The world has been fortunate to only see nukes used aggressively against one nation, nearly eighty years ago, during the waning days of the Second World War (of course this is small comfort to the hundreds of thousands of victims in Hiroshima and Nagasaki).
This is all the more surprising considering we now have nine countries with nuclear weapons, some of which have been governed by certifiable mass murders (e.g., Stalin and Mao) or by men with questionable moral positions on ordering nuclear strikes (e.g., Nixon). One would think sheer probability would have resulted in at least an accidental launch (of which we have had several close calls).
This got me wondering how this select group of nuclear-armed countries approach the weighty issue of using their nukes against another nation. The most recent and reliable source I could find is a 2018 article from the Council on Foreign Relations, which offers a country-by-country breakdown on the “no first use” policy, the position that nukes should never be used first in any conflict but only in retaliation to a nuclear strike.
Based on the article, I made the following map, which shows the distressing rarity of that commitment:
As explained in the article:
A so-called NFU pledge, first publicly made by China in 1964, refers to any authoritative statement by a nuclear weapon state to never be the first to use these weapons in a conflict, reserving them strictly to retaliate in the aftermath of a nuclear attack against its territory or military personnel. These pledges are a component of nuclear declaratory policies. As such, there can be no diplomatic arrangement to verify or enforce a declaratory NFU pledge, and such pledges alone do not affect capabilities. States with such pledges would be technically able to still use nuclear weapons first in a conflict, and their adversaries have generally not trusted NFU assurances. Today, China is the only nuclear weapon state to maintain an unconditional NFU pledge.
Given that such pledges are not binding, it is odd that more nations do not make them anyway; China’s lone commitment to this stance—which only India comes close to echoing—may not count for much, but clearly it carries enough significance for other nuclear powers to avoid it.
In fact, the United States had previously considered adopting an NFU policy, but has refrained from doing so out of fear that it might indicate insufficient deterrence of foreign threats:
During the Cold War and even today, the credible threat of the United States using its nuclear weapons first against an adversary has been an important component of reassuring allies. At the height of the Cold War, the threat of U.S. tactical nuclear use was conceived of as a critical bulwark against a conventional Soviet offensive through the Fulda Gap, a strategically significant lowland corridor in Germany that would allow Warsaw Pact forces to enter Western Europe. A nuclear first-use policy was thought to be a cornerstone of the defensive posture of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), given the large number of bases of Warsaw Pact conventional military forces. Accordingly, NATO has always opposed a U.S. NFU declaration and has never ruled out U.S. first use under its “flexible response” posture since 1967. Today, U.S. allies in East Asia and Europe alike rely on credible commitments from the United States to use nuclear weapons first to deter major nonnuclear threats against them.
I guess these pledges are not so vacuous after all.
Today is UN Day, which commemorates the 75th birthday of the United Nations, a deeply flawed and troubled organization that is nonetheless more indispensable than ever—and has accomplished a lot more than most people think.
It was on this day 75 years ago, just months after the end of humanity’s bloodiest war, that the UN Charter came into force after being ratified by fifty countries. The Charter established the organization along with the framework of the international system. An audacious and idealistic document, it articulated a commitment to uphold the human rights and wellbeing of all citizens, addressing “economic, social, health, and related problems,” and “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”. The organization now counts nearly four times as many members, at 193.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, far from a bleeding-heart globalist, once said that the UN “represents man’s best organized hope to substitute the conference table for the battlefield”.
If nothing else, the organization has served as an outlet for frustrations and rivalries that would otherwise manifest on the battlefield. The constant grandstanding between the U.S. and Russia may be frustrating—and has often led to devastating deadlock during crises—but imagine the alternative course of action without an international platform? Many countries on the verge of open conflict have opted instead to take diplomatic shots at each other at the UN—an often sordid display, to be sure, but obviously better than the alternative.
Of course, we Americans know full well how hard it is to get even our one country to work together—imagine close to 200 countries spanning eight billion people and a multitude of languages, religions, cultures, types of governments, and levels of development. The UN is only as effective as its members allow it to be, and its failures and limitations are a reflection of our own as a species.
Moreover, it is worth considering the context of its emergence: A war that had killed over 60 million people (three percent of all humans at the time), following a millennia of endless conflict where violence was the norm and enslavement, rape, looting, and other things we now call war crimes (courtesy of the UN) were just the way of things. For most of our quarter of a million years of existence, we rarely knew about, much less cared, for anyone outside our immediate tribe or band. Human rights and civil liberties were alien concepts that would not have made sense to anyone. The vast majority of people lived in grinding poverty, oppression, fear, and ignorance.
From the ashes of the worst conflict in history emerges an organization trying to cultivate peace, progress, and unity among our species—not just out of idealism, but also based on the sober realism that some problems are too big for any one nation to handle. Needless to say, it has failed in its lofty aspirations time and again, as most of us know all too well—but that’s to be expected given just how bold of an undertaking it is. And for all the failures, there are plenty of successes we take for granted.
Given that most Americans do not even know how their own government works, it stands to reason that few know the workings and complexities of the international system, either.
Few people know that it was the UN Secretary-General, U Thant of Burma, who played a key role in the Cuban Missile Crisis; JFK admitted that the entire world was in the UN leader’s debt, though Thant is scarcely known today.
Many of us take for granted the modern amenities and benefits, let alone realize their origin in the UN. The ability to mail and ship things globally; to access goods and products from around the world; and to travel anywhere with relative ease are all due to UN organizations, treaties, or conferences that established uniform standards and rules for airlines, companies, and governments. Even seatbelts became widespread through deliberate UN policy.
Few know the work of UNICEF, one of the oldest UN organization, which in 2018 alone helped care for 27 million babies born in places with high infant and maternal mortality; treated four million children in 73 countries for severe acute malnutrition; and provided over 65 million children with vaccines against common killers like diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (half the world’s children get their vaccine through UNICEF). Over the last thirty years, it has saved over 90 million children.
The much maligned WHO helped eradicate smallpox, which once killed millions annually throughout history, and is on the verge of eradicating polio as well. It has helped most people with HIV/AIDS get access to treatment, and is currently working on making insulin more available, too. With respect to the recent pandemic, it also used its diplomacy to get China to finally open itself to an international team of scientists—which included two Americans. It recently helped stem the second largest Ebola outbreak in Congo, to little fanfare.
A 1987 conference convened by the UN Environment Programme helped lead to an international treaty that has successfully repaired the ozone layer.
The World Food Programme, along with the Food and Agriculture Organization, provides food and assistance to 90 million people in 88 countries, keeping them from the brink of starvation (and getting a well deserved Nobel Peace Prize for it). FAO also eradicated rinderpest, a deadly livestock disease that is only the second infectious disease in history (besides smallpox) to be eradicated. It also maintains the world’s largest and most comprehensive statistical database on food and agriculture.
The UN Population Fund helps an average of two million women a month with their pregnancies, which could be deadly in most countries.
The UN regularly monitors elections in about fifty countries, which not only ensures a free and fair political process but has prevented numerous civil wars and conflicts.
All these achievements do not undo the very real and tragic failings of the organization, from the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia, to the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars. But 75 years is not a long time to undo over 200,000 years of tribalism and disunity. As one UN chief put it, “the United Nations was not created to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell”.
Considering that the average American pays less than two dollars a year to cover the U.S.’ regular dues to the UN, I think it is a bargain worth supporting and improving upon.
On this day in 1945, Joe Rosenthal of the Associated Press took the iconic photograph “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima”, which depicts six U.S. Marines raising the American flag atop Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima in the final stages of the Pacific Theater of the Second World War.
The U.S. had invaded Iwo Jima four days prior as part of its island-hopping strategy to defeat Japan. The island was located halfway between Japan and the Mariana Islands, where American long-range bombers were based, and was used by the Japanese as an early warning station. Capturing the island would weaken this warning system and also provide an emergency landing for damaged bombers.
As the highest point on the island, Mount Suribachi allowed the Japanese to spot and target American forces, and was thus the tactical priority. There was never any question the U.S. would win—the Americans had overwhelming numerical and logistical superiority, plus complete air supremacy—while the Japanese were low on food and supplies nor could retreat or reinforced. Yet the battle was nonetheless brutal, grinding on for over another month after the photograph was taken.
In fact, half the marines later identified in the photo were killed shortly after: Sergeant Michael Strank, Corporal Harlon Block, and Private First Class Franklin Sousley.
Uniquely among Pacific War Marine battles, total American casualties (both dead and wounded) exceeded those of the Japanese, though Japanese combat deaths were three times higher than American fatalities. (Of the 21,000 Japanese on the island, only 216 were ultimately taken prisoner, with many fighting to the death, often through various cave systems.)
This was actually the second time the U.S. flag was raised on the mountain; the first instance had occured earlier in the morning, but in the early afternoon, Sergeant Strank was ordered to take Marines from his rifle squad to bring supplies and raise a larger flag on the summit.
“Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” was the only photograph to win the Pulitzer Prize for Photography in the same year as its publication. It is perhaps just as well known for its the construction of the Marine Corps War Memorial in 1954, which honors all Marines who died since the founding of the Continental Marines of the Revolutionary War in 1775.
For me, one of the more compelling stories from the episode was that of Ira Hayes, a Pima Native American from Arizona who, like so many indigenous Americans, volunteered readily to fight for the county. He disliked the fame he received, feeling survivor’s guilt for the marines who didn’t make it back, descended into alcoholism, most likely due to what we now know as PTSD.
Johnny Cash, known for his advocacy for Native Americans, dedicated a song to him that remains one of my favorite.
On this day 1919, the German Workers’ Party, the forerunner to the Nazi Party, was founded in Munich by Anton Drexler.
Contrary to its name, the DAP (to use its German acronym) was far from leftist: It was officially anti-communist—many members were drawn from the paramilitary “Freikorps” that fought communist uprisings in the east—but also anti-capitalist, reflecting fascism’s pretensions as a political “third way. However, German nationalism and Antisemitism were the cornerstone of the party, just as they would be for its successor.
While an otherwise obscure figure at the time, let alone today, Drexler played a pivotal role in Hitler’s rise: It was he who approached Hitler and encouraged him to join the DAP, supposedly seeing potential in the man’s oratory. (Hitler claimed the party’s platform reflected his existing ideas.) Hitler was only the 55th member to join, yet his ability to draw a crowd with his speeches quickly grew the party’s numbers—and his reputation and influence.
As his stature grew, so too did the DAP, which managed to organize its biggest meeting yet in 1920 in a Munich brewery. It was here, before a crowd of 2,000 people, that Hitler articulated the party’s 25-point manifesto, which he had authored with Drexler and Gottfried Feder, another key founder whose speech is what first drew Hitler into Drexler’s orbit. The platform gave the DAP a bolder vision: abandon the Treaty of Versailles, recapture and reunite former German territories, expand into Eastern Europe, and exclude Jews from German citizenship. It also included otherwise unobjectionable ideas, such as expanding social security, establishing universal education, banning child labor, enshrining equal rights for all citizens, and defending freedom of religion.
It goes to show that fascism, then and now, always had ideas that, in isolation, were good or nonpartisan, but in practice was intended to win over desperate recruits and limit the benefits only to the “right” ethnicity, race, religion, tribe, or other identity group.
Indeed, on the very same day, the German Worker’s Party was renamed the “National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP), better known as the Nazi Party”. Along with the 25-point manifesto, this was done with the explicit purpose of broadening the party’s appeal: It opposed socialism and communism—which were officially internationalist—so instead proposed a nationalist version. At the same time, the term socialism denoted a dislike of capitalism, except of course the big businesses that could serve Nazi interests.
Drexler was eventually pushed out of the newly minted party as Hitler’s falling into obscurity before his death in 1942–living just long enough to see the monster he helped create.
Aside from being the first day of the new year, yesterday was also Haitian Independence Day, which marks one of the most important days in human history. It was January 1, 1804 that Haiti—after a decade-long war against one of the most powerful empires in the world—became the only nation in history to emerge from a successful slave revolt; the first majority-black republic in history; the second independent nation and second republic in the Americas, after the United States. It was the largest slave uprising since Spartacus’s unsuccessful revolt against the Roman Republic nearly two thousand years earlier.
Haiti’s unlikely independence, especially against one of the worlds superpowers at the time, rocked the institution of slavery and inspired revolutionaries across the world, who looked to it for both inspiration and military strategy. In fact, Haiti’s achievement was likely a catalyst for independence movements throughout Latin America, which began gaining traction shortly after its independence; Simon Bolivar, the seminal figure in Latin American independence, received refuge, money, and military support from Haiti.
Haiti also produced such prominent military and political figures: Jean-Baptiste Belley, who served as the first black representative in the Western world (specifically France); Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, who fought for Napoleon as the first and highest-ranking black officer in the West; and Toussaint L’Ouverture, an ex-slave turned independence hero viewed by contemporaries as brilliant military strategist, who along with Dumas the highest-ranking black officer in the West. Needless to say, these men undermined the widespread notion of black racial inferiority.
It is also worth noting that Haiti’s success against France, which subsequently lost what was then the world’s richest colony, contributed to its decision to abandon colonialism in North America and recoup its financial losses by selling the Louisiana Territory to the U.S., more than doubling the American republic.
Unfortunately, despite being the only other republic in the whole hemisphere, and sharing a similar revolutionary origin, Haiti was far from a natural American ally: the U.S. still practiced slavery, and naturally did not approve of the example Haiti set for its slaves. Indeed, the Jefferson Administration, which was already pro-French, attempted to assist France in taking back Haiti, and was openly hostile to an independent black republic.
(For this reason, Haiti has the largest military fort in the Western Hemisphere, Citadelle Laferrière, which was intended to defend the country from ever-present invasion by France, the U.S., or any other Western power.)
Given that the international system was by then dominated by Europe, America was far from alone in its contempt and wariness towards Haiti: The country would remain isolated and exploited for much of its history, forced to pay 150 million gold francs in reparations to French slaveholders in order to receive recognition and end its diplomatic and economic isolation. (The debt was not paid until the mid-20th century). The U.S. frequently meddled in its affairs, most notably in its occupation of the country from 1915 to 1934. Centuries of isolation prevented the country from ever finding its bearings, but left it no less proud, resilient, and culturally rich.
The only thing authoritarians hate more than a free public is a free press, given that the latter can help arm the former with knowledge and impetus to push back. But as “fake news” goes from being an American meme to a global phenomenon, despots worldwide are taking note, invoking it in their familiar but growing crackdown on reporters and journalists.
As Vice News reported:
The annual prison census, carried out by the nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), found at least 251 journalists languishing in prison on Dec. 1, 2018, the third consecutive year at roughly that level. But of those 251, a record 28 were behind bars on charges of “false news,” a big spike from just two years ago, when there were nine such cases.
Egypt accounted for the most cases of journalists jailed for so-called false news, with 19 behind bars. There were four in Cameroon, three in Rwanda, and one each in China and Morocco.
The report pointed the finger at Trump as “the leading voice” fueling global rhetoric about fake news. “You think #FakeNews rhetoric doesn’t have consequences?” tweeted the report’s author, CPJ’s editorial director Elana Beiser.
It also noted that while no journalists are imprisoned in the U.S., reporters there faced fatal violence and hostile rhetoric. In June, five people were killed in a mass shooting at the offices of The Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, and a mail bomber who embraced Trump’s media attacks sent threatening packages to CNN headquarters, among other places, in October.
To make matters worse, the uptick in state-sanctioned violence and repression of journalists is looking like a long-term trend:
It’s the third year running that the number of reporters behind bars has topped 250 — a stat that suggested that “the authoritarian approach to critical news coverage is more than a temporary spike,” and had become “the new normal,” according to Beiser.
The report found the high numbers had been sustained by renewed crackdowns in China, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, which, along with Turkey and Eritrea, were the five leading jailers of journalists. Turkey, China, and Egypt alone accounted for more than half the world’s jailed journalists for the third year in a row.
The report found that nearly three-quarters of jailed journalists were facing anti-state charges, such as supporting groups deemed to be terrorist organizations, and the vast majority — 98 percent — were jailed by their own governments.
Considering that the balance of power is shifting to the developing world, most of all China, the normalization of constraining a free press sets a very concerning precedent. But when even the ostensible leader of the free world has embraced hostile rhetoric towards media, it is unlikely that this problem is going away any time soon — even though the need for a free press is more important than ever.
On this day in 1942, the Polish government-in-exile published the first document informing the world about the Holocaust.
Titled “The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland,” it was sent to 26 Allied governments (officially known as the United Nations) with the purpose of drawing attention to the Final Solution and thereby discourage Germans from carrying it out.
The most important component in the brochure was a note by Polish Foreign Minister Edward Raczynski authenticating its contents, making it the first official report on the Holocaust and the first time that a country called on other countries to defend *all* Jews persecuted by the Nazis, not just those who were citizens of their country.
Drawing on extensive reporting by agents of Poland’s underground government, Raczynski discussed the change in execution methods from shootings to gassing, and the increased deportation of Jews from ghettos to locations described as “extermination camps.” He also estimated that up to one third of Poland’s three million Jews had already been killed—which turned out to be an underestimate.
Much of the information came from a 100-page report by Witold Pilecki, a Polish agent who allowed himself to be captured and sent to a concentration camp so as to ascertain the nature of the Nazi’s campaign. It was the first comprehensive record on a Holocaust death camp, with details about the gas chambers and sterilization experiments. It also states that there were three crematoria in Birkenau able to burn 8000 people daily.
Unfortunately, Poland’s courageous efforts came mostly to nothing. Despite its extensive and detailed information, the document had little effect, largely because people outside German-occupied Europe could not believe Jews were being exterminated on that scale. The concept of genocide, let alone the term, did not exist yet, so no one could comprehend a methodical, systematic, and deliberate elimination of an entire people (though similar campaigns had been undertaken before, and have since been labeled genocides).
Ultimately, over six million Jews would be killed, along with another five to six million other “undesirables”. Poland would suffer the worst WWII losses proportionally, with nearly one out of four Polish people killed, including nearly all Jews (once the largest and most vibrant Jewish community in the world).
On this day in 1943, Heinrich Himmler—one of the most powerful Nazi leaders, and the main architect of the Holocaust—ordered that people of full or part Romani ancestry (a.k.a. gypsies) were to be put “on the same level as Jews and placed in concentration camps”.
Thus began the systematic extermination of Romani people all over Europe, resulting in 220,000 to 500,000 deaths—a quarter to nearly half the total population—though some figures put the death toll as high as 1.5 million. This event is sometimes known as the “Porajmos”, meaning “the Devouring”.
Himmler’s order was the culmination of the racist Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which classified Gypsies, like Jews, as “enemies of the race-based state”, ripping away their German citizenship accordingly. It also reflected centuries of hatred and antipathy towards the Romani.
Better known as Gypsies—after Egypt, which was believed to be their origin—the Romani or Roma people (to use their proper name) actually arrived in Europe and the Middle East from northern India over a millennium ago; many still retain some Hindu beliefs, customs, and symbolism, and speak a language related to Hindi. (Moreover, tens of millions of Indians maintain a similar nomadic lifestyle.)
Like the Jews, the Romani were regarded as an alien race, inherently strange, untrustworthy, degenerate, and devious. In some of the earliest records, they are described as satanically inspired wizards—hence the trope of the Gypsy curse or fortune teller. Depending on the time and place—or whether people needed a scapegoat—the Romani were either grudgingly tolerated, or chased out and killed. They were often subject to similar discriminatory laws and treatment, including enslavement, forced assimilation, separation from their children, and pogroms. They were banned from immigrating to the U.S., Argentina, and other settler countries. There is even a term for hatred towards them that is equivalent to anti-Semitism: Antiziganism.
Thus, as with the Jews, the Nazis simply tapped into a long-existing prejudice that was widespread and deeply rooted throughout Europe, which is why so many Europeans collaborated in rounding up, imprisoning, and killing them. It is believed part of the impetus for their mass targeting was the heavy resistance they posed to Nazi occupiers, especially as nomadic peoples who were often not well documented in national census data.
Unfortunately, it was their widespread invisibility that partly explains why Romani remain relatively forgotten, despite being one of the Nazi’s biggest targets. Overall records of their population before the Holocaust are sparse or unreliable, and after the war few gave them any mind; West Germany did not recognize them as victims of the Holocaust until 1982. Some scholars also attribute this to Romani culture, which is “traditionally not disposed to keeping alive the terrible memories from their history—nostalgia is a luxury for others”. Others blame the effects of pervasive illiteracy, the lack of social institutions, and rampant discrimination to this day, which has deprived the Romani of “national consciousness” and historical memory.
Pictured are Romani people being round up by German police in 1940; most were likely still detained, and thus later killed, following Himmler’s order.
On this day in 1940, Italy invaded Greece after Greek prime minister Ioannis Metaxas rejected Benito Mussolini’s ultimatum demanding that Greece give up its territory. It is commemorated as a public holiday called “Ochi Day”, because the reply was said to have been simply “No”. (Ochi in Greek).
Unsurprisingly, such a terse response by an underdeveloped little country could not stand, and the Italians launched their invasion almost immediately. The rough terrain and unexpectedly fierce resistance by the Greek Army forced the Italians to fall back, with the Greeks launching a counter-offensive that wiped out a key division and ground into a stalemate. The event is regarded as the “first Axis setback of the entire war”, with the Greeks “surprising everyone with the tenacity of their resistance.”
Indeed, the Germans were forced to intervene on behalf of their ally, whom they henceforth regarded as a liability. It took the combined efforts of Italy, Germany, and Bulgaria (a little-remembered Axis satellite) fighting on two fronts to expend Greece’s limited manpower and resources. The country finally fell on June 1941, more than seven months after the first Italian invasion. The conflict spelled the beginning of the end of Italy as a major Axis power; a few more setbacks were to follow, rendering them a mere satellite dependent on Germany. The Greek War also negatively impacted Axis forces in the North African Theater.
Uniquely, Greece would be occupied by three different Axis forces until its liberation in 1944: the Italians, Germans, and Bulgarians. Nevertheless, they would maintain one of the largest and most tenacious resistance forces in the Second World War: one resistance group alone, the National Liberation Front (EAM in Greek) counted 1.8 million members by 1944, out of a total population of 7.5 million.
Pictured are some political cartoons from the time that widely mocked Mussolini and gave some hope that the Axis weren’t so unstoppable after all (a hope that would not be realized, at great cost, for nearly five years).
My personal favorite is the one that references the Greek legend of the Sword of Damocles, with the “Roman Axe” (or “fasces”, from where the word fascism derives) standing in for the sword that symbolizes inevitable peril for those in power (the lion represents the U.K., which attempted to aid Greece during its conflict).