Heard the One About the Peace Activist on the Titanic?

As we mark the 100-year anniversary of the unsinkable Titanic sinking, we should recall both the good and bad of that long-forgotten world of 1912.  Were an unbelievably expensive means of luxury travel between the United States and Europe invented today, there would be no reason to expect peace activists to be found among the passengers.  But it is not at all surprising that among the first-class passengers on the world’s largest ship in 1912 was a well-known advocate of peace.  This is what Wikipedia has to say about him:

“William Thomas Stead (5 July 1849 – 15 April 1912) was an English journalist and editor who, as one of the early pioneers of investigative journalism, became one of the most controversial figures of the Victorian era. . . .

“Stead was a pacifist and a campaigner for peace, who favoured a ‘United States of Europe’ and a ‘High Court of Justice among the nations’, yet he also preferred the use of force in the defence of law. He extensively covered the Hague Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907 (for the last he printed a daily paper during the four month conference). He has a bust at the Peace Palace in The Hague. As a result of these activities, Stead was repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. . . .

“Stead boarded the Titanic for a visit to the USA to take part in a peace congress at Carnegie Hall at the request of William Howard Taft. After the ship struck the iceberg, Stead helped several women and children into the lifeboats, in an act ‘typical of his generosity, courage, and humanity’. After all the boats had gone, Stead went into the 1st Class Smoking Room, where he was last seen sitting in a leather chair and reading a book.

“A later sighting of Stead, by survivor Philip Mock, has him clinging to a raft with John Jacob Astor IV. ‘Their feet became frozen,’ reported Mock, ‘and they were compelled to release their hold. Both were drowned.’ William Stead’s body was not recovered. Further tragedy was added by the widely held belief that he was due to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize that same year.”

How perceptive was Mr. Stead?  Well, Wikipedia continues:

“Stead published two pieces that gained greater significance in light of his fate on the Titanic. On 22 March 1886, he published an article named ‘How the Mail Steamer Went Down in Mid-Atlantic, by a Survivor’, where a steamer collides with another ship, with high loss of life due to lack of lifeboats. Stead had added ‘This is exactly what might take place and will take place if liners are sent to sea short of boats’. In 1892, Stead published a story called ‘From the Old World to the New’, in which a vessel, the Majestic, rescues survivors of another ship that collided with an iceberg.”

Despite these concerns, Stead sailed on the Titanic.  Yet he did so for a good cause, the cause of urging the United States toward peace.  Stead saw the United States’ history, including its disarmament after its Civil War and its tradition of maintaining no standing armies on the scale common in Europe as an example to be cherished and followed rather than strayed from.  He also modeled his vision of a United States of Europe on the United States of America.

An excellent website provides at no cost many of Stead’s books and articles. One book, from 1899, is called “The United States of Europe on the Eve of the Parliament of Peace.”  Stead’s vision of a united Europe was one that included Russia as an essential part of Europe, along with everything between Russia and Ireland.  Early in the book, Stead writes:

“In the  year 1898 two strange things happened. It is difficult to say which was more unexpected. In the West the American Republic, which for more than a hundred years had made as its proudest boast its haughty indifference to the temptation of territorial conquest, suddenly abjured its secular creed, and concluded a war upon which it had entered with every protestation of absolute disinterestedness by annexations so sweeping as to invest the United States with all that was left of the heritage of imperial Spain.

“In the East a Sovereign autocrat, commanding the bayonets of four millions of trained soldiers and the implicit obedience of one hundred and twenty millions of loyal subjects, amazed and bewildered mankind by formally and publicly arraigning the armaments of the modern world, and summoning a Conference of all the Powers to discuss practical measures for abating an evil which threatened to land civilized society in the abyss.”

This would not be the last time that Russia, and later the Soviet Union, proposed steps toward world peace, arbitration of disputes, or universal disarmament.  But this would be the last time the West (understood as excluding Russia) gave the proposal any serious interest at all.  Stead was dumbfounded that a peaceful republic (erasing by collective agreement the genocide of the Native Americans, the theft of half of Mexico, etc.) had chosen 1898 to become a militarized empire, and at least as amazed that a Russian Czar was proposing world peace:

“The Peace Rescript of the Tsar of Russia, the Treaty of Peace extorted at the sword’s point from prostrate Spain — these two strongly contrasted documents constitute together one of the paradoxes of History. It is the pacific Republic which makes war, which multiplies its army fourfold, and which seizes by the right of conquest the colonial possessions of Spain. It is the Imperial autocrat of a military empire who impeaches the war system of the world, and, himself the master of a thousand legions, invites the nations to a Parliament of Peace.  It is not surprising that a contrast so startling, an exchange of roles so unexpected, should at once arrest and bewilder the contemporary observer. We are still too near this great transformation scene adequately to realize its full significance.”

They were.  We perhaps are not.  Like two ships — or perhaps a ship and an iceberg — passing in the night, the old world was groping its way toward outgrowing war and empire, while the United States’ rulers were just beginning to gulp down the intoxicating liquor of violent power.

Stead sought to draw lessons from the United States that the United States would itself reject:

“What are the New World conditions? They are these: all the States dwell together in Federal Union, without hostile frontiers and without standing armies, and with a greater expenditure upon education than upon armaments.”

Can you even imagine what it would be like if the United States today spent more on education than on armaments?  In such a bizarre world, some of us might have heard of people like William Thomas Stead. 

Stead was most certainly not a pacifist.  He wanted to unite Europe and was in search of an outside enemy against which Europeans might unite.  His chief candidate was Turkey, a nation still to this day not admitted to the European Union, even if included in NATO.  Stead carried the racial and religious bigotry of his day (and, of course, of our own).  He also believed dead people visited him (the topic, unsurprisingly, of those of his books that remain at all popular in 2012).

Stead sought to model Europe on what was best in U.S. history, even if those elements were on the verge of fading into a forgotten past:

“The idea of a large standing army is repugnant to the best men in the United States. And here it may be noted as by no means one of the least of the many advantages resulting from the Imperial Rescript, the powerful influence which it is undoubtedly exerting in the crystallization of American opinion upon the burning question of expansion over sea. As Mr. Cleveland reminded his fellow-citizens last June, ‘Never before in our history have we been beset with temptations so dangerous as those which now whisper in our ears alluring words of conquests and expansion, and point out to us fields bright with the glory of war.'”

Stead hoped to hold the United States to its (idealized) past performance.  He was as dismayed as Mark Twain or Andrew Carnegie by the new imperialism that seized Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam, not to mention Hawaii and other territories.  Stead also hoped that the Russian Czar was serious in his proposal for a conference on establishing peace.  Following a trip to Russia and through most of Europe, Stead was confident of the Czar’s intentions:

“I know now, as a matter of absolute certainty, no longer to be disputed even by the most cynical and sceptical, that the Peace Rescript summoning the Governments to the Parliament of Peace is no mere flash in the pan, no sudden outburst of an enthusiastic youth. Neither is it the mask covering any deep-laid Macchiavellian design. It is the carefully weighed and long considered expression of a reasoned conviction on the part of the ruler of the greatest military Empire in the world, a conviction which is held and expressed by the Tsar with intense, almost passionate, earnestness, but which is shared to the full by his most experienced and powerful Ministers.  That conviction may be briefly stated as the belief that considerations alike of humanity and of statesmanship imperatively demand a cessation of the present breakneck competition in naval and military armaments, which, proceeding at an ever-accelerating rate, must, if unchecked, land civilization in the abyss. Armaments have already reached such colossal dimensions that they cannot be used without involving the disorganization of society by their mobilization, while the increased deadliness of weapons and enormous havoc of modern war renders it probable that even victory would only be the prelude of the triumph of revolutionary Anarchism.  War every year becomes more and more synonymous with suicide. But the armed peace is only one degree less costly than war. The international game of beggar-my-neighbor can only end in bankruptcy. But no one Power can cry off. Only by a general agreement can the ruinous game be checked. Therefore the Peace Conference has been summoned, and if ever a case was proved beyond all gainsaying, by facts beyond dispute and calculations mathematically verified, it is that which the Tsar will submit to the representatives of the Governments of the world.”

One outcome of the conference called by the Czar and held in 1899 in the Hague was the Hague Convention for the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes.  Francis Boyle recently pointed out that, “according to article 27 thereof, if a serious dispute threatens to break out between contracting powers, it [is] the DUTY of the other contracting powers to remind them that the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague is open to them, and such reminder [cannot] be treated as an unfriendly act of intervention by the disputants. Today the world needs one State party to either the 1899 Hague Convention for the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes or the 1907 Hague Convention for the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes to publicly remind both the United States and Iran that the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, together with its International Bureau and the entirety of the 1899 Hague Convention for the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes, are available to the two States in order to resolve their dispute in a peaceful manner.” 

In other words, the United States and Iran are parties to a treaty dating back to 1899 that requires them to settle disputes like adults rather than infants. 

That such treaties were ever created has been forgotten. 

That reasonably qualified individuals were once considered as candidates for the Nobel Peace Prize is a fact so dated and buried that it might as well rest at the bottom of the Atlantic.

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