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Heard the One About the Peace Activist on the Titanic?

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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. . . .

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"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:

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"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."

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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."

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http://davidswanson.org
David Swanson is the author of "When the World Outlawed War," "War Is A Lie" and "Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union." He blogs at http://davidswanson.org and http://warisacrime.org and works for the online (more...)
 

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