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Poincaré Takes Office, Coup in Mexico

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The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 56th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

February 18, 1913: Poincaré Takes Office, Coup in Mexico

On February 18—one month after winning the French presidential election—center-right politician Raymond Poincaré took office in an inauguration ceremony at the Hôtel de Ville, an elegant chateau constructed between 1533 and 1628 to house the city government of Paris. In a sign of Poincaré’s popularity, his inauguration attracted thousands of enthusiastic spectators despite the frigid weather.

Poincaré’s presidency was an important factor in the lead-up to the First World War, for a number of reasons. Although he didn’t seek war with Germany, the new French president was increasingly pessimistic about the prospects for lasting peace in Europe. At the same time, he also planned to take a more active approach to the presidency (previously regarded as a mostly ceremonial position), especially in foreign policy, where he had the power to conclude treaties and appoint key diplomats.

Indeed, one of his first moves was replacing the French ambassador to St. Petersburg, Georges Louis, with Théophile Delcassé—a big name in French foreign policy who, as foreign minister from 1898 to 1905, helped to bring about the entente cordial ("friendly understanding") with Britain. Delcassé was known to be pro-Russian and anti-German, and his agenda as ambassador to St. Petersburg can be deduced from his own words during the Second Moroccan Crisis: “No durable arrangement can be concluded with Germany. Her mentality is such that one can no longer dream of living in lasting peace with her. Paris, London, and St. Petersburg should be convinced that war is, alas! inescapable and that it is necessary to prepare for it without losing a minute.”

Everyone recognized the significance of the appointment of Delcassé, described by Kaiser Wilhelm II as “the most dangerous man for Germany in France.” On February 21, 1913, the Belgian ambassador to France, Baron Guillaume, reported to the Belgian foreign office that “the news that M. Delcassé is shortly to be appointed Ambassador at Petersburg burst like a bomb here yesterday afternoon… He was one of the architects of the Franco-Russian alliance, and still more so of the Anglo-French entente." And on February 25, the French ambassador to Serbia, Léon Descos, told the French foreign ministry that his hosts thought Delcassé’s appointment would provide “…Slavism with the support needed to strengthen it in its struggle against the Teutonic powers.”

Meanwhile Poincaré wasted no time in moving to strengthen the French military. Among other things, the new president advocated increasing the size of the active-duty French army by extending the length of service for conscripts from two to three years. On February 20, in his first presidential address (read to the Chamber of Deputies by premier Aristide Briand), Poincaré laid the groundwork for the three-year service law: “No people can be really pacific unless it is always ready for war. We must turn toward our army and navy, and spare no effort or sacrifice to consolidate and strengthen them.”

Poincaré and Delcassé weren’t alone in thinking war probable and maybe even inevitable; other members of the French government were considering the same scenario, and pondering the most advantageous moment to fight. On February 20, 1913, the Russian ambassador to London, Count Aleksandr Benckendorff, sent a secret message advising Russian foreign minister Sergei Sazonov: “[France] has complete confidence in her army... and it may be that she regards conditions as more favorable today than they might be later.” Likewise, on February 24, Sir Henry Wilson, the British officer in charge of coordinating military planning with France, told London that top French generals were “of the opinion that it would be far better for France if a conflict were not too long postponed.”

Coup in Mexico

While Europe was fixated on the crisis resulting from the First Balkan War, the New World had problems of its own. Foremost was the ongoing Mexican Revolution, which began with the toppling of the dictator Porfirio Díaz (above) in 1910 and soon escalated into a complicated civil war lasting until 1920.

After two chaotic years in power, Díaz’s replacement, the beleaguered liberal reformist president Francisco Madero, was finally ousted on February 18, 1913, following 10 days of bloody street warfare in Mexico City (which then had a population of about half a million) known as “La Decena Tragica,” or “Ten Tragic Days.” The author of his downfall was General Victoriano Huerta, the military governor of Mexico City, who had previously sworn allegiance to Madero but betrayed him when he saw an opportunity to seize power for himself. On February 22, Madero and vice-president José María Pino Suárez were both murdered at Huerta’s command; public revulsion at the assassinations foreshadowed Huerta’s own downfall in July 1914.

Huerta’s coup received assistance from co-conspirators including Félix Díaz, the nephew of the ex-dictator Porfirio Díaz, and the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Henry Lane Wilson. This kind of meddling was a common theme of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America throughout this period: 1900-1925 saw repeated U.S. interventions across the Caribbean and Central America, including decades-long military occupations of Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua. U.S. interventions generally aimed to protect American commercial and financial interests, prop up friendly regimes threatened by strikes and rebellions, and quell border disputes.


Click to enlarge

As the largest country in the region and the only one bordering the U.S., Mexico’s descent into anarchy understandably absorbed the attention of the American public well into the First World War, culminating in the Punitive Expedition which tried and failed to catch Pancho Villa between 1916 and 1917. In fact, German diplomats hoped to use the unstable situation to distract U.S. policy makers and keep America out of the war – but their (rather unrealistic) efforts backfired badly with the Zimmerman Telegram affair in 1917.

See previous installment, next installment, or all entries.

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Medicine
Charles Dickens Museum Highlights the Author's Contributions to Science and Medicine

Charles Dickens is celebrated for his verbose prose and memorable opening lines, but lesser known are his contributions to science—particularly the field of medicine.

A new exhibition at London’s Charles Dickens Museum—titled "Charles Dickens: Man of Science"—is showcasing the English author’s scientific side. In several instances, the writer's detailed descriptions of medical conditions predated and sometimes even inspired the discovery of several diseases, The Guardian reports.

In his novel Dombey and Son, the character of Mrs. Skewton was paralyzed on her right side and unable to speak. Dickens was the first person to document this inexplicable condition, and a scientist later discovered that one side of the brain was largely responsible for speech production. "Fat boy" Joe, a character in The Pickwick Papers who snored loudly while sleeping, later lent his namesake to Pickwickian Syndrome, otherwise known as obesity hypoventilation syndrome.

A figurine of Fat Boy Joe
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Dickens also wrote eloquently about the symptoms of tuberculosis and dyslexia, and some of his passages were used to teach diagnosis to students of medicine.

“Dickens is an unbelievably acute observer of human behaviors,” museum curator Frankie Kubicki told The Guardian. “He captures these behaviors so perfectly that his descriptions can be used to build relationships between symptoms and disease.”

Dickens was also chummy with some of the leading scientists of his day, including Michael Faraday, Charles Darwin, and chemist Jane Marcet, and the exhibition showcases some of the writer's correspondence with these notable figures. Beyond medicine, Dickens also contributed to the fields of chemistry, geology, and environmental science.

Less scientifically sound was the author’s affinity for mesmerism, a form of hypnotism introduced in the 1770s as a method of controlling “animal magnetism,” a magnetic fluid which proponents of the practice believed flowed through all people. Dickens studied the methods of mesmerism and was so convinced by his powers that he later wrote, “I have the perfect conviction that I could magnetize a frying-pan.” A playbill of Animal Magnetism, an 1857 production that Dickens starred in, is also part of the exhibit.

A play script from Animal Magnetism
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Located at 48-49 Doughty Street in London, the exhibition will be on display until November 11, 2018.

[h/t The Guardian]

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NASA // Public Domain
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History
On This Day in 1983, Sally Ride Made History
NASA // Public Domain
NASA // Public Domain

Thirty-five years ago today, on June 18, 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. She flew on the space shuttle Challenger on a six-day mission. She had previously helped build the shuttle's robot arm, and now she operated it in space. Not only was she the first American woman to go to space, she was the youngest astronaut in space, at age 32.

(As with many space-related firsts, that "American" qualifier is important. The Soviet space program had sent two women cosmonauts into space well in advance of Ride. Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova flew all the way back in 1963, and Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982. They also sent various younger people to space, including Tereshkova.)

Ride represented a change in the previously completely male astronaut program. Although NASA had unofficially tested women in the late 1950s as part of the Mercury program, the idea of sending women into space was quickly discarded. NASA policy for decades was that only men would be considered as astronauts. It took until 1978 for NASA to change the policy—that year, six women became astronauts: Sally Ride, Judith Resnik, Kathryn Sullivan, Anna Fisher, Margaret Rhea Seddon, and Shannon Lucid.

Ride and her colleagues were subject to an endless barrage of sexist media questions, curious how women might fare in space. They also encountered institutional sexism at NASA itself. Ride recalled:

"The engineers at NASA, in their infinite wisdom, decided that women astronauts would want makeup—so they designed a makeup kit. A makeup kit brought to you by NASA engineers. ... You can just imagine the discussions amongst the predominantly male engineers about what should go in a makeup kit."

Ride held a Ph.D. in astrophysics, two bachelor's degrees (English and physics), and had served as CapCom (Capsule Communicator) for the second and third shuttle flights, STS-2 and -3. She was an accomplished pilot and athlete, as well as a Presbyterian elder. She was closely connected to Challenger, performing two missions on it and losing four fellow members of her 1978 class when it exploded.

After her astronaut career concluded, Ride served on both the Challenger and Columbia disaster review panels. During the former, she leaked vital information about the Challenger disaster (o-ring engineering reports), though this wasn't broadly known until after her death. She wrote educational books and founded Sally Ride Science. She was asked to head up NASA by the Clinton administration, but declined.

Ride died in 2012 from pancreatic cancer. Her obituary made news for quietly mentioning that she was survived by her partner of 27 years, Tam O'Shaughnessy. Although Ride had come out to her family and close friends, the obituary was the first public statement that she was gay. It was also the first time most people found out she'd suffered from pancreatic cancer at all; she asked that donations in her memory be made to a fund devoted to studying that form of cancer.

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