The Strangest Things to Shape the Nations of the World

My next-door neighbor is in his nineties, and likes to talk about how he is an “uneducated man” – he left school in the eighth grade to work in a factory. Once, he showed me his globe and quipped, “So who decides where those lines go? It takes an uneducated man to think of these things.”

Actually, where the world’s national borders are set is a result of centuries of history. Most of us just think of national boundaries as being sort of there… of course Bolivia is landlocked. It just makes sense. Only Bolivia wasn’t always landlocked; it only became so when it got its butt kicked by Chile.

But sometimes national boundaries are set by things far, far more mundane than warfare. Things like…


Consequence: The U.S.-Mexican border shifts about 200 miles to the south.

In 1846, the United States declared war on Mexico. Officially, this war was over a boundary dispute regarding the newly-annexed state of Texas, but everyone knew that the real goal was to conquer California. Two years later, and 55% of Mexico suddenly became the southwestern U.S.

The war was incredibly controversial. Abraham Lincoln voiced his opposition to the war. Philosopher Henry David Thoreau refused to pay his taxes during the war, and while in prison he wrote his famous essay Civil Disobedience. When Congressman Joshua Giddings was asked why he voted against a bill to fund the army, he said, “In the murder of Mexicans upon their own soil, or in robbing them of their country, I can take no part either now or here-after. The guilt of these crimes must rest on others. I will not participate in them.”

Five years later, and plans for a transcontinental railroad across the southern states gave America an opportunity for an “I’m sorry” of sorts.

At that time, most of the new railroad business was focusing on the industrializing northern states, and southerners were starting to feel left behind. Plans were drawn up for a railroad connecting the south from the Atlantic to the Pacific, but there was a hiccup in the middle: right around where Arizona is today, the easiest route to lay a railroad track lay in Mexican territory. Southern businessmen and Congressmen lobbied for the White House to purchase that land.

In the 1853 treaty known as the Gadsden Purchase, Uncle Sam paid Mexico the equivalent in today’s money of $244 million for a thin strip laying just south of the Gila River, in what is today southern Arizona. To put that in perspective, the Louisiana Purchase, which added hundreds of thousands of square miles between the Mississippi river and the Rocky Mountains to U.S. territory, was paid for with what would be $219 million in today’s money. Needless to say, the purchase was more about making amends to Mexico after what America had done. Oh, and that railroad? It was eventually built… twenty-four years later.

Information from my high school U.S. History class


Consequence: Iraq is created

The Ottoman Turkish Empire had ruled most of the Middle East for centuries, but it took the wrong side in World War I. After the war, it was up to the victorious Allies to decide how to carve up the spoils. Syria went to France, Libya to Italy, and a huge chunk of the famous Fertile Crescent to the United Kingdom.

The British were quick to create separate territories in Palestine (modern Israel) and Jordan, in order to fulfill their promise to create a “Jewish homeland” in the Holy Land without offending the Arabs who already lived there too terribly. But when it came time to divide up Mesopotamia, well, they kind of didn’t.

The Ottomans had divided Mesopotamia into three provinces: one for the Kurds, one for the Sunnis, and one for the Shiites. The British decided to just lump those three provinces into a new country: Iraq. And by “the British” I mainly mean Winston Churchill, who was put in charge of colonial administration after the war. Yes, that Winston Churchill.

Churchill had never even seen this land, and just arbitrarily decided to draw the boundary kind of wherever. And then probably went to lunch.

Oh, and he also installed a man from what is now Saudi Arabia who had already been installed and then deposed by the French in Syria to be Iraq’s new “king”.

Churchill soon learned the hard way why the Ottomans had kept those three provinces separate: the people there didn’t like each other. At all. He regularly complained to Prime Minister Lloyd George that governing Iraq was simply “impossible”. There were periodic rebellions that the British had to put down with military force. Eventually, Iraq became a stable country… under the brutal dictatorship of you-know-who.

And we know how that turned out.

Information from these articles I found online.

The Price of Sugar

Consequence: Cuba wins independence, Hawaii becomes part of the U.S.

In the late 19th century, advances in mass sugar production meant the American sweet tooth could be satisfied on the cheap by companies like C&H and Dole. Of course, at the time there was no place on U.S. soil that could grow sugarcane (you need a tropical climate for that), but that was okay because the cost of importing sugar was so low.

Then, in the 1890s, Congress raised the tax on imported sugar significantly. This meant lower profits for sugar plantations and higher prices for American cooks and candymakers. What was the sugar industry to do?

C&H’s main plantations were in Cuba, one of the last remnants of the Spanish Empire. Spain was determined to keep that Caribbean island Spanish, but the Cubans had other ideas. For years, they fought a guerrilla war in the jungles for their independence. Newspaper mogul and infamous yellow journalist William Randolph Hearst published false or exaggerated stories about atrocities supposedly committed by the Spanish against the Cubans, eventually drumming up enough support to get America to declare war on Spain. (Of course, the mysterious sinking of the USS Maine in Havana harbor helped.) Cuba was freed, and shortly thereafter Congress exempted Cuban sugar from those high taxes.

Dole’s plantations, meanwhile, were in the Kingdom of Hawaii. Sanford B. Dole joined a secret society called the “Committee of Safety” whose goal was to overthrow Queen Liliuokalani and get Hawaii annexed to the U.S. After all, if Hawaii was part of the U.S., Dole’s sugar would no longer be “imported” and would be exempt from taxation.

In 1893, the Committee staged a coup d’etat and took over the islands, and begged for annexation. But President Grover Cleveland was not interested. The fact he was friends with the former Queen may have played a part in that. So, the Committee formed a “Republic of Hawaii” to govern the islands for the time being. Eventually, William McKinley took over as President, and was more receptive to annexation – especially with war declared on Spain and the strategic location of Pearl Harbor as a potential naval base. In 1898, the United States formally annexed Hawaii.

Information from my high school U.S. History class and Wikipedia.

America’s Most Common Myths and Misconceptions about the Constitution

You wouldn’t think a few sheets of parchment with 4,400 words would be the source of so much controversy. But that’s what you get when you make that document your “supreme law” and build your nation around it. From court cases to Congressional hearings to political parties, it seems arguments about our Constitution are everywhere in the news. So, I can’t fault people for sometimes being a bit misinformed about the text, especially with cases like:

The Constitution was written by the same people as the Declaration of Independence







Actually, there were only five people who signed both documents: Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, George Read, Robert Morris, and George Clymer.

Nope. George Washington didn’t sign the Declaration of Independence; he was too busy fighting the British. And no, Thomas Jefferson didn’t sign the Constitution; he actually opposed it. Apart from those five people, the Continental Congress that drew up the Declaration was a very different body from the Constitutional Convention.

The Continental Congress was a sort of 18th-century activist group that put itself in charge of the growing Revolution, whether anybody wanted it or not. It was made up of left-wing political radicals who were upset at King and Parliament. They elected a smuggler as their Chairman and some of its members had a history of inciting mob violence. They openly entertained radical ideas about “liberty” and “natural rights” that were unheard-of in generations prior.

The Constitutional Convention, in contrast, was filled with conservative establishment-types who felt the social experiments unleashed in the Revolution had gone too far. The outbreak of riots in Massachussets was their primary motivation for meeting – America needed some sort of “new normal”.

The tricky part is that both sets of people are called “the Founding Fathers”. In fact, that term, “Founding Fathers”, is so vague it could be referring to anything from a select group of key figures like Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin to that entire generation of Americans. To cut down on the confusion, some scholars specify “the Signers” for signers of the Declaration and “the Framers” for the people who wrote the Constitution.

The Constitution was intended to protect the states from an overpowering central government

Actually, the Constitution was intended to create a powerful central government that could keep the states in check. If you read the Federalist Papers – a collection of the major pro-Constitution arguments during the fight to ratify the document, it is all about how the states would tear each other apart if left to their own devices.

Between the end of the Revolutionary War and the adoption of the Constitution, the newborn U.S. was much more like the European Union. Each state was fully sovereign, with its own currency, military and legal system. They were bound together through a treaty – the Articles of Confederation – establishing a Congress that represented the states abroad and could pass laws for the alliance. But Congress’s laws needed the unanimous approval of the states and depended on the state governments for enforcement. Congress couldn’t issue any taxes, either; its funding came from the states.

Many in the Constitutional Convention thought this system was far too weak, and decided a strong central government was what America needed. They intentionally gave the new government broad powers like “regulating commerce between the several states” that could be interpreted to cover a wide range of situations, so the federal government had some legal teeth to keep states in check.

This was a decision opposed by many, including Thomas Jefferson. After the Constitution was ratified, “Anti-Federalists” rallied together to limit the powers of what they saw as this great leviathan that had been born. Thus was the beginning of the libertarian current in American politics: the argument that the federal government should be kept as weak as possible, and the Constitution interpreted as strictly and literally as possible. In a bizarre twist, over the centuries libertarians have done an about-face on the Constitution – no longer the monster they once saw it as, they now see it as their chief tool for advancing their agenda. “If it wasn’t in the Constitution, the Founding Fathers didn’t want it,” they say.

The First Amendment means we can say what we want without consequence

Actually, the government can, and does, restrict what we can and can’t say. And it is totally Constitutional, according to numerous Supreme Court cases.

The issue is what, exactly, “freedom of speech” means. It is obvious that our Founding Fathers (there I go again) didn’t share our idea of freedom of speech: they passed the Sedition Act of 1798, which criminalized criticism of the government and punished violators with a five-year jail sentence. The Act was eventually repealed, of course, but it is a good illustration.

It appears from the writings of people at the time that “freedom of speech” meant that you couldn’t be prevented from speaking. Being punished after you’ve already spoken was another matter.

Today, we can criticize the government all we want, unless it endangers our national security. We also can be punished for revealing government and military secrets, or for using “fighting words” to incite violence. And there are plenty of restrictions on advertising, pornography, juries during court cases, and so on.

And, of course, the First Amendment runs headlong into copyright issues. If you remix someone else’s song without their permission, and then try to sell said song, they can sue you for not paying them royalties. If, however, you appropriate some material for a nonprofit educational purpose, like this blog, that is considered “fair use“.

I just wanted to make that clear.

And while we’re on the subject of the courts:

The Constitution gives the Supreme Court the right to declare laws “unconstitutional”

Actually, the Supreme Court gave itself that right.

Thank Chief Justice John Marshall and the case Marbury v. Madison for our favorite phrase to describe laws (and other situations) we don’t like.

John Adams lost his attempt at re-election in 1800, but it would be a few more months before he left office. To make life difficult for the guy who defeated him (a certain Thomas Jefferson), Adams pushed through Congress a law that let him appoint a suite of new judges. Literally hours before the inauguration, Adams’s appointments were approved by the Senate and the certificates were sent out to the appointees on the double. Unfortunately, this was before we had cars, computers, or cell phones, so not all of the appointments made it in time. Thomas Jefferson took office and his Secretary of State, James Madison refused to deliver the last few appointments. Jefferson’s Congress then repealed the law that allowed these last-minute judicial appointments to take place.

William Marbury, one of the would-be judges whose commission wasn’t delivered, sued. Under the Judiciary Act of 1798, the case would have fallen under the Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction, meaning that the case was sent immediately to the Supreme Court instead of going through an appeals process.

Chief Justice Marshall heard the arguments of both sides. He then wrote the court’s decision. They ruled that, yes, Madison had to give Marbury his commission by law. But Marshall, who liked to set verbose precedents, went into a tirade about the Judiciary Act of 1798. According to Marshall, the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction was set in the Constitution, and acts of Congress could not add or detract from anything the Constitution said.

The Constitution did not say this case fell under the court’s original jurisdiction. Any act of Congress making it so was void, because it was, you guessed it, “unconstitutional”. The decision was controversial, to be sure, but Congress and the President went along with it, as they have ever since.

Information from my high school and college U.S. Government classes, Law 101: Everything you Need to Know About the American Legal System by Jay M. Feinman, and Wikipedia.

Awesome People In History: Joan Pujol Garcia

I’m back!

Having finished my breather, I’m here with another Awesome Person in History for you: Joan Pujol Garcia.

This nerdy-looking guy is the reason the Nazis lost the D-Day invasion. Seriously.

An ordinary guy from Barcelona, Pujol had a front-row seat to the horrors of the Spanish Civil War.

From that experience, he grew to hate and detest anything to do with the Nazis. See, the Nazis helped to start the civil war and gave their support to one of its factions, using Spain as a testing ground for the military strategies they would unleash on Europe in World War II, like the blitzkrieg and massive areal bombardments.

Pujol began his little revenge by offering his services to Germany as a spy. He claimed to be living in Britain, and sent the Germans reports about British shipping. This was something the Germans were keen to keep track of, as Britain depended on imported weapons. A bold move, considering he was actually in Portugal at the time and based his reports on stuff he read in the newspapers or the library. Yet, somehow, he fooled the Germans and was given a job.

The British found out about Pujol’s charade and offered him a job as an official double agent. Moving to Britain (for real this time), Pujol was given bunk information by British intelligence to pass on to the Germans. He invented fictional spies and spy rings he claimed to command in order to jazz up his reports to Germany. This practice got him close to being busted; one of his made-up agents was supposed to keep track of the naval fleet in Liverpool, but failed to report that the fleet had deployed. Pujol claimed the guy had gotten sick and died, and British intelligence put an obituary in the local newspaper to back the story up. The Germans not only believed it, but sent a check to the imaginary agent’s “grieving widow”.

Um, sure. I'll pretend to be a grieving widow for you. How much money are we talking about?

This brings us to D-Day. Pujol was ordered to convince the Germans that the already-massive invasion of Normandy was actually just a diversion, and that even still larger invasions were being prepared for the Pas de Calais (in northeast France) and for Norway. Pujol obliged.

An entire military force of thousands of soldiers complemented by tanks and planes was completely invented from the imagination. British and American staff were all told to list this “First U.S. Army Group” in their rosters and documents, even though it didn’t exist. Hundreds of inflatable fake tanks were made and lined up to look like armored formations to German reconnaissance planes.

They even put Gen. George S. Patton, one of America’s best military minds, in command of this fake unit to really sell the deception.

The craziest part was, it worked. The Germans were completely fooled, as evidenced by this German message that was intercepted: “All reports received in the last week from Arabel [Pujol’s codename] undertaking have been confirmed without exception and are to be described as exceptionally valuable.”

Even as the Allies fought in Normandy, the Germans didn’t devote all the strength they had in Western Europe against them – they needed those reserves, or so they thought, to respond when the BIG invasion came. Of course, it never did, and the Germans realized it too late.

For his efforts, Pujol is one of a very few people who received medals from both sides during World War II: an Iron Cross from the Germans, and an Order of the British Empire from the UK. He spent the rest of his life in retirement in Venezuela.

Information from Secrets of World War II and Wikipedia.

Time for a little R&R…

I’m going to be going on vacation tomorrow, and I figured this would be a great opportunity to take a little break from my blog. Don’t worry, I’ll post again soon! In the meantime, enjoy your quesadillas, and feel free to look back on some of my older posts (I think I’m on 42 posts now), or check out Coastal Cooking Online, a food blog about recipes and saving money on groceries that I occasionally help out on. And stay tuned to this space, because I’ll be back next week with more!

Thank you, Cat Flaggers!

Why, Britain, why? Trying to understand the riots.

An Editorial

I am truly and utterly baffled.

As England picks up the pieces after a week of riots in major cities like London, Manchester, and Birmingham, I am still struggling to wrap my brain around the idea that riots could happen in the jolly old UK, and I’m looking for an answer as to why the riots happened.

A scene from Tottenham caught by an ABC News cameraman.

When riots broke out in France six years ago, the causes were pretty clear: the long-standing discrimination and intolerance of Muslim immigrants by French society with little action taken by the government to stop it. But race doesn’t appear to have been a factor in these riots, carried out mainly by British young men and adolescents of all races.

Often a riot is used as a political weapon, especially when a particular event sparks violent protests. Remember Seattle in 1999?

That was about trying to prevent world leaders from creating the World Trade Organization.

These English riots were sparked when British police shot and killed an armed suspect. In America, that might seem normal, but in Britain, police are generally not allowed to carry guns or use violence except in extreme situations. So I can get that people would be mad about the guy being shot. But a large-scale, multi-city riot?

Many observers, both British and abroad, don’t see this as being about the man who was killed at all. One BBC column listed several of the main theories on the origins of the trouble:

However, none of these addresses the form the rioting has taken. Oh, yes, there are different kinds of riots.

The Seattle riots I brought up earlier were mainly a protesters vs. police affair, as people went to “stick it to the man”. This riot has been characterized, more than anything else, by looting.

"I'll take these shirts." "That'll be 15 pounds." "No, I said, I'll TAKE these shirts."

These riots could be described as a shopping spree with violence instead of cash. People are stealing anything they can, and bragging about it on Facebook and Twitter. There are even some reports of people bringing lists of things to loot.

This is a consumerist and opportunist riot, according to the Toronto Globe and Mail. These are poor people who are stealing stuff they could never afford, the paper says.

Then again, the New York Daily News posted a column whose author says this riot should’ve come as no surprise to Britons, as they have raised a generation of “the most unpleasant and potentially violent young people in the world” with “an inflamed sense of entitlement”. To him, these riots are just an extension of the soccer hooliganism England has been notorious for.

Historian David Starkey in a BBC interview claims it is because British youths have embraced gangsta rap culture and its glorification of violence and disrespect for authority.

Having seen and read all of these opinions, though, I am just as confused as when I began. I suppose any combination of these factors may be at play, but I still see no underlying cause of the violence. Perhaps it is wrong of me to expect reason from irrationality. All I know is the nagging worry I feel – that if this could happen in Britain, could it also happen here?

Now I want a quesadilla to make me feel better.