WWII: What Happened to France

Read the entire article "With Their Hands in Their Pockets" by Demaree Bess from the pages of the August 31, 1940 issue of the Post.
Read the entire article “With Their Hands in Their Pockets” by Demaree Bess from the pages of the August 31, 1940 issue of the Post.

The news from Europe stunned America: On June 22, 1940, France surrendered to Germany.

Just six weeks earlier, Nazi Germany had sent its army into Holland and Belgium. In response, the French army moved north to meet the German advance, and British troops joined the fight. But by June 15, the Germans were marching into Paris. Six days later, the French government signed an armistice with the Nazis.

Americans wondered how this could be. They recalled how during the Great War 25 years earlier, France and Great Britain had stopped an invading German army. The two Allied forces pinned the Germans on a battle line 450 miles long for four years. And despite losing over a million soldiers, France ultimately defeated Germany.

But now, in this new war, Germany’s army pushed Britain’s army all the way back to the English Channel. The British only escaped capture when a hastily assembled fleet of 800 boats withdrew them to England.

Now alone, France struggled on, hoping to avoid the fate of Poland, Norway, Denmark, Luxembourg, Holland, and Belgium. But on June 22, France, too, surrendered to Germany.

In the U.S., the Nazi’s swift victory caused many to reconsider their neutrality. Dismissing the Nazi threat was easy when they presumed France and Great Britain would stop Hitler. But now, with France occupied, one less nation stood between the U.S. and Germany. Great Britain remained defiant and free, but many Americans thought the country had little chance of surviving.

So what had happened to the French?

Post contributor Demaree Bess was in Paris, looking for an explanation. He didn’t find many answers. He didn’t find many Parisians, either. The government fled the capital, along with much of the city’s population. In “With Their Hands in Their Pocket,” Bess describes his days in an eerily empty city awaiting the German conquerors.

Today, you can find several explanations for the French defeat. The most obvious, of course, is the German army, which spent 20 years preparing for the second great war.

When World War I ended, Germany was left with little food, rampant inflation, a government in chaos, and crippling penalties imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. In their grief and anger, many Germans found it easy to believe the myth that Germany had been betrayed by treacherous Germans. As Germans loudly demanded the right to re-arm their nation, the German military began secretly training the next generation of warriors. Given time, training, and weapons, Germany could return to France and defeat it.

Meanwhile, across the border in France, there was no interest in more war. The French found little pleasure in their victory, which they’d purchased at the cost of 1.3 million dead. The nation went back to work, but this proved difficult with so many men missing.

The French government in these years poorly served their citizens. Bitterly divided by political factions, France proved unable to develop an effective policy for national defense. However, it built a massive military structure in anticipation of the next war. It has become the symbol of narrow-minded planning.

It was the Maginot Line; a system of forts, bunkers, and observation posts along the border it shared with Germany. When completed, these hundreds of buildings were considered the most advanced fortifications ever built. France believed the line was impregnable; the country no longer needed to fear German invasion.

Unfortunately, the line left two entry points wide open. At its northern end, its defenses ended where the French border entered the Ardennes Forest. French authorities believed no defense was needed in this area because rivers, broken ground, dense woods, and winding roads made the Ardennes impassible to a modern, mechanized army.

Beyond the Ardenne lay the border with Belgium. The French didn’t extend the Maginot Line into this area because they had a mutual-defense treaty with the Belgians. If Germany invaded Belgium, the French army would cross the border to fight alongside their allies. But as war approached, Belgium declared its neutrality. Hastily, the French and British began extending the Maginot Line to the coast.

On May 10 as French and British troops rushed into Belgium to engage the Germans, another German army group, with a million men and 1,500 tanks, rolled through the impassable Ardennes Forest to strike at the rear of the Allies. The end came soon afterward.

Today some Americans firmly believe France was defeated because it simply did not defend itself. The French army, for the most part, simply surrendered when they saw the Germans. The accusation is conveniently revived whenever Franco-American relations turn hostile.

The problem with the French-didn’t-fight theory is that it doesn’t explain the 290,000 French soldiers who were killed or wounded in only six weeks of fighting.

The Great War: November 14, 1914

In the November 14, 1914, issue: Canada goes to war, Great Britain looks for a new theme song, and a journalist downplays the atrocities of a nation invaded.

Booked Through for the Empire

By Maude Redford Warren

Over in Canada, the war enjoyed just as much support as in England, according to Warren. She wrote about the men she saw in an Ottawa parade of Canadian recruits. Their faces, she wrote, clearly showed“love for the Empire, the loyal urge that makes even a cheap soul worth while and that books their bodies through to the end, whatever it be, so it be for the good of the empire.”

But it wasn’t all flag-waving and happy parade. The author spoke with an elderly woman who had been walking alongside the recruits, among [whom/them] was her grandson. The woman spoke of the price she had paid to uphold the British Empire, and all the wars that were supposed to be the last.

Booked Through for the Empire by Maude Radford Warren
Read the entire article “Booked Through for the Empire” by Maude Radford Warren from the pages of the Post

“‘It seems to me now that that’s been my whole life — watching men march away. For when I was a little girl in Kingston I saw my father go to the Crimea and I had no more sense than to laugh and clap at the music and the flags. He never came back, and the comfort they offered my mother was that there never would be another war.

“‘My husband went with Gordon to Khartoum when I was a young bride, and though he came back to me he was never a well man. When I had to do his work and mine — not that I wasn’t willing, but it’s hard when a woman has children — the comfort he gave me was that the world was too wise now to have any more wars, except maybe in savage places.

“‘My youngest son went to South Africa, but I wouldn’t go to see him off; he never came back, and they said then that one proof that war was dying out was that England was so ill-prepared to carry through that one.

“Now my eldest son’s only son has gone with the artillery — the only one that could carry on our name. He is sailing down the St. Lawrence now, and maybe it’s true this time that this will be the last war, and maybe it’s not.’

“‘You didn’t try to hold them back?’ one ventures.

“‘No, though I’d never have asked them to go. If a man sees his duty to his country in that way it’s a woman’s place to do her share for the country too. I’m glad I’m a British subject, but there is surely no harm in saying that any woman is lucky who belongs to a country that doesn’t ask her for the lives of her men.’”

Vox Populi

By Samuel G. Blythe


The Briton spirit was just as determined and confident as the German, Blythe reported.

Vox Populi by Samuel G. Blythe
Read the entire article “Vox Populi” by Samuel G. Blythe from the pages of the Post

“There is no doubt that Great Britain is loyally and patriotically and unitedly in this enterprise, albeit there is a vast British population that does not yet appreciate the graveness of the dangers that threaten their land. Those who understand are loyal, and those who understand but partially are loyal also, so far as their understanding goes.

“‘This war,’ said [Home Secretary Reginald] McKenna, ‘was not of our seeking, but became our duty. Our case is clear, clean and perfect. It will be so held in the eyes of the world and so recorded in history. Therefore, we must win; and we shall win! There is no doubt of that.’

“‘We didn’t want to go to war,’ said the gardener at Sidcup, ‘but we had to go. Being Britons, we couldn’t do anything else. Now that we have gone to war, we’ll win!’

“Of all the men I talked to that Sunday afternoon there was not one who grumbled over the war, complained about it, bewailed his own hard luck — most of them had been hit one way or another — or expressed any but the most absolute conviction that Great Britain will win the war, and that the German Empire is to be eliminated. I did not find any whiners or any grumblers, or anything but a sort of stolid, philosophical view.”

One of the most discouraging war songs ever written appeared in Great Britain during these months. It was titled, “Your King and Country Need You!”

“This is sung nightly in every music hall and moving-picture show, and is more of a wail than an inciter to gallant deeds of arms.Here is the chorus, which is in slow march time, as the music says, and which the audience are invited to chant slowly with soloists:

“Oh, we don’t want to lose you, but we think you ought to go,

For your King and country both need you so.

We shall want you miss you; but with all our might and main,

We shall cheer you, thank you, kiss you, when you come back again.

“In order that the proprieties may be observed the author supplies a footnote, starred on the word kiss, which says: ‘When used by male voices substitute the word bless for kiss.’

Listen to “Your King and Country Need You!”, recorded by Helen Clark in 1914


Punitives Versus Primitives

By Irvin S. Cobb

Two weeks earlier, Cobb had brought up the topic of wartime atrocities: Germans slaughtering Belgians, and Belgians ambushing, poisoning, and torturing Germans. In this issue he reported on his investigation into the truth behind the rumors.

Punitives Versus Primitives by Irvin S. Cobb
Read the entire article “Punitives Versus Primitives” by Irvin S. Cobb from the pages of the Post

“From Belgian, from French, and from English sources I have had hundreds of tales of barbarities by Germans. From German sources I have had hundreds of tales of barbarities by Belgians, Russians, French and British — but particularly by Belgians. My deliberate personal opinion is that 80 percent of the stories are absolutely untrue.”

Cobb was, at the time of his writing, visiting the German side of the Western Front as a guest of the German army. For this reason, perhaps, he seems to have been quite sympathetic to their claims of innocence.

“I have found extended areas in Belgium through which hundreds of thousands of German soldiers had passed without signs of wanton damage of any sort — districts where the houses were all intact, the crops untrampled, and the fruit left hanging on the trees, and not so much as a window smashed or a haystack toppled over.”

He even seems to accept, with a regretful shrug, the Germans’ execution of a young Belgian woman. He heard the story from a German doctor in the border town of Aachen.

“During the investment and bombardment of the Liege defenses, a battery of German siege guns was mounted in the village of Dolhain. … From the accuracy with which shots from the Liege forts fell among them the Germans speedily became convinced that someone in the village was secretly communicating with the defending fortresses, telling the gunners there when a shell overshot the German lines or fell short. …

“A young girl, the daughter of a well-to-do citizen, was using a telephone that through some oversight the Germans had failed to destroy. From the window of her father’s house she watched the effect of the Belgian shells, and after each discharge she would call the fort in Liege and direct the batteries there how to aim the next time.

“For days she had been risking her life to do this service for her country. She was detected, tried by court-martial, convicted of violating the articles of warfare by giving aid to the enemy, and condemned to be shot. Next morning this girl, blindfolded and with her arms bound behind her, faced a firing squad. As I conceive it, no more heroic figure will be produced in this war than that Belgian girl, whose name the world may never know.

“‘I do not know how the American people will view the execution of military law on that brave young woman,’

said my informant. ‘I do know that the officers who tried her sorely regretted that, under their oaths to do their duty without being influenced by sentiment or by their natural sympathies, they sentenced her to death. They could do nothing else. She had been instrumental in causing the killing and wounding of many of our men. By the rules of war she had risked her life, and she lost it. Our troops … had no right and no power to spare the girl who, over the telephone, directed the fire of our enemies. But if I were a Belgian I would give my last cent to rear a monument to her memory.’”

Cobb never seems to think it outrageous that a young woman helping her country defend itself against an invading army should be executed as a spy or traitor. Yes, the monument idea was a nice touch, but it was a romantic gesture that saved no one’s life. There would be many more before the war ended.

Step into 1914 with a peek at these pages from The Saturday Evening Post 100 years ago.

Japan’s Bigger Game

Japanese Army in Manchuria
Imperial Japanese Army in Manchuria, 1931
courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Eight years before the fighting began in Europe, Japan was already at war in China. In 1931, the Empire of Japan sent its army into the northern province of Manchuria. By 1937, it had set up a puppet government in the province and was moving south toward Beijing and then-capital city Nanjing.

People were surprised at the ferocity and audacity of Japan’s invasion. With one-sixth the population of China, did Japan really think it could conquer 450 million people and control over 4 million square miles? What did Japan’s rulers hope to accomplish?

One goal was the government’s need to consolidate its power. Tyrannical governments use war to unite their subjects and to extinguish any opposition. For years, the military rulers in Tokyo had taken advantage of the China campaign to appropriate Japan’s resources for the war effort and silence their political opponents in Tokyo.

Step into 1939 with a peek at these pages from The Saturday Evening Post 75 years ago:

The invasion’s other goal was to make all of Asia into a colony of Japan. The Imperial Japanese army had begun with China, the closest and richest prize. Decades of civil war and the lack of a central government had left China vulnerable. But Japan was looking at an enemy even bigger than China, according to Edgar Snow. A highly respected China expert, Snow was writing for the Post back in the 1930s, and in the September 2, 1939, issue, he laid out Japan’s ultimate goal: “the liquidation… of the international system of balance of power whereby Britain has, for many years, dominated most of the Orient.” (Read the entire article from the September 2, 1939 issue of The Saturday Evening Post here.)

Japan had been applying pressure on the British colonial power throughout the 1930s. In 1937, when Japan had captured the Chinese city of Tientsin, its troops avoided the British concession — an enclave of British subjects and businesses enjoying an unlimited lease of land within the city. However, the Japanese began a campaign of harassment.

“It was a matter of no great astonishment,” Snow wrote, “that the Japanese army virtually incarcerated the entire British population of Tientsin behind electrically charged barbed-wire barricades. Or that a strict blockade was imposed. Or that British subjects were submitted to indignity as a matter of routine, such as having their false teeth examined, or having passports stuffed down their throats. Or that the samurai undressed and exposed British women to the full view of a not very interested Chinese public, some of whom were paid ten cents a day to assemble and recite an anti-British litany.”

Meanwhile, “British ships are stopped, searched, and excluded from Chinese waters,” Snow continued, “at Japanese will. [Britain’s military attaché] for China, is seized and imprisoned, apparently to be held indefinitely by the Japanese army. … Japanese aviators, having machine-gunned one British ambassador out of China, amuse themselves by bombing the British Embassy in Chungking.”

Japan hoped to force Great Britain out of Asia and take over her colonies. This would have been even more ambitious than conquering China, if not for the help of Japan’s two allies, Germany and Italy. Together, the three Axis powers applied pressure on Great Britain, first on one hemisphere, then on the other.

In 1938, Hitler demanded the right to occupy the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia. When the British caved in to his demands, the Japanese were encouraged to make demands of their own. In the summer of 1939, the British government again bought their way out of war in Asia by agreeing, in effect, to recognize Japan’s occupation of China and not interfere in its conquest.

“This at least is clear,” concluded Snow. “Under the leverage of the Eurasian Axis, Britain’s outer ramparts of empire in China are rapidly collapsing. A narrowing margin of political maneuver is forcing upon British diplomacy a decision between two extremes …  complete appeasement of Japan … or complete resistance.”

Reading Snow’s glum prediction, I’m impressed that Great Britain managed to avoid war in Asia for another two years.

Ultimately, even British maneuvering and negotiations couldn’t overcome Japanese audacity. In December 1941, Japan — still very much at war with China — declared war on Great Britain and attacked colonies in Malaya, Singapore, Burma, Borneo, and Hong Kong. And, apparently feeling two great nations weren’t enough of a challenge, the Japanese also declared war on the United States.

A Look Inside Germany’s First Conquest

Hitler reviews troops in Prague
Adolf Hitler, Czechoslovakia’s conqueror, reviews his troops in Prague, September 30, 1939
courtesy Wikimedia Commons

By coincidence, a Post article about Czechoslovakia, the first nation conquered by Hitler, appeared just as he was grabbing up his second.

“Nazi Germany’s First Colony” appeared in the Post on August 26, 1939, the day Hitler had originally planned to invade Poland (Read full article here). But his plans were pushed back, and the issue was still on newsstands when Hitler’s armies crossed the border into Poland on September 1. The ensuing blitzkrieg, which brutally crushed all Polish resistance, had little in common with the swift, bloodless conquest of Czechoslovakia.

The Czech republic had already been reduced when Great Britain and France allowed Hitler to occupy its borderlands in 1938. The next year, he returned to grab the remaining provinces of Bohemia and Moravia through threats of invasion. United Press reporter Edward W. Beattie Jr., who was in Czechoslovakia at the time, described the curious manner of the German invasion.

After bribing a taxi driver to take him toward Germany’s advancing forces, Beattie was startled when German scouts suddenly appeared, moving rapidly, coming down the road toward him: “When we met them head-on, the driver tried frantically to turn. It was too late. The unit began passing us. The officer in command leaned out over the side of [his] scout car. I thought he was going to ask for identification but all he said was: ‘From now on in this country, you drive on the right-hand side of the road.’ The occupation was as easy as that” (collected in They Were There: The Story of World War II, edited by Curt Riess, Garden City Publishing, 1945).

Step into 1939 with a peek at these pages from this week’s Post, 75 years ago:

There was no violence, no popular uprising, no guerilla warfare. The Germans simply took up residence in the capital city, Prague, and began appropriating what they wanted. Resistance was reduced to futile gestures, like the one Beattie recounted when he and other foreign correspondents had visited a nightclub. Taking advantage of their journalistic immunity, the reporters ordered the band to play “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” “Over There,” and other Allied songs from the First World War. In a scene reminiscent of the movie Casablanca, the songs made “a couple of dozen German officers at other tables [get] more and more restless.

“Finally two officers a short distance away pounded for silence,” Beattie wrote, “and one of them came over and demanded that we stop ‘insulting the German army.’ Later in the evening, when everyone was drinking pretty heavily, he drew me to one side and said, ‘You don’t think we like this sort of thing too much, do you? For God’s sake, let us try to make this occupation as decent as possible.’ (The army’s part in the occupation was decent in every way. Of course, the Gestapo and the S.S. arrived later.)”

Beattie’s observation was echoed by the Post’s foreign correspondent Demaree Bess: “Greater Germany has planted her first colony in the heart of Europe. Bohemia and Moravia … have become as much of a colony as any island in the South Seas. The Czechs have assumed the inferior status of natives. … [They] do most of the work and the Germans pull all the wires.” It was the Germans’ goal to turn the republic into an efficient workhouse and profit center for the German Reich.

In these early days, they were careful not to make their exploitation too obvious. As Bess wrote, the Germans still hoped to win the cooperation of Czech workers and industrialists. At least that was the intent of the new government the Germans set up in Prague. Their biggest obstacle, it turned out, was other Germans — the Gestapo, the S.S., and officials of the Nazi party.

Nazi officials descended on Prague with the sole purpose of enriching themselves. They were soon disrupting Czech manufacturing by raising production quotas while limiting managers’ profits. The Nazis were further disrupting the economy by ruthlessly exploiting the Jews.

“When the Germans entered Prague without warning last March, they made it clear at once that life would become intolerable for Jews,” wrote Bess. “Thousands therefore went to the German secret police to apply for permission to leave the country. They were told their applications could not be filed until they had made ‘satisfactory arrangements’ with a Nazi-controlled bank, which demanded full powers of attorney over their property.”

The full savagery of Nazi domination was still in the future. But already, under German rule, life was becoming miserable for the Czechs. Consequently, Bess reported, “I know of only one European country today whose people, in very large numbers, actually desire a general European war. That country is the German protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. The Czechs say they have discovered that some things are worse than modern war.”

They were about to find out that modern war could be much, much worse.

Listen to President Roosevelt’s August 28, 1939 address to the Herald-Tribune Forum. In talking about the need for peace, he is already distancing himself from the old policy of peace by appeasing Hitler.

Listen to a radio speech on the BBC given on August 27, 1939 by Jan Masaryk, the former head of the Czech nation. He had seen his country betrayed by his allies, Great Britain and France, who allowed Hitler to seize first the border regions of Czechoslovakia, then the entire nation, rather than go to war with Germany.

Adolf Hitler addresses Reichstag

Listen as Adolf Hitler justifies his invasion of Poland to an ecstatic Reichstag.
Meanwhile, as you’ll hear, Great Britain and France are hurriedly summoning their governments to respond to Germany’s aggression.

Did the Post See World War I Coming?

In the months following the start of World War I, government leaders on both sides expressed surprise and dismay to find themselves at war. Nobody, they said, had expected it, and certainly nobody wanted it. A Serbian terrorist had simply shot the heir to the Austrian empire. The next they knew, Austria had declared war on Serbia, which prompted Russia to mobilize its army. This caused Austria’s ally, Germany, to declare war on Russia. France then declared war on Germany, and soon Great Britain joined in, followed the next year by Italy.

<em>Italian troops parading in Rome.</em> June 20, 1914 © SEPS
Italian troops parading in Rome.
June 20, 1914 © SEPS

Surely someone must have seen “The Great War” approaching. How could something big enough to cause four years of fighting, 10 million deaths, and the end of three monarchies simply show up without any warning?

Americans were baffled. They had been paying little attention to Europe since the U.S. had forced an ailing Spanish empire to relinquish its Cuban and Philippine colonies. Generally, Americans were happy to ignore Europe’s problems and focus on their own prosperity.

The U.S. in 1914 was still a principally rural country, which had changed little since the 19th Century. The average American lived a horse-powered life on a farm or in a small town, and what he knew of the world came from a local newspaper or from magazines arriving by mail. If he was among the two million subscribers to the Post, however, he might not have been as surprised by the outbreak of war as were the crowned heads of Europe.

Just one month prior to the start of the war, Post journalist Will Payne reported from Europe, where he had been researching finances on the Continent. He learned that Italians paid more taxes than any other nation in Europe—and were glad to do it. Taxes were essential to maintaining their army, Italians told him, and preventing France and Austria from returning to rule them. In “Barracks and Beggars,” Payne reported that the people of Italy would pay their last cent and put every one of their men in uniform before submitting again to foreign domination.

When Payne crossed the border into France, he found the same militaristic attitude, but in this case the cause for concern was Germany. The French overwhelmingly supported the stiff taxes that were building up their army, though it consumed nearly half the national budget. Nor did the French object when the government extended the length of mandatory national service from two to three years. A banker told Payne, “I was in favor of that, and so, you will find, were a majority of Frenchmen. Look at what they are doing in Germany, with their new regiments and extraordinary war tax. If they arm, we must arm. It is the price of our life. Germany hates us as much as ever. To disarm would be to commit suicide.” Payne added, “nearly all Frenchmen talk the same way.”

<em>Review of French troops near the Invalides.</em> June 20, 1914 © SEPS
Review of French troops near the Invalides.
June 20, 1914 © SEPS

The French believed that military training not only kept the country strong but gave pride to its young men, as well as an appreciation of order and hierarchy. “At least a dozen men, first and last, emphasized the point that it taught obedience to authority; or, as one of them more accurately put it, ‘It teaches people that some must command and some must obey.’”

It was a similar story in Berlin, where Payne found “the German businessman speaks of his war taxes as insurance—that is, he regards the tax receipt as a policy of insurance that for another twelve months no British cruiser will shoot the roof off his warehouse.”

The militant spirit had infected Great Britain as well. The British feared losing the global dominance of its navy, particularly since Germany had begun expanding the number of warships. And so Parliament was continually increasing the budget to expand the Royal Navy. But a naval victory over Germany would be useless, the ministers argued, unless a strong, well-drilled British army could secure victory on land as well. So the army’s budget had to be increased as well. Meanwhile, “elderly gentlemen in possession of pleasant jobs and comfortable incomes” insisted that the young men of England required military drill and discipline to guard their character and protect them from dangerous social ideas.

English troops on parade in Calcutta. June 20, 1914 © SEPS
English Troops on Parade in Calcutta.
June 20, 1914 © SEPS

All the nations of Europe, Payne found, were locked in an ever-escalating spiral of military preparation. Every country feared the imminent domination by another.

So, for example, the German Kaiser would call on his nation to ensure its security with more men for its army and more millions for weapons. Russia and France would then call up more men for service and hike their taxes to regain the balance of power. And so Germany would launch yet another campaign to gain a strategic edge.

“Militarism is costing Europe about two and a half billion dollars a year to support in idleness some five million able-bodied men who might be productively employed,” Payne wrote, “and its path still pursues an upward spiral.”

He recognized the militant attitude would seem strange to readers of the Post. “Americans think of war about twice in a decade, and then with no very keen interest,” he wrote. “In Europe they think of it all the time.”

It wouldn’t have surprised him that, when the governments of Europe declared war, the news was welcomed by delirious crowds, who jubilantly marched up and down the streets of Berlin, Paris, St. Petersburg, and London. Men not already in uniform rushed to join the great cause, which would liberate their country, at last, from the perennial threat of some neighboring country.

The leaders of Europe’s government might have been surprised that the war came as it did, when it did, but they shouldn’t have been shocked by the war itself. As the Post had been reporting, they had been stoking the enthusiasm for it for years.

The Inevitable Tragedy of the Titanic

A century later, it might seem difficult to recapture how it felt to hear the news of the Titanic disaster. Yet it couldn’t have been much different from how we felt in 2001, when we saw the Twin Towers burn and collapse.

In both cases, there was an intense hunger for news—any news—that would explain what had just happened. In 1912, thanks to the telegraphic internet, every major newspaper had most of the details by the next day: the RMS Titanic, the world’s largest ocean liner, sailing from Southampton to New York, had struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sunk within hours. Over 1,500 passengers and crew members had drowned.

In 1912, as in 2001, learning what had happened proved far easier than learning why.

Several explanations were offered by American and British newspapers: the helmsman steered the wrong course; the builders used a poor design and cheap steel; the ship was moving at top speed even though the officers had been warned of icebergs; no one saw the iceberg until it was too late because the company refused to issue binoculars to its officers.

But when the Post’s editor wrote about the Titanic deaths, they directed no blame at Captain Smith, the White Star Line, or the Belfast ship builders. They pointed straight at the American and British governments.

The Titanic carried enough lifeboats to hold one third of her full complement of crew and passengers. The question, “What would happen to the other two thirds if the ship sank?” was never raised until it was too late.

A word from the Governments of Great Britain and the United States would have compelled every liner to carry enough lifeboats for all on board. That word was not spoken. The Governments took the chance of an unnecessary loss of over sixteen hundred lives.

Technically, the Titanic broke no law. British ocean liners were only required to carry 16 lifeboats, which could hold 1060 people. (The Titanic had 2,200 passengers and crew members, but only 20 lifeboats, and many of these were lowered away only partly full.)

The rules weren’t changed because the maritime authorities believed modern ships were inherently safe. In the ten years prior to the Titanic’s launch, over 6,000,000 passengers had crossed the Atlantic, and just 6 had been lost at sea. The British Board of Trade had begun regarding lifeboats as unnecessary equipment that took up valuable deck space.

The Saturday Evening Post of 1912 was as strong an advocate of business and capitalism as any American magazine. But its editors believed the businesses, left to themselves, would carelessly endanger lives.

Artist's Version of the Iroquois Fire.

Chicago had a fire ordinance relating to theaters. To enforce it rigidly would have put the manager of the Iroquois Theater to quite a little trouble and expense. It was not rigidly enforce—and [605 customers] died when the theater burned.

From a score of sickening examples, New York knew the danger of firetraps like the Triangle shirtwaist factory; but it didn’t care to interfere with the profits of the landlord—until the catastrophe! [146 garment workers died.]

Many stores in the United States are fire-traps, with inadequate exits, narrow aisles, and counters piled with inflammable stuff that would go up like tinder if a fire started. The Government knows this, but, generally speaking, will do nothing about it—to the injury of profits—until a holocaust somewhere forces its hand.

The Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire.

The public never knows. It reads of the steamer’s tennis court and swimming pool, of the theater’s handsome decorations; of the store’s bargain. The public goes, as a matter of course, with a vague assurance that there are laws and inspectors to make things safe.

Congress proposes to find out where the blame for the Titanic tragedy rests.

It rests, first of all, upon the Governments of the United States and Great Britain.

In fact, the Post reported, the U.S. government had been given fair warning of the problem, in no uncertain terms, two years before the Titanic took 1,500 people to their deaths. In February, 1910, the president of the International Seamen’s Union told Congress:

"Which?— Fate? — Or economy in life boats?" A 1912 cartoon.

There is not sailing today on any ocean a passenger vessel carrying the number of boats needed to take care of the passengers and crew, or a sufficient number of skilled men to handle the boats that are carried…

The average ship-owner knows this; but he must… carry passengers as cheaply as the other fellow.

If vessels are lost the insurance—that is, the public—pays the loss.

If passengers are lost that is very bad, but there is God to be blamed!

If seamen are lost, why there are plenty more idle men to be had on shore. They cost nothing, not even in the training, because they need no training, no skill being required by law.

As to the passengers, are they satisfied with these conditions? The passengers do not know. They are told a lot of rot about bulkheads, vessels so built that they will not sink or burn. Of course, we seamen know this to be the veriest nonsense.”

The warning may have been ignored because it principally concerned sailors, not the public. But the welfare of workers and the public, the editors concluded, was the same thing.


We wish to make the moral as broad as possible. Every one of us, every minute of the day, is in the same boat with the workingman. If we ignore his just complaints it is at our own peril.


“Lafayette Is Here”: The Post Covers A Hero’s Return

In the 43 years since he’d helped America win its independence from Great Britain, the Marquis de Lafayette had become a symbol of the revolution. Fighting alongside Washington, he had forced the British army to surrender, then sailed back to France to transplant liberty in European soil.

Early in 1824, President James Monroe invited Lafayette to return to the nation that still revered him, and the Marquis accepted. And so began a thirteen-month tour across all 24 states, covering 6,000 miles of miserable roads, bone-crunching carriages, and sluggish riverboats, one of which nearly drowned him when it sank in the Ohio river.

For older Americans of the revolutionary generation, Lafayette was a living connection to the great cause in their lives. To see the living hero, after all this time, would help bridge the gulf they felt between the early republic and the modern United States.

For younger Americans, Lafayette’s tour was an opportunity to celebrate the success of their nation. They would see for themselves one of the last founding fathers — a representative of all that their nation stood for.

As for Lafayette himself, this tour was one last chance to see his aging comrades-in-arms and to witness the state of the country he had worked so hard to create.

The Saturday Evening Post reported his arrival on August 21, 1824:

The Marquis Lafayette, the only surviving General of the seven years’ war of our revolution, was conducted from Staten-Island on Monday morning, and landed in New York city, amidst every demonstration of joy and admiration could be bestowed. The news of the General’s arrival had spread though the surrounding country with the rapidity of lightning; and from the dawn of day until noon, the roads and ferry boats were thronged with people who were hastening to the city to participate in the fete, and testify their gratitude for the services, and respect for the character, of the illustrious “National Guest.”  Our citizens also turned out in immense numbers at an early hour, and, together with the military, presented the most lively and moving spectacle that we have witnessed on any former occasion.

As a young nobleman, Lafayette has been inspired by all the talk of liberty he heard buzzing about in the salons and Masonic lodges of Paris. When the news arrived that Americans had risen up against Great Britain, he leapt at the chance to fight for the rights of man. And, because he was French, to humble Great Britain. And, because he was a young man, win glory on the battlefield.

He stole away to America, expecting to be given an army to command but, upon his arrival, found he would not be given any troops, or even a military rank. At this point, Lafayette proved he was more than just a priviliged adventurer. He volunteered to serve without rank and even donated his own money to the war effort. Impressed by the sincerity and enthusiasm of this young man and fellow Mason, Washington appointed him to his headquarters staff.

Within a month, Lafayette proved the wisdom of Washington’s judgment. At Brandywine Creek, he stepped in to act as a division commander when American soldiers broke and ran from an assault by British and Hessian troops. Though shot through the leg, he remained on his horse to rally the soldiers, mount a rear-guard defense, fight off another British attack, and skillfully withdraw the Americans to safety.

General George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette at Valley Forge.
General George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette at Valley Forge.

He remained at Washington’s side throughout the bitter Valley Forge Winter, and helped thwart a congressional plan to replace Washington with General Nathanial Greene. He led troops at the battle of Gloucester and was instrumental in the victory at Monmouth. By now, Washington and Congress regarded Lafayette as one of their best generals. Even Lord Cornwallis, commander of the British forces, recognized his importance and launched several attacks on the colonials to capture the Marquis.

In 1779, Lafayette sailed back to France to beg King Louis XVI for more soldiers and boats, then quickly returned to America, where he was given command of his own army. In 1781, the young General drove Cornwallis back across Virginia until he and Washington trapped the British at Yorktown and forced their surrender.

Now, at age 67, he was being showered with honors and crowded by the ecstatic veterans of that long-ago war.

Decidedly the most interesting sight was the [New York] reception of the General by his old companions in arms: Colonel Marinus Willet, now in his eighty-fifth year, General Van Cortland, General Clarkson, and the other worthies whom we have mentioned… He embraced them all affectionately, and Col. Willet again and again. He knew and remembered them all. It was a re-union of a long separated family.

After the ceremony of embracing and congratulations were over, he sat down alongside of Col. Willet, who grew young again and fought all his battles over. “Do you remember,” said he, “at the battle of Monmouth, I was volunteer aid to Gen. Scott ? I saw you in the heat of battle. You were but a boy, but you were a serious and sedate lad. Aye, aye; I remember well. And on the Mohawk, I sent you fifty Indians. And you wrote me, that they set up such a yell that they frightened the British cavalry, and they ran one way and the Indians another.”

No person who witnessed this interview will ever forget it; many an honest tear was shed on the occasion. The young men retired at little distance, while the venerable soldiers were indulging recollections, and were embracing each other again and again… Such sincere, such honest feelings, were never more plainly or truly expressed. The sudden changes of the countenance of the Marquis, plainly evinced the emotions he endeavored to suppress.

When a revolutionary story from the venerable Willet recalled circumstance long passed, the incident… made the Marquis sigh; and his swelling heart was relieved when he burst into tears. The sympathetic feeling extended to all present. The scene was too affecting to be continued. One of the [veterans], anxious to divert the attention of the Marquis, his eyes floating with tears, announced the near approach of the steam ship. The Marquis advanced to the water railing, where he was no sooner perceived by the multitude, than an instantaneous cheer most loudly expressed the delight they experienced.

Through this dense and towering host, (for the doors, casements, railings, windows, chimney and turrets of the buildings were hung with spectators,) the General was conveyed in a barouche and four horses, followed and proceeded by the Lafayette Guards, through the whole distance to the City Hall, which is near a mile.

The General rode uncovered, and received the unceasing shouts and the congratulations of 50,000 freemen, with tears and smiles that bespoke how deeply he felt the pride and glory of the occasion. The ladies, from every tier of windows, waved their white handkerchiefs, and hundreds loosed by their fair owners were seen floating in the air.

Several attempts were made by the people, both in going up and returning through Broadway, to take the horses from the General’s carriage, and draw him in triumph themselves.

This action, which was repeated in other cities, drew a stern disapproval from the Post’s editors.

We regret to see that in New Haven the populace took off the horses and dragged General Lafayette in his carriage. This is not the offering it becomes a free People to bestow upon a friend of Liberty. It is ill suited to the character of Republicans, and only fit for the slaves of some military despot who are willing, both figuratively and literally to wear the yoke. For the honor of the Nation, and, more than all, for the respect due Lafayette, we trust it will not again occur in the progress of such a man through a nation of free men. [Sep 4, 1824]