Countries that Don’t Exist (but Almost Did)

Recently, I have become quite fascinated by “alternative history” – speculative re-imaginings of historical events and how they could have played out differently. How would have history been reshaped if, for example, Alexander the Great’s empire didn’t fragment shortly after his death? Or if Napoleon had won his war against Russia? Or if electricity had never been discovered? There are all manner of ways the world as we know it could have ended up completely different if a few circumstances had changed.

There are all manner of sci-fi and speculative fiction books set in alternative “what if” worlds, and recently, the Amazon Prime series The Man In The High Castle has attempted to bring the genre into the mainstream. I have become a huge fan of Alternative History Hub, a YouTube channel that presents well-researched, realistic scenarios that answer the “what if” questions of history.

So, inspired by this fascinating genre, I’ve decided to take a look at several countries that never actually existed, but had a really good chance of existing if certain historical events had gone differently. A few circumstances lining up in another way than in our own timeline, and these countries might have ended up on our modern-day maps of the world.

The Republic of Vemerana

Where it would have been: The island of Espirito Santo, in our timeline’s Vanuatu

The proposal: In the 1970s, a U.S.-based, libertarian group known as the Phoenix Foundation was founded by a real estate magnate named Michael Oliver, who had come to America after spending four years in a Nazi concentration camp. Oliver believed that even the good ol’ freedom-loving U.S. of A. was sliding toward tyranny, and so he decided to try to set up a new society somewhere in the world based on his ideas about freedom and minimalist government.

Meanwhile, there was a group of islands in the Pacific known at the time as the New Hebrides that were governed as a joint British-French colony. The islanders wanted their independence, and the British were more than happy to give it to them, but the French objected because they didn’t want their own nearby colony of New Caledonia to get any ideas. As the political wrangling between these groups grew, a man on the island of Espirito Santo named Jimmy Stevens started a political movement called Nagriamel. The movement wanted to break free from everyone and have the island become its own country, and the Phoenix Foundation, seeing an opportunity, formed an alliance with Nagriamel. With the Foundation’s backing, Stevens and his followers seized control of the island in 1980 and declared its independence as “The Republic of Vemerana”. Stevens proclaimed himself Prime Minister, and plans were put in place to make the island the libertarian utopia that Oliver dreamed of.

Why it doesn’t exist: This rebellion took place literally weeks before the New Hebrides were due to gain their independence, and the last thing that the new nation’s soon-to-be leaders wanted was a secessionist crisis. They asked the British and French to move in and crush the rebels, but the colonial powers refused, largely because they were getting ready to evacuate the islands entirely.

Soon, the New Hebrides gained their independence as the Republic of Vanuatu, and one of the new nation’s first acts was to ask neighboring Papua New Guinea to invade the rebellious island. Papua New Guinea agreed, an in the very short “Coconut War”, the rebellion was suppressed and the island was annexed by Vanuatu. Stevens spent 11 years in prison for his rebellion. Yet the Nagriamel movement still exists, now contesting elections peacefully as a political party.

Międzymorze

Thankfully, this one has an alternative English name that is much easier to write and pronounce: Intermarium

Where it would have been: Central Europe, between Germany and the USSR

The proposal: In 1918, the new Bolshevik government that had just seized power in Russia made good in its promise to pull the country out of World War I, signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. In the treaty, Russia gave up a vast stretch of territory that included much of central Europe, including Finland, the Baltic Sea coast, Poland, and Ukraine. The Germans certainly wanted to dominate these regions, but they didn’t have the resources or infrastructure to outright annex them. Instead, their plan was to set up a string of pro-German puppet states.

Then, Germany lost the war, and the fate of central Europe was suddenly completely up in the air. Polish general Józef Piłsudski decided to fill the power vacuum with… himself.

Piłsudski romanticized the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which dominated this part of Europe from the 14th century until it was divided between Germany, Russia, and Austria in 1795. Inspired by its centuries of success, he wanted to create a new federation that incorporated all of these newly-independent countries in central Europe into a single union. The idea was that such a union would have enough people, land, and resources to be a major power in Europe and prevent either the Germans or the Russians from dominating them ever again. Piłsudski’s plan was taken seriously by the major powers negotiating the postwar peace settlement, and even had the official backing of the French.

Why it doesn’t exist: Unfortunately for Piłsudski, his plan was not very popular among the people who would have had to join this union for it to work. The Finns, Ukrainians, Hungarians, and others all basically said “We just won our independence, and now you’re asking us to give it back up? No way.”

The plan was also opposed by the British and Americans, who at the time thought the Bolsheviks were a passing fad and that once peace and democracy were restored in Russia, it would continue to be their ally in Europe. They didn’t want to kneecap the “new Russia” as it was being born. If only they knew, huh?

Kurdistan

Where it would have been: In the Middle East, in the northern part of Mesopotamia and the nearby mountains, incorporating parts of present-day Turkey, Syria, and Iraq.

The proposal: The Kurds are an ethnic group living in a region that is divided between Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. They claim to be descendants of the ancient Median Empire, they speak their own language, and they have their own unique culture. Just about the only thing they have in common with their neighbors is that the majority of them are Muslim, but even here there are many exceptions. Their identity is distinct enough that they could viably have an independent, stable, prosperous nation-state of their own.

Indeed, this was the original plan when the Ottoman Turkish Empire was defeated at the end of World War I. The Ottomans were forced to sign the Treaty of Sèvres, which carved up what little remained of the empire and left it with a tiny rump on a small hunk of Anatolia. The rest of the empire would be split between Britain, France, Italy, Greece, a newly-independent Armenia, and a sector corresponding to the lands inhabited by the Kurdish people that would get a referendum on whether to become an independent nation or not. There is little doubt that the Kurds would have voted for independence, as Kurdish nationalists had been fighting the Ottomans since the 19th century.

Why it doesn’t exist: The referendum never happened, because the Treaty of Sèvres was never put into effect. Turkish nationalists led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk rejected the treaty and rose up in rebellion, leading to the Turkish War of Independence. The rebels deposed the last Ottoman sultan, set up a secular, Western-style republic, and forced the Allies to draw up a new treaty. The Treaty of Lausanne more or less gave Turkey and its Middle Eastern neighbors their modern borders, and as a consequence, hopes of Kurdish independence were snuffed out.

Kurds in Turkey were subjected to discrimination, forced to abandon their culture and assimilate into Turkish society. Even their language was banned. Since the 1970s, Kurds living in Turkey have fought an on-again-off-again rebellion against the Turkish authorities. Kurds in Iran, Iraq, and Syria have also fought for their independence. Today, Iraqi Kurds are granted a high degree of autonomy by the post-Saddam Hussein 2005 Iraqi constitution, allowing them their own government and military, though they still are technically subordinate to Baghdad. Meanwhile, in Syria, the Kurdish community has taken advantage of the chaos and civil warring to set up their own “government”, called Rojava. It remains to be seen where these new developments will lead, but one has to wonder what would have happened if the Kurds had been able to win their independence peacefully in the 1920s as originally planned.

So there you have it, Cat Flaggers! A small sampling of the countless alternative countries that might have existed if history had taken a slightly different path. Let me know if you liked this topic; there are so many other almost-countries I could have picked from, and I’m curious to see if you want to hear some of their stories, too!

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Cat Flag: Lake Tahoe Edition

Hey Cat Flaggers! Yes, I just got back from a trip to Lake Tahoe, the giant, deep, high-altitude lake on the California-Nevada border. I had a great time exploring an area I had never been to before, and wanted to share some of what I saw and learned with all of you!

By volume of water, Lake Tahoe is the largest U.S. lake that isn’t one of the Great Lakes. It is also the second-deepest lake in the United States after Crater Lake in Oregon. Its name comes from the Washoe Indian word for “lake”, so technically its name means “Lake lake”. I personally think that’s pretty funny.

It was once a major stop-over point for miners on their way to the silver mines of Nevada, with loggers in the area supplying the timber that the mines needed to build safety support structures to reduce the risk of cave-ins. In the early 20th century, as tourism in the region grew, several unsuccessful attempts were made to designate Tahoe as a national park; today, most of the region is covered by national forests and several state parks. Interestingly, the 1960 Winter Olympics were held in Squaw Valley, California, very near the lake.

What struck me the most about the lake, though, was just how clear the water was! I mean, I’m used to the coastal waters of the Pacific Ocean, which are clouded with salt, sand, and algae. Tahoe’s water, meanwhile, was so clear you could see down to the bottom.

This was just the tip of the natural beauty of the area, though. The pine forests were stunning, especially in the early morning sunlight.

Just look at that view!

The most fascinating thing about the lake, though, was that it was a place of contrasts. Allow me to explain a bit.

You are driving up from Sacramento toward the lake. The landscape is typical California: rolling, golden hills of dried-up grass and the odd tree here and there. Gradually, the trees start to grow more numerous, and more and more of them are pine trees instead of deciduous trees. Then, as you drive through Placerville, the landscape starts to change. All the deciduous trees disappear, as do the rolling grass-covered hills. In their places are steep, rocky slopes covered in pine trees. You keep driving up the mountainside, leaving Placerville behind, watching the road signs marking the increasing altitude as you climb and climb. Gone are the big cities and even medium-sized towns; in their place are small road stops, some of which have a sense of humor about how small they are:

Then you reach South Lake Tahoe, and suddenly you are back in civilization, sort of. Sure, it’s still pine trees and nature’s beauty everywhere you look, and most buildings are built with a rustic, log cabin theme. But there’s also a T.J. Maxx, a Ross, a KFC, and a Safeway.

The mountain pine forests seem at first to dominate the Tahoe area, but as you make your way around the Nevada side of the lake toward Carson City, the pines start to fall away, and over the course of a dozen curves in the road they disappear completely, replaced by high desert sands and scrub. By the time you reach Nevada’s state capital, you are clearly in a completely different environment than you were in South Lake Tahoe. It can seem jarring, moving through so many different ecosystems so quickly.

But nothing is more jarring than what greets you as you cross the border from California to Nevada. There is just a single street separating the California city of South Lake Tahoe from the (appropriately named) Nevada town of Stateline. On the California side of the street, you see a collection of boutiques, art galleries, and tourist traps, very much in keeping with the sort of thing you find in many California tourist towns. Then, you cross the street, and BAM! Massive, 18-story casino, located literally feet inside the Nevada border.

The entrance to Stateline is lined with several monstrously-huge, Vegas-style casino-resorts, each smushed-up as close to the border as they can possibly fit. I found the whole thing rather amusing, a physical manifestation of how man-made boundaries and limits can have as much, if not more, impact on the world and the people in it as natural ones. Indeed, by comparison, the “sudden” shifts in the natural environments from grasslands to mountain pine forests to high desert were all comparatively gradual and smooth. It was a reminder that the real world is one where there are plenty of grey areas, and only humans insist on absolutes. “On this side of the line, gambling is legal, and on this side, it’s illegal. That’s all there is to it.”

Speaking of Nevada, I spent some of the trip exploring Carson City and Reno, and had a good time seeing the sights there. In Carson City, I got to see the Artsy Fartsy Art Gallery, a really cool art collective featuring amazing works from Nevada artists, and the Nevada State Museum, a fascinating showcase of the natural and human history of the Silver State. I highly recommend anybody staying in the Tahoe area pay these places a visit.

In Reno, meanwhile, I managed to snag a snap of the Reno Arch:

Downtown Reno, of course, is most famous for its casinos, and some local sculptors decided to celebrate this fact with some interesting public artworks:

The original plan for my trip was that the first day would be spent in Carson City and Reno, and the second would be spent enjoying the natural beauty of the lake. Then, mother nature decided to throw a monkey wrench into those plans.

That haze you see in the background? Blocking the view of the other side of the lake? That’s not fog.

See, a massive forest fire more than a hundred miles away was pumping the area full of smoke from all the burning trees. A health advisory was imposed on the whole region, urging people to stay indoors to avoid breathing in all the smoke. I was experiencing some itching and burning in my eyes and throat that day, like a really bad case of allergies. I felt really bad for anyone with asthma or emphysema in the area that day.

That got me wondering, though. Surely this is far from the first time such a smoke dump has happened in the Tahoe area, right? I would imagine, since forest fires are such a common occurrence in California, that this would be something that happened fairly regularly. How do the animals and wildlife, who can’t hide indoors, handle these things when they happen? They must have some way of surviving the clouds of ash blowing in, right? After all, in the long run, the ash might actually be good for the forest, helping to fertilize the soil. At least, those were my initial thoughts on the matter.

Smoke aside, I really enjoyed visiting the Tahoe area, and I may go back someday. Hopefully, next time I’ll be able to hike through the piney woods and see some more of the natural sights. As it stands, though, I am very glad I made this trip, and I would encourage any Cat Flaggers who are interested to check the Tahoe area out.

Until next time!

Once again, it’s time to fight to save net neutrality

An Editorial

Two years ago, I wrote a blog about the importance of net neutrality as a whole, and Cat Flag in particular. The context was that a federal court had ruled against the net neutrality rules that had been set up by the Federal Communications Commission, and as a result the FCC was trying to decide how to proceed. After a huge public pressure campaign convinced the FCC that the American public still wanted to keep net neutrality, the FCC classified internet service providers as “common carriers”, the same classification long used for phone companies. As a result, the FCC was able to implement new net neutrality rules that were upheld in court.

So, story’s over right? The Internet is safe now? Of course not.

In 2017, the FCC got a new chairman, former Verizon lawyer Ajit V. Pai, a man who had voted against the FCC’s new net neutrality rules and has gone on the record saying net neutrality’s “days are numbered”. Earlier this year, he began FCC proceedings to repeal the FCC’s earlier decision. Never mind that polls have shown that there is overwhelming support for net neutrality by the vast majority of Americans regardless of their political positions; to Pai, net neutrality is a form of government overreach and an undue regulatory burden on ISPs.

Fortunately, the FCC is required to solicit public comments before making a rule change like that. Unfortunately, some spambot from an unknown source has been busted submitting hundreds of comments under fake names in support of Pai’s proposal. When contacted by Forbes magazine about removing these fake comments, Pai said he would not do so. An activist group decided to set up a website for people to check if the spambot has submitted comments under their own names, comcastroturf.com, only to be handed a cease and desist letter from Comcast threatening to sue them. (Comcast later backed down.) I used the site and found no less than two fake spambot comments under the name “Robert Griffith”. So, I submitted a real comment of my own, explaining my own position on net neutrality and alerting the FCC to the spambot comments.

Fake comment farce aside, I can understand where ISPs and Pai are coming from in opposing net neutrality. From an ISP’s point of view, net neutrality means internet users who just check their e-mails and visit a few blogs have the same internet access, at the same price, as internet users who use high-bandwidth services like Netflix, YouTube, and Steam. It means that the ISPs can’t charge companies like Google and Blizzard to give their customers faster speeds. As an MBA student, I learned about differential pricing – the idea that you want to charge customers exactly what they are willing to pay for a good, but that dollar value will be different for different customers. This is why grocery stores offer coupons and deals that reduce the price for larger purchases; some customers are willing to jump through the hoops to pay less, others aren’t. Each is getting their groceries at a price closer to what they are actually willing to pay for their groceries. Likewise, if internet customers are willing to pay more for higher-bandwidth, faster-speed service, shouldn’t ISPs be able to charge them more?

Except the internet is not a grocery store. As the court that upheld the FCC’s new net neutrality rules pointed out, internet access in the 21st century is a public utility. Since most ISPs are also phone or cable companies, one would think they would be used to being regulated like a public utility.

Most of the big internet companies – Google, Facebook, Amazon, and so on – started out life as small start-ups run by a handful of people. They got to the top through a free market that is free precisely because of the principle of net neutrality. Could you imagine if we lived in a world where Facebook wasn’t able to grow and ended up shutting down because Myspace could pay ISPs extra to load faster on users’ computers? Heck, we’ve seen cable companies drop channels over contract disputes; without net neutrality, what’s to stop Verizon from blocking Hulu for similar reasons? No wonder Google, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Twitter, Vimeo, Etsy, and other big websites are opposed to Pai’s proposals.

This is an issue I feel passionately about because it directly affects me. Cat Flag runs on WordPress, so if something were to suddenly happen to WordPress, I would be in big trouble. So all I’m asking, if you agree with me (or even if you disagree), is that you let the FCC know what you think about this issue.

  • Please visit this web page on the FCC’s website
  • Where it says “Proceedings”, please list “14-28” and “17-108”; those are the actual FCC cases having to do with the net neutrality proposals.
  • Remember, anything you enter is a matter of public record, so please keep it civil. And don’t set up a spambot.

Thank you.

Who Designed the U.S. Flag?

The 4th of July is coming up in a few days, and already everyone in my hometown getting ready for a big, patriotic party. The stores are all selling red-white-and-blue decorations and have put hamburgers and hot dogs on sale. Even I’m planning on busting out the grill on the fourth as I celebrate my nation’s birthday. By far the most common sight this time of year, though, is the American flag, the good ol’ Stars-and-Stripes.

I’ve given my country’s flag the Cat Flag treatment before, but today, I wanted to talk about its history in more detail today. Specifically, I want to do one of my favorite things: answer a simple question that has a not-at-all simple answer. Who designed the flag?

Let’s start by getting one thing out of the way:

It was NOT designed by Betsy Ross

The year was 1870. William J. Canby went to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania with a story his aunt had told him about his grandmother. He claimed that in the spring of 1776, Elisabeth “Betsy” Ross had sewn the very first Stars-and-Stripes flag on the orders of George Washington himself. Over the years, this story has become a part of America’s national folklore, with her home being turned into a museum, a bridge named for her, and postage stamps issued to commemorate Ross’s memory.

Only one problem: there is zero direct historical evidence that this ever happened. That’s not to say it didn’t happen, mind you; historians consider this story “neither proven nor disproven”. Historians debate its merits based on what we know about the time period and what indirect evidence there may or may not be for such a meeting.

Even if the story is true, though, Betsy Ross didn’t design the flag itself. Canby’s telling of the event explicitly stated that Washington arrived with a design already drawn up for Ross to sew. According to Canby, Ross’s only contribution was changing the shape of the stars – Washington’s design had six-pointed stars, but Ross thought five-pointed stars looked better and were easier to make.

So, if Ross didn’t design the flag, who did?

The man who claimed to have designed the flag (and was stiffed)

Meet Francis Hopkinson. Before the Revolution, he had alternated between working as a customs officer and running his own business. When the war broke out, though, he became a member of the Continental Congress, where he was assigned to the Marine Committee. On June 14, 1777, the committee issued a resolution stating “That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”

It makes sense that the Marine Committee would take a keen interest in declaring an official U.S. flag, as American ships at sea would need to be able to identify each other and be identified by the navies of allied nations such as France. Prior to this, Americans used a wide variety of different flags, many of which included British flags like the Union Jack or St. George’s Cross, something that was a bit inappropriate now that the United States had declared its independence.

After the flag resolution was adopted, Hopkinson asserted that it was his design and began sending bills to Congress to pay him for it. He sent four formal requests to Congress to pay him. Congress never did.

Still, he must not have felt too bitter, as he continued to play a role in the new nation’s politics, participating in the Constitutional Convention and serving as a federal judge.

The high school student who designed the current 50-star flag (and got a B-)

Of course, the Stars and Stripes that Hopkinson (allegedly) designed was only used for a few years. As I mentioned on my blog before, as the nation grew the decision was made to add a star for each new state admitted to the Union. Over the years, the flag has undergone many, many redesigns.

Thus, when Hawaii was admitted to the Union as the 50th state in 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower needed a new design to squeeze in one more star.

A high school history class in Ohio decided that it would be fun to have the students come up with their own 50-star flag designs for a class assignment. One of the students, Robert G. Heft, turned in a flag that was pretty simple, laying out all 50 stars in a square, using alternating rows of six and five stars. Heft received a B- for his design. After class, Heft made a deal with his teacher: if his flag design was actually adopted, the grade would be changed to an A. Probably laughing at how preposterous the odds were that Heft’s design would ever be accepted, the teacher said, “you’re on.”

What the teacher didn’t count on was that Heft lived near his local Congressman, and was able to use this connection to get his design in front of Eisenhower’s eyes. Of the thousands of proposed designs submitted by people across America, Eisenhower decided to go with Heft’s proposal. According to Heft, his teacher did hold up his end of the bargain and change his grade.

That’s right, a 17-year-old designed the flag you’re holding!

HAVE A HAPPY FOURTH OF JULY, AMERICA!

DC Finally Made a Good Movie!

At long last! Finally! Time to party! Wonder Woman is actually a great movie! There is hope for DC yet!

It’s been a long time coming. Marvel’s chief rival in the comic book industry has long had many advantages when it came to being able to adapt its characters for the big screen, especially since DC has long been owned by Hollywood giant Warner Bros. However, when it came to the actual movies themselves, there have been many, many duds and only a handful of solidly good films. For a long time, this wasn’t a big deal, as the exceptional DC movies were good enough to keep audiences interested and carry the brand along. But when Marvel started making their own movies, and knocking it out of the park again and again with great films that audiences clamored for, that calculation completely changed.

Now DC was under pressure to create a “cinematic universe” of its own to compete with Marvel. It only made sense, as DC’s characters have long been far more well-known than Marvel’s and have an equally rich catalog of great comic storylines to draw from for inspiration. However, last year’s two attempts to get such a cinematic universe underway were… disappointing to say the least. As somebody who grew up reading DC comics, I was really quite unhappy.

Imagine my relief, then, when DC finally managed to put together not just a good movie, but a great one. Not only that, but it was an excellent movie featuring a female superhero as the lead, something that no Hollywood studio has managed until now.

What even was this thing?

It was only appropriate, then, that the first truly great female superhero movie starred THE female superhero – the icon of feminism and the empowerment of women and girls across America and around the world.

Gal Gadot knocks it out of the park in this role, and I fully expect many people will consider her the definitive Wonder Woman for many years to come, in the same way many people today consider Jeremy Brett the definitive Sherlock Holmes or Charlton Heston the definitive Ben-Hur. She brings a charisma to her performance that is truly inspiring and keeps you rooting for her from start to finish. She also works well together with Chris Pine (Star Trek, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit), who may have been a surprising choice for love interest Steve Trevor, a World War I pilot and spy, but who manages to pull out a very good performance of his own.

For the first third or so of the movie, we see the comic book origin story of the famed superheroine almost beat-for-beat: Diana is a princess growing up on Themyscira, a hidden island where the Amazons of ancient Greek legend have been hiding after escaping slavery. Though her mother, Queen Hippolyta, tries to forbid Diana from learning how to fight and training to be a warrior, she manages to do so anyway. Then, out of the blue, Trevor, a pilot from “man’s world” suddenly arrives as his plane crashes on the island. Trevor informs the Amazons of the war going on in the outside world, and Diana defies her mother to go off into man’s world and fight for peace and justice. The only real change is that the comics were set during World War II, while this movie is set during World War I, a decision that makes much more sense when the main characters leave the island and the plot proper begins.

To go into more detail would be to give away spoilers, so I’ll leave it at this: the movie’s main thrust pits Diana’s idealism against the harsh reality of a not-at-all-ideal world, and it handles the topic with maturity and grace.

Director Patty Jenkins has done an outstanding job with this film, using every tool in her toolbox to make compelling action scenes and keep the movie from having a dull moment. I was worried from the trailers that the movie would overuse slow-motion effects, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that the film only uses it sparingly to help the audience see the action and keep track of what is going on. The cinematography never feels cluttered, and the color scheme isn’t quite as grey-washed as other DC entries have been so far. I mean, seriously, it took DC this long to figure out that color might actually be a good thing? Sheesh!

Hopefully this is a sign that DC’s movies are going to start improving, but even if they don’t, this is an excellent stand-alone film well worth viewing again and again. 10/10.