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.

5 Responses to The Strangest Things to Shape the Nations of the World

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