The Jay Treaty And It’s Lessons

46454542_10161226646240472_1401776745870262272_nOn this day in 1795, the United States and Great Britain signed the Jay Treaty, resolving lingering issues from the American Revolutionary War that almost escalated to another war.

Named after John Jay, who negotiated the treaty, it was drafted by Alexander Hamilton and supported by President George Washington, although Thomas Jefferson and many Americans bitterly opposed it. The Treaty achieved the withdrawal of British forces from parts of the Northwest Territory that were supposed to be relinquished to the U.S. under the 1783 peace treaty that ended the Revolutionary War; the British were retaliating against Americans for reneging on Articles 4 and 6 of that treaty, in which U.S. courts prevented the repayment of debts to British subjects and upheld the confiscation of Loyalist property.

Instead of continuing this unsustainable tit for tat, the parties agreed that disputes over wartime debts, as well as over the exact boundary between the U.S. and British Canada, were to be settled by arbitration (i.e. outside the courts but with legal binding). This was one of the first major uses of arbitration in modern diplomatic history, and set the precedent for other states to resolve disputes. Both countries granted one another “most favored nation” status and facilitate ten years of peaceful relations and commerce—an absolute shock to people on both sides of the Atlantic, whose wounds from the war were literally only a little over a decade old.

Indeed, the treaty was hotly contested by Jefferson and his supporters across every state, who failed to block its approval in the House, which ultimately failed; following one of the first constitutional debates in American history, it was decided that only a two thirds vote from the Senate was required to ratify a treaty. (Amusing to think that even while they were still alive, the Founders debated what the Constitution meant.)

The “Jeffersonians” feared that closer economic or political ties with Great Britain would strengthen promote aristocracy and undercut republicanism; they supported France in the Revolutionary Wars that were raging in Europe, and saw the French as their natural allies, not the monarchical British. Hamilton, Jay, and even Washington were denounced as monarchists who sold out American values; one rallying cry among protesters was “Damn John Jay! Damn everyone that won’t damn John Jay! Damn every one that won’t put lights in his window and sit up all night damning John Jay”. So much for the golden age of civility!

The controversy and subsequent polarization over the Jay Treaty crystallized an already emerging partisan division: despite disliking political parties, and designing the Constitution without them in mind, the Founders and their fellow Americans began to form two camps within the so called the “First Party System.” The pro-Jay Treaty Federalists, typified by Hamilton, favored closer ties with the British, as well as a strong central government; those against the treaty, called “Jeffersonian Republicans”, favored France and a weaker national government. As we now know, these proto-political parties would mark the beginning of an increasingly sophisticated and entrenched division between two major national parties—something largely unforeseen by the Founders.

In any event, the Jay Treaty went into effect in February 1796 and lasted for its entire ten year duration. When Jefferson became president in 1801, he did not initially repudiate the treaty he had so despised; in fact, he even retained the Federalist ambassador in London to settle some outstanding issues. Unfortunately, when 1806 rolled around and the Monroe–Pinkney Treaty was proposed as a replacement to the Jay Treaty, Jefferson rejected it due to its perceived failure to resolve certain pending matters. The subsequent tensions escalated toward the War of 1812—which likely would have started sooner but for the Jay Treaty. Continue reading

The Anniversary of Porajmos

On this day in 1943, Heinrich Himmler—one of the most powerful Nazi leaders, and the main architect of the Holocaust—ordered that people of full or part Romani ancestry (a.k.a. gypsies) were to be put “on the same level as Jews and placed in concentration camps”.

Thus began the systematic extermination of Romani people all over Europe, resulting in 220,000 to 500,000 deaths—a quarter to nearly half the total population—though some figures put the death toll as high as 1.5 million. This event is sometimes known as the “Porajmos”, meaning “the Devouring”.

Himmler’s order was the culmination of the racist Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which classified Gypsies, like Jews, as “enemies of the race-based state”, ripping away their German citizenship accordingly. It also reflected centuries of hatred and antipathy towards the Romani.

Better known as Gypsies—after Egypt, which was believed to be their origin—the Romani or Roma people (to use their proper name) actually arrived in Europe and the Middle East from northern India over a millennium ago; many still retain some Hindu beliefs, customs, and symbolism, and speak a language related to Hindi. (Moreover, tens of millions of Indians maintain a similar nomadic lifestyle.)

Like the Jews, the Romani were regarded as an alien race, inherently strange, untrustworthy, degenerate, and devious. In some of the earliest records, they are described as satanically inspired wizards—hence the trope of the Gypsy curse or fortune teller. Depending on the time and place—or whether people needed a scapegoat—the Romani were either grudgingly tolerated, or chased out and killed. They were often subject to similar discriminatory laws and treatment, including enslavement, forced assimilation, separation from their children, and pogroms. They were banned from immigrating to the U.S., Argentina, and other settler countries. There is even a term for hatred towards them that is equivalent to anti-Semitism: Antiziganism.

Thus, as with the Jews, the Nazis simply tapped into a long-existing prejudice that was widespread and deeply rooted throughout Europe, which is why so many Europeans collaborated in rounding up, imprisoning, and killing them. It is believed part of the impetus for their mass targeting was the heavy resistance they posed to Nazi occupiers, especially as nomadic peoples who were often not well documented in national census data.

Unfortunately, it was their widespread invisibility that partly explains why Romani remain relatively forgotten, despite being one of the Nazi’s biggest targets. Overall records of their population before the Holocaust are sparse or unreliable, and after the war few gave them any mind; West Germany did not recognize them as victims of the Holocaust until 1982. Some scholars also attribute this to Romani culture, which is “traditionally not disposed to keeping alive the terrible memories from their history—nostalgia is a luxury for others”. Others blame the effects of pervasive illiteracy, the lack of social institutions, and rampant discrimination to this day, which has deprived the Romani of “national consciousness” and historical memory.

Pictured are Romani people being round up by German police in 1940; most were likely still detained, and thus later killed, following Himmler’s order.

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Ochi Day

On this day in 1940, Italy invaded Greece after Greek prime minister Ioannis Metaxas rejected Benito Mussolini’s ultimatum demanding that Greece give up its territory. It is commemorated as a public holiday called “Ochi Day”, because the reply was said to have been simply “No”. (Ochi in Greek).

Unsurprisingly, such a terse response by an underdeveloped little country could not stand, and the Italians launched their invasion almost immediately. The rough terrain and unexpectedly fierce resistance by the Greek Army forced the Italians to fall back, with the Greeks launching a counter-offensive that wiped out a key division and ground into a stalemate. The event is regarded as the “first Axis setback of the entire war”, with the Greeks “surprising everyone with the tenacity of their resistance.”

Indeed, the Germans were forced to intervene on behalf of their ally, whom they henceforth regarded as a liability. It took the combined efforts of Italy, Germany, and Bulgaria (a little-remembered Axis satellite) fighting on two fronts to expend Greece’s limited manpower and resources. The country finally fell on June 1941, more than seven months after the first Italian invasion. The conflict spelled the beginning of the end of Italy as a major Axis power; a few more setbacks were to follow, rendering them a mere satellite dependent on Germany. The Greek War also negatively impacted Axis forces in the North African Theater.

Uniquely, Greece would be occupied by three different Axis forces until its liberation in 1944: the Italians, Germans, and Bulgarians. Nevertheless, they would maintain one of the largest and most tenacious resistance forces in the Second World War: one resistance group alone, the National Liberation Front (EAM in Greek) counted 1.8 million members by 1944, out of a total population of 7.5 million.

Pictured are some political cartoons from the time that widely mocked Mussolini and gave some hope that the Axis weren’t so unstoppable after all (a hope that would not be realized, at great cost, for nearly five years).

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My personal favorite is the one that references the Greek legend of the Sword of Damocles, with the “Roman Axe” (or “fasces”, from where the word fascism derives) standing in for the sword that symbolizes inevitable peril for those in power (the lion represents the U.K., which attempted to aid Greece during its conflict).

Alexander Pechersky and the Sobibor Uprising

On this day in 1943, inmates at the Sobibor extermination camp in eastern Poland led a revolt, killing 11 SS officers. The inmates were led by Alexander Pechersky, a Soviet Jew who had been captured exactly two years prior during the Battle of Moscow.

Sobibór_extermination_camp_(05b)Pechersky was an unlikely soldier, the son of a Jewish lawyer who studied music and literature and worked at an amateur theater. But like tens of millions of his countrymen, he was thrust into the Second World War following the Axis invasion and conscripted into the Soviet Army, where he quickly served with distinction, saving a wounded commander during an attack.

As a POW, Pechersky had already miraculously endured a series of close calls, including a painful seven-month battle with typhus; imprisonment in a cellar called the “the Jewish grave”, where for ten days he sat in complete darkness was fed only a few ounces of wheat every other day; and an attempted escape from a POW camp in 1942, where he was recaptured.

Pechersky was transferred to Sobibor a month before the uprising, in a cattle car packed with over 2,000 Jews. Upon arrival, he and just 79 other prisoners were selected for work, while the remainder were immediately led to the gas chamber. Continue reading

The Martyr of Palmyra

Three years ago on August 18th, Syrian archaeologist Khaleed al-Assad—no relation to the Syrian dictator—was publicly beheaded by ISIS for refusing to betray the location of ancient artifacts he had hidden. He was 83 years old.

Al-Assad was the head of antiquities for the ancient city of Palmyra, which was founded in the third millennium B.C.E. During his over forty-year career, he engaged in the excavations and restoration of the site, serving as its primary custodian and protector. He worked with archaeological missions around the world, and helped elevate Palmyra to a UNESCO World Heritage Site. He was so dedicated to his profession that he learned the ancient extinct language of Aramaic, helping to translate texts.

When ISIS took control of the Palmyra region, al-Asaad helped evacuate the museum and hide most of its artifacts, knowing that the fanatics would destroy them for being idolatrous, as they had done to so many others. After resisting torture intended to get him to reveal the hidden items, he was executed, and his decapitated body was strung up first in the town square, then in the ancient site. Among the list of “crimes” posted on his body was serving as “the director of idolatry” in Palmyra, visiting “Heretic Iran”, and attending “infidel” conferences.

Al-Assad willingly paid for this dedication with his life, considering the ancient heritage of humanity—and standing up to thugs and zealots seeks to destroy it—to be worth the cost. He is survived by eleven children; six sons and five daughters, one of whom was named Zenobia after a famous queen of Palmyra.

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Wikimedia Commons

 

The Massacre of Sabra and Shatila

On this day in 1982, a Christian Lebanese militia known as the Phalange carried out a massacre in the Palestinian refugee camp of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut, killing between 460 to 3,500 civilians. The killings went on for three days, under the watch of various forces, including the Israeli and Lebanese armies, which did nothing.

The Palestinians were wrongly blamed for assassinating newly elected Lebanese president Bachir Gemayel, the leader of the Kataeb Party, a Christian party close to the Phalange. (Just about every political party had an affiliated armed wing.) For their part, the Israelis, who were allied with the Phalange other Lebanese militas, were keen clearing out the camp of fighters of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, even though the vast majority of those killed were noncombatants. Continue reading

The Kellogg–Briand Pact

On this day in 1928, the first three of over sixty nations signed the Kellogg–Briand Pact, in which states promised not to use war to resolve “disputes or conflicts of whatever nature or of whatever origin they may be, which may arise among them.”

Named after the U.S. Secretary of State and the French Foreign Minister, who together authored the proposal, it was ratified with overwhelming legislative support by both nations plus Germany; a year later, 62 countries — most of the world’s independent states at the time — signed it.

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Germany signing the Pact. Wikimmedia Commons.

To call the Pact a failure would be an understatement: barely a decade later, the bloodiest and most barbaric conflict in history would erupt, instigated by one of the earliest signatories (and involving most of the rest). Even before then, several bloody conflicts broke out, such as the Japanese invasion of China (1931) and the Italian-Ethiopian War (1935).

Subsequently, the Pact is considered irrelevant at best, and dangerously idealistic and moralistic at worst, yet another example of the failures of globalism. Though it failed to live up to its ambitious aims, the Pact did have some successes.

For starters, it laid the legal foundation for the concept of a “crime against peace“, for which the Nuremberg and Tokyo Tribunals tried and executed the top leaders responsible for starting the Second World War. Its provisions were incorporated into the U.N. Charter and other treaties, and it set in motion the historically radical idea that war is a bad thing that nations should avoid. As it happens interstate warfare has been exceedingly rare since WWII, and is actually the lowest it has been for millennia.

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The Bloodland of Belarus

Belarus, a former Soviet republic of about 10 million, is said to have the highest per capita number of World War II films in the world. Many of them are considered to be some of the finest war movies in history, most notably the 1985 film Come and See, which tells the story of a young teenager who joins the Belarusian resistance and witnesses horrific atrocities.

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The Soviet theatrical poster for Come and See.

Continue reading

Noor Inayat Khan: Pacifist Muslim, British Spy, and WWII Heroine

Back in 2014, PBS aired a docudrama called Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Storywhich centered on one of World War Two’s most fascinating and unlikely war heroes: a Russian-born Indian-American Muslim who was steeped in pacifism yet went on to serve the British war effort in occupied Paris. (There’s a mouthful!)

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A British commemorative stamp, circa 2014. (Courtesy of NPR)

NPR did a feature on the film (which I still have yet to see), including an interview with its executive producer, Alex Kronemer. Continue reading

WWII’s Forgotten Allies

A lot of people forget that the Second World War, by definition, involved a lot more countries than the U.S. and U.K.

Increasingly better-known, but still underappreciated, is the role of the Soviet Union, which took on 90% of Axis forces, dealt the first decisive blow in Stalingrad, and ultimately took the fight to Berlin, ending the war at the cost of 25-27 million citizens — about half of whom were civilians.

China, which is barely acknowledged as a combatant, served a similarly morbid but crucial function: its large population, tenacity, and willingness to be as brutal as the enemy meant that it took up the bulk of Japanese manpower while losing tens of millions of people in the process, including many civilians. Hence why it is one of only five countries with permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council, as acknowledgement of its role as one of the “Big Four” during the war.

Beyond these two juggernauts — whose importance was acknowledged by the Americans at the time — were dozens of other countries and factions who contributed to the Allied cause, often at great sacrifice.  Continue reading