to handle. Needless to say, it has failed in its lofty aspirations time and again, as most of us know all too well—but that’s to be expected given just how bold of an undertaking it is. And for all the failures, there are plenty of successes we take for granted.

Given that most Americans do not even know how their own government works, it stands to reason that few know the workings and complexities of the international system, either.

Few people know that it was the UN Secretary-General, U Thant of Burma, who played a key role in the Cuban Missile Crisis; JFK admitted that the entire world was in the UN leader’s debt, though Thant is scarcely known today.

Many of us take for granted the modern amenities and benefits, let alone realize their origin in the UN. The ability to mail and ship things globally; to access goods and products from around the world; and to travel anywhere with relative ease are all due to UN organizations, treaties, or conferences that established uniform standards and rules for airlines, companies, and governments. Even seatbelts became widespread through deliberate UN policy.

Few know the work of UNICEF, one of the oldest UN organization, which in 2018 alone helped care for 27 million babies born in places with high infant and maternal mortality; treated four million children in 73 countries for severe acute malnutrition; and provided over 65 million children with vaccines against common killers like diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (half the world’s children get their vaccine through UNICEF). Over the last thirty years, it has saved over 90 million children.

The much maligned WHO helped eradicate smallpox, which once killed millions annually throughout history, and is on the verge of eradicating polio as well. It has helped most people with HIV/AIDS get access to treatment, and is currently working on making insulin more available, too. With respect to the recent pandemic, it also used its diplomacy to get China to finally open itself to an international team of scientists—which included two Americans. It recently helped stem the second largest Ebola outbreak in Congo, to little fanfare.

A 1987 conference convened by the UN Environment Programme helped lead to an international treaty that has successfully repaired the ozone layer.

The World Food Programme, along with the Food and Agriculture Organization, provides food and assistance to 90 million people in 88 countries, keeping them from the brink of starvation (and getting a well deserved Nobel Peace Prize for it). FAO also eradicated rinderpest, a deadly livestock disease that is only the second infectious disease in history (besides smallpox) to be eradicated. It also maintains the world’s largest and most comprehensive statistical database on food and agriculture.

The UN Population Fund helps an average of two million women a month with their pregnancies, which could be deadly in most countries.

The UN regularly monitors elections in about fifty countries, which not only ensures a free and fair political process but has prevented numerous civil wars and conflicts.

All these achievements do not undo the very real and tragic failings of the organization, from the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia, to the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars. But 75 years is not a long time to undo over 200,000 years of tribalism and disunity. As one UN chief put it, “the United Nations was not created to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell”.

Considering that the average American pays less than two dollars a year to cover the U.S.’ regular dues to the UN, I think it is a bargain worth supporting and improving upon.

The 1956 Hungarian Revolution

On this day in 1956, the Hungarian Revolution began as a peaceful student demonstration that drew thousands while it marched through central Budapest to the parliament building. It soon erupted into a nearly two-week violent uprising against one of the world’s superpowers, laying the seeds of its demise for decades to come.

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A symbol of the revolution: The Hungarian flag with its communist emblem cut out.
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The revolutionary flag being placed on the former pedestal of a dismantled Stalin statue.

The student marchers, who began calling out on the streets using a van with loudspeakers, sent a delegation into a radio building to try to broadcast their demands to the country. They included the withdrawal of Soviet troops, the reinstatement of democracy, and the end of Stalinist oppression.

Hungary, which had aligned with Nazi Germany in WWII, was “liberated” by the Soviets, only to come under their domination as a de facto puppet state. Amid deteriorating freedoms, state oppression, and a faltering economies, students and workers increasingly agitated for change.

What began as a peaceful demonstration erupted as a full blown war when the delegation that attempted to broadcast its demands was detained by state authorities. Protestors arrived demanding their release, only to be fired upon by the State Security Police (AVH in Hungarian). Multiple students died and one was wrapped in a flag and held above the crowd. This was the start of the next phase of the revolution, as the news spread and disorder and violence erupted throughout the capital.

The revolt spread like wildfire; the government collapsed. Thousands of ordinary Hungarians organized into militias, battling the ÁVH and Soviet troops. Some local leaders and ÁVH members were lynched or captured, while former political prisoners were broken out and armed. Radical workers’ councils wrested control from the ruling Soviet-backed Hungarian Working People’s Party and demanded political change.

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Hungarian protestors marching through Budapest.

The revolution was initially leaderless, but a new government was formed by Imre Nagy, a committed communist who was nonetheless opposed to Soviet control and authoritarianism. He formally disbanded the ÁVH, declared the intention to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact, and pledged to re-establish free elections. By the end of October, fighting had almost stopped, and the days of normality began to return. Some workers continued fighting against both Stalinist elements and the more “liberal” communists they distrusted.

Soviet leaders, initially appearing open to negotiating a withdrawal of Soviet forces, changed their mind and moved to crush the revolution just as it was calming. On November 4, a large Soviet force invaded Budapest and other regions of the country. The Hungarian resistance continued for another week, claiming the lives of over 2,500 Hungarians and 700 Soviet troops. Over 200,000 Hungarians fled as refugees. Mass arrests and denunciations continued for months thereafter; 26,000 people were brought to trial, 22,000 were sentenced and imprisoned, 13,000 interned, and 229 executed (including Nagy and other political leaders of the revolution and anti-Soviet government). Resistance continued for another year, mostly led by independent workers’ councils and unions.

But by January 1957, the new Soviet-installed government had suppressed all public opposition and reasserted Soviet dominion. These Soviet actions, while strengthening control over the rest of the Eastern Bloc, alienated many Western Marxists, who up until that point had at least nominally sympathized with the Soviet Union. Communist and Marxist parties split and/or lost membership across the world.

The Hungarians had led the largest and fiercest opposition against the Soviets in Eastern Europe, and it would remain one of the biggest revolts to threaten Soviet control. While it initially failed, it weakened whatever ideological currency the Soviet Union would have had abroad. Ironically, by the 1960s, Hungary became “the happiest barracks” in the Eastern Bloc, with relatively more economic and cultural freedom than most Soviet satellites. It quietly pursued reform to human and civil rights into the 1970s; in fact, its opening of the previously-restricted border with democratic Austria in 1989 is credited with hastening the collapse of the Soviet Union—meaning the Hungarians ultimately won in the end.

Photos: Wikimedia Commons

Survival’s Guilt and the Human Condition

I used to comfort myself with the fact that, compared to the vast majority of humans today and throughout history, I have it pretty damn good. Of the 107 billion people who ever lived, all but a relative handful lived short and miserable lives defined by work, disease, ignorance, fear, and repression. Hell, billions died before they even reached the age of five, and billions more before their prime. Even fewer had the chance to self-actualize, to reach certain goals of personal fulfillment and achievement, or to enjoy basic comforts and conveniences; good food, entertainment, a warm bed, etc.

It always felt kind of wrong to use others’ senseless suffering to bolster my own sense of purpose and gratitude. But it also isn’t working like it used to, because I realize what it all says about human existence. How the heck can I get solace from knowing that the default experience of most thinking and feeling animals is pointless suffering? And that the only reason I am in a better position is a series of fortunate circumstances, starting with when and where I was born?

It is madness-inducing to imagine that most living things suffer and die without any meaning. Humans across time and place have come up with all sorts of religious and spiritual beliefs and practices to explain and cope, but none of it is as verifiable, salient, and provable as the suffering right in front of us. As far as anyone can truly tell, things just come and go in and out of existence, and there is no real point to it. (I explore a lot of these beliefs and ideas, but none of them ever really stick, even if I can’t rule them out.)

I don’t know, maybe this pandemic and the general state of the world have just weakened my mental resilience. As grateful and comfortable and amazing as my life has been, it is harder to focus on the good given the more widespread and established reality of existence being really awful. I know I’m not the first to think about this, and I know most of the reassurances and counterpoints, I just feel kind of stuck. I welcome any and all perspectives on this.

For my part, all I can do is make the most of this wonderful life that has been granted to me, to embrace and indulge in its wonders and beauties, to add to its kindness and compassion, and, above all, to strive to make it as wonderful for everyone else as possible. It’s not much, but it’s something, and despite these hiccups, it has gotten me this far—for which I am eternally grateful.