jump to navigation

Ngrams and World Peace January 26, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: ,

As I think most historians will know by now, the Ngram viewer from Google Laboratories can become a compulsive pastime.  Nobody thinks it’s really all that healthy.  The data sets are not totally reliable, the numbers are meaningless, and alternative usages of words easily undermine the point one would like to make by charting the prevalence of those words in Google’s massive scanned-in library across dates of publication.  Still, it’s obvious there’s something in it, which is what gives it its appeal.  Let’s say you didn’t simply want to show how immune to vulgar enthusiasms you are by shifting immediately into academic-wet-blanket mode, or by lampooning your own compulsion by saying it’s all just good fun.  Let’s say you actually wanted to think constructively about this tool (as Dan Cohen of GMU does).  What modest uses might you make of the Ngram viewer?  Illustration of points you already know something about is a good one:

"air police" vs. "international control of atomic energy" (smoothing = 1)

A nice specific phrase search is “air police” and “international control of atomic energy”.  I choose these phrases because I am a fan of Waqar Zaidi’s recent PhD thesis, which was written here at Imperial College CHOSTM.  Zaidi argues for the central, successive place of two technologies, airplanes and atomic weapons, in the policing strategies imagined by internationalist thinkers.  He claims that although there was overriding resistance to the idea of a world air police, far from being pie-in-the-sky, the plan was taken very seriously in wide circles.  In his 1946 “iron curtain” speech, Winston Churchill devoted several lines to a fairly well-developed call for the new United Nations to be armed with just such a force:

Courts and magistrates may be set up but they cannot function without sheriffs and constables. The United Nations Organization must immediately begin to be equipped with an international armed force. In such a matter we can only go step by step, but we must begin now. I propose that each of the Powers and States should be invited to dedicate a certain number of air squadrons to the service of the world organization. These squadrons would be trained and prepared in their own countries, but would move around in rotation from one country to another. They would wear the uniforms of their own countries but with different badges. They would not be required to act against their own nation, but in other respects they would be directed by the world organization. This might be started on a modest scale and it would grow as confidence grew. I wished to see this done after the first world war, and I devoutly trust that it may be done forthwith.

This idea had been a commonplace in interwar and wartime thinking about means of ensuring future peace.  The idea was to use the overwhelming force of an internationally controlled air police to prevent future tyrants from posing a threat that could only be countered through full-scale war.  Zaidi did a good job of piecing together some of the main strands of thought through intensive library work; some traces of it are accessible through Google Books, as in this September 1944 Popular Science article (which I actually found using a separate search for “world peace”).  As Air Forces Maj.-Gen. F. A. M. Browning put it, “The day will most assuredly come when airborne armored forces will control the world, and the inhuman, though at present inevitable, bombing of women and children, inherent in strategic bombing, will be a barbaric relic of the past.”  (Note that post-D-Day, he is not talking about aerial bombing, but the rapid aerial transport of a major intervention force.)

The idea of an air police disappeared from the discourse almost immediately after August 1945, as the chart above nicely illustrates.  Beyond the superficial numbers, though, Zaidi makes a convincing argument for their connection.  The bid for international control — culminating with the early failure of the Baruch Plan, but persisting thereafter as an ideal scenario — is often portrayed as a result of scientists’ advocacy stemming from their insider knowledge of the power of atomic weapons, or perhaps as a sort of ex nihilo reaction to the advent of atomic weaponry.  Zaidi shows, however, that liberal internationalists mainly shifted their support from an air police to the international control of atomic energy.  Scientists with connections to internationalist organizations, notably the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, had ample access to prior thinking about the international control of weapons.

Churchill’s 1946 speech is actually very interesting in its historical placement.  Following his call for an international air force, he immediately goes on to oppose the international control of atomic energy.  The air police and atomic energy were immediately linked as possible schemes for the enforcement of international peace; unconvinced of the desirability of the new scheme, Churchill nevertheless adhered to the previous preferred scheme.

Some notes:

The full title of Zaidi’s thesis is “Technology and the Reconstruction of International Relations: Liberal Internationalist Proposals for the Internationalisation of Aviation and the International Control of Atomic Energy in Britain, USA, and France, 1920-1950”.  He also has an article on internationalism and the control of atomic energy in the latest supplement to Past & Present.

In the graph above, the almost identical size of the peaks is slightly misleading; the effect goes away with smoothing = 0, where we can see that “air police” had a remarkable one-year spike in 1944, higher than any one-year total for “international control of atomic energy”.  If you put in “international air force” you see the same pattern as “air police” including the war-time rise, but without such a high spike.  The point is the almost overnight disappearance of the idea of an air police coinciding with the rise of interest in the international control of atomic energy (pre-1945 blips for this idea, by the way, seem to be mostly figments of dating errors in the Google dataset; the later baseline for “air police” seems to be mainly usages not related to internationalist discourse).


1. Brett - January 27, 2011

Nice to see somebody else talking about one of my favourite topics :) Churchill did have a long, if inconsistent, involvement with the international air force — he mentioned it in The World Crisis and was president of the British section of the New Commonwealth, the main backer of the international air force.

Thanks for the pointer to Waqar’s latest paper. It’s a top thesis. Stepping back a bit, there were more continuities than we now remember between conventional bombing and atomic bombing, so transferring from air police to atomic police wasn’t a big leap in some senses.

2. Will Thomas - January 28, 2011

Hi Brett, thanks for the comment. The main continuity between bombing and atomic bombing that I had heard of was the transfer of the apocalyptic vision from one to the other. I suppose the reason why the continuity with policing might not be remembered so well, is (as Waqar argues in the paper) because the international control of atomic weapons is generally remembered as a sort of pacifist measure to prevent proliferation and use.

One of the reasons I really like the thesis myself is because it’s one of those things that’s obvious in retrospect, but the work required to reconstruct the thought puts the policing issue back on the historical map, and also forces the reintegration of diplomatic and sci-tech histories.

3. Brett - February 2, 2011

Yes, all the best ideas are obvious in retrospect :)

Early on there were also overlaps in the level of destruction an atomic attack could cause (compare Hiroshima with the conventional bombing of Tokyo or Hamburg, for example) and in the method of delivery (mostly manned bombers until the 1960s). But the apocalyptic vision, as you say, was the most important continuity. I would argue that this led to very similar responses in the bomber and the nuclear eras — massive retaliation, deterrence, civil defence, and of course the international air force. Even something as seemingly specific to the nuclear era as Star Wars/SDI had its precursors in various wacky ideas for anti-aircraft defences between the wars. In some cases there were direct links between the eras (civil defence is an obvious one, see Matthew Grant’s book for the British case), in others I think similar problems naturally provoked similar responses.

4. Will Thomas - February 4, 2011

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: