What the Titanic Can Teach Us About Surviving Climate Change

What the Titanic Can Teach Us About Surviving Climate Change

by Michael Weishan

The Titanic leaving Belfast shipyard, one day old. Exactly two weeks later she would lie on the bottom of the Atlantic.

The time is 11:39 PM April 14, 1912 and the largest moving object mankind ever created is about to rendezvous with destiny.

In a little more than 60 seconds, a several-thousand-year-old piece of ice will scrape along the hull of a two-week old liner named Titanic [all external links are to wikipedia unless noted], dooming the glittering pride of the White Star Line. She carries on this her maiden voyage 885 crew catering to 1317 pampered passengers, with just 20 lifeboats, enough to hold roughly half of those on board. Why so few? A little noticed lobbying effort a decade earlier by the major shipping lines had successfully argued that lifeboats (expensive to build and maintain, and worse, consuming revenue-generating deck space) were unnecessary in an era of water-tight doors and wireless communication. Modern technology, shipwrights claim, render their vessels virtually unsinkable, a view shared by three of the most competent nautical experts of the age, now hastily summoned to the bridge of the suddenly silent liner. In command is Captain Edward Smith, the commodore of the White Star Line. His presence aboard this crossing is intended as an honorific farewell: on reaching New York, he will retire from a largely uneventful 50-year career at sea. With him, naval architect Thomas Andrews, the ship’s designer, aboard to fine-tune last-minute details and make notes for improvements to the Titanic’s two sisters, the earlier Olympic, and a behemoth still in the ways, to be christened Gigantic. Finally, the man who had envisioned and willed this transatlantic trio into existence, J. Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line. These three, with a over a century of nautical expertise shared between them, know more about the Titanic than anyone else on earth.

Yet despite this vast know-how, they are utterly powerless to alter their shocking circumstances: having quickly surveyed the ship after the collision, designer Andrews reports to a stunned Smith and Ismay that the Titanic will be on the bottom of the Atlantic within two hours.

Setting aside this tragic narrative for a moment, let’s examine our own present situation, as we recently did at the “Beyond Tomorrow: Safeguarding Civilization Though Turbulent Times” conference at Harvard University in October 2015, co-hosted by the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Foundation and El Camino Project [link to external site]. Speaker after speaker, Ambassador Bruce Oreck, ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin, and NASA historian Erik Conway among others warned that we, as a nation and as a planet, are in dire trouble; embarked on a one-way journey that will end at best badly, and at worst tragically; and that we now face critical choices that must be met with courage and resolve. A ripple of disquieting realization washed over the conference participants, many of them students just beginning their lives, as each struggled to find a balance between optimism and pessimism, hope and despair. Surely, many asked, it can’t be as bad as all that?

Captain Edward Smith

The reaction was eerily the same that starlit April night in 1912. Early on, before the Titanic’s wounded bow began visibly settling into the 29º F water of the Atlantic, few passengers cared to leave the glowing decks for the dark cramped lifeboats now dangling from the davits. (Had the passengers known there had never been an evacuation drill and that many crewmen were unfamiliar with the process of lowering the boats, even more would have resisted.) As it was, the first few lifeboats were lowered pitifully under-filled, most of the passengers preferring to wait in the luxurious warmth of the library, the smoking room or the grand first class stairway, where the large clock portraying “Honor and Glory Crowning Time” relentlessly tick-tocked down the seconds, poignant counterpoint to the beat of the ragtime tunes being played by the ship’s orchestra. It was a scene of surreal calm, the last moment of peace many there assembled would ever know.

Thomas Andrews

“Surreal calm.” Does that strike a foreboding yet familiar note? Down deep, most of us know that our planet is in trouble. Whatever your political stripe, your belief set, or whether you think the sea will rise 2 inches, 2 feet, or 10 feet over the next century, all you have to do is take a critical look around — like Thomas Andrews — and “sound the ship” to realize the proverbial engines have stopped and we’re taking on water. A sampling of alarming facts:

    • 80% of the Earth’s original forests are now gone, and in the Amazon alone we lose 2000 trees a minute.

    • 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic are now distributed across the world’s oceans, with a half-life that exceeds hundreds of years for many types of debris.

    • The desert has claimed one-third of the globe and is advancing into fertile dry lands on four continents.

    • Species extinction has risen from a normal rate of 1-5 per year to 20 per day. By 2050 half of all Earth species will be threatened.

    • Because of increased C02 uptake, the pH of the world’s oceans has fallen from 8.2 to 8.1, a 25% increase in acidity. By the end of the century, ocean pH is projected to reach 7.8. Fossil records reveal that such drops have previously triggered global mass extinctions.

    • While energy demand in the West is projected to remain relatively flat, global energy demand will increase by 70% in the next 25 years due mostly to a rise in developing-world consumption.

  • By 2050, even with sustainability initiatives in place, the human race will need 50% more energy, 40% more water, and 35% more food.

Of course, the great unspoken bugaboo behind all these figures is overpopulation, but few of even the most vocal climate change campaigners dare address this topic, and certainly none of our current crop of spineless politicians has the courage to do so. The issue is far too politically and religiously charged, and telling ugly truths never wins votes. But no prescient talent or special technological expertise is required to understand that adding an additional 3-4 billion people to our planet in the next several decades will overwhelm an already overburdened ecosystem. Even if climate change were entirely dismissed, these and many other indicators from across the planet show that the planet simply can’t maintain 10 billion humans, each trying to increase his or her share of a petroleum-soaked consumer-driven pie.

Add effects of climate change back into the picture, with millions of people from Boston to Bangladesh displaced by flooding and storms; critical infrastructure like our antiquated electric grid crippled; food supply distribution networks disrupted or destroyed by climate-induced sectarian strife; and vast tracts of formerly bountiful farmland in the American West, Central China and Northern Africa reduced to desert, nd you have an almost 100% surety of societal collapse. To quote lines from James Cameron’s movie version (link to imdb.com) of the Titanic tragedy:

J. Bruce Ismay

Ismay: [incredulously] But this ship can’t sink!

Thomas Andrews: She’s made of iron, sir! I assure you, she can…and she will. It is a mathematical certainty.

Let me then be equally clear: The Western lifestyle we enjoy in America in 2015 simply cannot be sustained, and it especially cannot serve as a model for the developing world. It is “a mathematical certainty.”

We have at last met our iceberg, and it is us.

So now what? Will it be “women and children first” as they did on the Titanic, or infinitely more likely in this self-centered age, “every man for himself?” As our species faces the grim realities, we can benefit from the lessons learned on a doomed transatlantic liner in 1912.

First and foremost: we must candidly and immediately acknowledge the full extent of the crisis.

Given their staunch Edwardian belief in the infallibility of human progress, Captain Smith, Andrews and Ismay may be forgiven for doubting that their “unsinkable” wonder could founder beneath their feet. One minute all was well, and the next, disaster. Yet the ship’s command quickly and accurately assessed the situation, overcame very powerful disbelief — especially hard because physical manifestations of the growing tragedy were not yet generally visible — and made the critical decision to abandon ship. At best, this would mean a highly perilous operation, which would subject passengers to a harrowing descent 70 feet down the side of the ship in tiny open boats only to strand them a thousand miles from shore in a freezing sea, surrounded by icebergs. If for some reason they were wrong, that things weren’t as dire as Andrews believed and the ship somehow remained afloat, they would have subjected their passengers to a potentially fatal ordeal that would destroy the reputations of all three men and damage the White Star Line irreparably.

But Smith did not hesitate. The order came to lower the boats, and it was this rapid acknowledgment that the impossible was in fact probable that saved the 710 passengers who eventually made it to New York. Despite the risks, despite the incredulity, despite the open resistance from passengers, one by one tiny boats began to drop into the frigid North Atlantic. Companion to this dreadful acknowledgment was another more frightful realization, silently admitted by only a select few, but equally valid today: not everyone would be saved, but every second spent in denying the realities of the present meant even more casualties. Our Internet-linked society has no excuse to deny or ignore the severity of our ecological crisis. Unlike those in 1912, we can see the iceberg. In fact, we’ve known about it for decades. We, in 2015, must follow the example of these three men: we must admit that the impossible has occurred and begin to make our plans based on worst-case scenarios, not the best. This was the basic premise explored at the Beyond Tomorrow conference.

We cannot use looming disaster as an excuse to do nothing.

In the Victorian era, the model of gentlemanly sangfroid was to meet one’s fate with silent resolve and grim reserve. But to modern eyes, going down with the ship simply yields another corpse. Picture millionaire Benjamin Guggenheim, who returned to his cabin, donned formal gear, and told everyone who would listen that he and his valet (who seemingly was offered no other choice) “we’re dressed in our best and prepared to go down like gentlemen.”

Really? Was that all a gentleman could do, dress in white tie and tails to passively await the end?

Hardly.

Benjamin Guggenheim and valet awaiting their fate in James Cameron’s movie version, Titanic.

History is pretty clear on this point: fortune favors the brave, and the brave favor action. As members of our planet’s privileged educated elite, we all become Benjamin Guggenheims when we intellectually acknowledge the coming crisis, but continue our carbon-soaked lifestyles unabated and unaltered, on the theory that we will either be dead before the worst comes, or, that small changes won’t matter anyway, so why bother? Small changes DO matter, then and now. On the Titanic, witness all those who fought to free the last collapsible lifeboats; or who like the artist Frank Millet, went below decks to aid steerage passengers who didn’t speak English; or the wireless operators Jack Phillips and Harold Bride, who stayed at their posts frantically signaling for aid until the power failed minutes only minutes before the ship foundered. Even a few of the passengers already in the lifeboats rose to the fore, including the soon-dubbed “Unsinkable” Molly Brown, the rough-and-tumble Colorado mining heiress who shared her ample clothing with shivering survivors, took an oar to help row, and then verbally bullied the lifeboat’s reluctant crew until they agreed to return and search for survivors in the water. None of these valiant actions altered the trajectory of the main event, but they did mitigate the degree of the disaster in many ways. Those who were saved, were saved through action, not inaction.

The same is true today. While truly “sustainable” environmental policies are a myth (sustainability is defined as “continuing indefinitely” and no current technology or program comes even close to meeting that mark) the net effect of these initiatives is positive as long as they don’t lull us into believing that the crisis isn’t upon us. The water is still creeping up the decks, but every direct action that attempts to mitigate the problems confronting us multiplies the scope of possible outcomes exponentially.

Don’t depend on technology to rescue us.

One Beyond Tomorrow participant, New York Times columnist David Brooks [link to NY Times], expressed a commonly held skepticism about doomsday scenarios. “Challenges to civilization have occurred before, and always something comes along to save the day,” he stated. Many people clearly want to agree, cherishing the hope that some sort of technology will be invented to reverse global warming or drastically lower carbon emissions. This is a conveniently comforting sop, which we must immediately abandon.

The plan of the watertight doors on the Titanic, indicated by the bold vertical lines. The ship could remain afloat with first four watertight compartments flooded, which Andrews imagined the worst possible outcome of a direct head-on collision. The iceberg however had other ideas. Skipping along the hull of the ship, it damaged each of the first five compartments, cutting just far enough along the hull to allow the sea to spill from one compartment to another, dragging the ship down by the bow. Human technology has a poor track record when pitted against the forces of nature.

The Titanic clearly demonstrates the fallacy of putting too much credence in miraculous salvation. Repeatedly Captain Smith and others aboard the doomed liner thought they saw the lights of a ship just over the horizon, and they tried everything they could think of to signal this phantom-like vessel — Morse lamp, rockets, wireless. All in vain. The mystery ship, the Californian, was indeed there, just 10 aching miles away, but her commander inexplicably dismissed the Titanic’s signals as “company flares.” (Why any liner would be sending up gratuitous rockets mid-ocean he never explained.) Even worse, the Californian had a sole radio operator, asleep in his cabin when the distress calls came through. If the passengers and crew of the Titanic had hesitated to board and launch the lifeboats, expecting instead salvation from that almost tangible glimmering hope, no one would have survived the sinking at all. Yes, it’s possible some future technological advance may save us from ourselves at the last minute. It’s equally possible one won’t. We can’t afford to wait and see.

Don’t expect our national leaders to save the day.

After the grim decision to lower the boats, the three men most responsible for safety of the Titanic reacted in remarkably different ways. J. Bruce Ismay, who early on helped passengers into the lifeboats, inexplicably hopped into one himself and stepped off the deck of his sinking ship with thousands still on board. Captain Smith, after an initial burst of decisive action, became unresponsive and withdrawn as critical decisions mounted, and was last seen standing alone on the bridge, silently waiting as the water crept over the raised threshold of the wheelhouse. Thomas Andrews did what he could, going from stateroom to stateroom, urging passengers into the boats. According to one survivor’s testimony, he met his end in the smoking room, staring into a painting over the fireplace ironically entitled “Approach to the New World.” Another account has him frantically throwing deck chairs into the ocean to use as floats. Regardless, over a thousand people remained clinging to the rapidly sloping decks, and all but a few would be dead within the hour. The lesson here is clear. When confronted with overwhelming crisis, the leaders we so depend on may be unable to act effectively, and it falls to individuals and small groups to save themselves and others.

A perfect example: our own US government’s dysfunctional response when confronted by the early and evident signs of climate change as much as 40 years ago, a response which remains woefully lacking today. Democratic and Republican administrations alike might have moved decisively on environmental legislation when it could have been highly effective, but failed to act, as both parties were (and continue to be) held captive by special interests that reap huge short-term profits from the status quo. This same paralysis is evident across the globe, as time and time again world leaders sound an alarm, then fail to agree to practical steps. However, as our speaker Dr. Erik Conway pointed out, local, state and regional initiatives have been proven highly effective in changing national and international patterns of behavior. Dr. Conway cited California’s insistence on cleaner emissions standards for cars; this legislation, which was fought by auto manufacturers for decades in the courts, was eventually upheld. Loath to lose the lucrative California market, the manufacturers gave in, and shortly thereafter these rules became the national standard. Corporate America reacts to one thing only, the almighty dollar, and if enough dollars move to one side of the scale, even the most reluctant corporate players will switch sides. Another example: the organic/local food movement, which was pooh-poohed by government and business alike 30 years ago, but because of bottom-up pressure by consumers has become an important force that now shapes issues of health and lifestyle, as well as affecting economic decisions about land use and urban planning across the US and Europe. It’s clear that micro actions like these, especially when backed by purchasing power, often can and do have macro effects.

Lastly, don’t allow civilization to become another casualty.

In times of crisis, especially when human lives are at stake, it’s easy to push thought of saving elements of our culture — history, the arts, music, literature, language — to the side. But it is these very elements that constitute our human civilization, which, along with the rule of law, form the basis of the liberal Western democracy we enjoy. The value of art in a time of tragedy was clearly demonstrated on the Titanic by members of the ship’s band who calmly set up their instruments on the open deck as the lifeboats were loaded all around them. One might be excused in thinking that this was done from duty: they were crew after all. But they weren’t, which makes their actions all the more noteworthy. The White Star Line, in an effort to save money, carried them as private contractors in 2nd class. As such, these eight men had as much right to save themselves as any other passenger, but instead remained and played, according to many survivor accounts, until the decks became too steep to stand upon. The scene must have been almost unimaginable: the brilliantly illuminated Titanic, sinking by the bow into an absolutely flat black sea, so calm in fact not a crest rippled the mirror of a million stars that crystal night. There is absolute stillness other than the low rumble of people on the decks, punctuated by the shouts and creaks of the davits being lowered, and the periodic report as emergency flairs whistle into the sky, burst, then fade. Suddenly, through the frigid air, clearly audible to those on deck and even to those a quarter-mile away in the boats, arrive the first cheering notes of the “The Merry Widow’s Waltz,” the jaunty beat of ‘“Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Silver Heels,” or “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee,” and then, towards the end, more somber tunes like the wistful serenade “Songe d’Automne.’” Almost every survivor account mentions the music, and the effect this had in suppressing panic almost to the end: while the music lasted, hope remained. The eight musicians of the Titanic knew this instinctively, and because they did, surrendered their lives to a man. Music, the arts, literature, history — these are the elements that bind the veneer of civilized behavior to our lesser natures. As a species, we move forward without them at our utmost peril.

The sad truth is that no single resolve will get us off the fateful voyage we’ve embarked on. Like the passengers on the Titanic, we’ve long since left the safety of the harbor, and now we find ourselves in peril mid-ocean, without hope of external rescue. Today, our Titanic is the planet, our sea, this empty part of the universe, where we are truly alone. And like those luckless souls of a century ago, it’s becoming rapidly clear to even the most ardent naysayers that we’re not going make our intended landfall.

Lamentably, we brought this tragedy on ourselves, and we will have to endure it to the end. But how we survive, how many survive, and how well, is still up to us.

Time to man the boats.

One of the Titanic’s lifeboats as photographed from the rescue vessel Carpathia, April 15th 1912.

Author, historian and PBS Host Michael Weishan is the Executive Director of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Foundation at Harvard, a co-sponsor, with El Camino Project, of the Beyond Tomorrow Conference at Harvard University, October 16-18 2015.

©2015 Michael Weishan, all rights reserved.

CHRISTMAS, 1941

Roosevelt addresses the crowd at the Christmas tree lighting ceremony from the White House South Portico on December 24, 1941. Churchill can be seen on the right. (FDR Presidential Library)

It was Christmastime when Prime Minister Winston Churchill arrived in Washington on December 22, 1941—two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor and eleven days after Hitler audaciously declared war on the United States.

For eighteen months Churchill had wooed Roosevelt, cajoling, charming, and even begging him to bring the United States into the war against Germany. Now Churchill’s prayers were answered:  the United States would certainly enter the war. On learning of the attack, Churchill later wrote, “Being saturated and satiated with emotion and sensation, I went to bed and slept the sleep of the thankful and the saved.”

Churchill had come to Washington to make sure that earlier agreements of an Anglo-American alliance against Germany (should America enter the war) remained firm in the face of the Pearl Harbor attack. Understandably, the American people had an overwhelming desire to strike back at the Japanese. Churchill needed to turn them from thoughts of revenge to Britain’s view of the realities of the Axis threat. His task was made more difficult by Japan’s stunning victories in the weeks following Pearl Harbor. In the Philippines American troops were trapped on the southern tip of the Bataan Peninsula and the Rock of Corregidor. Within a matter of days, Guam, Wake, and Hong Kong had fallen. American territories were being invaded and American lives lost. Americans wanted to throw everything they had against the Japanese.

Yet there was Britain’s precarious position to consider: if the Soviets fell, Hitler would throw his full strength into the temporarily delayed invasion of the United Kingdom. If Britain fell, what would be next for the United States? Germany was the more powerful of the foes. In an Anglo-American alliance, Churchill’s longstanding policy was the defeat of “Germany First.” He needed to make sure that the great power of the American war machine was leveled first against Hitler and second against the Japanese. Fortunately, Roosevelt agreed with him. But his position was not without dissent from some military advisors—and critics in the press and public.

Whatever his motives, Churchill’s presence was a tonic to the shattered Americans. On December 23 he joined FDR in a news conference in the Oval Office. More than two hundred journalists crowded into the room, some using edges of the president’s desk to take notes. “Wearing polka dot bow tie, a short black coat, and striped trousers,” Doris Kearns Goodwin tells us, Churchill

stared imperturbably into space, his long cigar between his compressed lips as Roosevelt spoke. When the time came for the prime minister to speak, reporters in the back called out that they could not see him. Asked to stand, Churchill not only complied, but scrambled atop his chair. “There was a wild burst of applause and then cheering,” The New York Times reported, . . . “as the visitor stood there before them, . . . with confidence and determination written on the countenance so familiar to the world.” (p. 303)

Bernard Baruch was among those invited to the White House that Christmas season. He “believed that Churchill’s visit would ‘galvanize’ American public opinion,” according to Eleanor Roosevelt biographer Blanche Wiesen Cook.

With the Pacific fleet in ruins, Wake Island fallen, Singapore besieged, and the Philippines invaded, Baruch considered Churchill “the best Christmas present” to restore heart and hope to the Allied world. “The pink-cheeked warrior in the air raid suit” was the leading symbol of resistance to the Blitz: “Do your worst, we can stand it,” his presence seemed to say. “We won’t crack up.” (Cook, pp. 409–410).

Wartime blackout regulations and tight security precautions were already in place in Washington; nevertheless, Roosevelt insisted on lighting the national Christmas tree. Various reports describe the event. “Our strongest weapon in this war is that conviction of the dignity and brotherhood of man which Christmas Day signifies,” he declared. Churchill joined Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt on the balcony of the White House before a crowd of 20,000 and in a national radio broadcast that reached millions. “Let the children have their night of fun and laughter,” Churchill said, and then:

Let the gifts of Father Christmas delight their play. Let us grown-ups share to the full in their unstinted pleasures before we turn again to the stern task and formidable years that lie before us, resolved that, by our sacrifice and daring, these same children shall not be robbed of their inheritance or denied their right to live in a free and decent world.

On December 26 Churchill addressed a Joint Session of Congress, declaring himself half-American. “By the way, I cannot help reflecting that if my father had been American and my mother British instead of the other way around, I might have got here on my own.” Much to Eleanor Roosevelt’s distress (who had a more internationalist vision), he stressed the unity and implied superiority of the English-speaking world, speaking of the “outrages they have committed upon us at Pearl Harbor, in the Pacific Islands, in the Philippines, in Malaya and the Dutch East Indies.”

Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt give a joint press conference in the Oval Office of the White House, December 23, 1941. (FDR Presidential Library)

The White House hosted a steady stream of diplomatic and military dignitaries during Churchill’s two-week visit. Meetings were held every day and long into the night—including Christmas day when a War Council was held from 5:30 to 6:45 pm. The war planners set themselves to the business at hand: North Africa, the Pacific and Southeast Asia, military strategy, war production, tonnage, and the Far East were among the subjects of talks. Ambassador Maxim Litvinov from the USSR, Prime Minister Mackenzie King of Canada, and the chiefs of the American Republics of South America and the Missions of the Allied Power and Refugee Governments came and went.

Since Churchill’s arrival he and FDR had been working on a Joint Declaration of Unity and Purpose for the Allies. As they laid the groundwork for war, they also began to frame the peace. It was FDR who suggested to Churchill on the morning of December 29th the name that would signify both war power and the promise of peace: the United Nations.

On New Year’s Day Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Maxim Litvinov of the USSR, and T. V. Soong of China signed the Declaration of the United Nations. An exultant Churchill declared, “Four fifths of the human race” has resolved Hitler’s end.

The next day twenty-two additional countries signed: Australia, Belgium, Canada, Costa Rica, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Greece, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, India, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Poland, Union of South Africa, and Yugoslavia. Subsequently Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Egypt, Ethiopia, France, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Liberia, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, Uruguay, and Venezuela signed.

Those countries that signed by March 1945 would become the founding members of the United Nations.

The Declaration read in part:

The Governments signatory hereto,

Having subscribed to a common program of purposes and principles embodied in the Joint Declaration of the President of the United States of America and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland dated August 14, 1941 known as the Atlantic Charter.

Being convinced that complete victory over their enemies is essential to defend life, liberty, independence and religious freedom, and to preserve human rights and justice in their own lands as well as in other lands, and that they are now engaged in a common struggle against savage and brutal forces seeking to subjugate the world,

Declare:

(1) Each Government pledges itself to employ its full resources, military or economic, against those members of the Tripartite Pact and its adherents with which such government is at war.

(2) Each Government pledges itself to cooperate with the Governments signatory hereto and not to make a separate armistice or peace with the enemies.

 

What then was this Atlantic Charter that underpinned the entire agreement?

It was nothing less than a declaration of goals for the postwar world, an instrument for peace forged in the exigencies of war: “after the final destruction of Nazi tyranny, [it envisioned] . . . a peace which will afford to all nations the means of dwelling in safety within their own boundaries, and which will afford assurance that all the men in all the lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want.”

To ensure that world, Roosevelt and Churchill called for permanent disarmament and envisioned a “permanent system of general security.”

All of the nations of the world, for realistic as well spiritual reasons, must come to the abandonment of the use of force. Since no future peace can be maintained if land, sea, or air armaments continue to be employed by nations which threaten, or may threaten aggression outside of their frontiers, [the signatories] believe, pending the establishment of a wider and permanent system of general security, that the disarmament of such nations is essential.

Churchill had come to the Atlantic Conference seeking American entry into the war against Hitler to preserve the British Empire. The Atlantic Charter was Franklin Roosevelt’s vision, a reimagining of the lost promise of the League of Nations and Woodrow Wilson’s failed vision for an end to all war. Out of it grew the United Nations—an ambitious idea for a post-war world of peace, disarmament, decolonization, democratic self-determination, respect for human rights, and free trade.

This is the legacy of Christmas 1941—and a reminder of work we have yet to complete.

 

Sources:
Cook, Blanche Wiesen. Eleanor Roosevelt: The War Years and After, Volume 3, 1939–1962. New York: Viking, 2016.
Goodwin, Doris Kearns. No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.

 

FDR’s Last Personal Diplomacy: Ibn Saud and the Quest for a Jewish Homeland

The alliance between Saudi Arabia and the United States goes back seven decades, to when King Abdulaziz, the founder of the modern Saudi state, met President Franklin Delano Roosevelt aboard the U.S.S. Quincy at the Great Bitter Lake in the Suez Canal.

New York Times, September 29, 2016

 With Saudi-American relations in the news again, I thought it worth remembering that today’s alliance had its beginnings in one last bit of Rooseveltian personal diplomacy: an attempt to use his redoubtable skills on behalf of European Jews.

The meeting with King Abdulaziz (often known in the West as Ibn Saud) took place immediately following the Yalta Conference in February 1945 when the Big Three—Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin, and Roosevelt—hammered out the final diplomatic agreements of the Second World War. Besides the conference with Ibn Saud, Roosevelt also arranged meetings with King Farouk of Egypt and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia that are little remembered today.

By scheduling the meetings without Churchill’s knowledge, Roosevelt breached the United States’ longstanding hands-off policy respecting Britain’s sphere of influence in the region. When Churchill learned of the meetings, he hastened to schedule talks of his own. But a change was already under way.

The strategic importance of the Middle East had become increasingly clear during the war, and Roosevelt’s economic and military advisers were anxious to secure America’s military presence in the Middle East—as well as cement America’s budding oil-drilling partnership with Saudi Arabia. These were solid reasons for Roosevelt to meet with Ibn Saud, but there is ample evidence that Palestine was the main purpose of the president’s visit.

In 1944 both Republicans and Democrats vied for Jewish votes with pro-Zionist planks in their campaign platforms. But this statement from Roosevelt, read to the Zionist Organization of America on October 15, confirmed the loyalty of American Jewry to the Democratic Party. “I know how long and ardently the Jewish people have worked and prayed for the establishment of Palestine as a free and Democratic Jewish commonwealth.   I am convinced that the American people give their support to this aim, and if reelected, I shall help to bring about its realization” (quoted in Breitman and Lichtman, p. 259).

Historian Robert Rosen and others point out that Roosevelt had also privately promised his Jewish friends to try to solve the problem of Palestine before the war was over. Before he left for Yalta, he conferred with Rabbi Stephen Wise and told his Cabinet that he would meet Saud and “try and settle the Palestine situation” (quoted in Rosen, pp. 409–410).  Historians Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman recount that after the election he began to make plans for the Yalta trip, stating to Secretary of State Edward R. Stettinius, “I am going to take a trip [the Yalta Conference] this winter and will see a lot of people. . . . I want to see if I can’t unravel this whole situation [the question of Palestine] on the ground,” leading them to conclude that Roosevelt hoped to use his personal, persuasive diplomacy to settle matters on Palestine (p. 297). In early January, Roosevelt told Stettinius that when he met with Ibn Saud after Yalta, he wanted a map with him that showed the small size of Palestine in relation to the Arab world in order to make the case that “he could not see why a portion of Palestine could not be given to the Jews without harming in any way the interests of the Arabs with the understanding, of course, that the Jews would not move into adjacent part of the Near East from Palestine” (Breitman and Lichtman, p. 299).

 Franklin Roosevelt and Ibn Saud meeting aboard the U.S.S. Quincy, February 14, 1945.

Franklin Roosevelt and Ibn Saud meeting aboard the U.S.S. Quincy, February 14, 1945.

Roosevelt’s translator at Yalta, Charles Bohlen, recorded in his memoirs Witness to History (p. 212) that Roosevelt raised the subject with Stalin during the Yalta Conference in a controversial conversation that contained an unfortunate remark that led some to label Roosevelt anti-Zionist. Breitman and Lichtman interpret the anti-Semitic exchange as an “ice-breaker,” which Roosevelt used to test the waters of Stalin’s potential opposition to a Jewish homeland in Palestine—and found no resistance (p. 301). Roosevelt biographer Frank Freidel agrees, “In actuality Roosevelt was stubbornly pro-Zionist, and had a difficult time with Ibn Saud when he tried to persuade the king to accept 10,000 more Jews in Palestine” (p. 594). Breitman and Licthman also tell us that Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles, who worked closely with the president, believed that Roosevelt “like the late Justice Brandeis, thought a Jewish state would become a model of social justice and would raise standards of living in the region. FDR also knew that Saudi Arabia badly needed outside funds for development. Surely a farsighted Arab leader would recognize such benefits—along with the advantages of American aid” (p. 299) Adding to all of these considerations, the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army in late January revealed to the world the horrors of the Holocaust. Thomas Lippman, another scholar of the subject, states categorically that Roosevelt met with Ibn Saud because “the Jews had a claim on the world’s conscience, and on Roosevelt’s” (p. 3).

By all accounts the meeting with King Abdulaziz was extraordinary. Ibn Saud and his retinue of 47—which included an astrologer and food taster—traveled across the Arabian peninsula from Riyadh to Jeddah where they boarded the U.S.S. Murphy for a two-day sail on the Red Sea to Great Bitter Lake in the Suez Canal. Only once before had the king left the Arabian peninsula. Fitted out for the king’s use, the Murphy’s deck was covered with colorful carpets and shaded by an enormous brown canvas tent. A flock of sheep, brought along for fresh meat, grazed in a corral. Food was cooked on charcoal braziers on the deck. Abdulaziz, 64 years old, a large and imposing black-bearded man dressed in Arab robes, his headdress regally bound with golden cords, was seated on a golden throne. The king was attended by barefoot Arab warriors armed with long rifles, each with a scimitar bound to his waist. One American witness described it as “a spectacle out of the ancient past on the deck of a modern man-of-war” (quoted in Lippman, p. 2).

Roosevelt waited on the U.S.S Quincy, surrounded by his own retinue of admirals and high-ranking diplomats. Ibn Saud was transferred to the Quincy and the two leaders, meeting from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on February 14, 1945, forged an improbable alliance that linked the two nations and shaped the history of the Middle East for decades to come.

I first learned about the meeting between Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz in 2003 when American Counsel to Saudi Arabia, Hugh Geohagan, visited the Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park. His purpose was to discuss returning to the Library a collection of objects that had been borrowed a few years earlier for an exhibition, “Gifts of Friendship,” in the King Abdulaziz Archives in Riyadh. Held in 2002, the exhibition commemorated the centennial of Abdulaziz’s rule by displaying the state gifts that he and Roosevelt exchanged in their shipboard meeting in 1945.

DC-3 passenger plane given by FDR to King Abdelaziz.

Ibn Saud’s gifts to FDR included brightly colored camel’s hair robes embroidered with gold, hand-painted perfume bottles, a bottle of granular musk, lumps of ambergris, a gold dagger set with diamonds, and a gold filigree sword and belt set with diamonds. In return FDR famously gave the king a DC-3 passenger plane (fully staffed with a crew supplied by the U.S), which marked the beginning of the Saudi Air Force. When he saw that the king had trouble walking, FDR spontaneously gave him one of his wheelchairs. The gifts were extraordinary, but not as extraordinary as the meeting itself.

Formal talks began after they had exchanged the gifts and enjoyed lunch and Arabian coffee. “Roosevelt came straight to the most urgent point: the plight of the Jews and the future of Palestine, where it was already apparent that the governing mandate bestowed upon Britain by the League of Nations twenty years earlier would come to an end after the war” (Lippman, p. 8).

Memoir of the meeting by Col. William A. Eddy, U.S. Minister to Saudi Arabia and translator of the meeting.

Memoir of the meeting by Col. William A. Eddy, U.S. Minister to Saudi Arabia and translator of the meeting.

An account of the conversation, FDR Meets Ibn Saud, was published by U.S. Minister to Saudi Arabia Col. William A. Eddy, who was deeply involved in the intricate intercultural arrangements for the meeting. Born in what is now Lebanon, Eddy was fluent in Arabic, and as translator, was the only person to hear both sides of the conversation between the two leaders. As quoted from Eddy’s account in Rosen (pp. 412–413), “President Roosevelt was in top form as a charming host, witty conversationalist, with the spark and light in his eyes and that gracious smile which always won people over to him whenever he talked with them as a friend. . . . With Ibn Saud he was at his very best.” Roosevelt said that he felt “a personal responsibility” for the Jewish victims of the Holocaust who had suffered “indescribable horrors at the hands of the Nazis: eviction, destruction of their homes, torture, and mass murder” and asked the king for his advice. The king replied that the Allies as victors should give the Jews and “their descendants the choicest lands and homes of the Germans who had oppressed them.” Roosevelt responded that the Jews had a deep desire to settle in Palestine and were fearful of remaining in Germany. The king said he did not doubt that the Jews did not trust the Germans, but “surely the Allies will destroy Nazi power forever and in their victory will be strong enough to protect Nazi victims. If the Allies do not expect firmly to control future German policy, why fight this costly war?” He lectured the president on the long history of animosity between Arabs and Jews.

Continuing with Eddy’s account as recounted in Rosen, Roosevelt persisted, saying that he counted on Arab “hospitality” and on the king’s help solving the problem of Zionism, but the king repeated his position. “Amends should be made by the criminal, not by the innocent bystander. What injury have Arabs done to the Jews of Europe? It is the ‘Christian’ Germans who stole their homes and lives.” Later Roosevelt returned a third time to the subject. The king lost patience, observing that American “oversolicitude for the Germans was incomprehensible to an uneducated Bedouin with whom friends get more solicitude than enemies.” Ibn Saud’s final remark on the subject reiterated his unalterable position. According to Arab custom, he said, survivors and victims of battle were distributed among the victors according to their number and their supplies of food and water. Palestine, he said, was a small, land-poor country “and had already been assigned more than its quota of European refugees.” Still Roosevelt persevered. “The Arabs would choose to die,” he told the president, “rather than yield their land to the Jews.” Roosevelt offered economic aid, irrigation projects, and improved living standards for the Saudi people who were then poverty stricken by war-time disruptions to their economy (quoted in Rosen, pp. 413–414).

But the king was adamant. Was his confidence shaken? He later told Eleanor Roosevelt that his failure to convince Ibn Saud was his one complete failure. To Rabbi Wise he said, “I most gloriously failed where you are concerned.” To Congress, in his report on the Yalta Conference, he said only, “I learned more about that whole problem, the Moslem problem, the Jewish problem, by talking with Ibn Saud for five minutes than I could have learned in the exchange of two or three dozen letters.” He later reported to Wise:

There was nothing I could do with him. We talked for three hours and I argued with the old fellow up hill and down dale, but he stuck to his guns. He said he could see the flood engulfing his lands, Jews pouring in from Eastern Europe and from America, from the Riviera and from California, and he could not bear the thought. He was an old man and he had swollen ankles and he wanted to live out his life in peace without leaving a memory of himself as a traitor to the Arab cause [quoted in Rosen, p. 415].

Roosevelt himself had less than two months to live. Judge Joseph Proskauer later recalled that FDR was frightened now for the Jews in Palestine. He believed that “either a war or a pogrom would ensue” (quoted in Rosen, p. 416).

 Diamond and gold dagger and scabbard given by King Abdulaziz to FDR. Courtesy FDR Library and Museum.

Diamond and gold dagger and scabbard given by King Abdulaziz to FDR. Courtesy FDR Library and Museum.

Why did he do it? This was one of Roosevelt’s last acts. Surely he knew that his life was slipping away. Too ill to endure a fourth inauguration ceremony on Capitol Hill, a swearing in was held at the White House followed by the second briefest inaugural address in history. Yet two days later he began his 14,000-mile journey to Yalta, where he secured his twin priorities of Soviet entry into the war in the Pacific and Stalin’s commitment to the United Nations. It was only Roosevelt’s vision of a secure and peaceful postwar world that sustained him—not only at Yalta, but also to extend his arduous journey and meet with King Abdulaziz.

Many historians have reported on Roosevelt’s supreme confidence, his steadfast belief that through personal diplomacy—by meeting adversaries face to face—he could solve problems that stymied others. Breitman and Lichtman report on a telling incident, “After attending a presidential session on the Middle East, State Department economic advisor Herbert Feis said, ‘I’ve read of men who thought they might be King of the Jews and other men who thought they might be King of the Arabs, but this is the first time I’ve listened to a man who dreamt of being King of both the Jews and the Arabs’” (quoted in Breitman and Lichtman, p. 299).

Despite his own failure at Great Bitter Lake, Roosevelt’s belief in the power of personal diplomacy was intact. It was, after all, the foundational idea for the United Nations—that is, that seemingly intractable problems can be solved in a world organization that brings people together to overcome their differences. A belief fervently shared by Eleanor Roosevelt, for FDR it was the only hope that the world could avert war.

With his health failing, FDR went to Warm Springs on March 30 to attempt to recover his strength. There he would write his “Jefferson Day” radio address, scheduled for April 13. He died on April 12.

 

With his powers of personal diplomacy failing, Roosevelt bequeathed to all of us the hope that what he knew about “science of human relationships” could be invested in a world organization. The fate of the Jews of Europe, like so much unfinished business of the Second World War, would fall to the United Nations. There has been no end to war, but neither has there been a Third World War.

 

Sources

Bohlen, Charles E. Witness to History: 1929-1969.  New York:  W.W. Norton, 1973.

Breitman, Richard and Allan J. Lichtman.   FDR and the Jews. Cambridge:  Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, 2013.

Coppola, John.  “A Pride of Museums in the Desert: Saudi Arabia and the ‘Gift of Friendship’ Exhibition,” Curator 48/1 (January 2005): 90-100.

Freidel, Frank. Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Rendezvous with Destiny.  Boston and New York: Little Brown, 1990.

Lippman, Thomas, W. “The Day FDR Met Saudi Arabia’s Ibn Saud,” The Link (April-May 2005):1-13.

Rosen, Robert. N. Saving the Jews: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Holocaust. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006.

 

When Reason Trumped Politics: The Remarkable Political Partnership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Wendell L. Willkie

As the American people nervously watch this year’s presidential campaign descend into a rant of name calling and outright crudity that would be inappropriate in a saloon, it might be wise to pause and look back 75 years to a remarkable partnership between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Wendell L. Willkie, opposing candidates in the 1940 election. Though the race was boisterous and equally contentious — FDR was running for an unprecedented third term to the horror of the Republican Party — each candidate managed to wage a vigorous campaign that kept sight of a shared common goal: the betterment of America. Even more importantly, their cooperation during that election year and in the years that followed likely prevented the collapse of Great Britain and provided America with its greatest fighting ally against the forces of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

This relationship is all the more remarkable considering….read more

Here, There and Back Again: A Tale of A Sign

A couple months ago, I received a call from a very courteous gentlemen in Santa Fe, inquiring whether or not I might want to buy an old, wooden sign. But not just any sign: An old “Adams House sign,” the caller said. “It dates to about the time of the Civil War, and originally came from Boston.” Oh, my ears perked up immediately, as I had once seen a faded old letter in the House archives a few years back…now if I could just remember the specifics…  But perhaps I should tell you the story from the beginning.

You see, before there was Adams House, there was the Adams House, one of Boston’s earliest luxury hotels. Opened in 1846 on the Washington-Street site of the historic Lamb Tavern, The Adams House Hotel possessed a stern Federal stone facade — and, critical to our story —  a large wooden sign above the main entrance. Later expanded with an annex in the 1850s (which still stands on Washington Street) the original structure was replaced with a much larger Victorian edifice in 1883 (now demolished).

The original 1846 Adams House Hotel on Washington Street, Boston.  (Courtesy: Boston Atheneum)

The original 1846 Adams House Hotel on Washington Street, Boston. Click to enlarge. The sign pictured above may be the very one we acquired.  (Courtesy: Boston Atheneum)

In 1889, King’s Hand-Book of Boston noted that the Adams House was “one of the finest and best-equipped hotels in the city, of which its dining-rooms and café are … conspicuous features.”

The Victorian iteration. The Adams Hotel is the large whitish building to the left; the 1850s annex is immediately to the right

The Victorian iteration. The Adams Hotel is the large whitish building to the left; the 1850s annex is immediately to the right

By the early 1900s, however, the Adams House clientele began to change, with short-term guests ceding way to local politicians and businessmen looking to secure cheap extended lodging near the Statehouse. Calvin Coolidge, notorious for his frugality, took a room at the Adams House for $1 per day in 1906 as a new member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. In an unusual display of extravagance a day after being elected governor in 1919, he expanded his digs at the Adams House to a two-room suite with bath on the third floor for $3.50 per diem. Coolidge was at the Adams House when he received the telephone call informing him of his nomination as Warren G. Harding’s vice presidential running mate in 1920.

The Adams House Hotel fell victim to declining revenues during Prohibition (deprived of the income from all those hard-drinking politicians and newsmen) and was closed in 1927. The main building was demolished in 1931. In 1930, Harvard, anxious to name one of its new Houses after the Adams family, acquired the name and goodwill from the bankrupt establishment as a legal precaution. That signed contract was the document I had remembered from the archives all those years ago, addressed to Professor James Baxter, who would shortly become the first Master of the new Adams House:

cover letter

contract-1So of course I was interested in the sign!

Pictures and descriptions flew back and forth as price negotiations got underway.

The sign as seen in Santa Fe.

The sign as seen in Santa Fe. Somewhere along the way, it was cut in two.

Based on typography and construction, the sign almost certainly dates from the 1846 iteration of the Adams House Hotel. (Whether it’s the sign you can see in the 1848 lithograph above we don’t know, but it looks almost identical, and the size and scale are an excellent match. The only real difference is that the sign in the illustration has raised capitals, but that might be artistic license. Regardless, this particular lettering style fell from fashion after the Civil War, so the sign most likely predates the 1882 Victorian incarnation.) The 18″ letters are gilt with paint, hand-carved into a single pine plank 2” thick, 2′ wide, and 16’ long, which weighs close to 80 pounds! The entire black background was then hand-chiseled to produce a rippled effect (click the picture below to enlarge). This was not an inexpensive sign, then or now. Though the exact provenance can’t be proven, a reasonable guess would be that the original hotel sign was retained as a showpiece when the first structure was demolished in 1882, and then later dispersed with the goods of the hotel during bankruptcy in the 30s. By the 1950s, the sign was documented in the hands of a Boston antiques dealer, who sold it to the mother of my caller, who also owned an antique shop — in fact, she named the business Adams House Antiques, where the sign remained over her Santa Fe door until she decided to retire this past year.

Long story short: a mutual price was agreed, the item shipped, and then I took a month or so to gently restore the sign, mending it back into its original single piece frame. Given its age, the sign’s condition is remarkable, no doubt due in part to the many decades spent in the humidity-free desert Southwest.

Here’s how it looks hanging in the Gold Room entrance to the dining hall:

signinsitu

The restored sign hanging in the Gold Room. Click to enlarge the image in order to see the fine chiseled detail.

So, a small piece of the first Adams House returns to its legal successor, the second Adams House, after one hundred-seventy years. A neat bit of cyclical history, don’t you think?

 


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Here’s a Health to King Charles

 

Screen Shot 2014-10-05 at 12.00.14 PMThroughout  the course of the the Restoration, I’ve been continually surprised and delighted to find little gateways back in time. Here’s another one. Last year, my dear friend Abbot Peterson ’58 died. Recently, his widow – another dear friend – Barbara, was cleaning out some files and came across an old 78. Labelled “Alvin V Laird sings to the class of 1904”, it had been mailed in 1950 to Abbot’s father, Abbot Peterson II, a member of FDR’s class. (As was Mr. Laird.)

The 78 contained two songs: “A Health to King Charles”  and “Dolores.” I haven’t been able to gather much information on “Dolores,” but “King Charles” was a very widely sung drinking ditty which would have been immediately recognized by FDR and Lathrop. The song is based on a poem by Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) and perfectly embodies the Victorian romantic longing for causes lost:

BRING the bowl which you boast
Fill it up to the brim;
’Tis to him we love most,
And to all who love him.
Brave gallants, stand up,
And avaunt ye, base carles!

Were there death in the cup,
Here’s a health to King Charles.

Though he wanders through dangers,
Unaided, unknown,
Dependent on strangers,
Estranged from his own;
Though ’tis under our breath,
Amidst forfeits and perils,
Here’s to honor and faith,
And a health to King Charles!

Let such honors abound
As the time can afford,
The knee on the ground,
And the hand on the sword;
But the time shall come round
When, ’mid Lords, Dukes, and Earls,
The loud trumpet shall sound,
Here’s a health to King Charles!

So here, after tracking down someone who still had the means to play and digitize a 78 (!!!), for the first time in over a century, may I present to you: “Here’s a Health to King Charles”

Click the bar below to listen

This song, by the way, is part of an ongoing process to make a CD of “The Music of FDR’s Harvard” that will contain many of these wonderful old melodies well overdue for a come back. As always, your help in making this and our other work possible is greatly appreciated