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.

01G_SEP2015_Meals Group B_LIVE.jpg

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.)

World Happiness Report: Finland Tops the List Again, Most Countries Resilient Thru COVID-19

The ninth annual World Happiness Report, published by the United Nations, has just been released, and it’s the first to follow an unprecedented global calamity that impacted billions and personally affected tens of millions more. So, needless to say, its results should be interesting, if not grim.

But as the Washington Post reported, the world was largely resilient through the pandemic, maintaining a relatively positive outlook for the future:

In a conclusion that even surprised its editors, the 2021 World Happiness Report found that, amid global hardship, self-reported life satisfaction across 95 countries on average remained steady in 2020 from the previous year. The United States saw the same trend — despite societal tumult that yielded a national drop in positive emotions and a rise in negative ones. The country fell one spot, to 19th, in the annual rankings of the report, which was released Saturday.

The report is good news regarding global resilience, experts say.

“I don’t want to leave an impression that all was well, because it’s not,” said one of the report’s editors, Jeffrey Sachs, an economics professor at Columbia University. But while the use of national averages masks individual well-being disparities, Sachs said, the data suggests that “people have not thrown up their hands about their lives.”

You can read more about the methodology here, but basically, it draws its data from the Gallup World Poll, which asks people worldwide to rate their current life satisfaction from zero to ten, with ten representing “the best possible life” and zero the “worst possible life”. Respondents are also asked to report their positive and negative emotions and experiences felt the day before the survey.

Taking together both short-term and long-term self-evaluations of life satisfaction, the WHR found these to be the twenty happiest countries through 2020:

The next twenty runners up are a pretty eclectic mix as well, spanning an ever broader variety of cultures, political systems, and levels of economic development:

Overall, while there was a “significantly higher frequency of negative emotions” in just over a third of the 149 countries measuredagain, do mostly to the pandemic things got better for 22 countries, particularly in Asia; even China moved up ten places to 84th. As one of the report’s author’s noted, there was not an overall decline in well-being as expressed by the respondents.

For the U.S., which has been one of the harder-hit countries during the pandemic, to say nothing of its tumultuous social and political circumstances?

In late March to early April of 2020, at the beginning of pandemic restrictions, 58.2 percent of U.S. respondents rated their current life satisfaction as a 7 or above, Gallup found.

While the number of Americans reporting anxiety and depressive symptoms rose sharply over the course of 2020, that satisfaction number stayed fairly even through December, according to the report, even after further covid-19 restrictions, pandemic surges, protests over racial injustices and politics, and a divisive presidential election.

All the while, Americans’ expected future happiness remained high: In five surveys since the pandemic began, between 65.8 and 69.2 percent of respondents said they expected their life satisfaction to be an 8 or above five years into the future, higher than before the pandemic. That suggests an optimism for the future that Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California at Riverside, says is “really, really adaptive.”

Counterintuitively, it may have been the awful hardship of the past year that actually gave a boost to a lot of folks’ happiness:

It’s not so much that people are doing precisely as well as they were before, experts explain, as that many have adapted to their new situations in ways that might have roughly evened out their well-being. “One of the quotes we use is ‘You aren’t traveling the world, but you’re more likely to have met your neighbors this year,’ ” said John Helliwell, another editor of the report and a professor emeritus of economics at the University of British Columbia.

Stressors such as those we’ve experienced this year can encourage people to craft a different, big-picture concept of happiness. And this, psychologists say, can improve resilience. You’ve already likely taken the opportunity to examine your own big picture this past year, but, if you’ve been having difficulty, and because we’re not done with this pandemic, here are some strategies to help.

Of course, this isn’t to make light of all the horrors that have unfolded across the world this past year alone. Just because something doesn’t kill you, doesn’t mean it makes you stronger, and enough people around you being killed or maimed by war, disease, or the wanton cruelties of life will take its toll.

Still, this would explain why countries like Costa Rica, Bahrain, Guatemala, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia—which together struggle with chronic poverty, inequality, violence, and/or political oppression—can be among the happiest places in the world, at the same level as, if not ahead of, much better-off places.

But that brings us to Finland, which has topped the ranking for the fourth time in a row. In fact, all but one of the top ten (New Zealand) are northern European countries—the same places that perform well in rankings of livability, life expectancy, democratic governance, low corruption, and the like. Clearly, happiness still has a lot to do with material and environmental conditions—money can only buy so much of it, as we all hear, but there is some point where baseline needs like shelter, health, economic security, and the like must be met to better ensure lifelong satisfaction.

Indeed, Finland seems to reflect this delicate balance perfectly. On the one hand, as Afar explains, there’s the cultural component:

Finns embrace a unique spirit of fortitude for thriving in tough times, which for them, often manifests via the weather. This national ideology even has a name: It’s called sisu, and it’s at the core of Finns’ well-being, suggests Katja Pantzar, a Helsinki-based journalist and author of The Finnish Way, which delves into the concept. As Pantzar explains, sisu is focused on persevering when the odds are against you and to view challenges as opportunities. “Instead of waiting for a warm sunny day,” she offers, “many Finns practice daily sisu by heading out in any kind of weather for a brisk walk or cycle, or to spend time in nature.” These simple and sensible activities are at the heart of what keeps Finns happy, Pantzar concludes, adding “I keep returning to this Finnish saying, ‘Happiness does not come from searching for it, but by living.’” And living with sisu, for Pantzar, like many Finns, means bundling up in the snow to bike to work or swimming in the sea year-round— even when it’s covered in ice.

But there is also a concerted effort to put in place economic, political, and social structures that promote individual and community stability, human flourishing, and ultimately life satisfaction, as detailed in Forbes:

Finland has long been praised by a multitude of international bodies for its extensive welfare benefits, low levels of corruption, well-functioning democracy, and its instilled sense of freedom and autonomy. Its progressive taxation and wealth distribution has allowed for a flourishing universal healthcare system, and, staggeringly, more than 80% of Finns trust their police force, which is far more than many other countries can claim. 

Finland has long been punching above its weight within the global economy, too, giving the world global brands such as Nokia, Rovio (developer of Angry Birds), Supercell (creators of Clash of Clans) and elevator manufacturer KONE. 

The country is famous for being one of the first countries to push the flat working model, which exemplifies the Finnish approach to how businesses should be run, as well as how employees should be treated in the workplace. The flat working model is one in which there are few – or sometimes even zero – hierarchal levels between management and staff. Typically there is less supervision of employees and the structure aims to promote increased involvement with organizational decision-making, enabling open communication between all departments and teams within a business. 

The key takeaway from Forbes is that Finland and its high-ranking peers all share a holistic approach to human rights and happiness, one that recognizes that individual freedom comes from having the right resources and environment to unlock your potential and self-actualize:

The happiness of the Finnish people stems not only from its large number of welfare policies, its intrinsic affinity for mutual trust and equality but also from freedom. The mindset that one can only be free and independent if everyone is equally free and independent drives the country’s policy-making and underpins what it means to be Finnish. 

For many, it’s about living in a country where all conceivable basic needs are met, whether that’s healthcare, education, or having a job that makes you feel fulfilled. The overarching theme is that Finland remains ahead of the curve in so many facets of life. For now, Finland is ranking top, but the hope is that the example Finland is setting helps other countries to better care for their people. The fact that the country continues to pioneer social and economic welfare, education and working best-practice is something of which other countries should take note when looking at improving the happiness of their people.

Not bad for a country that just seventy years ago was one of the poorest and most devastated in the world. It goes to show that maybe happiness and well-being need not be so abstract and philosophical: Yes, the deeply poor and traumatized can be happy, while the very rich and privileged can be miserable, but the overall picture from around the world is that culture, mindset, and baseline material wealth all build on each other. With mutual trust comes resilience and security, and with security and resilience comes more mutual trust (i.e., you know your fellow citizens and institutions will look out for you); it’s a virtuous cycle that can persist even though the worst circumstances.

But those are just my own rushed thoughts — what do you think?

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.

An American Parliament

As the U.S. once again finds itself between two widely unpopular choices, it is worth reflecting on this 2016 hypothetical from the Economist, a British newspaper: parties centered on narrower but more representative ideas.

Image may contain: 4 people, text that says 'WHAT IF THE UNITED STATES HAD A PARLIAMENT? PREDICTED PARLIAMENT* TOTAL SEATS 435 113 49 124 LEFT CENTRE-LEFT "Social "Liberal Democratic Party" Party" BERNIE SANDERS HILLARY CLINTON 26% of vote 28% 37 112 CENTRE-RIGHT RIGHT POPULIST "Conservative "Christian "People's Party" Coalition" Party" JOHN KASICH TED CRUZ DONALD 8% 11% TRUMP 26% Sources: YouGov; CPS; The Economist Pic credits: Getty Images; Reuters *based on April 22-26th 2016 polling; seats allocated Economist The proportionally by census region (North, Midwest, South, West)'

America’s presidential system, along with its winner-take-all elections and Electoral College, tends to lead to gridlock and polarization. These mechanisms and institutions were devised before political parties were a thing—or at least as rigid as they are now—and thus never seriously took them into account. Hence, we are stuck with two big parties that are far from representative of the complex spectrum of policies and ideologies.

Rather than the proportional representation you see above, members of Congress are elected in single-member districts according to the “first-past-the-post” (FPTP) principle, meaning that the candidate with the plurality of votes—i.e. not even the majority—wins the congressional seat. The losing party or parties, and by extension their voters, get no representation at all. This tends to produce a small number of major parties, in what’s known in political science as Duverger’s Law.

With the Electoral College, there is a similar dynamic at play: a presidential candidate needs no more than half the vote plus one to win the entire state and its electors. Some states are considering making it proportional, but only Maine and Nebraska have already done so.

This is why you see so many seemingly contradictory interests lumped into one or the other party. In other systems, you may have a party centered on labor rights, another on the environment, yet another for “conventional” left-wing or right-wing platforms, etc. The fragmentation might be messy, but it also forces parties to either appeal to a larger group of voters (so they can have a majority) or form coalitions with other parties to shore up their legislative votes (which gives a voice to smaller parties and their supporters).

Note that this is a huge oversimplification, as literally whole books have been written about all the reasons we are stuck with a two-party system most do not like. And of course, a parliament would not fix all our political problems, which go as deep as our culture and society.

But I personally think we may be better off with a parliamentary-style multiparty system—uncoincidentally the most common in the world, especially among established democracies—than what we have now.

What are your thoughts?

The Little Satellite that Triggered the Space Age

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.

60 Years Since Sputnik | Space | Air & Space Magazine

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.)

Sergei Korolev - Wikipedia

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.

Fated for Conflict?

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.

Patriotism v. Globalism?

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.

The Nations Founded on Ideas (Purportedly)

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.)