How the winter holiday has guided international events, for better and for worse
World War I soldiers stop fighting to play football on Christmas Day in Salonika, 1915 / Wikimedia
Before Kim Jong-il's death, the last big story out of North Korea had to do with Christmas lights. "North Korea has warned South Korea of 'unexpected consequences' if it lights up a Christmas tree-shaped tower near their tense border," the BBC reported. At issue, apparently, was "psychological warfare" -- standard North Korean lingo for anything deemed insolent or provocative.
The annual Korean Christmas light drama, several years old now, may be one of the weirder stories of Christmas diplomacy, but it's hardly the only one. History has seen, in fact, many international events in which this winter holiday, whether in timing or tradition, has played a role. Here are just a few instances in which Christmas has figured into international relations, whether as an excuse, a peg for action, or a moment for reflection.
The stories are alternately troubling and heart-warming: just as the holiday has occasioned some of the more touching displays of camaraderie -- including amid devastating warfare -- it has also served to maximize casualties in carefully planned attacks. As always, events are what we make of them.
The Myth of the Battle of Trenton
In the winter of 1776, with morale low, General George Washington's forces crossed the Delaware River and entered New Jersey on December 25. The next morning, they attacked and defeated the British-hired Hessian forces stationed at Trenton. The popular account of the Battle of Trenton holds that the Hessians were drunk from Christmas celebrations. Modern historians dispute this. David Hackett Fischer, a professor at Brandeis, suggests in his book Washington's Crossing that this version was encouraged by British officers and loyalists as a way of accounting for the embarrassing defeat. It seems plausible, as well, that rumors of Hessian indulgence on the 25th might have circulated among Washington's troops, improving spirits prior to the battle; William Stryker's 1898 book on The Battles of Trenton and Princeton includes snippets from a so-labeled "Diary of an Office on Washington's Staff" with this intriguing entry:
Dec. 25 -- Christmas morning. They make a great deal of Christmas in Germany, and no doubt the Hessians will drink a great deal of beer and have a dance to-night. They will be sleepy to-morrow morning. Washington will set the tune for them about daybreak. The rations are cooked. New flints and ammunition have been distributed. Colonel Glover's fishermen from Marblehead, Mass., are to manage the boats just as they did in the retreat from Long Island.
The revolutionaries' victories at Trenton on December 26 and then Princeton on January 3 led to a tremendous upswing in morale on the American side and are now considered a turning point in the war. The British, in the following months, became increasingly pessimistic about the conflict.
The World War I 'Christmas Truce'
One of the most touching moments of international Christmas spirit, it's still not entirely clear how the entirely unofficial "Christmas truce" came about. On Christmas Eve in 1914, hostilities spontaneously ceased in several locations in Western Europe, as Christmas singing in the trenches turned to tentative spoken exchanges between German, British, French, and Belgian soldiers. On Christmas Day, soldiers on both sides ventured into no-man's land to bury their dead and the one-time enemies exchanged food and drink. Legend has it, with some evidence, soccer balls were even brought out into this otherwise lethal territory.
Devastating war shortly resumed for another four years. Though the Christmas truce of 1914 is the famous and most well-established case, the University of Aberdeen announced in 2010 that one of its historians, Dr. Thomas Weber, had found a "letter written by a soldier of Scottish descent serving with a Canadian regiment, which suggests that festive ceasefires continued to take place throughout the war but were often downplayed in official war records." Apparently "heavy artillery, machine gun, and sniper fire ... had been ordered in anticipation of new Christmas truces." But what this letter showed, argued Weber, is that "[i]n fact, soldiers never tried to stop fraternising with their opponents during Christmas."
Pope Pius XII's 1942 Christmas Address Pleading for Peace
The Vatican drew criticism both before and after this radio address for its failure to denounce the German extermination of Jews, which by 1942 had become common knowledge among Allied officials and diplomats. This December 24 address did discuss the war, as well as -- obliquely -- genocide, though with little specificity. It has become one of the key texts for the debate over the Vatican's response to World War II. Below, a section of the address, posted in translation on the site of the Global Catholic Network, wherein the pope pled for peace. The sentence appearing to discuss genocide is bolded:
[W]ho can see the end of this progressive demoralization of the people, who can wish to watch helplessly this disastrous progress? Should they not rather, over the ruins of a social order which has given such tragic proof of its ineptitude as a factor for the good of the people, gather together the hearts of all those who are magnanimous and upright, in the solemn vow not to rest until in all peoples and all nations of the earth a vast legion shall be formed of those handfuls of men who, bent on bringing back society to its center of gravity, which is the law of God, aspire to the service of the human person and of his common life ennobled in God.
Mankind owes that vow to the countless dead who lie buried on the field of battle: The sacrifice of their lives in the fulfillment of their duty is a holocaust offered for a new and better social order. Mankind owes that vow to the innumerable sorrowing host of mothers, widows and orphans who have seen the light, the solace and the support of their lives wrenched from them. Mankind owes that vow to those numberless exiles whom the hurricane of war has torn from their native land and scattered in the land of the stranger; who can make their own the lament of the Prophet: "Our inheritance is turned to aliens; our house to strangers." Mankind owes that vow to the hundreds of thousands of persons who, without any fault on their part, sometimes only because of their nationality or race, have been consigned to death or to a slow decline. Mankind owes that vow to the many thousands of non-combatants, women, children, sick and aged, from whom aerial war-fare--whose horrors we have from the beginning frequently denounced--has without discrimination or through inadequate precautions, taken life, goods, health, home, charitable refuge, or house of prayer. Mankind owes that vow to the flood of tears and bitterness, to the accumulation of sorrow and suffering, emanating from the murderous ruin of the dreadful conflict and crying to Heaven to send down the Holy Spirit to liberate the world from the inundation of violence and terror.
1964 Brink Hotel Bombing in Saigon
During the Vietnam War, a six-story hotel in central Saigon was used to house American officers. Following the suicide of General Francis G. Brink, the first U.S. commander in Vietnam, on a visit to Washington, the hotel was renamed by its occupants in his honor. On December 24, 1964, two Vietcong combatants in South Vietnamese Army uniforms drove into Saigon and to the Brink with a 200-lb charge in the trunk of one of their two cars. Talking their way past various officials, they parked the car in a lot beneath the hotel and retreated to a nearby café, where they observed the massive explosion at 5:45 pm. Two American officers were killed and 38 wounded. Nguyen Thanh Xuan, one of the two men who carried out the bombing, was quoted years later in a PBS special as saying, "Our commanders had ordered us to attack the place when the most Americans were there. And it was precisely as we had expected, since they were at the Brink's Hotel to plan their Christmas activities." Former Marine Corps University professor Mark Moyar, however, in Triumph Forsaken, says instead that "the Viet Cong had been trying to kill comedian Bob Hope, who had just flown in to perform a Christmas show for the troops and was planning to stay at the Brink Hotel." Unfortunately for the bombers, "Hope had not yet reached the hotel because he had been delayed by the unloading of his cue cards at the airport."
Apollo 8 Christmas Eve Broadcast
In this live television event in 1968, the crew of Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the Moon, showed photos of the Earth and Moon from the shuttle and took turns reading from the Book of Genesis. Aside from making for fantastic television, the Christmas Eve broadcast took place in the context of the U.S.-Soviet space race, in which the U.S. had largely been lagging. Though a religious reading was less out-of-place at the time then than it might be now, it was still notable enough to spark a lawsuit -- quickly dismissed -- alleging First Amendment violations. The main message of the astronauts to American viewers may indeed have been "a Merry Christmas," but the episode isn't without tinges of ideology and politics. The U.S.S.R., was, after all, an atheist state, as North Korea is today. If Christmas lights on a border can be considered "psychological warfare" today, triumphant space travelers broadcasting Bible readings in 1968 could surely qualify as well.
Trump’s attacks on the free press don’t just threaten the media—they undermine the public’s capacity to think, act, and defend democracy.
Are Donald Trump’s latest attacks on the press really that bad? Are they that out-of-the-ordinary, given the famous record of complaints nearly all his predecessors have lodged? (Even George Washington had a hostile-press problem.)
Are the bellows of protest from reporters, editors, and others of my press colleagues justified? Or just another sign that the press is nearly as thin-skinned as Trump himself, along with being even less popular?
I could prolong the buildup, but here is the case I’m going to make: Yes, they’re that bad, and worse.
I think Trump’s first month in office, capped by his “enemy of the people” announcement about the press, has been even more ominous and destructive than the Trump of the campaign trail would have prepared us for, which is of course saying something. And his “lying media” campaign matters not only in itself, which it does, but also because it is part of what is effectively an assault by Trump on the fundamentals of democratic governance.
Plagues, revolutions, massive wars, collapsed states—these are what reliably reduce economic disparities.
Calls to make America great again hark back to a time when income inequality receded even as the economy boomed and the middle class expanded. Yet it is all too easy to forget just how deeply this newfound equality was rooted in the cataclysm of the world wars.
The pressures of total war became a uniquely powerful catalyst of equalizing reform, spurring unionization, extensions of voting rights, and the creation of the welfare state. During and after wartime, aggressive government intervention in the private sector and disruptions to capital holdings wiped out upper-class wealth and funneled resources to workers; even in countries that escaped physical devastation and crippling inflation, marginal tax rates surged upward. Concentrated for the most part between 1914 and 1945, this “Great Compression” (as economists call it) of inequality took several more decades to fully run its course across the developed world until the 1970s and 1980s, when it stalled and began to go into reverse.
The journalist’s comments suggest gay men enjoy sex with children—an idea that has been widely debunked.
In the comment that cost him his book deal and speaker slot at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the Breitbart journalist and right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos defended “relationships in which those older men help those young boys to discover who they are.”
In the video, a clip of an old podcast episode that was tweeted this weekend by the group Reagan Battalion, Yiannopoulos says he isn’t defending pedophilia, before adding that “in the gay world, some of the most enriching ... relationships between younger boys and older men can be hugely positive experiences.” (Yiannopoulos later blamed “sloppy phrasing," saying when he was 17 he was in a relationship with a 29-year-old man. The age of consent in the U.K. is 16.)
Neither truck drivers nor bankers would put up with a system like the one that influences medical residents’ schedules.
The path to becoming a doctor is notoriously difficult. Following pre-med studies and four years of medical school, freshly minted M.D.s must spend anywhere from three to seven years (depending on their chosen specialty) training as “residents” at an established teaching hospital. Medical residencies are institutional apprenticeships—and are therefore structured to serve the dual, often dueling, aims of training the profession’s next generation and minding the hospital’s labor needs.
How to manage this tension between “education and service” is a perennial question of residency training, according to Janis Orlowski, the chief health-care officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). Orlowski says that the amount of menial labor residents are required to perform, known in the profession as “scut work,” has decreased "tremendously" since she was a resident in the 1980s. But she acknowledges that even "institutions that are committed to education … constantly struggle with this,” trying to stay on the right side of the boundary between training and taking advantage of residents.
Megaprojects are rarely, if ever, completed on schedule.
The construction of a massive wall along the border of the United States and Mexico is one of President Donald Trump’s central campaign promises. And it’s a promise he intends to keep.
Within days of taking the oath of office in January, Trump began laying the groundwork for the construction of a series of walls and fences that would span some 1,250 miles along the border. On Monday, the Department of Homeland Security issued a memo outlining its commitment to “begin planning, design, construction and maintenance of a wall” to deter and prevent illegal entry into the United States. The memo follows an executive order in which Trump called for the wall’s “immediate construction.”
Joe Moran’s book Shrinking Violets is a sweeping history that doubles as a (quiet) defense of timidity.
The Heimlich maneuver, in the nearly 50 years since Dr. Henry Heimlich established its protocol, has been credited with saving many lives. But not, perhaps, as many as it might have. The maneuver, otherwise so wonderfully simple to execute, has a marked flaw: It requires that choking victims, before anything can be done to help them, first alert other people to the fact that they are choking. And some people, it turns out, are extremely reluctant to do so. “Sometimes,” Dr. Heimlich noted, bemoaning how easily human nature can become a threat to human life, “a victim of choking becomes embarrassed by his predicament and succeeds in getting up and leaving the area unnoticed.” If no one happens upon him, “he will die or suffer permanent brain damage within seconds.”
The preconditions are present in the U.S. today. Here’s the playbook Donald Trump could use to set the country down a path toward illiberalism.
It’s 2021, and President Donald Trump will shortly be sworn in for his second term. The 45th president has visibly aged over the past four years. He rests heavily on his daughter Ivanka’s arm during his infrequent public appearances.
Fortunately for him, he did not need to campaign hard for reelection. His has been a popular presidency: Big tax cuts, big spending, and big deficits have worked their familiar expansive magic. Wages have grown strongly in the Trump years, especially for men without a college degree, even if rising inflation is beginning to bite into the gains. The president’s supporters credit his restrictive immigration policies and his TrumpWorks infrastructure program.
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The Border Adjustment Tax, a proposal favored by House Speaker Paul Ryan, has aroused serious opposition from Republican senators.
Donald Trump is feeling good about taxes. In his gonzo press conference last Thursday, he assured Americans that “very historic tax reform” is absolutely on track and is going to be—wait for it!—“big league.” The week before, he told a bunch of airline CEOs that “big league” reform was “way head of schedule” and that his people would be announcing something “phenomenal” in “two or three weeks.” And at his Orlando pep rally this past weekend, he gushed about his idea for a punitive 35 percent border tax on products manufactured overseas. The magic is happening, people. And soon America’s tax code will be the best, most beautiful in the world.
But here’s the thing. What Trump doesn’t know about the legislative process could overflow the pool at Mar-a Lago. And when it comes to tax reform, even minor changes make Congress lose its mind. Weird fault lines appear, and the next thing you know, warring factions have painted their faces blue and vowed to die on the blood-soaked battlefield before allowing this marginal rate to change or that loophole to close.
A senator has joined human-rights groups in opposing warrantless scans of travelers' digital devices.
For years, travelers entering into the U.S.—whether they’re citizens or not—have been pulled aside at the border and pressured into giving up passwords to their phones and other electronic devices. Customs agents have claimed the authority for these searches under the auspices of a broad exception to Fourth Amendment rights that applies at the border.
But Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, has a few questions about that legal authority. He sent a letter to the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security on Monday, expressing dismay at reports that people were being asked to unlock and hand over their smartphones at the border. He also said he’s planning on introducing a bill to require agents to get a warrant before searching a device, and to prevent DHS from implementing a new policy that would require foreign visitors to turn over their online passcodes before visiting the U.S.