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Next Time France Won’t Back Down, Poincaré Vows

February 27, 2013
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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 58th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

February 27, 1913: Next Time France Won’t Back Down, Poincaré Vows

With Raymond Poincaré’s inauguration as President of France, the Third Republic’s foreign policy took a decisive turn away from appeasement towards a more assertive stance vis-à-vis Germany. The new direction was clearly visible in the appointment of Théophile Delcassé, an outspoken critic of Germany, as ambassador to Russia, France’s most important ally. Just in case there were any lingering doubts in St. Petersburg, the new president was even more explicit in his first meeting with Count Aleksandr Izvolsky, Russia’s ambassador to France.

According to Izvolsky’s report to the Russian foreign ministry, in their meeting on February 27, 1913, Poincaré recalled the Second Moroccan Crisis, when Germany had tried to intimidate France by sending a gunship to the Moroccan port of Agadir, and vowed that “in view of the present excited state of French national feeling, neither he nor his ministers would tolerate a repetition of the Agadir incident and they would not agree to a compromise like the one of that time.” In short, next time around, France wasn’t going to meekly submit to German bullying.

Poincaré’s promise to Izvolsky was significant in several ways. First, by confirming that France still viewed Germany as the main threat, he reassured the Russians that France would adhere to the alliance. Furthermore, reading between the lines, by signaling that France would pursue a more confrontational policy towards Germany, Poincaré was also encouraging Russia to do the same.

Indeed the timing of the statement, coming amid the crisis resulting from the First Balkan War, left little doubt that Poincaré hoped the Russians would take a firmer line with Germany and Austria-Hungary—because while Agadir had hurt French interests, and Balkan affairs were of more concern to Russia, these sorts of events actually affected the prestige of both partners. As France and Russia formed a single diplomatic “bloc,” their interests became so closely intertwined that they might as well be identical.

This represented a big evolution of the Franco-Russian alliance. On paper, the alliance was strictly defensive, calling for the allies to support each other if either were attacked by Germany, or Austria-Hungary supported by Germany. Now, however, Poincaré was broadening the interpretation of the treaty to promise cooperation in other scenarios—implying that France would come to Russia’s aid even if Russia precipitated the conflict, for example, by mobilizing in order to protect Russian interests in the Balkans. Naturally, Poincaré hoped the Russians would return the favor if France felt compelled to take the offensive against Germany in the west.

Of course there was still a big advantage to letting Germany make the first move. During his meeting with Izvolsky on February 27, Poincaré repeated his earlier disclosure to Russian foreign minister Sergei Sazonov, assuring the Russians that (despite the apparent improvement in Anglo-German relations) Britain could be counted on to support France and Russia in a war with Germany—but only if France and Russia were clearly the victims, not the aggressors. Public opinion simply wouldn’t allow the British government to intervene on the side of any country viewed as a European warmonger. As one of the main advocates of closer relations between Russia and Britain, Izvolsky was familiar with the delicate art of managing British public opinion, and therefore understood the importance of ensuring Germany bore the blame for starting any future conflict, even if more assertive French and Russian policies helped cause it. 

By this point, key members of France’s civilian and military leadership undoubtedly believed war with Germany was inevitable. As noted previously, on February 24, 1913, 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,” and on March 3 the warning was repeated by Francis Bertie, the British ambassador to France, who wrote to British foreign minister Edward Grey that in light of French public opinion “any incident with Germany might lead to war." In fact “many Frenchmen… think that war is predictable within the next two years and that it might be better for the French to have it soon.”

At the center of French plans was a new law extending the term of military service from two to three years. On March 2, 1913, Maurice Paléologue, a veteran French diplomat who was also fiercely anti-German, told the new French foreign minister, Charles Jonnart, “that the probability of a war with Germany, or more exactly, of a great European conflict, increases from day to day, [and] that an ordinary incident may suffice to precipitate the catastrophe… We must make ourselves strong without delay. We must restore as soon as possible the three-year service term.”

See previous installment, next installment, or all entries.

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This Week's Best Amazon Deals You Can Still Get
April 30, 2017
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As a recurring feature, we share some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. These items were the ones that were the most popular with our readers this week, and they’re still available.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers (including Amazon) and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

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When the FBI Went After Mad Magazine
April 29, 2017
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Warner Bros., IStock

In a memo dated November 30, 1957, an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation identified as “A. Jones” raised an issue of critical importance: "Several complaints to the Bureau have been made concerning the 'Mad' comic book [sic], which at one time presented the horror of war to readers."

Attached to the document were pages taken from a recent issue of Mad that featured a tongue-in-cheek game about draft dodging. Players who earned such status were advised to write to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and request a membership card certifying themselves as a “full-fledged draft dodger.” At least three readers, the agent reported, did exactly that.

Mad, of course, was the wildly popular satirical magazine that was reaching upwards of a million readers every other month. Published by William Gaines, who had already gotten into some trouble with Congress when he was called to testify about his gruesome horror comics in 1954, Mad lampooned everyone and everything. But in name-checking the notoriously humorless Hoover, Gaines had invited the wrong kind of attention.

The memo got several facts incorrect: Mad had switched from a comic book to a magazine format in 1955, and it was Gaines’ E.C. Comics that had “presented the horror of war” in other titles. Despite getting these crucial pieces of information wrong, Jones didn’t hesitate to editorialize: "It is also of interest to note that…it is rather unfunny.”

The agent recommended the Bureau’s New York offices “make contact” with Mad’s headquarters to “advise them of our displeasure” and to make sure “that there be no repetition of such misuse of the Director’s name.”

Less than a week later, the Feds entered the hallowed hallways patrolled by Alfred E. Neuman. Their New York office would later report to Hoover directly that they had met with John Putnam, the magazine’s art director. (Conveniently, Gaines was not in that day.) Putnam told the agents he regretted the magazine using Hoover’s name and that nothing malicious was intended:

Putnam said that the use of the membership card and the name and address of the Director at the end of the game was referred to in their business as a 'gag' or 'kicker' in the same way that a comedian like Bob Hope or Milton Berle might use it.

Putnam swore that Mad would never again take Hoover’s name in vain; Gaines sent off a letter of sincere apology to the Director.

The Smoking Gun

Just two years later, in January 1960, Agent A. Jones was forced to file a second notice about the shenanigans at Mad. A recent issue had made not one, but two derogatory mentions of Hoover, including one in which he is blatantly and disrespectfully portrayed as being associated with a vacuum cleaner, “The Honorable J. Edgar Electrolux”:  

Obviously, Gaines was insincere in this promise…and has again placed the Director in a position of ridicule…it is felt we should contact Gaines…and firmly and severely admonish them concerning our displeasure…

It was by now clear Mad was not only polluting young minds, but that Gaines had absolutely no regard for the honorable Hoover’s position.

In June 1961, the FBI’s worst fears had been realized. Detailing an investigation into a Seattle-area extortion attempt led to the following:

Investigation … resulted in gaining admissions from the victim’s 12-year-old son and an 11-year-old companion that they had gotten the idea of preparing an extortion letter after reading the June issue of 'Mad' magazine.   

Working in concert with the Buffalo field office, the FBI determined another letter had been sent by a young boy demanding money in the style of a recent issue’s extortion advice. And there was a third under review that was sent to the agent of some professional wrestlers.

Mad was quickly becoming the scourge of the federal government. The FBI suggested the magazine be brought to the attention of the Attorney General for “instructing [readers] to deliberately violate the Federal Law.” They tried reaching out to Gaines, who was on vacation. (Time and again, Gaines simply not being in the office when called upon seemed to confound the FBI.)

Agent A. Jones, having exhausted all attempts to reason with these irresponsible anarchists, filed one last memo:

Despite assurances, they have continued to publish slurring remarks about the Bureau. In view of this situation, it was deemed useless to protest all such irresponsible remarks to a magazine of this poor judgment and capriciousness … we will have to wait and see if our action will result in increased discretion by this publication.

Poor A. Jones was unable to put an end to Mad’s reign of terror. But the magazine redeemed itself somewhat. In the 1970s, when the Bureau was trying to suppress the influence of the Ku Klux Klan, an agent suggested they copy and distribute a sticker from the magazine that read, “Support Mental Illness—Join the Klan!”

Hoover said no.

Additional Sources:
The Smoking Gun.

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