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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On this day in 1957, the Soviet spacecraft Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth, was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome (the first, largest, and most active space port to this day). Thus, began a series of pioneering Soviet firsts—from nonhuman lunar landings to explorations of Venus—that would in turn trigger the Space Race with America culminating in the Moon landings.
Ironically, despite the centralized and authoritarian nature of the Soviet political system, the U.S.S.R. never developed a single coordinating space agency like NASA. Instead it relied on several competing “design bureaus” led by brilliant and ambitious chief engineers vying to produce the best ideas. In other worlds, these Cold War rivals embraced space exploration with the other side’s philosophy: the Americans were more government centered, while the Russians went with something closer to a free market. (Of course, this oversimplifies things since the U.S. relied and still relies on independent contractors.)
Hence Sputnik was the product of six different entities, from the Soviet Academy of Science to the Ministry of Defense and even the Ministry of Shipbuilding. The satellite had been proposed and designed by Sergei Korolev, a visionary rocket scientist who also designed its launcher, the R-7, which was the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile. He is considered the father of modern aeronautics, playing a leading role in launching the first animal and human into space, with plans to land on the Moon before his unexpected death in 1966—three years before the U.S. would achieve that feat (who knows if the Russians would have made it had Korolev lived).
As many of us know, Sputnik’s launch led to the so called “Sputnik crisis”, which triggered panic and even hysteria among Americans, who feared the “free world” was outdone by the communists and that American prestige, leadership, scientific achievement, and even national security were all at stake. (After all, the first ICBM had just been used to launch the satellite and could very well do the same with nukes.)
Surprisingly, neither the Soviet nor American governments put much importance in Sputnik, at least not initially. The Russian response was pretty lowkey, as Sputnik was not intended for propaganda. The official state newspaper devoted only a few paragraphs to it, and the government had kept private its advances in rocketry and space science, which were well ahead of the rest of the world.
The U.S. government response was also surprisingly muted, far more so than the American public. The Eisenhower Administration already knew what was coming due to spy planes and other intelligence. Not only did they try to play it down, but Eisenhower himself was actually pleased that the U.S.S.R., and not the U.S., would be the first to test the waters of this new and uncertain frontier of space law.
But the subsequent shock and concern caught both the Soviet and American governments off guard. The U.S.S.R. soon went all-in with propaganda about Soviet technological expertise, especially as the Western world had long propagandized its superiority over the backward Russians. The U.S. pour money and resources into science and technology, creating not only NASA but DARPA, which is best known for planting the seeds of what would become the Internet. There was a new government-led emphasis on science and technology in American schools, with Congress enacting the 1958 National Defense Education Act, which provided low-interest loans for college tuition to students majoring in math and science.
After the launch of Sputnik, one poll found that one in four Americans thought that Russian sciences and engineering were superior to American; but the following year, this stunningly dropped to one out of ten, as the U.S. began launching its own satellites into space. The U.S.-run GPS system was largely the result of American physicists realizing Sputnik’s potential for allowing objects to be pinpointed from space.
The response to Sputnik was not entirely political, fearful, or worrisome. It was also a source of inspiration for generations of engineers, scientists, and astronauts across the world, even in the rival U.S. Many saw it optimistically as the start of a great new space age. The aeronautic designer Harrison Storms—responsible for the X-15 rocket plane and a head designer for major elements of the Apollo and Saturn V programs—claimed that the launch of Sputnik moved him to think of space as being the next step for America. Astronauts Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and Deke Slayton, one of the “Mercury Seven” who led early U.S. spaceflights, later wrote of how the sight of Sputnik 1 passing overhead inspired them to pursue their record-breaking new careers.
Who could look back and imagine that this simple, humble little satellite would lead us to where we are today? For all the geopolitical rivalry involved, Sputnik helped usher in tremendous hope, progress, and technological achievement.
Nearly two centuries ago, a French traveler to America noted that the U.S. and Russia were destined to become great powers, fueled by their own conflicting but similar sense of manifest destiny and exceptionalism.
In many respects, the two countries are foils of each other, with their visions shaped by very different historical and geographic forces.
The U.S. benefited from inheriting a fairly liberal constitutional monarchy (by European standards) and an entire continent to itself, protected by two big oceans and lacking any rival powers in the entire hemisphere. It made experimenting with democracy far easier.
Russia was hemmed in by nomadic tribes and left open to raids and conquests by its flat steppes. Hence the eventual reliance on strongmen who could provide peace and security (such as the Rus Vikings) and the obsession with expanding as far out as possible to create buffers of security. Hence also a more cynical foreign policy, shaped by a history of foreign invasions.
Here’s what Alexis de Tocqueville had to say in his 1835 treatise, Democracy in America:
There are at the present time two great nations in the world, which started from different points, but seem to tend towards the same end. I allude to the Russians and the Americans. Both of them have grown up unnoticed; and whilst the attention of mankind was directed elsewhere, they have suddenly placed themselves in the front rank among the nations, and the world learned their existence and their greatness at almost the same time.
All other nations seem to have nearly reached their natural limits, and they have only to maintain their power; but these are still in the act of growth. All the others have stopped, or continue to advance with extreme difficulty; these alone are proceeding with ease and celerity along a path to which no limit can be perceived … Their starting-point is different, and their courses are not the same; yet each of them seems marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.
This also goes to show how much geography shapes destiny. It is difficult to imagine we would could have developed a representative political system if we were subject to the constant existential threats that prompted Russia’s embrace of authoritarian security. We already significantly constrain civil liberties over threats much further away or less drastic.
Americans have created this false dichotomy between patriotism and “globalism”, as if caring about international law, global public opinion, and the ideas of other nations is somehow intrinsically “un-American”. This would have been absurd to the Founding Fathers, who by today’s standards would be labeled globalist elites.
None other than James Madison, the father of the constitution, insisted that “no nation was so enlightened that it could ignore the impartial judgments of other nations and still expect to govern itself wisely and effectively”. In Federalist 63, he stressed the importance of respecting the consensus views of other countries and even believed that global public opinion could help keep ourselves in check:
An attention to the judgment of other nations is important to every government for two reasons: The one is, that independently of the merits of any particular plan or measure, it is desirable on various accounts, that it should appear to other nations as the offspring of a wise and honorable policy: The second is, that in doubtful cases, particularly where the national councils may be warped by some strong passion, or momentary interest, the presumed or known opinion of the impartial world, may be the best guide that can be followed.
Madison even adds that America would flourish if it considered the judgments and views of the world:
What has not America lost by her want of character with foreign nations? And how many errors and follies would she not have avoided, if the justice and propriety of her measures had in every instance been previously tried by the light in which they would probably appear to the unbiassed part of mankind?
Madison was far from alone in this view. Most of the founders, including Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, John Jay, and Thomas Jefferson, shared this sentiment, which is reflected in the U.S. Constitution. The Supremacy Clause states that international treaties are the supreme law of the land, even superseding conflicting domestic laws. The little known Offences Clause commits Congress to safeguard the “law of nations”, which we now cause international law. The Supreme Court has consistently upheld America’s commitments to international law; in one of its first cases, Ware v. Hylton, it ruled that the U.S. was bound by the terms of its peace treaty with Britain—even if it meant striking down a patriotic but conflicting state law. Many other cases—Missouri v. Holland, U.S. v. Curtiss-Wright, and The Paquete Habana, among others—followed suit.
Back in Madison’s day, most nations were monarchies in some form. Yet even then Americans saw the merit in garnering their respect or learning from them. Now that we have a more diverse community of nations—including dozens of democracies and allies—we have even more reason to take seriously our commitments to the world and our openness to its ideas.
By my count, there have only been three countries (possibly four) that claimed to be founded on ideas—rather than a particular religion, culture, or ethnicity—and which believed these ideas were objective, universal, and needed to be spread across the world.
The first and most obvious is probably the United States, for reasons most of us know.
Coming shortly afterward was France, which in some ways took things even further—mostly because it was going up against a thousand years of entrenched monarchical traditions, in a continent full of hostile monarchies. For example, to this day, the French constitution forbids the government from collecting data on race, religion, or national origin to preserve the idea that all people are equal in their status as citizens (and that citizenship is not contingent on such things).
Finally, there the Soviet Union, which tried to forge an entirely new nonethnic identity (Soviet) based around an entirely new idea (communism), upon a society that had previous been deeply religious, multiethnic, and largely feudal. Soviet ideologues even devised the idea of the “New Soviet Person”—someone defined by traits and virtues that transcended nationality, language, etc. We all know how well that turned out.
Of course, all three countries did not live up their ideals in practice, with the Soviets failing altogether. “True” Americans were (and to many people remain) narrowly idealized as white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, so that even black Protestants or white Catholics were, in different ways, seen as suspect. Both France and the Soviet Union gave greater privileges to white French and Russian speakers, respectively, etc.
But these are still the only countries that had at least the pretense of being universalist and idealist in their national identity (at least to my mind).
(Switzerland comes close, uniting four different ethnic and linguistic groups, and several religious sects, on the basis of a shared alpine identity and a commitment to constitutional federalism. But it never developed anything close to the manifest destiny of the U.S., the French Republic, and Soviet Russia.)