Fist Of History

Posts Tagged ‘1920s’

Male Nipple and Bathing Suits

Thursday, February 5th, 2015


So a tidbit that is circulating on the Internet these days holds the following gem:

In the 1930s, men’s nipples were just as provocative, shameful, and taboo as women’s are now, and men were protesting in much the same way. In 1930, four men went topless to Coney Island and were arrested. In 1935, a flash mob of topless men descended upon Atlantic City, 42 of whom were arrested. Men fought and they were heard, changing not only laws but social consciousness. And by 1936, men’s bare chests were accepted as the norm.”  (Sourced from here and reappearing on other stories, such as here.)

Now I have no opposition to the cause as specified but I do have a problem with history being twisted to support any cause, and in doing some solid research with Google Books and online I cannot find one reference to either the “flash mob in 1935” or to the four brave men arrested in 1930 for stomping around Coney Island bare chested.

What I did find though shows that this issue is, like anything, far more complicated than a simple link of “male nipples were bad up to 1930 and then there was mass protest and suddenly male nipples were cool!  Go team woman and freeing nipples!  Our struggle is the same!”


I did find links however to documented sources that indicate males were arrested as early as 1910 for “topless bathing” and that this regulation varied based on municipality and cultural norms of the region.  At least one source commented that in the United States the west coast was very relaxed about men swimming topless on the beach while on the east coast people remained very restrictive on the practice.  Histories of Coney Island show that up through the 1910s and 1920s there was a regular on-going battle between men swimming topless and local authorities arresting and fining them.

The collapse of this prohibition was very gradual, Ocean City, another famous resort, maintained and enforced a law against male topless bathing as late as 1939 and only fully abandoned it officially by 1945.


The other argument of the meme, that Clark Gable was the first to appear naked and manly, nipple all ablaze, on screen in 1934’s It Happened One Night is an argument more easily disproved.  Gable, as seen above in all his sexy power, did indeed appear on screen sans a shirt in 1934, his movie was one of the last films released by Hollywood before the enforcement of the Hayes Code, which meant this was one of the last films seen for a while that would comfortably show off male half-nudity on camera.


This is an image from the film Tarzan the Ape Man which was released in 1932, a full two years before It Happened One Night and I would note for my readers that the male actor above is wearing no top and his man nipples are in full display for the viewing audiences pleasure.  Yes this was an actual scene from the movie, yes it was distributed in the United States widely, and yes it did do well in theaters so quite a few people went to see it.


This image is also from the same 1932 film and that is a bare chested Tarzan counting Jane’s toes so he can learn the basics of counting.  Yes the scene was included deliberately to be sexually provocative and yes, Hollywood fully intended to signal to the audience “His chest is bare, her feet are bare, and she is thinking Naughty Sexual Thoughts About Him.”  At the end of the film Jane chooses to remain with Tarzan and spend time with him in his jungle kingdom and yes, Hollywood wanted you to realize they were totally going to do it together, often.

So please no one arguing that the above bare chested scene “doesn’t count” because it wasn’t displayed in a sexually provocative manner but instead was some sort of “detached wild man” moment.  It wasn’t.

As I said above I don’t have a problem with women being allowed to go bare-chested if they wish, personally I think public decency laws should be written to be gender-neutral.  However the laws in the 1930s (and before) weren’t written to be gender neutral, they were as sexist as modern laws prohibiting women showing off their nipples and allowing men to do so instead.

From what I’ve found the laws prohibiting male topless bathing were written to prohibit it in mixed company, meaning men just hanging out with men could be topless (and in some municipalities even swim naked if precautions were taken.)  Those precautions, and the law in general, were written to prevent women from seeing bare male nipples as it was thought obscene to expose women to bare male chests.  So these decency laws were written from a sexist perspective that women might be shocked or offended seeing bare-chested males, but had no problems with men seeing each other topless.

Which to my eye is even more sexist than the current laws we have, at least in its intention.

Fight the good cause if you wish, and believe me I support you men and women who want gender nipple equality, just please don’t twist history to bolster your argument.

P.S. – If you do find a source showing the famous 1930 four men arrested for nipple exposure in protest, that links to a reputable primary period source or a reputable secondary source citing that primary source, by all means share!

Sources:  Wikipedia on Tarzan the Ape Man and It Happened One Night, entries in Coney Island by John S. Berman, The 1930s by William H. Young & Nancy K. Young, Life Magazine article on the subject in 1938 (which shows it didn’t all end by 1936), Ocean City: America’s Greatest Family Resort by Fud Miller & Fred Miller, Adam’s Naval: A Natural and Cultural History of the Human Form by Michael Sims, Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man… by John F. Kasson, and Brooklyn Streetcars by the Branford Electric Railway Association

1920s Federal Government and Taxation…a quiet revolution

Tuesday, January 6th, 2015


The period from 1920 through 1929 represents an unusual shift in the operations and nature of the federal government, one that can be best considered a “quiet revolution” in federal government in which both the principles behind taxation, and the principles behind expenditure, were quietly changed to reshape the government into a leaner structure which can still be seen in the foundations of the modern federal government currently operating within the United States.  The core of this change took place under President Warren G. Harding in 1921 with the passage of the Budget and Accounting Act – a new legislation that required that President to submit an annual budget to Congress for approval which would encapsulate all the revenues and expenditures of the federal government.  It also created the Office of Budget Management (OMB, it’s modern name) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) – all institutions designed to make the federal government operate more like a modern corporation in its handling of income and expenditures.  The immediate result was increased government efficiency in cost-management and the opportunity for the government to reduce some of its expenditures overall.  By 1922 the federal government had reduced its overall spending by nearly half, from roughly six billion to only three billion in total costs.


Harding also appointed Andrew W. Mellon to the office of Secretary of the Treasury, where he served from 1921 to 1931 under Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover.  Mellon was responsible for drastic modifications to the United States federal tax code, implementing vast reductions in tax rates on the theory that reduced income tax rates would capture more wealth overall for the federal government by encouraging wealthier individuals to bring their fortunes out of hiding from tax rates and into the productive economy.  During the 1920s his policies worked well overall, calling his efforts “scientific taxation” he oversaw Congress gradually reducing top-tier tax rates from 73% in 1921 to 24% by 1929.  During that same period federal tax receipts went up as well, however Mellon had some unusual ideas that shaped his policy of “scientific taxation” that make it stand out from more modern efforts to reduce tax rates.

  • Mellon believed that lower income tax brackets should be reduced as well, the lowest income tax rate was cut from 4% to 0.5% during the same period
  • Mellon oversaw estate tax rates being cut while also quietly ending policies that encouraged investments into tax shelters to hide wealth from taxation
  • Mellon pushed for the tax rate on “unearned income” – income from investments – to be taxed at a higher rate than that earned by direct labor – arguing that the inherent instability in income earned from wages and salaries needed to be sheltered from the hazards of life

The biggest part of Mellon’s revolutionary idea though was the goal of fine-tuning the income tax rate on the highest earners in society to a point where the government would gain maximum efficiency in returns by getting the most wealth into circulation against revenue generated for federal needs and then locking the tax rate down at that level.  He resisted calls during 1929 to further cut the income tax rate or other tax rates, arguing that peek efficiency had been gained and the wealthy needed no further incentives to get their money into circulation.  Mellon believed in squeezing those who could pay – his major goal was to find just the right squeeze to get the maximum revenue possible for the federal government that it needed, no more, no less.


This aspect of the “quiet revolution” came to an end in the whirlwind of the 1930s and the global economic downturn now known as the Great Depression.  The population of the United States swept the Republican party from power in 1930 and 1932, putting the Democratic party into power and ending the era of a tight federal government and diminished federal spending.  The citizens demanded a more active role from the federal government in combating the problems of the Great Depression and this lead to the end of Mellon’s influence and an end to the idea of the federal government operating as a “business” rather than as a government.  But legacies from this carry on – in the modern United States tax policy is still guided by the goal of setting tax rates that will encourage money to stay in the system rather than hide and the federal budget is an annual event which Congress wrangles over even in the 21st century.

A final note to those who might argue that Mellon’s model, and the tight federal spending efforts by Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover are a more “proper” path for the federal government need to know a key detail, although the spending and role of the federal government declined in the 1920s the role of state governments expanded, including spending to pick up more social programs.  So the overall level of expenditure during this period on social infrastructure is a more complex topic than presented here.

Sources:  Wikipedia entries on Warren G. Harding, the Budget and Accountability Act of 1921, Calvin Coolidge, and Andrew W. Mellon


Locarno Treaties and Rehabilitating Post World War I Gemany

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014


Gustav Stresemann (1878-1929) was probably one of the most influential German politicians shaping the new interwar face of Germany, Stresemann was almost solely responsible for transforming post-World War I Germany from an international pariah nation into one that was welcomed back into the “fold of nations” by the mid-1920s.  Stresemann for a brief period served as the Chancellor of Germany in 1923, but his real strength was working as Germany’s foreign minister from 1923 until his death in 1929.  Stresemann focused Germany’s post-war foreign policy on conditional acceptance of the Versailles Treaty of 1919, with an emphasis on lowering Germany’s level of payment on its war reparations to lower levels and normalizing Germany’s relationship with Western Europe in an effort to end the stigma Germany was operating under just after World War I.  This stigma, and second-class status, was best exemplified by the occupation of the German Ruhr by France between 1923 to 1925.  (For a failure by German to pay its war reparations on time, France occupied the Ruhr to forcibly seize payment in goods.)  After the same periods hyperinflation and economic dislocation in Germany Stresemann was focused mainly on getting Germany back to a position where it would be treated like any other European power and could focus on the more critical tasks ahead of it, rebuilding and stabilizing.

Locarno, Gustav Stresemann, Chamberlain, Briand

Negotiated in 1925 and signed in December of that year, the Locarno Treaties were a series of agreements between Germany, France, Belgium, Italy, and Great Britain in which Germany renounced any intention to modify its western border and renounced any claims to territories it formerly held in Western Europe that had been ceded under the Versailles Treaty of 1919.  This was considered a major breakthrough and paved the way for Germany to join the League of Nations in 1926, an organization originally founded in part to provide an international response to future aggression and war – basically although never stated an anti-German expansion international political body.  The Locarno Treaties also reaffirmed that in any border disputes with Czechoslovakia or Poland Germany would turn to an international tribunal to settle the issues rather than war.  France reaffirmed its defensive treaties with Czechoslovakia and Poland and a new era of peace in Europe was hailed, with Germany now being treaty as a partner in ensuring stability in Europe.


The dark side of the Locarno Treaties though was how Stresemann very carefully refused to include any mention of acceptance by Germany of its eastern borders as final – the shared borders with Czechoslovakia and Poland in particular, Stresemann was also careful to emphasize that there would be no “Eastern Locarno” while he was foreign minister.  The other signatories to the Locarno Treaties were, at least on the surface, understanding of Germany’s goal to adjust its eastern borders, as long as the adjustment was undertaken “properly.”  Until his death Stresemann focused his efforts upon maintaining good relations with Western Europe but also in working with the German government in anticipation of a re-alignment of Germany’s eastern borders.  This is particularly useful due to the fact that it shows the policies of Nazi Germany, although more extreme, were an extension of the framework of relations that had been laid by Stresemann, and Hitler’s plans to seize territory east of Germany and modify the terms of the Versailles Treaty in regards to Poland and Czechoslovakia have older ideological roots in German government.  (Probably Hitler’s most unique ambition in his initial foreign policy was his Anschluss with Austria in March 1938.

Many like to think that Hitler’s foreign policy ambitions sprang from his own odd mental process, however evidence indicates Hitler, with his ambitions to the east and his goals for renouncing the Versailles Treaty’s territorial shifts, has a foreign policy that is merely a faster implementation of plans already in place by his predecessors.

Sources:  Wikipedia articles on the Locarno Treaties, Gustav Stresemann, and the Occupation of the Ruhr.  Section from The Weimar Republic by Eberhard Kolb.

The Real Brownshirts

Monday, May 12th, 2014


One of the fun things to bump into online is the widespread use of Nazi (or Totalitarian) imagery to attempt to make a visceral point about an emotional or upsetting current topic – one commonly invoked image when discussing police brutality, police powers, or police activities in communities is the image of the Brown Shirts, otherwise known as the Sturmabteilung or SA.  The SA formed in 1920 as a physical enforcement, or meeting security force, for various Nazi party meetings, public speeches, and other public events.  Their main focus was to use truncheons on anyone who attempted to disrupt the meeting, heckle Hitler or other Nazi speakers, or otherwise disrupt the meeting.  They were an informal security arm for the Nazi party that only got a more formal structure in the late 1920s.  The SA were actually a necessity for the Nazi party during this period as part of the broader “street politics” required of 1920s and early 1930s German politics, mainly running street battles between Nazi groups and Communist groups in which both sides tried to disrupt each others meetings through violence.


This is not to attempt to paint the SA in any light other than that of violent, extra-legal strongmen for a political party steeped in a culture of violence and terror, the SA was a manifestation of this outlook and an attempt to recruit a steady base of supporters for the Nazi party would would be paid a small amount of money, get to stomp around in a brown uniform, and brawl with people who they were aimed at.  The SA was also used by the Nazi leadership as a “general focus” source of terror, being sent to beat up individuals randomly in areas in which it was felt a bit of terror would either intimidate the vote or motivate those who liked to see violence in favor of right wing ideology.  In 1938 the SA was used by the Nazi party to create a series of spontaneous “demonstrations” throughout Germany to smash Jewish synagogues and businesses and arrest Jewish males for holding in either improvised temporary prisoners/torture chambers or the newly forming concentration camps.  Yet the SA also reflects the early legal and financial problems the Nazi party faced in its early years up through the mid-1920s, its members wore brown shirts because the German government at the end of World War I was selling large numbers of brown outfits at deep discount – formally intended as military uniforms for German Colonial troops now the uniforms were simply cheap military surplus the Nazis were able to snap up.  As well at one point the SA was officially described as a “Gymnastic and Sports Division” to avoid being shut down by the Weimar Republic.  Even at a few points the SA would parade in snappy white shirts, black ties, and dress slacks (also black) to avoid restrictions on parading in “military type uniforms.”


The key thing to remember about the SA, besides their being violent brutes, is that they also never really held any sort of legal authority within the German state, either pre-Nazi takeover or post-Nazi takeover.  The Brownshirts/SA were never police officers, never held police power, and never enforced any German laws in an official capacity, they were street gangs in matching uniforms backed by a political party.  Honestly within the United States there really doesn’t exist an equivalent organization and yet the term “Brownshirts” is tossed around to slander any group with a vocal or activist political outlook or to insult law enforcement on several levels of enforcement/organization.  It is similar to misusing the term “Gestapo” which specifically touches on a secret investigative detective force or the term “SS” which refers to a weird parallel military/police organization that existed in Germany (plus also handled Hitler’s personal security.)  None of these are really accurate to the link people often seem to be drawing, which instead is to a perceived “ultra-violent out-of-control” law enforcement entity.  Did such organizations exist and do they exist now?  Certainly, but the Brownshirts were not that organization.


The SA, by the way, fell from power when the Nazi’s got into office in 1933.  The SA was lead by Ernest Rohm, pictured above, and continued to agitate for expanded power within the German state, including Rohm’s vision of absorbing the German military into the SA and making the SA the new defense force for Germany.  For a wide array of reasons this was an unacceptable outcome for Hitler so, in a deal with the German military, in exchange for their loyalty Hitler arranged for a “special operation” to deal with the SA, namely killing their leadership and breaking their influence in Germany.  Known as the “Night of the Long Knives” the breaking of the SA was rolled into a general action against several “enemies” of the new regime.  Oh and Rohm?  Executed after being arrested in his cell.

Source:  Wikipedia on the Sturmabteilung

Nonpartisan League of North Dakota

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014


The Progressive Era in the United States was a period of various social changes, changes that rode upon a wave of voter political action demanding new laws, new restrictions, and a new social contract on both the federal and state levels throughout the nation.  One particular example of this was the Nonpartisan League of North Dakota, an organization that came about due to a former Socialist organizer named A.C. Townley who, working with others, built a movement whose goal was to end the political and economic domination of North Dakota by organized interests in Minnesota.  Townley did his work by traveling throughout North Dakota and asking farmers to sign up in support of a progressive platform that advocated certain major reforms to the nature of North Dakota including:  state ownership of the grain elevators, state ownership and operation of a railroad, and a state run bank to extend credit to farmers in the region.  The overall goal was to change the nature of the relationship of North Dakota’s government to economic development and operation within the state, mainly to break the powerful shipping and storage monopolies on the states main economic element, wheat production.  Townley collected a six dollar membership fee and a pledge from voters to support the goals of the Nonpartisan League and, oddly enough, the League actually swept the elections.

Not as the Nonpartisan League, it made no effort to run an actual party proper, instead Townley and other organizers worked to get Republican candidates nominated who would support the League’s platform.  Their goal was to use the brand-recognition for the Republican party held by most North Dakota farmers and use that loyalty, along with their organization, to ensure Progress Republicans got into office.  In the elections of 1916 the League, through the North Dakota Republican party, swept the state’s House of Representatives, gained many seats in the Senate, and got a farmer elected governor.  By 1918 the next election gave the League full control of the various levers of power in the state to allow it to enact most of its platform between 1916 to 1920.


The above cartoon refers to efforts to reform the states constitution to grant it far more sweeping powers to directly control the engines of economic growth through state, non-profit, ownership.  However the Progressive League’s dreams didn’t actually succeed.  The boom of the 1920s economically reduced support for their efforts with rising grain prices initially, eroding farmers support for more radical solutions.  The League was also opposed by an organized business counter-movement, called the Independent Voters Association.  What really killed the experiment though was outside economic boycotts, specifically one of the central concepts in North Dakota was the creation of a state-owned bank to finance, with low interest loans, economic development.  However this bank needed to raise capital so a bond issue was offered for sale to the citizens of North Dakota and the rest of the United States to build the capital necessary for long term economic development.  North Dakota responded, the rest of the United States did not, investors refused to touch the newly issued bonds considering them “too risky” an investment.

By the 1930s the experiment was dead, however it is an indication of what progressive politics can do when backed by a well organized group.  One legacy of the experiment remains, the Bank of North Dakota, a state-run bank that handles all state finances and also offers very low interest student loans.  It’s operations are very curtailed however, to prevent it competing with commercial banking in the state.



Sources:  Wikipedia entry on the Nonpartisan League and the Bank of North Dakota, general history of the Nonpartisan League, and Occupy Money:  Creating an Economy Where Everybody Wins by Margrit Kennedy

Flying Aircraft Carriers

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014


As a historian there are a few topics for which I have a soft spot and one of those is the airship, specifically the rigid lighter-than-aircraft.  (To summarize briefly the rigid airship has its name because within the top portion is a frame, usually made of an aluminum alloy, that provides support.  Unlike a blimp which, when the gas is removed, deflates, the rigid airship looks the same when full of lifting gas or empty.)  During the 1920s and the 1930s the U.S. Navy experimented with different airships and the possible role they could play in modern warfare.  A particularly interesting role was explored by two U.S. airships, the U.S.S. Akron and the U.S.S. Macon (pictured above) – as flying aircraft carriers.  The original concept was that the airship could serve as a long-range naval scout and spy out enemy fleet movements at a great distance and the fighters it carried with it internally could be launched to protect the airship from attack.  However as the doctrine developed the emphasis switched to the idea that the airship would carry the fighters a vast distance outwards and, when approaching enemy ships, launch the planes to continue scouting while the airship stayed back out of harms way.


Specifically the test plane was the Curtiss F9c Sparrowhawk, as you can see above a rather compact biplane that packed a couple of light machine guns and also carried a docking hook on top.  As part of the test experiments with the plane some versions had the landing gear taken off and replaced with a fuel tank, making it completely dependent upon its airship for carrying it around and ensuring it landed safely.  The docking hook is particularly important to mention, because of the method used to get the plane in and out of the airship.


That is pretty much the entire setup, the airplane would be lowered from the interior of the airship hooked into place on that ring, the engine started, and the plane dropped from the hook so it could zoom off and engage in its mission.  Upon its return however the landing gantry would be lowered again and the pilot would have to carefully maneuver the plane into position and catch the ring with the hook mounted on the top of the plane.  Only when a good “lock” was maintained could the planes engine be switched off and the plane hauled back into the interior of the airship.  This delicate operation was made additionally challenging by the regular problems of flying such as wind.  (Pilots referred to the rig as the “flying trapeze.”)

Overall the program, as odd as it sounds, was fairly successful, both airships took part in test scouting operations and did manage to find the fleets they were sent out to tag, and both airships were able to launch and capture planes.  Unfortunately neither airship lasted long in service, both were lost to accidents due to operator error in extreme conditions.  In both cases the ended up losing their tail fin control services during bad weather and suffered structural failure.  In the case of the USS Akron tragically 73 of her 76 man crew died in the waters off New Jersey when she crashed, the USS Macon when she crashed two years later, however life jackets on the Macon and inflatable rafts prevented another major disaster and it only lost two of its 76 man crew, both due to mishap in the accident.

A fun bonus fact, apparently the USS Akron had on board a special “spy basket” – an airplane fuselage that could be lowered (in theory) from the ship to peek out beneath the clouds while the airship itself hid above the clouds.  Apparently on the test run the “spy basket” ended up wildly oscillating back and forth rather than staying still like a good “spy basket.”  One imagines that would have been terrible for observation but probably would have been one of the most fun thrill rides ever.

Sources:  Wikipedia entries on the Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk, USS Akron, and USS Macon

French Submarine Surcouf

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014


The French submarine Surcouf was commissioned in 1927 and launched in 1929 and it was a marvel of its day, designed as an underwater “corsair” – a ship capable of fighting with surface ships in limited gunnery duels as well as carrying torpedoes aboard and a fully functional seaplane for both reconnaissance and possibly even airstrikes against surface ships.  Why the Surcouf was built though is a fascinating story of the interwar years, a spirit of experimentation, fueled by the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922.

The Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 limited the number, size, and firepower of surface ships that its five signatory nations could possess, however the treaty but no limitations upon submarine design, as they were seen as an emerging technology.  During the treaty negotiations the British did attempt to have limits regarding submarines conduct on the high seas included in the treaty, arguing that submarines could only attack merchant shipping if they first surfaced and declared their intention, ensured the safe escape of the crew or provided accommodations to take the crew prisoner, and ensured the merchant ship was carrying actual military items.  It didn’t get added to the treaty but was accepted as the “proper” means of conducting anti-commerce raiding by submarines in a civilized manner, the British government argued that such an agreement would make submarines as commerce raiders effectively useless, since they would have to surrender some of the key advantages that made them effect weapons:  surprise and stealth.

The French built the Surcouf with the following additional enhancements:  a motor launch to convey landing parties from the ship, it carried aboard it a compliment of marines, and had a cargo hold with fittings to contain up to forty prisoners.  Although the French never clearly articulated the point it seems likely the Surcouf was built in part as a response to the British commerce raiding standards to prove that the a submarine could be built that could meet the standards and still be effective.  Against commercial shipping, had it ever been deployed, it is likely the Surcouf would have been a devastating lone wolf hunter.  Doubly so if you consider that the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 did limit nations from arming merchant vessels beyond minimal “defensive” armaments that the Surcouf would have been able to successfully face.


Sadly the Surcouf never got the chance to try its chops against commercial shipping or military ships, it never saw service during the interwar period and when Germany invaded France in 1940 it was undergoing repairs in Brest, it made it to England to seek shelter during the war.  The British promptly impounded the ship and later turned it over to the Free French under Charles De Gaulle – where it was used as a warship in the French French Navy, specifically as a secret troop transport in early Free French military landings in two tiny French islands off Canada.  It was lost, tragically, in 1942 – the exact reason is unknown but the most likely reason is mishap at sea, specifically accidentally rammed by a freighter traveling in the Pacific.  The Surcouf was one of the largest submarines afloat at the time but was not the only aircraft carrier submarine experiments – the United States, Great Britain, and Japan all toyed with the idea.

The Japanese though took it the furthest, the subject of a future entry that will touch on a special class of Japanese aircraft carrier submarines and a secret plan to attack the Panama Canal at the end of the war….

Sources:  Wikipedia entry on the Surcouf 

Cordon Sanitaire

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014


In 1919 as negotiations were underway for the creation of a new post-war order in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East one of the cornerstone concepts was what was to be done with the territory that Germany had sliced off off Russia through the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, especially with an eye towards three of the stated goals of President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points:

Point #5 – A free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims, based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government whose title is to be determined.

Point #6 – The evacuation of all Russian territory and such a settlement of all questions affecting Russia as will secure the best and freest cooperation of the other nations of the world in obtaining for her an unhampered and unembarrassed opportunity for the independent determination of her own political development and national policy and assure her of a sincere welcome into the society of free nations under institutions of her own choosing; and, more than a welcome, assistance also of every kind that she may need and may herself desire. The treatment accorded Russia by her sister nations in the months to come will be the acid test of their good will, of their comprehension of her needs as distinguished from their own interests, and of their intelligent and unselfish sympathy.

Point #13 – An independent Polish state should be erected which should include the territories inhabited by indisputably Polish populations, which should be assured a free and secure access to the sea, and whose political and economic independence and territorial integrity should be guaranteed by international covenant.

Wilson’s overall goal, as stated in other speeches, was to try to solve the thorny European issue of rising seams of nationalism in Eastern Europe, and the Balkans, and adjust some centuries old changes to the map, such as the destruction of Poland as a sovereign nation and its division between the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the German Empire, and the Russian Empire.  The question was specifically what was going to be “Russian territory” – especially the areas in its former western holdings that were a blend of various ethnic groups now clamoring for the map to be re-organized.


Into this stepped George Clemenceau, Prime Minister of France, with the idea that the redesign of Eastern Europe could also be used as a means to contain the spread of Bolshevism/Communism into Europe by creating a collection of new states, organized to favor non-Communist governments, that would provide a bulwark against Communist expansion in Europe.  He described this policy as a cordon sanitaire – a sanitary cordon or barrier – to keep out the “infection” of Communism.  His encouragement was for these newly formed nations to come together and form defensive alliances and mutual cooperation to ensure their survival as democracies, or at the very least non-Communist dictatorships.  (Clemenceau was a fairly pragmatic politician.)  The idea was fully embraced by Wilson and Lloyd George, Great Britain’s Prime Minister, and these three were the ones in the drivers seat on the matter.


The list of new nations that made up this cordon sanitaire is impressive and many of them are still with us today:  Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lituania, Poland, Czechoslovakia (gone), Austria, Hungary, and Yugoslavia (very gone.)  Romania was expanded in territorial size and influence in the region.  The goal of Clemenceau was to use these nations for two purposes, first as a barrier against the expansion of Communism but also as a new counter-weight to Germany.  Even in a disarmed and defeated state Clemenceau remained concerned about the threat Germany posed to France, since the 1890s France had worked to offset this threat by an alliance with Russia.  The goal was to squash Germany between the two powers, as France was aware alone it could not withstand Germany’s pre-WWI power and Russia, although huge, fighting alone against Germany was uncertain of a regional defeat.  But the two combined was a prime Germany squashing dynamo.  Although World War I semi-undermined this theory France really did not have a huge collection of options to explore to counteract future potential German aggression.

The League of Nations was an unknown factor and not something Clemenceau put weight upon in his calculations, what he wanted were soldiers, guns, economies, and social structures that would ally with France to stomp any re-emergent German aggression.  He, and his successors, through the 1920s and 1930s pursued a series of alliances with these newly formed nations with one goal in mind – build a miniature coalition to stomp on Germany.  How this diplomacy succeeded and failed is a fascinating topic for a future posts, but for now simply revel in how French foreign policy, demands for security, and rising nationalism created a new map in Europe.

Bonus Points:  If you blow up the map above you’ll notice a tiny area of Germany that was sliced off, called East Prussia.  That tiny little area was the source of a whole mess of future problems.

How It Matters Today:

As a rare bonus point I thought I would leave you with an observation about how this policy of creating cordon sanitarie remained with us through the Cold War and even affects policy today.  One can argue that the jockeying for position between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. from the 1950s through the 1970s in the developing/Third World was an effort by the U.S. to build and maintain a cordon sanitarie  and an effort by the U.S.S.R. to smash down that wall being built around it.  Today the U.S. is following an identical policy, one can argue, in regards to its diplomatic efforts in the Middle East and Central Asia regarding the spread of “Militant Islam” – if one agrees that this multifaceted ideological movement can be seen as a single ideology to be “contained.”  From U.S. nation building in Iraq, alliances in the Middle East, to U.S. support to Pakistan and nation-building in Afghanistan, you can see a thread of supporting, and establishing, states to counteract the influence of more militant Islamic movements.

Sources:  Wikipedia entries on Cordon Sanitare and Wilson’s Fourteen Points


Hitler Leaves the League of Nations – 1933 – an alternative view

Friday, July 12th, 2013

Adolf Hitler in 1933 rose to power over Germany with his appointment as Chancellor, one of his first major foreign policy decisions was to withdraw Germany from the, at the time, on-going World Disarmament Conference and also tender Germany’s resignation from the League of Nations.  After this action Hitler began rearming Germany rapidly but secretly and by 1935 he felt comfortable enough to publicly declare Germany’s intention to fully rearm in violation of the terms of the Versailles Treaty of 1919.  The modern examination of these events see in them a sinister plan by Germany to rebuild its army, under Hitler’s guidance, to reach a point in which Germany could unleash a new, far more powerful army, upon Europe and begin his plans for German expansion and conquest.  Which might be partially true however this version of events misses some of the key nuance to the events that lead to Germany rearming in from 1933 onwards, including the not-improper argument by Hitler that Germany needed to rearm since its neighboring nations had not disarmed to the same levels as Germany.

When Hitler took power in 1933 the Germany army, navy, and air force were operating under the limitations set in 1919 by the Versailles Treaty, however the sticking point was the opening phrase in that treaty included to justify disarming Germany, “In order to render possible the initiation of a general limitation of the armaments of all nations, Germany undertakes strictly to observe the military, naval and air clauses which follow.”  You’ll notice that these terms were supposed to be part of a broader plan by the other nations on Earth to reduce their armaments to a point where every nation would be as militarily stripped as Germany.  The first steps in this regard were undertaken in 1922 with the Washington Naval Treaty, which reduced the naval forces of the key powers on the globe to levels deemed low enough naval war was thought impossible in the 1920s.  The next step was to reduce the land forces of the major powers to the same “defensive only” levels that the Washington Naval Treaty had created for sea power.  The only problem was that when it came to land forces none of the major governments really wanted to actually reduce their armies.  Calls to have a World Disarmament Treaty were made throughout the 1920s and it was only when pressure from pacifists in several European nations demanded it did several reluctant world governments call for a World Disarmament Conference to take place in Geneva in 1932.

Attending this conference were all the major powers, including Germany, who had joined the League of Nations in 1926 (a separate story in and of itself) – and although the conference met for many months it failed due to a basic disagreement between the attending major powers.  Great Britain argued its tiny army at the time was only good for defense, confident in its vast navy as a source of defense, a navy not up for any further reductions.  France, on the other hand, argued that its current massive army was at just the absolutely critical size to allow it to defend France from any threats – aka Germany trying to regain an army.  Germany argued its tiny army, as specified in the Versailles Treaty, was the officially approved micro-army the world said was all it needed and it didn’t need to make any further cuts.  Other smaller European nations in turn also argued their armies were just as tiny as they needed to be for defense.

Hitler in 1933 struck upon Germany’s tiny army compared to the other European powers as a reason to leave the World Disarmament Conference in 1933, he argued that since the other powers had not also disarmed to levels similar to those currently held by Germany, Germany had done its part and had no further reason to attend.  Leaving the League of Nations in 1933 hinged on this as well, Hitler argued that the League had taken no steps to end the sharp limitations on Germany imposed by the 1919 Versailles Treaty and, because of that, Germany was not a full or trusted member of the League.  (On a technical point, Hitler in 1933 announced Germany’s intention to leave the League by 1936, giving the legally required three years notice, and until then although Germany did not participate in League meetings or events, it did pay its dues to the organization on time.)  Hitler’s announcing in 1935 that Germany needed to rearm was coached on the argument that, despite it being three years after the World Disarmament Conference had met, Germany was still the most disarmed European power and due to that the limitations on it were unfair, Germany had to rearm to match the power of its neighbors.

Which is part of the reason France and Great Britain didn’t respond to Germany rearming, matters of realpolitik were part of it – the Great Depression had lowered government revenues enough that a major war was an unpleasant prospect, Germany announcing this and popping out a secret bonus sized army meant a war would be bloodier than either power wanted, but it also involved a reaction by members of both nation’s populations agreeing with Hitler’s announcement.  Their nation’s hadn’t disarmed and if other European powers were not willing to disarm, the feeling was Germany was being forced to increase its military might.

Sources:  The Avalon Project Treaty of Versailles database

Island of Yap – Nexsus Point of History

Wednesday, June 19th, 2013

The Island of Yap is a small island located in the center of the Pacific Ocean, mostly famous today for its use of massive stones as a form of currency, in 1922 it represented an unusual nexus point of history and around it circled a vast series of diplomatic maneuvers between the United States, Great Britain, and Japan.  The surface issues was over Japan’s control of the valuable underseas cables that came ashore on Yap Island, cables that the United States relied upon to maintain reliable fast communications between its mainland and the US occupied Philippine Islands.  But beneath this surface issue was a deeper concern, the serious concern with the U.S. State Department about the remote, but real, possibility of the U.S. being drawn into a two front war over Yap Island, with the US in the center of a Japanese-British beat-down sandwich.  The heart of the issue was an old alliance signed in 1902, and renewed annually, between Great Britain and Japan that promised mutual defense in the event of war being declared on either party.  The Japanese had joined World War I due to this treaty and dutifully waged war on Germany, and in 1922 the treaty was coming up once again for renewal.  Japan was eager to renew it and Great Britain was hesitant, it wanted to build on its growing relationship with the U.S. after World War I and the idea that an old treaty might force it to attack the U.S. didn’t sit well with that goal.  In turn the U.S. was not looking forward to the idea that if it wanted a good solid war with Japan over an issue in the Pacific, like Yap Island, that it had to worry about Great Britain attacking the U.S. east coast or other odd scenarios, like an invasion from Canada into the U.S. Northwest.  No what was needed was a new means of breaking the Anglo-Japanese Alliance apart but it had to be done in a manner with finesse.

The problem for Great Britain was the Anglo-Japanese Alliance was still looked upon favorably by the British public and Britain’s leadership felt that breaking an alliance with a partner nation with whom they had just fought a successful war would be a major diplomatic black mark.  Furthermore, Japan was so eager to renew the alliance in 1922 on general principle that Britain’s leaders felt something had to be done to appease Japan or they risked losing a valuable ally and possibly gaining an angry adversary who could threaten their position in Asia.  The end result was the creation of a new alliance, the Four Power Treaty of 1922.  What this treaty did was replace the formal Anglo-Japanese alliance with a treaty that promised mediation, and recognition of the current division of territories in the Pacific, between the United States, Great Britain, and Japan.  The treaty also involved France which was dropped into the proceedings to round out the treaty and put a “neutral” power into the mix.  At the same time the US and Japan hammered out a treaty about Yap Island, Japan kept the island but the US got protected commercial interests on the island.  It was not the treaty Japan wanted but it was one they could settle on, as the Four Power Treaty was also one that Japan didn’t want, but settled on.

You might ask what Japan got in exchange for those two concessions that made it so willing to swallow two less-than-optimal treaties, well first it got huge gains in the Nine Power Treaty over China, a topic too broad for this post but good for one in the future.  More critically though it gained a major concession in the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty, technical naval parity with Great Britain and the United States in the Pacific.  Prior to the Washington Naval Treaty the general theory was that each nation would attempt to build the largest navy it could in an effort to defend its own interests and to be able to project successful offensive power against an opponent.  The Washington Naval Treaty attempted to end the second aspect of naval building by instead creating strict fleet number and tonnage ratios – ratios designed to allow a power to defend its regional or global interests successfully but leave it lacking enough naval force to act offensively, in theory ending aggressive war.  Japan was granted naval parity with the United States and Great Britain in the Pacific, meaning that although it’s fleet was smaller in tonnage and number than the US and British fleets, within its zone in the Pacific it was felt Japan’s fleet was sufficient to ensure no other power could challenge it.  Which, in turn, was a defacto granting to Japan of something it had coveted since the turn of the early 20th century, equality with Europe’s great powers.  (It was an added ego rub that Japan’s fleet was larger than that of France or Italy.)

Sources:  Wikipedia entry on Yap Island, the Washington Naval Treaty, the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, and the Four Power Treaty