WSJ Historically Speaking: Pandemics Over the Centuries

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

As the Ebola virus ravages the west coast of Africa, scientists in Canada have reported promising new signs in the search for a cure. This could be a major step toward beating the dreaded disease. But the first such breakthrough was discovering that Ebola is spread through bats native to West Africa.

Throughout the history of pandemics, figuring out how a disease spreads has been key to controlling it. Without such knowledge, a population has scant means of defending itself.

In 1615, a French trading ship was wrecked off the coast of Massachusetts. One of the four survivors was carrying smallpox and passed it on to the Wampanoag Tribe. Time-honored Native American cures, such as sweating or bundling the sufferer, only helped spread the virus. Within 20 years, some nine-tenths of the New England tribes had disappeared.

In the 19th century, another deadly threat arrived from Europe: cholera. The U.S. had escaped the first eruption of the disease in 1817. But thanks to modern travel, the second eruption in 1829 became a trans-Atlantic pandemic. It started in India, then moved along the trade routes into Europe and China.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: Anthems Sung in a Patriotic Key

Photo: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

Photo: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

The burning of the White House on Aug. 24, 1814, by British troops under the command of Maj. Gen. Robert Ross isn’t an obvious candidate for national celebration. But the event, distressing as it was at the time, did have one silver lining. The amateur poet Francis Scott Key was so relieved that Baltimore’s Fort McHenry escaped a similar fate a few days later that he wrote a poem about it, entitled “The Defense of Fort McHenry.” In 1931, 117 years after the streaming red glare had revealed that the U.S. flag was still there, Key’s poem—renamed “The Star-Spangled Banner”—was officially designated the U.S. national anthem.

Admittedly, the anthem is a challenge to sing. Moreover, practically everyone outside the U.S. mistakenly assumes that the song refers to a battle during the War of Independence, not during the War of 1812. The long version also has an embarrassing tirade against the British (“Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution”), but apart from these hiccups, “The Star-Spangled Banner” stands head and shoulders above most of the other 200 or so national anthems in existence today. For one thing, it is jolly and optimistic—sentiments often in short supply among the rest.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: A Century of Russian-Run Traitors

Photo: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

Photo: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

August marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, when the Austro-Hungarian army shelled Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, in retaliation for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Serbian nationalists.

What the Austrians did not know at the time was that their war campaign had been fatally compromised. Their own head of counterintelligence, Col. Alfred Redl, had been selling the Russians information about the intelligence networks in the U.S. and Europe. Worse, he had given them all of Austria’s military secrets, including the attack plan against Serbia. Nor did the Austrians realize, until it was too late, that Col. Redl had been feeding his own side a diet of false information about the size and strength of the Russian Army.

Redl’s actions contributed to the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Austrians. But he was not around to witness his handiwork. After his surprise exposure in 1913, his superiors allowed him to commit suicide rather than face arrest—a piece of supreme folly that left the Austrians completely in the dark about the full extent of his betrayal.

 

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WSJ Historically Speaking: A Brief History of Media Muckraking

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Forty years ago this week, the House Judiciary Committee voted to impeach President Richard Nixon. Never comfortable with the media, Nixon made no attempt to hide his true feelings about reporters (especially Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post) or where he thought the blame belonged for his downfall: “It’s the responsibility of the media to look at the president with a microscope, but they go too far when they use a proctoscope.”

Many U.S. presidents have shared Nixon’s exasperation with the press. Theodore Roosevelt coined the term “muckraker” during a speech in 1906. He compared investigative reporters to the narrow-minded figure in John Bunyan’s 17th-century religious fable, “The Pilgrim’s Progress”: the “man that could look no way but downwards, with a muckrake in his hand.”

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WSJ Historically Speaking: Famous Lost Words

Famous Lost Words“Trigger warning” used to be a clinical phrase in psychiatry. Nowadays, the term has gone mass-market. It is often used in blogs and humanities departments to highlight a text that might upset an unsuspecting reader.

In the not too distant past, going to college meant being exposed to all kinds of subversive, rude and downright shocking literature. This often caused the authorities great unease. Plato (c. 429-347 B.C.) was the first educator to denounce the pernicious effects of the written word on impressionable minds. In “The Republic,” he argued that literature was a breeding ground for immoral behavior. The solution was to keep fiction out of the hands of children (ignorance being the sincerest form of protection). A century and a half later, in 213 B.C., the Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang put theory into practice and ordered the mass burning of all books save those on medicine, prophesy, agriculture and a few other topics.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: When Summer Is a Bummer

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Summertime has officially begun. But is it really true, as the George Gershwin song claims, that “the livin’ is easy”?

Benjamin Franklin advised his fellow Americans against seasonal complacency, observing, “Some are weather-wise, some are otherwise.” For many people, summertime means either the threat of floods and hurricanes or the pain of wildfires and droughts. Nothing easy there.

In Britain, however, summertime has always posed a somewhat different problem—more existential than experiential. As with invisible protons, being certain of the existence of the British summer requires a leap of faith. Lord Byron wasn’t convinced, writing, “The English winter—ending in July, to recommence in August.”

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The Wall Street Journal: Literature: The Tragic Poets of World War I

Photo: THE GRANGER COLLECTION, NEW YORK

Photo: THE GRANGER COLLECTION, NEW YORK

In the early 1940s, the English man of letters Robert Graves observed that patriotic verse had always been written in time of war—but only in World War I did the terms “war poet” and “war poetry” come into use, and both were “peculiar to it.” The soldiers in the trenches included enormous numbers of highly educated young men from nonmilitary backgrounds, who brought a new and different sensibility to the experience of war.

The first notable war poet to emerge was the young Rupert Brooke. His 1915 poem “The Soldier” captured the early spirit of duty and sacrifice: “If I should die, think only this of me; / That there’s some corner of a foreign field / That is for ever England.”

But the Brooke model was short-lived. Later poets challenged the idea that patriotism had any connection with such slaughter. Two in particular, Wilfred Owen (“Dulce et Decorum Est”) and Siegfried Sassoon (“How to Die”), came to symbolize the disillusionment of an entire generation. Where Sassoon was sarcastic, Owen was blunt, as in “Anthem for Doomed Youth”: “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? / Only the monstrous anger of the guns. / Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle.”

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WSJ Historically Speaking: When a Monarch Calls It Quits

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Abdication fever is sweeping the royal palaces of Europe. Recently, Spain’s King Juan Carlos became the third monarch in just over a year to renounce his crown. In January 2013, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands declared that she was stepping down in favor of her son, Prince Willem-Alexander. King Albert II of Belgium followed six months later.

Abdication in the old days was usually a prelude to execution. Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, or Tarquin the Proud (who ruled from 534 to 509 B.C.), is one of the earliest recorded examples of a monarch who was forced to abdicate and still lived to tell the tale. Tarquin was the seventh and last king of the Romans. Burdened by heavy taxes, the aristocracy was already wishing to be rid of Tarquin when his son raped the pious Lucretia. The crime proved to be the catalyst for the birth of the Roman republic.

Tarquin eventually retired to the court of a neighboring tyrant. There, bored and angry, he plotted endlessly to reconquer Rome. Today, if Tarquin is remembered at all, it is by the generations of British schoolchildren who grew up learning to recite “Horatius at the Bridge,” Thomas Babington Macaulay’s stirring ballad on Tarquin’s defeat: “Lars Porsena of Clusium, / by the Nine Gods he swore, / That the great house of Tarquin / Should suffer wrong no more…And how can man die better/ Than facing fearful odds / For the ashes of his fathers / And the temples of his gods.”

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WSJ Historically Speaking: The Great Swindlers

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Great swindles used to have a face or at least a name to vilify. By contrast, our current financial scandals seem diffuse, transnational and as incomprehensible as their acronyms. Libor, ISDAfix and now HFT, or high-frequency trading—all were once regarded as harmless instruments that facilitated the movement of capital. But there was more to them than met the eye. As the best-selling financial writer Michael Lewis, author of the recently published “Flash Boys,” recently said on “60 Minutes,” “The United States stock market, the most iconic market in global capitalism, is rigged.”

Though computers have increasingly replaced humans and business methods have grown more arcane, what links today’s scandals with those of yesteryear is the hypnotizing power of confidence. Violence can force people to act against their instincts, but only confidence can make us override them. Charles Ponzi, whose fraudulent postal-coupon scam in 1919 gave rise to the term “Ponzi scheme,” exuded such confidence that he was still able to attract investors even after he brought down six banks, lost about $20 million and spent 3½ years in prison.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: When Justice Drowns in the Law

Photo: ARTHUR GIRON

Photo: ARTHUR GIRON

In “The Federalist Papers,” No. 62, James Madison warned his readers against drawing up laws that were unnecessarily dense or complicated: “It will be of little avail to the people…if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood.”

Congress largely heeded Madison’s advice until World War II, when the average bill was still only 21/2 pages long. But today, 1,000-page spending bills routinely pass through Congress. President Bush’s 2007 budget bill counted 1,482 pages, while the 2010 Affordable Care Act ended up at almost 1,000 pages.

According to Philip Howard, the author of “The Rule of Nobody: Saving America from Dead Laws and Broken Government,” the chief problem with laws that rival “War and Peace” in length is that the rule of law suffers. Instead of being the facilitator for civil society, he warns, the law can become an instrument of paralysis.

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