The Eternal Treaty

The Egyptian–Hittite peace treaty, also known as the Eternal Treaty or the Silver Treaty, is the oldest known peace treaty signed between two sovereign nations, dating back to the 13th century B.C.E. (Left photo: Hittite version; Right photo: Egyptian version.)

The treaty followed over 200 years of fighting between the two empires, which culminated in the Battle of Kadesh, a massive engagement that involved anywhere from 40,000 to 70,000 men. (It is also the most well-documented ancient battle.) Both sides sustained heavy casualties with no decisive strategic gain, and the conflict grinded on for another fifteen years without avail. Continue reading

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America’s Largest Mass Lynching

On this day in 1871, the largest mass lynching in U.S. history took place when around 500 white rioters entered Los Angeles’ Chinatown to attack, rob, and murder its residents. Almost every Chinese inhabitant was affected, and 17 to 20 Chinese immigrants (including children) were tortured and then hanged.

While the proximate cause was the accidental killing of a white man caught in the crossfire of two feuding Chinese gangs, racial discrimination against Chinese people was long-standing and visceral, and pogroms of this sort were not unusual. As the LA Weekly observed in its detailed (and grim) article on the massacre: Continue reading

United Nations Day

On this day in 1945, the Charter of the United Nations came into effect, establishing the U.N. as the world’s premier international organization and setting forth, for the first time in history, an aspirational global standard for human rights, international cooperation, and global security — hence the observation of United Nations Day.

The United Nations emerged during the Second World War as the formal name for the Allies that opposed the Axis powers, although the idea of creating a new world organization — to replace the moribund League of Nations that was created after WWI — was conceptualized by the U.S. State Department in 1939.  Continue reading

Towards a Global Postal Union

On this day in 1874, the Treaty of Bern was signed establishing the General Postal Union (now the Universal Postal Union) to create a coherent global mailing system.

Prior to the founding of the UPU, a country would need a separate postal treaty for each country it wanted to exchange mail with; senders were burdened with having to calculate the postage for each country their mail would travel though, and would even need to obtain a given country’s stamps (something that would be difficult enough to do today, let alone in the 19th century). If you wanted to send mail directly to a nation that had no treaty, you would need to find dedicated mail forwarders in a third country that had a treaty with the recipient. In a rapidly globalizing world, this arrangement could not last.

At the urging of the United States, an “International Postal Congress” was held in 1863 to hash out a streamlined global postal system. The Germans, led Heinrich von Stephan, spearheaded the effort and created the UPU framework, which created a standard flat rate to mail a letter anywhere in the world; required government to give equal treatment to foreign and domestic mail; and provided that stamps of one nation are accepted anywhere along the route.

The UPU is still based in Switzerland as a U.N. agency. As one of the oldest international organizations in history, it helped usher in the era of globalization — and all its attending conveniences — that we now take for granted. Such global standards and forums not only saved time and money, but in the case of maritime and aviation law, have arguably saved lives. (Imagine what international travel would be like without a uniform safety or communication framework!)

The Little-Known Russian Soldier Who Saved the World

stanislaw-jewgrafowitsch-petrow-2016Despite helping the world avert a nuclear holocaust over forty years ago, Stanislav Petrov is still little known even in his native Russia, let alone in the United States, which he saved from mistaken nuclear retaliation.

In fact, he died this past May at age 77 in his home near Moscow with little fanfare or media attention; only through the efforts of an intrepid German activist, who sought to contact him this month to wish him a happy birthday, did this fact make it to major media outlets.

USA Today recounts the fateful night that the fate of the world rested on the shoulders of a Soviet lieutenant colonel:

Stanislav Petrov was the duty officer monitoring an early warning system from a bunker outside Moscow on Sept. 26, 1983, when the radar screen suddenly appeared to depict a missile inbound from the United States.

“All my subordinates were confused, so I started shouting orders at them to avoid panic,” Petrov told the Russian news agency RT in 2010. “I knew my decision would have a lot of consequences.”

The alert siren wailed. A message on the bunker’s main screen reported that four more missiles had been launched, he said. Petrov had 15 minutes to determine whether the threat was real and report to his commanders.

“My cozy armchair felt like a red-hot frying pan and my legs went limp,” he told RT. “I felt like I couldn’t even stand up. That’s how nervous I was.”

Even on a good day in U.S.-Soviet relations, such an incident would have been believable. But to top it off, this was a period of increased tensions, as less than a month before, the Russians had shot down a Korean civilian airline that had accidentally drifted into Soviet airspace, killing all 269 passengers, including a U.S. congressman. Both sides had subsequently exchanged warnings and threats, so what Petrov and his troops saw on the radar was perfectly believable.

It would also need to be addressed quickly, as the presumed missiles would strike the country in just twenty minutes. NPR recounts how Petrov somehow managed to keep a cool head and get a handle on the situation:

“There was no rule about how long we were allowed to think before we reported a strike,” Petrov told the BBC. “But we knew that every second of procrastination took away valuable time, that the Soviet Union’s military and political leadership needed to be informed without delay. All I had to do was to reach for the phone; to raise the direct line to our top commanders — but I couldn’t move. I felt like I was sitting on a hot frying pan.”

Petrov sensed something wasn’t adding up.

He had been trained to expect an all-out nuclear assault from the U.S., so it seemed strange that the satellite system was detecting only a few missiles being launched. And the system itself was fairly new. He didn’t completely trust it.

After several nerve-jangling minutes, Petrov didn’t send the computer warning to his superiors. He checked to see if there had been a computer malfunction.

He had guessed correctly.

“Twenty-three minutes later I realized that nothing had happened,” he said in 2013. “If there had been a real strike, then I would already know about it. It was such a relief.”

Imagine being tasked with defending your country and having only a split second to make the call. Strategically, he would have been within his right to alert his superiors so they could retaliate accordingly, as per both Soviet and U.S. protocols. Instead, he relied on his cool reasoning and training to make the right call, despite the obvious risks.

It was later revealed that the false positive was due to Russian satellites mistaking sunlight reflecting off of clouds for nuclear missiles; the simplicity of such an error makes one wonder how more such near-misses haven’t happened — provided they do not remained classified or went unreported.

Indeed, the incident remained under wraps for fifteen years, until a Russian official mentioned the incident well after the fall of the USSR, and a German magazine picked up the story, making Petrov a minor celebrity.

In all the time before the story emerged, Petrov’s heroism was officially neither rewarded nor even acknowledged; in fact, he was formally reprimanded for “failing to provide property paperwork”, which was no doubt due to his superior’s embarrassment of such a potentially catastrophic error.

In 2013, Petrov was awarded the Dresden International Peace Prize, and 2014 saw the release of The Man Who Saved the World, a Danish documentary about the incident. Otherwise, Petrov remained little known until his belatedly-reported death attracted some attention from Western and Russian media — a seemingly surprising fate for a man who saved the world, but perhaps an indication of how much we take nuclear security for granted, given how many other potentially-disastrous incidents, errors, and accidents have occurred or been narrowly averted (and those are just the ones we know about).

While it is sad that a man who saved the world should die largely-forgotten, perhaps it is a fitting death for someone as evidently humble and magnanimous as Petrov was. He once told RT in 2010:

At first when people started telling me that these TV reports had started calling me a hero, I was surprised. I never thought of myself as one. After all, I was literally just doing my job.

Something tells me he was more than happy to have simply saved the world and live into old age, with or without any credit or fanfare. It is a good thing there was someone like Petrov around that night, and hopefully there are more people like him in these delicate and potentially earth-shattering positions.

(As it happens, Stanislav Petrov is not the only Russian soldier to have helped the world avert nuclear disaster during a tense time — look up the story of Vasili Arkhipov, another soft-spoken and humble officer who made the correct call not to launch a nuclear strike that could very well have initiated all-out war.)

Colombian Independence Day

On this day in 1810, Colombia became one of the first countries in the Western Hemisphere to declare independence from a colonial power. Inspired both ideologically and strategically by the earlier American, Haitian, and French revolutions, a series of independence movements and rebellions erupted across the continent, with Colombia securing recognition in 1819 as “Gran Colombia”, a state that encompassed what is today Venezuela, Ecuador, Panama, and parts of Peru, Brazil, and Guyana. (Hence why the flags of Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador, which formed the core of the new country, are similar.)

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Africa’s Art Deco Capital

Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, has just been designated as a World Heritage Site for its unique collection of Art Deco buildings, which UNESCO calls “an exceptional example of early modernist urbanism at the beginning of the 20th century and its application in an African context”. (And for which the city is sometimes called “Africa’s Miami”.)

Asmara’s architecture is a legacy of Italian rule, which stretched from 1889 until the end of the Second World War. Italy’s determination to be a colonial power, like its stronger European rivals, drove it to pioneer new and radical styles far from the constraints of European sensibilities (indeed, many of these structures were heavily criticized at the time). It became known as a paradise for bold Italian architects, and by the 1930s the capital had the nickname of “Little Rome” because half of its residents were Italian.

Unfortunately, Eritrea’s government is among the most repressive and totalitarian in the world, and there is much concern about its capacity to preserve these structures, to say nothing of the treatment of its citizens.

Info and photos courtesy of the New York Times and UNESCO

Why “Mom” Sounds the Same in Most Major Languages

In almost every language on Earth, no matter how distantly related, the word for mother is more or less a variation of “ma” or “mama”; this is one of the few instances of a word being near-universal across distinct cultures.

It is hypothesized that this is because these are some of the earliest sounds that infants make, and thus every culture associated them with the mother. Russian linguist Roman Jakobson proposed that infants make these sounds nasally while nursing.

Read more about this fascinating phenomenon at The Atlantic

If Only We Listened to De Gaulle

In 1934, Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French Forces and the French Resistance during the Second World War, wrote Vers l’Armée de Métier (Toward a Professional Army), which formulated how France should organize its military. It was ahead of its time in advocating for a professional army based on mobile armored divisions, namely mechanized infantry and tanks. Not only did he propose this as a way to keep Germany in check, but he saw it as a means of enforcing international law.

Unfortunately for France and its allies, the book did extremely poorly in its home country: only 700 copies were sold. However, it sold ten times as many copies in neighboring Germany, where even Adolf Hitler himself reportedly studied it. Sure enough, Germany employed a very similar approach to du Galle’s, with its panzer units and mobile infantry sweeping through the country in the invasion of France in 1940.

At the time, de Gaulle, who had served with distinction in the First World War, remained a colonel, due to his bold views antagonizing France’s conservative military leaders. He nonetheless implemented many of his theories and tactics as commander of a tank regiment, and during an offensive against German armor at Montcornet on May 17th, he managed to temporarily turn back enemy forces without the benefit of air support. While this ultimately proved inconsequential in slowing the invasion, it was one of the few victories France enjoyed prior to its rapid capitulation just one month later.

Whereas French collaborators and traitors would blame French society for the fall of the country, de Gaulle – who refused to surrender and extolled his countrymen to continue fighting – took the reverse stance, blaming French military and civilian leaders while believing the French people had the courage and moral stamina to keep resisting. Given the sheer size and strategic value of the French Resistance, as recognized by Allied leaders like Eisenhower, his point was validated. If only his prescient book and ideas had been heeded, or at the very least he be placed in the higher ranking he earned. World War Two may have gone very differently, if at all.

H/T to  Jean Lacouture‘s DeGaulle: The Rebel 1890-1944 (Vol. 1)

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The Mother and Father of Bombs

One has to appreciate, with a degree of gallows humor, how amusing our rivalry with the Russians can be.

The GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast — a.k.a. the “Mother of All Bombs” — was developed in 2003 and remains the most powerful non nuclear bomb in the U.S. military; it has a blast radius of 1,000 feet and a yield of nearly 44 tons of TNT.

Four years later, the Russians developed the Aviation Thermobaric Bomb of Increased Power, which is reportedly four times stronger than the MOAB (though this is disputed by some outside analysts) and of course they decide to name it the “Father of All Bombs”.

Something similar happened during the Cold War, in which the Russians developed and tested what remains the most powerful human-made explosion in history: the RDS-220 hydrogen bomb, code name Ivan and known in the West as the Tsar Bomba.

The three stage bomb had a yield of 50 megatons, which is equal to about 1,570 times the combined energy of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, ten times the combined energy of all the conventional explosives used in World War II, and 10 percent of the combined yield of all nuclear tests to date. And to think that theoretically, it could have had almost double this power, were it not for its builders deciding to put a tamper to limit nuclear fallout.

 

 

The kicker? The bomb was named “Kuzma’s mother” by its builders, which is a Russian idiom equivalent to “We’ll show you!”, and a possible reference to Nikita Khrushchev’s statement of same to the U.S. just one year before. Moreover, since it lacked any strategic application by virtue of its weight and size, some believe the whole point of the test was just to show up the U.S., which had earlier announced without warning that it was going to resume testing.

H/T Atomic Heritage Foundation